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'We are very anxious not to spoil things'

"I like it!" exclaimed the Russian official when it was suggested that he substitute one word for another in his embassy's statement on the MI6 spying scandal.

It couldn't have happened in Smiley's day. A British agent had been caught spying "red-handed"; nine British diplomats had been earmarked for expulsion; the British government was formulating its usual tit-for-tat response. And here was the Independent, inside the Russian Embassy's diplomatic headquarters, helping the official with his vocabulary.

In 1989, the last time the governments clashed over spying allegations, each expelling 11 diplomats, journalists were confronted by badly suited heavies at each embassy gate demanding that the police shoo them away or lock them up.

Yesterday, the response was quite different. Instead of the old Siberian- style greeting, a cheerful embassy official invited the Independent indoors for the translation of the latest information ministry fax from Moscow.

Number 15 Kensington Palace Gardens, is the wing of the Russian Federation Embassy at which all diplomatic activity takes place. Outside it is a grand stucco building in the Nash style, almost identical in grandeur to the dozen or so other embassies along the street.

Inside, however, the word grandeur is redundant. Faded paintwork is matched only by frayed carpet. Sixties-style telephones are made to look even older by Seventies-style dralon swivel chairs. To the right of the drab reception is a cavernous green-painted hall on whose walls are hung undistinguished paintings in warped frames. Parked, or dumped, on the rear lawn is a battered Volvo.

The official, as warm and professional in 1996 as any of his Western counterparts, begins to translate the statement, issued by Georgy Karsin of the department for public information and press. It explains why the Britons will be expelled, on the orders of Sergei Krylov, the Deputy Foreign Minister, and says that the British Embassy officials had been "trying to recruit agents among citizens of the Russian Federation".

At each step of the way the official, who asked not to be named, checks and double checks his vocabulary and accepts one or two suggested improvements. Then he places an emphasis on what he and his colleagues inside the embassy hope; that they won't be sent home. Reading Mr Karsin's words, he continues: "We see our main task in these circumstances as doing everything possible in order to avoid too much emotional reaction and hasty decision making which could have a negative influence on state relationships between Britain and Russia,which are developing very successfully."

Another senior official put it more clearly. "We are very anxious that this should not spoil things between our two countries. Things have come a long way between us and we value the relationship very much. But we could not ignore the activities of the MI6 agent in Moscow."

Back outside, after more help and co-operation, one of the armed police officers who patrol the street expressed incredulity. "Blimey. They let you in on a day like this? Shows how much they've changed. In the old days they'd have had the guards out . . . and your feet wouldn't have touched the floor."