The spy who loved us
“The Spy and the Traitor brings out with agonising clarity the danger that Oleg Gordievsky had voluntarily decided to run”
Passport to PIMLICO: Oleg Gordievsky’s escape was aided by a baby’s nappy and a dog (© Richard Wayman / Alamy Stock Photo )
Oleg Gordievsky’s life is a commentary on the central political drama of the 20th century. His father, his elder brother and he himself were all KGB officers. Guardian of the Soviet police state, the KGB was effectively the law of the land, privileged and feared at the same time. Thoroughly professional, disciplined and self-controlled, Gordievsky soon reached the rank of colonel, evidently a worthy member of the communist elite.
The invisible inner man was different. He was ready to destroy everything he was supposed to be defending. Posted in the early Seventies to the KGB station in Copenhagen, he met someone from MI6, the British agency for espionage and foreign intelligence, and agreed to hand over whatever secret information he could. When his superiors promoted him to be head of the KGB station in London, he was in a position to give away to the British all manner of Soviet illegal and subversive activities. Watchful as he was, he could not help being haunted by the knowledge that a slip-up meant the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of the head. Gordievsky had no way of knowing that Aldrich Ames, a defector from the CIA, had tipped off the KGB that he was a double agent but could not provide firm evidence. When the KGB summoned him back to Moscow, he guessed that they had their suspicions and he needed all his courage to obey. Two senior officers put him through the terrifying experience of being drugged with a truth serum and then cross-questioned. Managing not to confess, he accused them of reverting to the Stalinism of the Great Terror. Unexpectedly allowed to go home for the time being, he had the chance to make the vital telephone call to tell MI6 to come to his rescue. Now was the moment to implement a long-standing plan to smuggle him out of the Soviet Union in the boot of a car with diplomatic plates.
Next Stop Execution is Gordievsky’s memoir and its publication in 1995 was a nine days’ wonder. He revealed that as head of the KGB station in London he had paid some £37,000 to Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party in opposition to Mrs Thatcher. In a travesty of justice, Foot sued and was awarded damages. Jack Jones, the most powerful trade unionist of his day, had also been a KGB agent, but most of the others exposed by Gordievsky were politicians and journalists of no particular interest. Not for Gordievsky, however, who throughout his years of exile and right up to the present has campaigned single-handed to make sure that the Cold War is understood as necessary resistance to the police state. Anyone who writes a book or even an article that apologises for the Soviet Union or criticises capitalism and democracy is likely to receive a short and sharp rejoinder. To surviving Soviet fans, he is of course a traitor. Vladimir Putin, a KGB old boy of quite another stripe, is on record with the sinister threat, “Traitors kick the bucket for themselves, believe me.” Salman Rushdie is not the only person living in this country under sentence of death from a foreign power.
In previous books, Ben Macintyre has portrayed characters who in extreme conditions have reversed loyalties to their state or their cause. Moral ambiguity clearly fascinates him, and intelligence services are the best places to go searching for it, just because their daily work employs bad means for supposedly good ends. In The Spy and the Traitor, the jargon of tradecraft sets the scene. Any suggestion to become a double agent is a “dangle”; true but harmless information that may be given to the enemy is “chickenfeed”; a safe house is known as an OCP, or Occupational Clandestine Premises, and much more besides.
Here are adults playing games that involve leaving orange peel or chewing gum in some spot that marks their presence for purposes of contact, or carrying a plastic bag by way of identification — all of it childish yet often a life-and-death issue. The real names of the dozen or so MI6 personnel who handled Gordievsky have been withheld. Ursula, a telephone operator who makes a cameo appearance, is allowed her real first name but not her surname. Macintyre says that he did not have access to the MI6 archives, and so he has no new revelations. The mass of closely reported intellectual and physical detail that makes his narrative so vivid comes from intensive interviewing.
The Spy and the Traitor brings out with agonising clarity the danger that Gordievsky had voluntarily decided to run. He could not speak honestly to his wife and their two little girls. He chewed his nails, he drank too much, he couldn’t sleep. Money, in an aside of Macintyre’s, is “the grease that oils the wheels of so much espionage,” but he had no need of it. In the manner of a classic Russian dissident, he had under his bed a suitcase with books by Solzhenitsyn and Orwell and he kept the sheet of paper with MI6 instructions for escaping in a decorative edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In contrast to bright and beautiful Copenhagen, Moscow meant queues, grime, bureaucracy, fear and corruption: “the city stank of boiled cabbage and blocked drains.” Cultural alienation was one thing, Soviet foreign policy another. The building of the Berlin Wall, the suppression of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968, filled him with deep shame. At any rate, he convinced Macintyre that loathing of communism was his motivation for becoming a double agent.
PIMLICO was the code word for MI6’s plan to get Gordievsky out of the country, exfiltration in the jargon. The final hundred or so pages describe hour by hour the events of Friday July 19, 1985, the day the plan came into operation. Obliged to abandon his wife and children, Gordievsky made his way by train and bus to the spot previously arranged for pick-up near the Soviet-Finnish border. For MI6, two couples, one of them bringing her baby named here as Florence, drove there in two cars. They were undertaking a mission that could have gone wrong at numerous points and create a diplomatic crisis that the British would have had to live with for years. The cars were already on the road when Prime Minister Thatcher authorised the exfiltration — her refusal would have sealed Gordievsky’s fate. The KGB and border police had all possible routes under surveillance and tailed the two cars. Gordievsky went to a town some miles away to buy a bottle of beer, heedlessly stayed too long and only just made the rendezvous. The Soviets usually did not search cars with diplomatic number plates but were within their rights to do so if they had good reason. At one of five checkpoints, a guard with a sniffer dog approached. The mother laid Florence on the boot of the car in which Gordievsky was hiding, and changed the nappy that the baby had just filled. The dog was put off.
According to communist ideology, the KGB should have tortured and shot Gordievsky when he was in their hands, as they would have done at any previous time. The failure to do so is early evidence of the glasnost and perestroika that was about to bring down the Soviet police state. Macintyre rightly speaks with admiration of Gordievsky’s “stupendous bravery.” To the general public, if they think about it at all, the Cold War is the quarrel of a past beyond recall in which defectors are all much of a muchness, engaged in shady business of the same kind. The historic reality is that the likes of Kim Philby had given up freedom in favour of communism, while Gordievsky gave up communism in favour of freedom.