There could have been a World War III… perhaps. And, if there’s someone to credit for preventing such a disaster, it’s Oleg Gordievsky – the greatest spy you’ve never heard of. There have been cases where spies have had a profound impact on history, like the breaking of The Enigma Code, which shortened World War II by at least a year and the espionage and deception that helped in the Normandy landing. The arena of world-changing spies is tiny and select, and Oleg Gordievsky is in it.
The only reason we even know who Gordievsky is now is because one American eventually uncovered his identity and alerted his superiors. And these weren’t just any superiors – they were the notoriously unforgiving KGB, the Soviet Union’s espionage organization. Throughout the Cold War, the British Secret Service used Gordievsky to gain invaluable information. And it was this information that effectively changed the course of history.
Oleg Gordievsky, now 81, lives in a house surrounded by a high fence on an ordinary street in a British suburb. Nowadays, even despite the pandemic, he rarely ventures out of his house. And, if he does, it’s with a cane. He spends most of his days reading, writing, listening to classical music, and keeping up with world news.
What interests him the most, though, are the events in his homeland of Russia, the place from which he fled in the trunk of a car in 1985 (thanks to a baby’s dirty diaper… you’ll see why later). Ever since he hasn’t gone back and never will. After all, if he steps foot in the country, a death sentence is waiting for him. The charge: treason. As it turns out, the name Oleg Gordievsky still disturbs veteran KGB officials.
By the end of the ‘90s, Gordievsky, who was a senior officer in the KGB, crossed over to the UK and became the most senior Russian spy at MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. For more than a decade, Gordievsky passed on valuable secrets and intelligence information from the core of the Soviet agency he served in to his British handlers.
Considering his direct access to top-secret information, he quickly became one of the most influential spies in history. The sheer amount of information he provided to the British at a major historical moment changed the path of the Cold War. He ultimately helped avert a nuclear war, uncovered Soviet spy rings in Britain, and provided the British and the West with a look into the mood of Moscow’s Kremlin.
The “higher-ups” that received Gordievsky’s high-quality intelligence included President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Historian and writer Ben Macintyre recently met with Gordievsky and came out with 130 hours of conversations with the solitary ex-spy. It was this material that formed the basis of Macintyre’s 2018 book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.
“He lives alone, but under heavy protection and the tightest possible security,” Macintyre said about Gordievsky. “He is not scared of the Russian government. I am not sure he is scared of anything.” The book’s nearly 400 pages reveal all kinds of new details about the affair and give new insights into the hidden underworld of espionage and intelligence-gathering.
In 2008, Gordievsky’s name made the news when he claimed that “rogue elements in Moscow” tried to assassinate him by poisoning him. Allegedly, they gave him, through an acquaintance, tainted sleeping pills. Gordievsky was hospitalized and unconscious for almost three days. Luckily, he recovered. And the incident didn’t even faze him.
Just by agreeing to be interviewed by Macintyre, being fully aware that the information he would give the writer would essentially put him back into the limelight again, proves that the man really is fearless. Not only bold and confident, but he also remembers pretty much everything. Macintyre said that Gordievsky “has astonishing powers of recall. He was open… and frequently very funny.”
Through what Macintyre described as their “friendly, professional, exhausting and exhaustive” meetings, he was able to get the “full story” of the West’s most senior spy in the Soviet Union. A story “as it has never been told before.” To give a more complete picture, he also interviewed the MI6 officers who handled Gordievsky.
“He has paid a huge price for what he did, but I never heard him utter a single word of regret,” Macintyre said. So this is what we know…
Col. Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky was considered a wizard of the Soviet Intelligence Services. His father was a declared communist who served in the NKVD (Joseph Stalin’s secret police and forerunner of the KGB).
Basically, Gordievsky was “born into” the KGB in Moscow in 1938. As Macintyre said, the Soviet spy service was “in his heart and in his blood.” After joining the KGB in 1961, Gordievsky rose through the ranks quickly. He was doing well in every position he held, and in every place, he was posted, including Scandinavia, Moscow, and Britain.
