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 Gordievsky, meanwhile, was sentenced to death in absentia — the order has never been rescinded.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.
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.”
Gordievsky said he was convinced that Putin was behind the 2006 assassination of his friend Alexander Litvinenko, who had defected to Britain in 2000. In December it emerged that Litvinenko had been working for the British and Spanish secret services at the time of his death. An inquest into Litvinenko’s murder will take place later this year.
Controversially Hague wants to keep the government’s Litvinenko files secret — to appease Moscow, according to critics.
Gordievsky said he got to know Litvinenko “quite well” in the years before his murder.
“He was crazy about fitness. He would run for miles. He visited me at home seven times. He also came with Marina [Litvinenko’s wife]. We talked on the telephone. He would talk and talk,” he said.
He added of Litvinenko: “He was absolutely in love with the Chechen people. He liked their traditions and independence.”
Litvinenko decided to defect after growing disillusioned with the FSB, which he felt had betrayed its ideals, Gordievsky said. In exile in London, Litvinenko remained “very Russian,” Gordievsky recalled, attacking the Kremlin and Putin in “typically aggressive Russian style” and writing defiant articles.
“I think the main reason he was killed was because he defended [the Putin critic Boris] Berezovsky,” he said.
Gordievsky said the operation to slip radioactive polonium-210 into Litvinenko’s teacup was approved from the top.
He reasoned: “Nobody would dare to carry out an assassination abroad in an important country like Britain without authorization.”
The KGB was always adept at using poisons, Gordievsky pointed out: “They made them at a facility outside Moscow called the Fabrika. The KGB also produced a fantastic collection of [fake] foreign passports.”