Three decades ago Oleg Gordievsky was dramatically smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the trunk of a diplomatic car. A strident figure of a man, he passed the British vital details of Moscow’s espionage operation in London.
These days Gordievsky walks with a stick and is stooped, following an episode five years ago in which he says he was poisoned. However, though diminished, Gordievsky remains combative and critical of his homeland.
Intriguingly, as Britain and Russia embarked on something of a mini-thaw this week with top-level bilateral talks in London, Gordievsky warned that Moscow was operating just as many spies in the UK as it did during the Cold War.
Gordievsky, 74, claims a large number of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agents are based at the Russian embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens. As well as career officers, the embassy runs a network of “informers,” who are not officially employed, Gordievsky said, but regularly pass on useful information. They include a famous oligarch.
“There are 37 KGB men in London at the moment. Another 14 work for GRU [Russian military intelligence],” Gordievsky said.
How did he know?
“From my contacts,” he said enigmatically, hinting at sources inside British intelligence.
Gordievsky began helping British intelligence in 1974. Between 1982 and 1985 he was stationed at the Soviet embassy in London. He was even designated rezident, the KGB’s chief in Britain. Back then, the KGB’s goal was to cultivate left-wing and trade union contacts, and to acquire British military and NATO secrets. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB was divided into the SVR and FSB, Russia’s foreign and domestic intelligence agencies. Putin is the FSB’s former boss.
According to Gordievsky, Putin’s foreign intelligence field officers fulfil similar roles to their KGB predecessors. In these days of capitalism, however, they also want to acquire sensitive commercial information of use to Moscow. And they keep tabs on the growing band of Russian dissidents and businessmen who fall out with the Kremlin, and decamp to London — a source of continuing Anglo-British tension.
Former KGB agents, including Putin, now occupy senior roles in Russia’s murky power structures. Many are now billionaires. Gordievsky, meanwhile, was sentenced to death in absentia — the order has never been rescinded. Under the KGB’s unforgiving code, a traitor is always a traitor, and deserves the ultimate punishment.
Gordievsky noted wryly: “I’m the only KGB defector from the 1980s who has survived. I was supposed to die.”
In 2008, however, Gordievsky claims he was poisoned in the UK. He declined to say precisely what happened. However, the alleged incident has taken a visible toll on his health. Physically, he is a shadow of the once-vigorous man who briefed former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan on the Soviet leadership. Mentally, he is sharp and often acerbic.
Gordievsky said he had no regrets about betraying the KGB. He remains a passionate fan of Britain; he reads the Spectator and writes for the Literary Review.
“Everything here is divine, compared to Russia,” he said.
In 2007 the queen awarded him the CMG “for services to the security of the UK.”
Gordievsky says he first “dreamed” of living in London after the 20th party congress in 1956, when former Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev launched his famous denunciation of Stalin. There is, he insists, nothing in Russia that he misses.