When he was 46, he was made head of the KGB’s London bureau – an important assignment that turned him into the most senior Soviet intelligence figure on British land. But, there was more to this special agent. Behind the facade of this professional Soviet spy was a double agent who breached his mission and acted against the very country that dispatched him in the first place.
Unlike other spies who are motivated by money, greed, revenge, or other personal reasons, Oleg Gordievsky betrayed his country for other reasons – ideological reasons. And he asked for nothing in return. “Money is still the most important single factor in spying, the oil on which the machinery runs,” Macintyre noted.
Gordievsky, however, was of a different kind: He was an ideological spy. The author noted that Gordievsky was motivated by a variety of factors, but ideology was the principal one. In 1974, Gordievsky had his “job interview” with his British handlers. There, Gordievsky told them, “No money. I want to work for the West out of ideological conviction, not for gain.”
In the end, he reluctantly agreed to take some money, which was deposited in a London bank account and reserved for an emergency situation (which eventually came to be) in which he would have to abandon the mission and live permanently in Britain. His value exceeded any amount of money, according to Macintyre.
As a product of the Communist regime, he knew that the KGB’s reputation for ruthless cruelty was based in reality. From the second he renounced the concept of absolute obedience to the government in Moscow, Gordievsky decided to fight back with all his might. It took time for him to get to that ideological place, which began in 1961.
The first cracks in Gordievsky’s belief in the Communist regime emerged in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was being constructed. It shook him deeply. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia seven years later, his loathing for the system became more intense. “This brutal attack on innocent people made me hate it with a burning, passionate hatred,” Gordievsky was quoted as saying.
The KGB was an extremely complex and far-reaching intelligence agency. Its missions involved a variety of tactics, including collecting and analyzing information, political warfare, media manipulation, spreading false information, forgery, absolute intimidation, abduction, and, of course, murder. All in all, the KGB “penetrated and controlled every aspect of Soviet life,” Macintyre wrote.
At its peak, over a million officers, agents and informers were serving in the KGB, which profoundly shaped the Soviet society. From its inception, the KGB was operating without any sort of ethical restraint and was “unapologetically unprincipled,” according to Macintyre. Before becoming an official spy, Gordievsky tried to make contact with the West himself.
In 1965, he was sent to Denmark to supervise KGB secret agents. Officially, he was an official at the consulate. One day in 1968, after the sudden end to the Prague Spring, Gordievsky called his wife, Yelena, and went on a rant, insulting and blaming the Soviet Union. It was all part of his plan. He knew that the Danish secret service had been tapping the embassy’s phones.
He hoped that his call to his wife, scorning the government, would get the message out that he wanted to be recruited as a double agent. The phone call, which he later noted in his memoirs, was the “first, deliberate signal to the West.” But the West missed his signal. Gordievsky’s blatant cry against the KGB was just one conversation in a flood of material that passed through intelligence personnel, and it went unnoticed.
Nevertheless, it was the Danish intelligence that tried to recruit Gordievsky. Ironically, it was Gordievsky who missed the signal this time. But the Danes kept an eye on him, as is customary with foreign diplomats. Only once their suspicions grew that he was more than just a regular diplomat did they try to trap him.
They screwed it up, though. Thinking, mistakenly, that Gordievsky was gay, Denmark’s secret service sent a young male agent to try to seduce him. It must have been their best shot. And you know how it goes – you’ve seen the spy movies. The two of them met as though by chance. In this case, they met at the residence of a West German diplomat; Gordievsky was invited as a Russian diplomat.
But Gordievsky, being a straight man, was unmoved by this secret agent’s flirtation. He turned down the man’s invitation to have a drink with him at a nearby pub. Later, while Gordievsky was still in Copenhagen, it was the British who tried their hand at recruiting him.
Gordievsky’s name came up in the debriefing of a Soviet rebel from the intelligence service. He knew Gordievsky from their days as students in Moscow – the two both enjoyed cross-country running. The rebel told the British that Gordievsky showed “clear signs of political disillusionment” and depicted him as a potential target for recruitment.
