Power always has its rough edges but the British would rather not know

There is something comic about one country accusing another of spying. The ambassador of the accused government contrives to look hurt and indignant when he is called to the host foreign ministry. The accusing party is all injured innocence, as though the idea of indulging in espionage itself had never crossed its mind.

The predominant feeling among the accused, if they are British, is neither guilt nor contrition but embarrassment. Last week's events in Moscow were more than usually embarrassing because the Russians got their accusation in first. During the Cold War it was usually the other way round. We would expel a sensationally large number of Soviet "diplomats". (The record was 105 in 1971.) They would reply by kicking out Brits, usually far fewer because the British embassy in Moscow is smaller than Mos-cow's in London.

Even when the British are being expelled in retaliation the embarrassment is obvious. I was caught up in the retaliatory expulsion of 15 British diplomats and journalists from Moscow in 1980 after Margaret Thatcher ordered the same number of Russians to leave London. The severity of the Soviet response took everyone by surprise. The condemned men and women were summoned to the embassy by a telephone call that gave nothing and everything away. It was the voice of the doctor who knows he does not have to say much to reveal the worst. Inside the embassy there was a mixture of jollity and stiff upper lips. The ambassador's wife threw us a farewell party - a "knees-up" she called it - in the embassy's white-and-gold ballroom. No, we weren't downhearted.

A good send-off was a way to cover up the embarrassment. Although most of us were probably not spies (the journalists certainly were not) the expulsion had drawn attention to a necessary but guilty part of the embassy's function. Espionage is to an embassy as plumbing to a house. It is essential, but supposed never to be seen, heard or smelt. The shame is all the greater when it does go wrong and creates a horrible stink.

The embarrassment of spy scandals for foreign policy could be lessened if MI6's men and women were not given diplomatic cover. They are not always protected in this way, but the dangers of espionage during the Cold War seem to have confirmed it as the usual practice. A diplomat cannot be sent to jail or executed, whereas the diplomat-spy's local agent - like the young Russian said to be the cause of last week's row - can. Indeed the wretched agents are usually forgotten in the drama of expulsions, though they are the real victims. Lured into an intimate yet cruelly unequal relation with the diplomat-spymaster, the agent is destined only to be abandoned, with luck when he outlives his usefulness, less luckily if he is detected.

The uneasy faces and weasel words of the last week notwithstanding, British governments are a notch or two less hypocritical about espionage than they used to be. Can it really be only 30 years ago that most people did not know what MI6 was because the Government did not even admit its existence, let alone that its proper name was the Secret Intelligence Service, or that its headquarters was a rambling office near St James's Park Underground station? Today MI5 and MI6 are as familiar acronyms as MCC or DIY. Now we even know the name of the once anonymous "C", its chief.

Even in the old days our spies' official cover of secrecy was as much a matter of diplomatic convenience as operational necessity. The first MI6 man I came across in a British embassy was Rory Chisholm who ran the star British agent Oleg Penkovsky in Moscow in the early 1960s. Chisholm was a friendly, good-humoured bloke who most evenings hung out in the bar set up in the British embassy for the benefit of junior staff and visiting British businessmen who might have got into trouble if they did their drinking anywhere else in the Soviet capital. Later I came across other Chisholms in other parts of the world. They were just as recognisable by their extrovert manner and readiness to gossip and booze with non-diplomats. Most of them were cleverer than they let on. All had a touch of the thug about them. It always seemed to me that a shrewd Soviet counter-intelligence operative would have had little difficulty in seeing beneath their cover.

In Cold War days Moscow was as uptight as London about spying. It was what one expected in a city where the telephone number of the head of the Communist Party Central Committee's information department was a secret not to be revealed to bourgeois foreign correspondents. Today the Russians are more open than we are about the need to send spies abroad. At the beginning of this year President Yeltsin signed a law "on foreign intelligence". While containing virtuous disclaimers - "methods used in intelligence- gathering must not harm people's lives or health or [a nice touch of political correctness] damage the environment" - it gives the spies of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service all the public legal grounding they could ask for.

The FIS is even prepared to justify its foreign activities in articles in the western press. In the early Eighties Moscow Radio had a young correspondent in London called Yuri. He was a big friendly fellow, with stubby fingers, and instantly recognisable as a Soviet Rory Chisholm. The other day Yuri, now a colonel-general in the FIS, took to task the head of German counter- espionage for accusing Russia of doing too much spying. Nonsense, replied Yuri in the pages of the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung. Everyone spies, above all the great powers. "I cannot imagine that Russia, which in spite of all its problems remains a great power, and without whom not even minor international problems can be solved, will renounce intelligence work in the near future."

Why can't a British Yuri write something similar for Izvestia? One reason is that Russians live more easily than we do with the idea that power, even legally established power, has a brutal core. After being ruled for centuries by autocrats and 70 years by revolutionaries, Russians do not need to be reminded that every government keeps the bullet and the noose in reserve. This is surely why, despite Russia's turn towards democracy, the country's Federal Security Service (Russia's MI5) still occupies the Lubyanka, the headquarters of its Communist predecessor the KGB.

In 1991 demonstrators pulled down the statue of the KGB's founder, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, from the square in front of the Lubyanka, but as far as I know there was never any serious discussion about moving the guardians of democratic Russia's security into a less notorious building. Ordinary Russians do not seem to care, perhaps because they suspect a change of address would be just that. A horse in harness is a clever horse, says the Russian proverb. The Lubyanka reminds Russia that its rulers can still give a nasty twitch of the reins.

Russians sometimes argue that their relative backwardness justifies both their diligent spying abroad and their suspicion of foreigners at home. Visitors have swapped stories about that for centuries. "Be careful what you say in your letters to me," an English officer attached to the embassy in St Petersburg wrote to his mother 200 years ago, "as all letters from foreigners are opened at the post office."

In Britain we have been luckier, meaning more secure in our chosen way of life, and therefore better able to conceal power's rough edges. That is why spy scandals will for years to come make the British blush rather than just shrug their shoulders.

Neal Ascherson is away

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