The spy who really DID come in from the cold: How a KGB superspy was ‘turned’ to become MI6’s best Cold War agent and gave the West a vital advantage over the Kremlin
- A must-read of 2018 is best-selling author Ben Macintyre’s account of KGB spy
- Oleg Gordievsky switched his loyalty from Moscow to the West by joining MI6
- He was a proud Soviet agent but had his eyes opened to oppression in his country after visiting Copenhagen in 1966
One of the must-reads of 2018 is best-selling author Ben Macintyre’s gripping account of how Oleg Gordievsky, a senior KGB officer, switched his loyalty from Moscow to the West and took on the dangerous role of a double agent — the most successful of all in recent times.
In its cliff-hanging drama and intrigue, it has all the hallmarks of a le Carre thriller — but with the added twist that the events it describes were not fiction. Gordievsky really is the spy who came in from the cold. In this first extract from The Spy And The Traitor, MI6 uses all its cunning to lure him into its net, then foolishly nearly lets him slip away…
The temperature was minus six and, despite his tweed suit and heavy overcoat, Richard Bromhead, dapper head of the MI6 spy station in Copenhagen, was ‘absolutely bloody freezing’. It was 7am, snow had fallen overnight and, as he shivered, the irony was not lost on him that his target, a Soviet KGB major, was code-named ‘Sunbeam’.
Oleg Gordievsky in KGB uniform. His official position was Second Secretary in the Soviet embassy but he was, in reality, a KGB spy
For three mornings, Bromhead — an old-fashioned Englishman, a cheerful, back-slapping cove who divided people into ‘complete darlings’ and ‘prize sh*ts’ — had sat in a tiny, unheated car outside a sports club.
Surveillance by the Danish security service had established that a particular Russian ‘diplomat’, Oleg Gordievsky, played badminton there every morning with a young woman named Anna, a member of the Danish Young Communists.
Gordievsky’s official position was Second Secretary in the Soviet embassy but he was, in reality, a KGB spy. In a classic ‘dangle’ operation, Bromhead was trying to flush him out as a potential double agent and get him to change sides.
He knew from long experience that recruiting a rival intelligence officer required a complicated pas de deux. Too obvious an approach would scare the target away, but too subtle a signal would be missed.
On the first two mornings he watched Oleg and Anna come out, shake hands and go to their respective cars. So on this, the third morning, he was not going to hang about getting cold. He walked into the club to find them.
Gordievsky was between serves when the British spy came into view. He immediately recognised Bromhead — the two had run into each other at diplomatic parties — and gave a friendly smile.
The Russian did not seem surprised, Bromhead noted. ‘Was he expecting me?’
Gordievsky calmly went on with his game, but his mind was whirling. Was everything slotting into place?
The genial British diplomat — whom the KGB had identified as an intelligence officer — seemed to have been at every social event recently, and his appearance now in the deserted badminton court could mean only one thing: MI6 was trying to recruit him.
And, if such an approach was coming, then Gordievsky knew he was ripe for turning.
Gordievsky, a keen badminton player, switched his loyalty from Moscow to the West and took on the dangerous role of a double agent
He was KGB born and bred: his father and older brother had been in the service and he himself was recruited from university to join its Red Banner elite training academy. His wife, Yelena, a translator, was KGB too.
In the Soviet Union, being in the KGB was an honour and a duty to anyone with talent and ambition. And those who joined did so for life. ‘There is no such thing as a former KGB man,’ the one-time KGB officer Vladimir Putin once said. This was an exclusive club to join, and an impossible one to leave.
But Gordievsky’s first tour of duty to the West as an agent in 1966 was an eye-opener and a game-changer. The Copenhagen he arrived in was almost impossibly alluring to someone used to the drab oppression of Soviet life.
Here were sleek cars, designer furniture, teeming cafés, bright restaurants, shops selling a bewildering array of goods. And, unlike Moscow, very few policemen.
He was smitten by Denmark, its people, parks and classical music, and the liberty, including sexual freedom, that its citizens took for granted.
