Oleg Gordievsky: Interview

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  • Amid the complex, fractured power struggles of the twenty-first century, Gordievsky remains a prominent and pertinent commentator on subjects ranging from Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy to theories about Russian links to Saddam Hussein’s concealment of chemical weapons. He is as uninhibited in his dislike of Putin – ‘Bastard! It was a terrible mistake to appoint a KGB man; they are the most reactionary force in Russia’ – as he is in his praise for the current head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller: ‘Brilliant. Stella Rimington’s just a primitive girl next to Eliza.’ Gordievsky’s connections to the top seem impeccable: Manningham- Buller was one of the few agents aware of his identity before his arrest, and the clever young Englishman who masterminded his escape from Russia now happens to be running MI6. When the chorus of outrage broke out following John Scarlett’s appointment as head of MI6 in 2004 – he was running the Joint Intelligence Committee when it produced the dossier that made the case for going to war in Iraq – Gordievsky leapt to his defence in an article in the Sunday Telegraph, which bore the headline ‘…but I say he’s the best man. After all, he did save my life.’

    Their connection dates back to 1982, when Scarlett, 34, was appointed as Gordievsky’s MI6 case officer. The safe house for their meetings was in a nondescript block of flats in Bayswater. Gordievsky tells me that Scarlett struck him immediately as ‘very quick, extremely intelligent… [and] showing more initiative than others. Despite his youth and lower rank he was able to make promises immediately without asking people for permission.’ At lunchtimes Gordievsky would leave the Russian embassy with six or seven documents in his pocket and take them to Scarlett, who would photograph them. Over two years, they copied several hundred documents, many of which went straight to America.

    For our own meeting, Gordievsky and his British partner, Maureen, collect me from Godalming station. We drive along picture-postcard-pretty roads to their home. Inside the low-ceilinged house, the dining table is set for three. Smoked-salmon canapés appear. There’s also a bottle of red Bulgarian wine, the first of two that Gordievsky distributes generously during our three-hour conversation. The bookcase in the dining room is stuffed with writing on modern art: this and numerous paintings hanging on the walls indicate how much of a personal sacrifice Gordievsky made when he denied any interest in avant-garde art to a KGB officer who – not least because of President Khrushchev’s denunciation of major abstract works as ‘shit’ – was worried that such enthusiasms were dangerously decadent.

    When asked to describe what opportunities London presented to the KGB when he first arrived in 1982, Gordievsky looks across the table sternly and says, ‘The most glorious time for the KGB in London was really from the end of World War II till 1971. In 1945 it had 150 agents – and some, like the Cambridge Five and Melita Norwood [who was exposed, aged 87, in 1999, for passing on British nuclear secrets to the Russians], were very important. But in 1971, because of the arrest of Oleg Lyalin, the Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home expelled all of Russia’s spies [he already had tabs on them all, except five or six who had just arrived]. It was one of the most remarkably revolutionary actions in the Cold War.’

    Lyalin was arrested on Tottenham Court Road on August 30, initially for drink driving. One of the police officers who arrested him, Charles Shearer, recounted how after they put him in the police car, ‘he was lying back in the seat with his feet up on my shoulder. I turned round and said, “What are you playing at? Take your feet off the back of my seat.” And he replied, “You cannot talk to me, you cannot beat me, I am a KGB officer.” We have people claiming all sorts of things, so we didn’t put much credence on it at the time.’

    Despite the police officers’ initial scepticism, Lyalin’s arrest proved crippling for the KGB. By the time Gordievsky started work in London, the number of agents had shrunk from 105 in 1971 to a paltry 23. He paints a picture of an espionage operation riddled with incompetence, arrogance and farcical jobsworthiness. Just before he arrived, ‘The Falklands War – at the beginning – became a minor disaster for the KGB. The political analyst reporting on that situation said, when he was told that a war had broken out: “That’s rubbish. It’s nothing serious. Skirmishes – nothing to speak of.” On the third day, the KGB’s deputy department head for Britain wrote a furious telegram saying: “The whole world’s agencies are reporting on a major conflict in the south Atlantic. There is a war between Britain and Argentina, and you haven’t reported a single thing. How can it be?” ’

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