Gordon Corera

Betraying bandits

Spy stories, whether the stuff of fictional thrillers or, as in the case of Sergei Skripal, the real deal — often leave a question nagging. For all the tales of tradecraft and tension, double agents and drama, what difference did one person’s decision to spy really make? That is not the case with Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky’s story is remarkable because it has all the drama of a fictional tale and yet also conveys why a single person’s choices can make a difference.

Gordievsky was a rising star in the KGB, but one who became disillusioned with the regime he was serving — particularly as he watched the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968. While serving in Copenhagen, he tried to signal to western intelligence that he might be willing to work for them. MI6 — thanks to some help from Danish intelligence — spotted him. Yet it took some time to close the deal, MI6 unsure as to whether he was the real deal or a ‘dangle’ set by the KGB to entrap them. Eventually the two sides reached an agreement, and Gordievsky began providing secrets in Denmark. But when he returned to Moscow the relationship was put on hold. The risk of discovery was too great. Then he was posted to London.

He arrived at a time when the Cold War was at risk of heating up — with Reagan’s rhetoric of an ‘Evil Empire’ fuelling fears in Moscow that the West was preparing for a first strike. Gordievsky convinced MI6 that the Soviets were far more fearful of a western attack on them than was understood. In turn this intelligence found its way to both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who would use it to adjust their strategy, reducing the risk of the Cold War turning hot.

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