Confessions of an atom spy: Forty years after Bruno Pontecorvo, a British scientist, went to work for Moscow, he tells Charles Richards in Rome why he changed sides

He stepped out of the lift on the third floor, entered the room, and smiled. Now 78 and a victim of Parkinson's disease, Bruno Pontecorvo is short and spare, with an old tweed jacket hanging off his drooping shoulders. His pale green eyes, however, still gleam with mischief.

He spends most of his time in Italy these days, but for a year he had fobbed me off, saying over the phone that he was too sick and did not give interviews about the past. Now at last we were meeting at the home of Miriam Mafai, a columnist on the daily La Repubblica who has just published a book about him.

A physicist, Pontecorvo was deeply involved in the British nuclear research programme when, in 1950, he decided during a holiday in Italy that he would abandon the West and make a new life in the Soviet Union. His defection, following closely on the unmasking of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, a colleague at the government atomic research centre at Harwell, deeply embarrassed the Attlee government. Had Pontecorvo taken with him more atomic bomb secrets? Had he been spying for the Russians all along? He was vilified for treachery and stripped of his adopted British nationality.

Now, for the first time, he is prepared to talk about the choice he made. But, with most Communist countries having changed their colours, how does he feel about the dedication of his life to the Communist cause?

'The simple explanation is this: I was a cretin,' he said. 'The fact that I could be so stupid, and many people close to me should have been quite so stupid . . .' The sentence was left unfinished.

Communism, he went on, was 'like a religion, a revealed religion . . . with myths or rites to explain it. It was the absolute absence of logic.' He stuck by his faith, even after the invasion of Hungary in 1956. When Andrei Sakharov, a fellow physicist, turned against the system, it made no difference. 'I had always admired him as a great scientist and a man of integrity. However, my idea was that he was naive . . . it was I who was naive.'

It was only after Czechoslovakia that his views began to change. 'After 1968 I would say, I will not talk of such things. Then, after a few years, I understood what an idiot I was.'

He speaks clear, idiomatic English. He is a man of immense charm and elegance of language, quoting from Dante, which he read in the Soviet Union to remind himself of Italy.

Born in Pisa in 1913, Pontecorvo was the fourth of eight children of a textile merchant. He showed early academic promise, and in 1934 went to Rome to join an extraordinary circle of world- class physicists led by Enrico Fermi, later to become one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. When Mussolini passed racial laws that discriminated against Jews, four of the Pontecorvos went to Britain. (The eldest, Guido, a distinguished geneticist, remained in Britain and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.)

Bruno went to France and then, in 1940, to the United States. Three years later he was asked to join an Anglo-Canadian team conducting secret research at Montreal. This was Britain's wartime nuclear reactor programme, which was separate from the American-led Manhattan Project working on the first atomic bombs. In 1948, while still working in Canada, Pontecorvo became a British subject. In January 1949 he left with his family to take up a senior post in the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, near Oxford. It was not a nuclear weapons plant, although such was the secrecy surrounding its work that it was popularly believed to be.

In the late summer of 1950, Pontecorvo went on holiday to Italy with his family, and disappeared. It was widely assumed that the Pontecorvos flew to Stockholm, spent the night in a building belonging to the Soviet Union, and flew on to Helsinki. Then a Soviet vessel left the city's harbour shortly afterwards.

Two weeks passed before the alarm was raised in Britain, and another sensational security scandal broke over the government's head. How much did Pontecorvo know? Had he been vetted? Had he been in league with Fuchs? As always with these matters, the principal casualty was Britain's standing in Washington, where once again it was exposed as a soft touch for Soviet subversion. Very soon the relevant minister was forced to admit: 'I have no doubt that he is in Russia.'

It was not until 1955 that Pontecorvo surfaced in Moscow, giving a press conference at which he said he had defected to correct the balance between East and West and that he had only ever worked on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. 'I became convinced,' he said, 'that in the Soviet Union the people wanted peace, and that their government was doing everything possible that there should be no war.'

What had prompted him to defect at that moment, who had helped him through the Iron Curtain and how exactly he made that journey, remained a mystery. Now, the first new evidence is emerging. A week ago, an old Italian Communist Party hardliner, Giulio Seniga, said that he had been a member of an underground party network that arranged Pontecorvo's flight to Moscow. And Pontecorvo himself revealed to Miriam Mafai how he crossed the Soviet border. 'We did not go by ship,' he said. 'We went straight to the Soviet embassy, and then we left in two cars, with me locked in the boot.'

But had he spied for Moscow before then? He still does not talk about it. Fuchs himself told the British that he believed someone else, probably at Harwell, was talking to the Russians, and spy writers Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky are in no doubt that it was Pontecorvo. 'KGB officers,' they have written, 'said that they rated Pontecorvo's work as an atom spy almost as highly as that of Fuchs.'

In 1950, certainly, the press was quick to denounce him, but today the available evidence does not appear to support the suggestion that he was an important atom spy. His research at Harwell had no military application and in Canada he had worked on reactors rather than weapons.

At any rate, Pontecorvo today is not a wanted man. He has been visiting Italy regularly since 1978, although his home remains in Dubna, the research centre outside Moscow where he has been living with his wife and children. He has, he says, a lingering nostalgia for the country whose citizenship he held for a dozen years in the middle of his life, and to which he insists he did no harm. 'I love England, the cathedrals. It is also the least corrupt country.'

For a verdict on the life of Bruno Pontecorvo, there may be no better judge than his brother Gillo, the director who won international acclaim for his film, The Battle of Algiers. 'The case of Bruno was very simple,' he told me. 'Forget all the lies told about it. We were living at a period of great change. There was this belief in a city of the future. The belief was almost irrational, but was held by a whole generation of men, above all intellectuals . . . He had that religion, that sense of capitalism equalling war and recurrent crisis and racism. All that had to be overthrown to go towards the new world. They were like the early Christians, who believed in something beautiful, which did not exist.

'We bet on something which turned out to be false. It is like stepping out of a window, and hoping to descend slowly without taking the boring route of the stairs or the lift. We ignored the problem of the law of gravity.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Beverley James: Accounts Payable

£22,000 - £23,000: Beverley James: Are you looking for the opportunity to work...

Beverley James: Accounts Assistant

£30,000: Beverley James: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a person looki...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower