KGB’s former spy chief in Britain says he has no regrets about betraying the Soviet Union as he likens Putin to Mussolini
Oleg Gordievsky says he is the only agent to defect from the KGB in the 1980s to survive. ‘I was supposed to die,’ he says. Photograph: Steve Pyke
Three decades ago, Oleg Gordievsky was dramatically smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the boot of a diplomatic car. A strident figure of a man, he passed to the British vital details of Moscow’s espionage operation in London.
These days, Gordievsky is a shadow of his former self. He walks with a stick and is stooped, following an episode five years ago in which he says he was poisoned. But though diminished, Gordievsky remains combative and critical of his homeland.
Intriguingly, as Britain and Russia embark 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 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 told the Guardian. How did he know? “From my contacts,” he said enigmatically, hinting at sources inside British intelligence.
Gordievsky began helping British intelligence in 1974. From 1982-85 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 leftwing 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. Vladimir 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 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-Russian 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. But the alleged incident has taken a visible toll on his health. Physically, he is a shadow of the once-vigorous man who briefed Margaret Thatcher and 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 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, whom 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 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 boot 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 William Hague. “I used to like him a lot. He was sharp.”
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 and defected to the Soviet Union. Blake’s and Gordievsky’s careers mirror each other: Gordievsky lives on a civil service pension in the home counties; 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, the foreign secretary, William Hague, wants to keep the government’s Litvinenko files secret – to appease Moscow, according to critics.
guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 March 2013 17.07 GMT
Find this story at 11 March 2013
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