At first, the British Secret Service (knowing that he was indeed straight) sent a beautiful young woman to entice him. She was a dentistry student who later became a world champion in badminton, a sport Gordievsky also enjoyed as a pastime. But, yet again, the plan failed. Gordievsky did have a few drinks with the woman, they chatted briefly, but then he continued on his way.
The Danes were wrong – Gordievsky wasn’t gay. The British were mistaken – although he was a straight man, he wasn’t unfaithful. Lastly, it was the head of the local MI6 station who took it upon himself to recruit the seemingly unattainable Gordievsky. This “courtship” went on for a while. It included “chance” meetings between the two of them at diplomatic receptions and athletic clubs.
Ultimately, the British officer flat-out suggested that the two meet up in private. Gordievsky agreed. And so, Oleg Gordievsky’s career as a double agent began in 1974. He was to continue to fulfill his official duties as a KGB agent, collecting information and sending it to Moscow. But, in secret, he would pass on information to the British.
Such a scenario – having a spy planted deep within the KGB – was a dream that every Western intelligence agency had at the time. But, according to CIA director Richard Helms, realizing such a dream was “as improbable as placing resident spies on the planet Mars.” Before recruiting Gordievsky, the West had hardly any effective agents in the Soviet Union.
What that really means is that until Gordievsky, no reliable information existed about Moscow’s distant plans and intentions. The heart of Gordievsky’s rebellion was to find out and relay every possible thing about the regime he hated, to help dismantle it faster. He sent a letter explaining his personal resolution to his British handlers.
In his letter, he explained his decision to become a double agent: “I must emphasize that my decision is not the result of irresponsibility or instability of character on my part,” he began. “It has been preceded by a long spiritual struggle and by agonizing emotion, and even deeper disappointments at developments in my own country and my own experiences have brought me to the belief that democracy, and the tolerance of humanity that follows it, represents the only road for my country…”
He continued to describe how the regime is the “antithesis of democracy” to the extent that Westerners will never fully grasp. Once one realizes this, according to Gordievsky, one must show courage and do something to prevent such slavery from infringing any further on the people’s freedom.
Gordievsky also told his handlers, on another occasion, that he wanted to find out the most secret, most important elements of the Soviet leadership. He said that he wanted to find out how the system worked. It was through these declarations that you can get a feel of why Gordievsky chose to rebel in such a way.
According to Macintyre, Gordievsky believed that his work with the West was a form of cultural rebellion – not an act of treason that would still, to this day, loom above him. Considering his love for classical music, it only made sense that Gordievsky said this: “Just as Shostakovich, the composer, fought back with music, and Solzhenitsyn, the writer, fought back with words. So I, the KGB man, could only operate through my own intelligence world.”
If you ask Macintyre, he will tell you that even in such an exceptional case like Gordievsky’s, it’s impossible to talk about a spy who was solely driven by ideology. “The inner world that drove Oleg is more obscure,” he wrote. According to the author, several other factors provoked Gordievsky to become a double agent.
For example, he enjoyed a taste for adventure and romance, and we can’t responsibly miss the fact that he had a need to rebel against his father. He also had an urge to take revenge against his KGB colleagues – the men he saw as ignorant, lazy, and who only won promotions thanks to sweet talk and internal politics. Then there’s the desire for self-fulfillment and a search for love after a failed marriage.
So how exactly did Gordievsky pass on the information he received from Moscow over to the British? In those days, messages and instructions from the KGB’s headquarters reached the Soviet embassy in Denmark on strips of microfilm sent via a diplomatic pouch. The contents in the pouch were under international law and thus not subject to inspection.
Each strip of microfilm contained letters, memoranda, and other important documents. What Gordievsky did was smuggle the microfilms out of the embassy building for about 30 minutes during the staff’s lunch break. In that half-hour, he would pass the pouch to a British agent posing as a bystander outside. (Again, you can just imagine the scene in a movie).
The “bystander” then took the pouch to a safe house and copied the microfilms using a small device that the British developed specifically for this purpose. They had to do this quickly – before lunch break was over – in order for Gordievsky to return to the embassy and put the original microfilm back where he found it, without a single eyebrow raised.