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‘I blossomed as a human being,’ he wrote. ‘There was so much beauty, such openness and cheeriness that I could only look back on the vast, sterile concentration camp of the Soviet Union as a form of hell.’ His alienation from the communist system turned to a burning, passionate hatred when he saw the TV pictures of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the outbreak of optimism and democracy known as the Prague Spring.
From a phone inside the embassy in Copenhagen, he rang his wife to express his anger at ‘this brutal attack on innocent people’.
With that call, it was not just to her that he was sending a message. He knew the phone was bugged by Danish intelligence. Surely they would pick up that he was not the unquestioning cog in the KGB machine he seemed to be?
It was a hint — an emotional ‘brush contact’, to use an espionage phrase — to Western intelligence of his feelings. It was, he later wrote, a ‘first, deliberate signal to the West’.
Unfortunately, the West missed it, and his gesture passed undetected. But here undoubtedly was the direction in which he was travelling even as, professionally, he was gliding smoothly upwards through the KGB ranks.
Major Oleg Gordievsky of the KGB was recruited by MI6 and risked being assassinated switching allegiances
Two years spent back in Moscow exacerbated his dismay at Soviet corruption and hypocrisy.
Returning to the Copenhagen embassy in 1972 as deputy to the rezident, the head of the KGB station, he began to read Solzhenitsyn, Orwell and Western histories exposing the full horror of Stalinism — books banned at home.
Now, a year later, he found he kept bumping into MI6 men like the tall, affable Bromhead — at an art exhibition, at diplomatic receptions. They chatted amiably but neither was giving much away. As one MI6 officer explained: ‘We needed to make it clear, without being too obvious, that we were in the market. We needed to engineer a chance meeting.’
The ‘dangle’ — one of the oldest gambits in intelligence, when one side makes a play for someone on the other — was set in motion.
When his game of badminton finished that winter morning, Gordievsky sauntered over, a towel around his neck, hand outstretched, to greet Bromhead. The two intelligence officers assessed one another.
‘Oleg displayed no sign of nervousness,’ Bromhead recalled. Gordievsky noted that the usually brash Englishman seemed for once deadly serious.
Bromhead tested the water as delicately as he could. ‘Would you be able to talk to me, tête-à-tête?’ he enquired. ‘I would love to have a private conversation with a member of your service.’
Bromhead was revealing he knew Gordievsky was a KGB officer. A line was crossed.
Leila Gordievsky, Oleg’s second wife pictured around the time she met Oleg
Gordievsky didn’t hesitate. ‘I would like that,’ he replied.
‘Could we have lunch?’ a tentative Bromhead continued. Gordievsky agreed and suggested the restaurant in a hotel directly across the road from the Soviet embassy, in three days’ time.
As he drove away, Bromhead was elated, but also uneasy. Gordievsky had seemed strangely unperturbed by the approach.
He had also chosen a restaurant so near his own embassy that a hidden microphone could relay their conversation to listeners across the road. They could be spotted by Soviet officials, who frequently dined at the hotel.
For the first time, it struck Bromhead that he might be the target, not the initiator, of an attempted enlistment. ‘It was all just too easy. Oleg’s behaviour and choice of restaurant made me suspect I was being played at my own game.’
Back at the British embassy, Bromhead fired off a cable to MI6 headquarters in London: ‘For God’s sake, I think he’s trying to recruit me!’
But Gordievsky was merely establishing his cover. Back at his embassy, he told his KGB boss: ‘This fellow from the British embassy has invited me to lunch. Should I accept?’
The question was passed on to Moscow Central, headquarters of the KGB, who, sensing an opportunity, enthusiastically boomed back: ‘Yes. Meet him. Britain is a country of high interest to us.’
The Gordievsky siblings from left to right: Vasili, Marina and Oleg
This was Gordievsky’s insurance policy. Having obtained official permission, he could now make ‘sanctioned contact’ with MI6, without the KGB suspecting his loyalty. But it was a dangerous game he was playing. What if MI6 was stitching him up, luring him in, only to expose him? If he fell victim to an MI6 plot, his career in the KGB would be over. He would be recalled to Moscow.
He would also doubtless fall victim to KGB logic that anyone the other side attempted to recruit was, prima facie, suspect, leading to his arrest, torture and a bullet in the head.
