Oleg Gordievsky: Interview

In 1985, Oleg Gordievsky was in the espionage elite - a star agent on the brink of becoming the Soviet Union's chief spy in London. Then they discovered he was working for the British. In a rare interview he tells Time Out about spying in the capital, why he defected, and how a Safeway carrier bag saved his life.

  • Oleg Gordievsky: Interview

    Birdwatching - Oleg Gordievsky

  • It’s striking that even though it’s 21 years since he fled execution by the Russians for being a double-agent, Oleg Gordievsky’s face rarely cracks into a smile. There seems little doubt that he’s extremely happy with the lifestyle he’s chosen – ‘This is paradise,’ he declaims as he gestures to the complacent prettiness of surrounding Godalming. Nor is there any doubt that he has a sense of humour, which he illustrates amply with tales of KGB incompetence. Yet no matter what emotion marks his distinctively Slavic voice, his features seem wary of reflecting it.

    Little surprise, perhaps, considering that for a significant part of his adulthood not betraying his feelings has been a matter of life and death. In the high-wire months before his arrest and interrogation, his bosses told him that ‘a traitor may be in the room at this moment’, and he had to pinch himself hard in the thigh to maintain his composure.

    Post 9/11, the account of Gordievsky’s escape from Moscow seems like a story from a very different world, with le Carré-style flourishes ranging from escape plans hidden in the covers of hardback novels to a secret rendezvous in St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square. After being summoned back from London – where he had been working since 1982, overtly as a Russian diplomat in Kensington Gardens – Gordievsky was hauled out into the Russian countryside and interrogated by the KGB about being a double-agent. Despite administering a ‘truth’ drug, the interrogators failed to determine his guilt and released him. Howevr, the countdown to execution had started.

    Thankfully, a brilliant young MI6 official had streamlined the complex details of an escape plan. After a failed first attempt to alert the British security services in June 1985, the next month Gordievsky went at 7pm to an assigned lamppost on a Moscow street corner, taking a Safeway bag as a signal. Proof that the signal had been received would be an Englishman approaching, chewing something. ‘At last after 24 minutes, I saw him,’ Gordievsky recounted later, ‘a man with an unmistakably British look, carrying a dark-green Harrods bag and eating a Mars bar. As he passed within four or five yards, he stared straight at me, and I gazed into his eyes shouting silently, “Yes! It’s me! I need urgent help!” ’

    The operation was set in motion. With only a matter of days till leaving Russia, Gordievsky knew he was under constant surveillance. So he practised ‘dry-cleaning’ – a process where he would duck into buildings and check to see if anyone was following. On the day he bought his rail ticket for the Russian/Finnish border, this technique alerted him to presence of three KGB agents on his tail, speaking into microphones from their coffee-coloured Lada. He threw them off the trail by ducking into a block of flats. ‘That night I slept with the doors of the flat barricaded once more… To catch a glimpse of a single man or woman on your trail is one thing, but to see a whole carload of surveillance behind you – that gives you a terrible feeling.’

    Luckily, the much-feared middle-of-the-night invasion didn’t happen. At 4pm the next day he left his flat for ever. Dressed shabbily, so as not to attract attention, he took a train towards the Finnish border. In a final adrenaline-fuelled manoeuvre, British agents met him and smuggled him out in the boot of a car. His wife and children – on holiday in Azerbaijan at the time – were unaware of the escape. This was particularly tough for Gordievsky, but left them immune to KGB interrogation.

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