With this method, the British gained possession of hundreds of documents from the Soviet embassy, where Gordievsky was stationed throughout the early ‘80s. Gordievsky thus provided them with details about operations, instructions, code names, and secret surveys. But his secret work with the British went beyond just the lunch break smuggling…
Gordievsky later passed on information at secret meetings with his handlers that took place in a safe house. It was during these incidences that his innately amazing memory helped him become such a superb spy. “Most people tell a version of the past, and then either stick to it or embellish it,” Macintyre wrote. But Gordievsky’s “powers of recall were different.”
He could store extraordinary amounts of information in his memory, including in-depth conversations and their contexts, as well as analyzing them and extracting insights. The result was the “single greatest ‘operational download’ in MI6 history,” according to Macintyre. Gordievsky gave his meticulous and complete insight into the KGB, involving the past, present, and future.
Thanks to the information he supplied, Western leaders were finally able to really grasp just how much Moscow feared them. Before Gordievsky, the West wasn’t fully aware of just how much they threatened the East. The British knew that if they supported Gordievsky’s success as a KGB spy, it would prompt his promotion and therefore enable him to provide even more highly classified information.
And so, they provided him with real inside information about Britain. This hand-picked intelligence provided by the British was interesting enough to intrigue the Russians without putting the United Kingdom’s security at risk. In spy lingo, this is known as “chicken feed.” It’s the bulky filling that feeds the hungry but lacks any real nutritional value.
The top-secret “chicken feed” included reports on British-US relations and inside gossip from the Conservative Party that was collected at political conferences. A lot of what Gordievsky was given to pass on to Moscow came from open-source information like magazines and newspapers. And the British went even further.
To satisfy Gordievsky’s Russian bosses, they created “genuine” liaisons for him who delivered more chicken feed – real, yet worthless information. This way, Gordievsky was able to brag to his superiors about “sources” he “recruited.” And the plan worked: Gordievsky was effectively promoted and relocated to London. The British couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. They now had a senior KGB officer serving them on their soil.
Then in 1981, Gordievsky dropped a bomb. He reported to the British that MP Michael Foot, who was the head of the opposition Labor Party and their candidate to become the next prime minister, was a formerly paid KGB agent. Foot had supplied the Russians with information on internal battles within the Labor Party and their views on issues like the war in Vietnam.
British intelligence waited before passing this material on to the country’s leadership. Their fear was that if Michael Foot would defeat Margaret Thatcher in the 1984 election, the Russians would have their own spy in 10 Downing Street. Yes, this was potentially disastrous. But, in the end, the problem resolved itself. Thatcher won, and Foot resigned as party leader.
Now that Western leaders knew just how much Moscow feared them, they were able to organize themselves appropriately to avert a war that could have erupted if the Soviets were to misinterpret the intentions of the West. You see, the Russians were scared, and, with a trigger finger on the button, they could easily have made a dire move in the direction of war.
For example, in 1983, Gordievsky gave the British a line sent from Moscow to the London embassy. The cable warned them that the United States and NATO were weighing a first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The information also added that they were capable of launching missiles within seven to 10 days of making such a decision.
Gordievsky informed the British about the measures the Russians were taking in case of this worst-case scenario. The measures the Soviets were taking included detecting “unusual activity” at missile bases, British government shelters, and even at 10 Downing Street. It was all part of the search for evidence of this desperate and frantic activity.
Based on Gordievsky’s reports, the British understood that the Soviets were worried that a NATO exercise was really a cover-up for an attack by the West. As a result of this information, the US lessened its activity, and NATO deliberately changed some of its maneuvers in such a way that would signal to the Russians that things were business as usual, and nothing was happening that would justify an escalation … and war.
Gordievsky passed on information that also made it clear to the West that the KGB was no longer as threatening as it once was – that it was functioning more like a weakening, clumsy and disorganized organization. But that doesn’t mean that the KGB wasn’t still a well-funded, wide-ranging, and cruel institution.
According to Macintyre, the KGB’s ranks included many “time servers and boot-lickers, lazy careerists with little imagination. The KGB was still a dangerous antagonist, but its vulnerabilities and deficiencies were now exposed.” Without this air of mystery, the dreaded and feared Soviets were now unmasked for what they really were. Thanks to Gordievsky, both Reagan and Thatcher changed their attitudes about the Cold War.
