He came, he saw, he couldn't take it: He was a Soviet defector with a story to sell, and Duff Hart-Davis was the man to tell it. Then Oleg Bitov suddenly disappeared. The reason remained a mystery - until now

Duff Hart-Davis
Tuesday 16 August 1994 23:02

It is exactly 10 years since the Soviet defector Oleg Bitov disappeared from central London. His red Toyota Tercel was found abandoned in Emperor's Gate, Kensington, and his flat in East Sheen was undisturbed: nothing had gone from it, not even a toothbrush.

A month later he appeared at a staged press conference in Moscow, claiming that he had been kidnapped and drugged by the British secret services and forced at gunpoint to write articles. Since the articles to which he referred were written with my help, I took a keen interest in the proceedings, but until recently I, like the rest of his friends in this country, remained in the dark about how he returned to base.

A journalist and translator, Bitov had been working on the Moscow Literary Gazette. He defected on 9 September 1983 during a visit to the Venice Film Festival, and was smuggled into England by MI5. For the next two months he was intensively debriefed. In December he was allowed to engage the services of a literary agent, Hilary Rubinstein of AP Watt, and when Rubinstein solicited an offer for Bitov's story from the Sunday Telegraph, I was deputed to go and test the water.

Bitov looked older than his 52 years: he had the lined, grey complexion of a man who chain-smokes, and his appearance - otherwise not undistinguished - was disfigured by half a dozen grey metal false teeth. His English was accurate but slow and heavily accented, and I soon began to suspect that he did not have much of a story to tell. He seemed to have no dramatic revelations up his sleeve, and remained vague about exactly what he might write.

I reported to my editor that the price he was asking - pounds 40,000 - seemed astronomical. But any Soviet defector was news of a kind, for at that time East-West relations were extremely tense. The up-and-coming Mikhail Gorbachev was still waiting in the wings; glasnost and perestroika were unheard of, and the Kremlin, under the dim and elderly Konstantin Chernenko, was obsessed by its belief that America and the Nato powers were planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike. If we did not buy Bitov's story, some other newspaper would. We therefore decided to go ahead, and it fell to me to make the most of whatever material we could get.

This proved no easy task. Several times I received packets or documents in furtive meetings with men from MI5 - generally at dusk on the steps of public buildings - but for security reasons I was not allowed to visit Bitov's flat, or even to know where it was. On the one occasion when we tried to meet on neutral ground in London, he panicked and ran out on the way to the rendezvous, claiming that he had been followed by a woman carrying a Bulgarian Airlines holdall. The only practical meeting place was my home in the Chilterns.

There he talked for countless hours into a tape recorder. He also brought with him articles, or bits of articles, which he had drafted in English. The trouble was that he turned out to be a thundering bore, with a high opinion of his own cleverness but little originality.

Almost worse, from our point of view, he was inhibited about criticising in print the system he had fled. In private he complained strenuously about its shortcomings, but he was acutely nervous about his own safety - supposing, with good reason, that the KGB might try to snatch him back - and about the welfare of his family in Moscow, particularly his daughter, Xenia, then 15. His answer to nerves was whisky, which, on bad days, be began drinking in tumblerfuls at 10am.

In spite of these difficulties we eventually hacked out three major articles about life in Russia: the pieces concentrated on censorship, referring repeatedly to George Orwell (the year being 1984), and Bitov was billed as 'the man from the Ministry of Truth'.

The series, which appeared during February 1984, made Bitov a name in the West and he began to receive commissions from other journals and publishers. Thereafter I saw less of him - but emigre friends reckoned that by the summer he had settled down well, buying himself the Toyota and driving around Britain on his own. He travelled to America as the guest of Reader's Digest and signed a contract for a book about his experiences with Hamish Hamilton in Britain and Morrow in the United States, becoming increasingly bombastic as his fame spread.

Then in August he began a series of six dental treatments to replace his unsightly false teeth - and it was after the first, when his old teeth had been removed and his gums were full of gaps, that he vanished.

On 15 August another Russian emigre, Anatoli Gladilin, drove over from Paris, partly to see Bitov, who offered to show him round London; but by the time Gladilin reached England his Peugeot was in a bad way and he needed pounds 300 for immediate repairs. Mutual friends suggested he telephone Bitov - who was constantly boasting about how much money he had earned - and ask for a loan. The 'great tycoon', as they derisively called him, said: 'Of course', and promised to bring the money round at 1pm the next day.

He never came. That Thursday, 16 August, he had a pub lunch with his MI5 minder, drove to Kensington - and was never seen again by any friend in Britain.

For years I wondered whether the KGB had somehow managed to snatch or lure him back - and it was only the other day, while talking to a former KGB officer who had been posted to London at the time, that I at last heard the truth.

After the pub lunch Bitov simply walked up to the gates of the Soviet Embassy at No 13 Kensington Palace Gardens and said: 'I'm Oleg Bitov. Let me in.' The duty guard, who had never heard of him, told him to push off. Bitov then threw his briefcase over the gate and into the drive. Roused into action, the guard called in the duty diplomat, who did recognise his visitor, and took him in.

The briefcase, he learnt, was full of cassette tapes which contained a marathon account of Bitov's dealings with the British security service.

Urgent cables to KGB headquarters in Moscow elicited instructions that Bitov was to be kept under wraps for the time being, so he was given a room in the basement until a temporary passport could be prepared. Then, hidden under a blanket in the back of a car, he was driven to Heathrow and put on a plane for Sofia, whence he returned to Moscow. The KGB considered this a great coup, and commended the London officers involved.

So much for the mechanics of Bitov's extraction. Yet the mystery remains of why his nerve cracked when it did - why he went toothless, leaving behind his hard-won possessions and more than pounds 40,000 in the bank. One possible factor was fear of failure: he was extremely idle, and may have realised that he would never finish the book he had signed up to write. Yet still, it seems, there must have been some other element - perhaps a seductive telephone call from Moscow promising an amnesty.

After the fiasco of the Moscow press conference - which was so mendacious that it drew a protest from the Foreign Office - Bitov relapsed into obscurity for a while, but then was again given some sort of job on the Literary Gazette.

His standing among former colleagues can be judged from the nickname they gave him: nash zaslanets, a pun which means both 'our emissary' and - but for one letter - 'our shitter'. Later he moved to a new weekly magazine funded by the KGB, Vek, or Century.

To his dying day he will claim that his whole experience in the West was 'a provocation' engineered against him by the secret service. He told so many lies that in the end he found it hard to distinguish truth from falsehood. Provocations ran rife in his imagination, especially when it was inflamed by whisky.

But he flattered himself: there was simply no point in any Western agency provoking him, as he was not worth a kopek. The truth is, he was a Slavic Walter Mitty who launched into an ambitious experiment that in the end proved too much for him.

(Photographs omitted)

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