Three days later, Bromhead took a seat in the restaurant, with his back to the window, where he could keep a close watch on the room. ‘I carefully examined the other diners to see if I could recognise any members of the Soviet embassy staff, whose pictures were all filed in our office. Everyone seemed to be an innocent Dane or a tourist. I sat back, wondering if Oleg would even come.’
Gordievsky entered the restaurant exactly on time. ‘He saw me at once,’ Bromhead recalled, which, in the game of mirrors the two spies were playing, made him suspicious. ‘Had he already been told which table I’d reserved? My mind raced into conventional spy fever.’
A smiling Gordievsky sat down, and Bromhead felt a ‘friendly atmosphere’ as they tucked into their food and chatted about religion, philosophy and music. Gordievsky made a mental note that the Englishman had done his homework, and ‘took trouble to talk about subjects of interest to me’. When coffee and the strong Danish spirit akvavit had been served, Bromhead asked a crucial question. ‘Will you have to file a report about our meeting?’
The reply was revealing: ‘Yes, but I’ll make it a very neutral one.’ Here was the hint of collusion Bromhead had been hoping for — not a flash of leg exactly, but the glimpse of an ankle.
Even so, he left the lunch ‘more puzzled than ever’. Gordievsky had hinted that he was not averse to concealing the truth from his KGB bosses. But he was also behaving exactly like a man who believed he was the hunter, not the prey.
Bromhead sent a memo to MI6 headquarters, emphasising ‘my fear that he wanted to recruit me’. Gordievsky also reported back to his bosses, a long, insipid document, concluding that the meeting had ‘been of interest’. And then something quite extraordinary happened — nothing. The Gordievsky case went dead. For the next eight months there was no contact whatever. Bromhead, suspicious of Gordievsky and pursuing other targets, took his eye off the ball.
Gordievsky on the Baltic coast with Mikhail Lyubimov, a Russian novelist and retired colonel in the KGB
In retrospect, it is startling to think how close MI6 came to missing out on what would turn out to be its greatest catch of all.
But in spying, as in love, a little distance, an apparent cooling, can stimulate desire. Gordievsky was dismayed when weeks passed without any renewed contact, then quite angry.
Yet in those eight frustrating months, his enthusiasm grew, so that when, in October 1974, the tall Englishman reappeared at the badminton court, he was keen and agreed to meet him — this time at a hotel away from the Soviet embassy and never frequented by Soviet officers.
Gordievsky arrived there determined to push matters on. ‘I felt it was time I took the initiative,’ he later recalled. But it was Bromhead who moved first. ‘I had toyed with the idea of talking about world peace and so on, but my intuition about Oleg told me not to try any such blarney. I went straight to the point.
‘I told him: “You’re KGB. We know you have worked in Line N of the First Chief Directorate, the most secret of all your departments, which is running illegals [spies] all over the world.
‘Would you be prepared to talk to us about what you know?’
Gordievsky gave no reply. Bromhead pressed on. ‘Tell me, who is the deputy in your section, the person in charge of political-intelligence gathering and agent-running?’ There was a pause, and then the Russian broke into a broad grin. ‘I am.’
Another line crossed. And both of them knew it.
Bromhead now administered the ‘acid test’. ‘Would you be prepared to meet me, in private, in a safe place?’ The Russian nodded before adding, ‘No one is aware that I am meeting you.’
An invisible traffic light switched from amber to green. After their first encounter, Gordievsky had informed his superiors. This meeting was unsanctioned. If the KGB discovered he had kept it secret, he was doomed.
By informing MI6 that he had told no one, he was making his switch of allegiance perfectly clear, and putting his life in their hands.
He had crossed over. Major Oleg Gordievsky of the KGB was now working with MI6. ‘Sunbeam’ was up and running. From now on he would live two distinct and parallel lives, both secret, and at war with one another.
When Bromhead’s report on his meeting with Gordievsky landed on the desks of senior MI6 officers in London, a conclave gathered to consider how to proceed. They discussed long and hard whether they were being set up.
Would a senior KGB officer really be willing to risk his life by meeting secretly with a known MI6 operative? On the other hand, if it was a trap, would the KGB dare to dangle one of its own officers in front of the enemy?