Gordievsky’s reports indicated that the Soviets’ fears were now likely to pose a greater threat than their aggression. “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians,” Ronald Reagan wrote in his memoirs. He stated that many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely scared of America.
Reagan noted that he realized that many Soviet officials feared Americans, not only as enemies but as potential aggressors who could launch nuclear weapons at them in a first strike. After Reagan came to this revelation (thanks to Gordievsky), his administration toned down its anti-Soviet language and style. As for Thatcher, she decided to meet them halfway, abandoning talking about an “axis of evil” and trying to put an end to the Cold War.
All of this worked, and, as such, the Kremlin’s paranoia shrank noticeably. One particularly good example of Gordievsky’s contribution is the visit by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party to Britain in 1984. Gordievsky, as the KGB “resident” in London, was asked to give quality intel before Gorbachev’s meeting with Thatcher.
His British handlers delivered the goods, and the mutual espionage continued during the talks. Every evening, Gorbachev wanted the KGB to give him a detailed memo that would provide him with an idea of what the next day’s meeting would be like. The British supplied Gordievsky with exactly that.
Gordievsky advised Gorbachev on what to say to Thatcher to make sure it would be a successful meeting. And, considering he was a double agent, he was, at the same time, advising Thatcher what to say to her Russian guest. So, in never-before-seen circumstances in the history of intelligence, a spy was able to shape the course of a meeting between two international leaders and basically determine its results.
According to Macintyre, Oleg Gordievsky is “one of the few spies in history to make a strategic difference to the way states behave.” He provided intelligence from the heart of the Kremlin and sent it directly to the desks of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It effectively paved the way for the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
All things come to an end, and Gordievsky’s finale came in 1985 when the KGB discovered the truth about the officer they had planted in London. They ordered him to come back to Moscow and interrogated him, resorting to their usual approach. Agents gave him brandy spiked with a “truth serum” to loosen him up. They also broke into his home while he was away and sprayed his shoes and clothes with an invisible radioactive powder.
This powder could be detected with special glasses – a Geiger counter – that they used to track the spy’s movements. Basically, he would leave a trail of dust behind him. An American double agent and CIA officer named Aldrich Ames informed the KGB of Gordievsky’s presence.
Ames was similar to Gordievsky in that he also took advantage of the information he received to provide valuable information to the intelligence organization of an enemy country. But his path went in the opposite direction. He passed on secrets from the West to Russia, and he did it for the money. Today, so you know, he’s serving a life sentence in the United States.
Gordievsky, while still in Russia, decided to make a daring escape – a plan that the British had originally devised for him. Remember that money on reserve? Well, when the moment of truth came, he reached the neighboring country of Finland (with its freedom and all) in the trunk of a British diplomatic vehicle.
He accomplished the impossible. According to Macintyre, no suspected spy had escaped from the Soviet Union while under KGB surveillance… ever. At the height of his escape, as the Russians brought a dog to sniff outside the trunk of the car that Gordievsky was hiding in, the British used a different kind of weapon – a weapon that wasn’t used in war.
The wife of Gordievsky’s British handler was in the car with her baby. She placed her infant daughter on the trunk of the car, directly above the spy, and did what mothers do: she changed her diaper. It was brilliant in that the smell confounded the sniffing dog. Gordievsky, thus, successfully left Russia – all thanks to a dirty diaper.
It was a bittersweet moment for Gordievsky seeing as how he had to escape in a jiffy, leaving his wife and two daughters behind. As it turns out, Yelena knew nothing about her husband’s double life. Six years after he was smuggled out, the British, through their diplomatic contacts, were able to bring his family to England.
Something that helped in the matter was the thaw in relations with the West, right before the Soviet Union collapsed. But the story of Gordievsky and his wife doesn’t have a happy ending. The couple parted ways in 1993. “The marriage had been conceived amid the impossible contradictions of Cold War espionage, and died just as that war was ending,” Macintyre wrote.