Oleg Gordievsky: Interview

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  • To the KGB, the methodical, politically experienced Gordievsky – the son of a KGB official – must have seemed an ideal candidate to help run the operation in London. He had risen steadily through the KGB’s ranks since starting work there in 1962. He describes how ‘in my office one whole wall was covered with a map of London. All places were available [for spy operations] unless they were near Whitehall, where MI6 was situated, where MI5 was situated, the police headquarters, other police stations, and military facilities.’ His assignations were dotted across the capital: Barnet, Morden, Coram’s Fields and the Gay Hussar in Soho were all selected locations. Once, when going to the Gay Hussar, he says, ‘To my surprise I saw two old KGB contacts there – lower-grade agents – sitting enjoying their lunch before having a big cigar.’

    It was 32 years since Gordievsky had found himself listening with sympathy to a broadcast by Radio Liberty, from Munich, which denounced Stalin on his death as a tyrant and murderer of millions. He had hoped post-Stalin that Russia could transform itself for the better, but the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 destroyed his highly sceptical adherence to the dictates of the motherland. In his autobiography, he wrote that ‘Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy.’ When such optimism proved futile, he began, while working in Copenhagen in 1974, to leak informationto the West after a well-known British diplomat, who ‘stood out at any gathering through the sheer force of his ebullient self-confidence’, appeared next to the badminton court where Gordievsky was having an early-morning match, and set up a sequence of covert meetings.

    As late as 1985, Moscow suspected nothing. The extent of its trust in Gordievsky was indicated by a promise in the late spring that he would be promoted to head the KGB in London. But in May, he was ordered back to Moscow. His subsequent defection confirmed too late its suspicions that he was the highest-ranking KGB official ever to betray his commanders.

    In Britain, Gordievsky’s escape was the prelude to some explosive revelations about public figures who he claimed had – both wittingly and unwittingly – proved helpful to the KGB. Roosevelt’s adviser Harry Hopkins was accused, as was Olof Palme, Sweden’s assassinated Prime Minister, and Richard Gott of the Guardian, who resigned from the paper but denied the claims. When the Sunday Times reported Gordievsky’s claim that Michael Foot was a KGB agent, Foot sued successfully for £100,000 in libel damages. It was a tough time for Gordievsky, both personally and professionally. When his wife and children arrived to join him from Russia – after a protracted political campaign involving figures including Margarest Thatcher and Nicholas Bethell – the marriage finally fell apart.

    But he also had his undisputed triumphs. Most significant was his unmasking – pre-defection – of Michael Bettaney, an MI5 agent who was passing secrets to the Russians, and later convicted of treason at the Old Bailey. His status was such that he was also granted an audience with several world leaders, including Margaret Thatcher: ‘When I saw her for the first time, I realised she was very well informed about biological weapons. It was a major worry – and as a trained chemist she had found out a lot from different sources.’

    Since the question of how to interrogate those who threaten national security is once more topping the political agenda, I ask what he thinks is the best way of obtaining information. He replies controversially: ‘ “60 Minutes” [the American news programme] wanted me to condemn the use of drugs in interrogation, since the KGB had drugged me, but I could not. Physical torture is much worse and a drug can be easily controlled, especially if it is made under the supervision of a medical person. I felt poorly on the first day, but the second day I was okay. It didn’t affect my mental state, or leave any lasting damage.’

    Certainly, at the age of 68, life seems to be treating him more kindly. Last year he was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Buckingham in recognition of his outstanding service to the security and safety of the United Kingdom, and his byline continues to appear in the Daily Telegraph and Spectator. Just before I leave his house, Gordievsky reveals that one of his great pleasures now is feeding the foxes who visit his Surrey garden. It seems a curiously appropriate pastime for a spy who at last has come in from the cold.

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