Covert surveillance photographs of Oleg Gordievsky taken by the Danish intelligence service PET during his postings to Copenhagen
After a tense debate, it was agreed to press ahead. ‘Sunbeam’ might seem too good to be true; but it was too good to pass up.
Three weeks later, Bromhead and Gordievsky met in a bar. Both had carefully ‘dry-cleaned’ themselves to get there, taking circuitous routes to ensure they were not being followed.
Bromhead explained that he had found a safe house in a flat in a residential suburb. The place was easy to reach by subway, and the MI6 secretary who lived there would make herself scarce at the appropriate times. He suggested he meet Gordievsky in a shop doorway near the flat at 7pm in three weeks’ time.
Gordievsky arrived on the dot. Bromhead appeared moments later and said: ‘Come, I’ll show you the way.’
The safe house — or ‘OCP’ in spy jargon, standing for Operational Clandestine Premises — was barely 200 yards away, but they went a long way round in case anyone was following.
The night was cold, with drifting snowflakes. Both men were bundled up inside overcoats.
Gordievsky was silent, plunged in thought: ‘Things were now serious. This was the real start of operations. For the first time I was entering enemy territory.’
Bromhead unlocked the door, ushered Gordievsky in and poured two stiff whiskies. ‘I’m quite surprised you turned up,’ he admitted. ‘Aren’t you running a grave risk?’
Gordievsky paused, and ‘in a very measured way’ replied: ‘It might be dangerous, but at this moment I do not think it will prove to be so.’
Bromhead assured him that, for his safety, he would be run under the tightest security. Only a tiny handful of people inside British intelligence would ever know he existed, and most of these would never learn his real name.
Even the CIA, the intelligence service of Britain’s closest ally, the U.S., would be kept out of the loop.
With these provisos established, Bromhead recalled, ‘we began serious co-operation’.
For years these covert surveillance photos were the only images available of him
That night, after bidding Gordievsky farewell, Bromhead reflected how little he really knew about the smiling, apparently nerveless KGB officer, who seemed ready to risk his life by colluding with MI6.
The question of money had never arisen. Nor had Gordievsky’s own safety, or that of his family, or whether he wished to defect. They had talked generally about culture and music, but not about politics, ideology or life under Soviet rule.
Gordievsky’s motivation had not been discussed. ‘I never asked him why he was doing it. There just wasn’t time.’
Those questions were still niggling Bromhead when he arrived the next morning in MI6’s London headquarters but his bosses were optimistic. It was the first time any KGB officer had responded positively to a British approach from cold. They saw this as a unique situation to be exploited to the full.
Gordievsky seemed genuine. They believed ‘Sunbeam’ could prove to be a breakthrough case.
Bromhead was not so sure. ‘I couldn’t rid myself of the thought that I might have constructed a bottomless “heffalump trap” into which my service was clearly determined to plunge headlong.’
Bromhead’s role, however, was over. He was about to leave Denmark for a new assignment but before he did, he introduced the Russian to his new handler, Philip Hawkins.
Hawkins could not have been more different to the affable Bromhead. He was Scottish and as stiff and brittle as an oatcake. His task, as he saw it, was to approach Gordievsky with a lawyerly eye and find out if he was lying. He sat the Russian down, and launched into a cross-examination.
Gordievsky was taken aback. He expected to be welcomed, praised and congratulated on the momentous choice he was making. Instead, he was being interrogated as if he were a captive enemy rather than a co-operative new recruit.
This first contact between spy and case officer was not a happy one, and both men left the meeting feeling disgruntled.
But a modus operandi had been agreed. Hawkins would fly to Copenhagen once a month, and stay for a long weekend during which they would meet twice, for at least two hours each time.
Hawkins handed over an emergency telephone number, secret ink and a London address to which Gordievsky could send urgent messages between meetings.
The appointment of the brusque and unsmiling Hawkins turned out well. He was a professional, and so was Gordievsky, and what started in an atmosphere of prickly suspicion slowly evolved into a highly efficient and exceptionally fruitful relationship, based on grudging mutual respect.
For hours they would sit on either side of a large coffee table in the safe house. Gordievsky drank strong tea, and occasionally asked for a beer. Hawkins drank nothing.
