Even today, when former Soviet spymasters reminisce about the good old days, they still chuckle at the resourcefulness of perfidious Albion - and at their own success in outwitting her.
"The Russian stereotype of the British is that they are cunning and hypocritical," said Colonel Mikhail Lyubimov, former head of the British section at KGB headquarters, in an interview with The Independent last year.
The news today that the number of spies is shrinking comes as no surprise given the lack of any real enemy on which to spy, but it will sadden the likes of Colonel Lyubimov who enjoyed nothing better than to pit his wits against a worthy adversary.
Britain's Secret Intelligence Service was established in 1909, before either the KGB or the CIA, and quickly regarded its number one enemy as Russia, which it saw as challenging its imperial aspirations.
"Britain was afraid of tsarist Russian influence in India and Afghanistan and we saw you as being not only anti-Soviet but Russophobic even before the Bolshevik Revolution," said Col Lyubimov. "Britain did all in its power to help those who opposed the Bolsheviks."
By the 1930s, however, the focus in Europe was on the rise of fascism, a factor which attracted sympathy for the communist resistance to it and which led to the establishment of the spy ring most Britons know best - Russian spies with British names.
Inevitably, the most successful British agents remain unsung and unknown in their home country. But everyone remembers the Cambridge Five: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross.
"There was a strong anti-fascist mood across Europe and people wanted to help us fight Hitler," said Col Lyubimov. This was when the "Magnificent Five" were recruited. And the colonel said they represented only the tip of the iceberg.
The Five were in jobs with either the Foreign Office or the security services - just the type facing cuts today.
However, does the reduction in numbers really matter? In the case of MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, opinion is split. Nigel West, the espionage writer, is not complimentary.
"Between 1945 and 1972 - when the Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Lyalin defected and named names - they caught only one spy, and that was by chance," he said.
"In 1953 an MI5 officer was getting off a bus and spotted a Russian he had targeted some weeks earlier. He followed him and saw him meet a man who was later identified as William Martin Marshal, a diplomatic wire service officer."
On the foreign front, however, there is concern at a cut in numbers.
"We were taken by surprise in the Falklands and in the Gulf precisely because there were not enough people on the ground," said Mr West. "It would seem we have learned nothing from those experiences. SIS employs only about 200 people overseas. If it were up to me, I wouldn't cut the numbers, I'd double them."Reuse content