Gordievsky has little contact with his two grown-up daughters, Maria and Anna, or his ex-wife Leila. When he escaped to Britain his family remained behind in Russia, and were only allowed to join him six years later following lobbying from Thatcher. The marriage did not survive this long separation. Gordievsky’s long-term companion is a British woman, who he met in the 1990s.
A bright pupil, with a flair for languages, Gordievsky joined the KGB because it offered a rare chance to live abroad. In 1961 Gordievsky — then a student — was in East Berlin when the wall went up.
“It was an open secret in the Soviet Embassy. I was lying in my bed and heard the tanks going past in the street outside,” he recalls.
In 1968, when he was working as a KGB spy in Copenhagen, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Gordievsky was already disillusioned with the Soviet system; from this point he decided to conspire against it.
It was not until 1974 that he began his career as a double agent in Denmark. Gordievsky met “Dick,” a British agent. After Denmark Gordievsky was sent to Britain, to the delight of MI5. In London he warned MI6 that the politburo erroneously believed the West was planning a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. In 1985, the KGB grew suspicious and summoned him home. He was interrogated, drugged and accused of being a traitor. He managed to get word to his British handlers, who smuggled him across the Finnish border in the trunk of a diplomatic car, an incident recalled in his gripping autobiography, Next Stop Execution.
Gordievsky is scathing about the Soviet Union’s leadership.
“Leonid Brezhnev was nothing special. Gorbachev was uneducated and not especially intelligent,” he sniffed.
What about Putin?
“Abscheulich,” he replied, using the German word for abominable and loathsome. (Gordievsky speaks fluent German, as well as Swedish, Danish and English, which he learned last.)
By contrast, he praises British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
“I used to like him a lot. He was sharp,” he said.
Asked whether he thought there was any prospect of democratic change in Russia — an idea nurtured by anti-Kremlin street protests in 2010 and 2011 — he replied: “What a naive question!”
He added gloomily: “Everything that has happened indicates the opposite direction.”
He likens post-communist Russia under Putin to Mussolini’s Italy. Theoretically, he suggested, he might return to Moscow if there were a democratic government — but there is little prospect of that.
It is an open question how effective Russia’s modern spying operation really is. In 2010, 10 Russian agents, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, were caught in the US, and swapped for a Russian scientist convicted of working for Washington. Gordievsky is familiar with these kind of “deep-cover” operations: He began his espionage career in the KGB’s second directorate, which was responsible for running “illegals” — agents with false biographies planted abroad.
Many felt Russia’s blundering espionage ring was more of a joke than a threat to US security.
Gordievsky, however, said it would be unwise to be complacent about Moscow’s intelligence activities. He mentions George Blake — a British spy who was a double agent for Moscow. In 1966 Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison in London and defected to the Soviet Union. Blake’s and Gordievsky’s careers mirror each other: Gordievsky lives on a civil service pension near London; Blake on a KGB pension in Moscow. Reaching for a sip of his beer, Gordievsky described the treacherous Blake as “effective.” He added: “You only need one spy to be effective.”