Hawkins, who was well versed in the structure of the KGB, listened as Gordievsky described, with impressive accuracy, every directorate, department and sub-department of the sprawling, complex bureaucracy inside Moscow Centre.
Some of this Hawkins already knew; a great deal he did not as Gordievsky reeled off names, functions, techniques, training methods, even rivalries and internal disputes, promotions and demotions.
He never once asked Hawkins for information about MI6, or made any of the moves a double agent attempting to infiltrate an enemy service might make.
The spymasters at MI6 headquarters were soon convinced of his bona fides. He was the real thing and playing it fair and square.
That conviction was redoubled when Gordievsky began to describe, in minute detail, how Moscow planted its spies, disguised as ordinary civilians, all over the world, created false identities, forged documents and buried moles.
He gave details of the complex methods for contacting, controlling and financing the army of Soviet illegals. His powers of recall were prodigious. At KGB school he had been taught how to memorise large quantities of information. Now he was using that skill on behalf of the other side.
At MI6 headquarters, Hawkins’s reports on his meetings were eagerly awaited. British intelligence had never run a spy so deep within the KGB.
Meanwhile. Gordievsky was beginning to relax. ‘I was much easier in my mind. My new role gave a point to my existence.’
That role, he believed, was nothing less than undermining the Soviet system, in a black and white struggle between good and evil that would eventually bring democracy to Russia, and allow Russians to live freely, read what they wanted, and listen to Bach.
He had an unshakable conviction that what he was doing was a betrayal but a righteous one.
Meanwhile, in his day job for the KGB, he continued to perform as required. The more energetic he appeared, the greater his chances of promotion, and the better his access to important information.
It was an odd situation — setting up spy operations with one hand, and then unpicking them with the other, by informing Hawkins.
He told his wife Yelena nothing of what he was up to. He felt sure that if she discovered the truth, as a loyal KGB officer herself, she would shop him.
The marriage was in deep trouble anyway — its frailty even more exposed when Gordievsky fell in love with Leila Aliyeva, a Russian-born typist for the World Health Organisation in Copenhagen. She was 28, 11 years younger than him, and sweet-natured where Yelena was shrewish and difficult.
Oleg Gordievsky in his student days at Moscow’s eliste Institute of International Affairs where he was first recruited by the KGB
An affair began and they met in secret. The KGB frowned on adultery, and if he were caught out, he would be sent home in disgrace. Every few days, he would send a disguised message to Leila and commit adultery in a different Copenhagen hotel.
Every four weeks, he would make his way to an unremarkable flat in a boring Danish suburb and commit treason.
This now became the pattern of his life.
Over the course of a year, he established a system of evasion, eluding both Soviet surveillance and the suspicions of his wife, while, all the time, his relationships, with both Leila and MI6, were deepening.
The risks he took were enormous — in his lunch breaks, he would smuggle out of the embassy documents arriving from Moscow, photograph them with a miniature camera and pass the film surreptitiously to his contact as they brushed against each other in the street, a park or a station.
Then he would sneak the original documents back before anyone noticed.
He was terrified, but determined. Each contact left him fizzing with the gambler’s rush of a successful gambit, but wondering whether his luck could hold.
Even in the coldest weather, he returned to the embassy in a muck sweat of fear and excitement, hoping his colleagues would not notice his shaking hands. The flow of documents into the hands of MI6 swelled to a torrent — so many secrets that British intelligence had to be very careful in passing on the information he supplied. Allies were given nuggets but sparingly and using intermediaries or ‘cut-outs’ to appear as if they had come from elsewhere, and were generated by other means.
Some material went to the very top, to the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, but not even he was told where it had come from.
From the start, MI6 opted to play the long game.
Gordievsky was still a young man. It was vital not to burn him by being too hasty or hungry. Who knew to what heights he might rise in the KGB? His use would only improve with time and promotion.
Ultimately — as we will see — the secrets Gordievsky revealed would change the course of the Cold War and give the West a vital advantage over the Kremlin.
Adapted from THE SPY AND THE TRAITOR by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £25. © Ben Macintyre 2018
To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to December 8, 2018; p&p free), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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