At last, the truth emerges about Gordon Lonsdale's shadowy life

Helen Womack
Friday 14 August 1998 23:02

TROFIM MOLODIY, son of the Soviet spy Konon Molodiy who passed himself off in Britain as Gordon Lonsdale and stole submarine secrets in the 1950s, was sick and tired of reading "rubbish" by Russian authors about his father. "All they ever got right was his date of birth and his date of death," he said. So, with a ghostwriter, he has written the "true" story of the agent, portraying him as a human being rather than the wooden hero of Soviet propaganda and even suggesting the KGB might have killed him after he was released from Britain in a spy swap.

The manuscript, produced with Leonid Kolosov, a retired KGB agent who work under cover as an Izvestia correspondent, has been handed to a Russian publishing house, Top Secret, which plans to have it ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The book will be called Dead Season - End of a Legend, a title full of resonance for Russians. "Dead Season" was a James Bond-style film, loosely based on the life of Konon Molodiy, which was banned for a long time in the Soviet Union and therefore attracted great attention when it finally reached cinemas.

Trofim, 40, an ex-border guard officer who runs a security firm in Moscow, was 12 when his father died in 1970. So he asked "Uncle Lyonya" Kolosov, 71, to write the book with him, as he had studied with Konon in the 1940s and befriended the spy again after he returned from Britain in 1964.

Konon Molodiy, whose Ukrainian roots account for his name, was born in Moscow on 17 January 1922. His father died when he was a child and his mother sent him to live with an aunt in California. Genrikh Yagoda, then head of the Soviet secret police, helped the boy get a passport to go to America. "Evidently the KGB had their eyes on him when he was only 12 years old," said Trofim.

That Konon grew up speaking English enabled the KGB to use him later as an "illegal", not a spy with diplomatic cover but an agent with the riskier job of passing himself off as a native in the target country.

When the Soviet Union took part of Finland after the Second World War, it inherited public records there. In 1953 the KGB sent Konon to Canada on the passport of a dead man whose mother had been a Finn married to a Canadian, Arnold Lonsdale. Thus Konon became Gordon. From Canada he went on to the US, where he trained with the Soviet atom spy Rudolf Abel before entering Britain as Gordon Lonsdale, head of Lonsdale Ltd, a company that sold juke-boxes and chewing- gum machines to pubs.

To make his cover convincing, Lonsdale really did work in this trade as well as spying and thus became a rich man, with a fleet of cars, a yacht and a playboy lifestyle. But once a year he told friends he was going on holiday to the Canaries and flew instead to Prague or Warsaw for R and R with his Russian wife, Galina.

"She had absolutely no idea what he really did," said Trofim. "He told her he was a Soviet trade representative in China. He said the living conditions there were too poor for her to join him and so they could only meet like this. During one of those meetings in Eastern Europe, I was conceived."

Kolosov was equally in the dark about Konon's life, although they had drunk together and shared girlfriends when they had been students at Moscow's Institute of Foreign Trade. Kolosov had yet to join the KGB then but, unknown to him, Konon had already been recruited by Lubyanka bosses impressed by his anti-fascist fervour during the war.

The story that Konon had gone to China after college was plausible, because he had studied Chinese at the trade institute but one incident made Kolosov suspicious. "A mutual friend told me he had seen Konon at Orly airport in Paris. `Impossible,' I said, `Konon's in China.' But he said he had gone up to him and greeted him. At first Konon spoke English and pretended not to know him. But when he persisted, Konon took him on one side and whispered in Russian, `Fuck off.' I found this very puzzling."

Matters were clarified for Galina and Kolosov after Scotland Yard caught Lonsdale taking secrets from an agent on Waterloo Bridge and he was sentenced to 25 years' jail. Kolosov read about it in the Western press. Galina got a terrible shock. "KGB bosses came to our flat in Moscow and gave her a 12-piece tea service," said Trofim. "They told her not to worry. Her husband was a hero and they would get him out of prison as soon as they could."

This was how the Daily Express, then a serious broadsheet, reported the trial in its edition of 23 March 1961: "Stocky, 39-year-old Lonsdale, whose true identity may never be known, faced Lord Parker, the Lord Chief Justice, with a smile on his face, a flush on his cheeks and the fading words of his counsel in his ears: `At least it can be said of this man that he was not a traitor to his own country.' But at the tone of Lord Parker's voice, the smile vanished and he paled. A gasp broke the silence of the packed court at the sentence - the longest passed there in memory." Sentenced with him were Peter and Helen Kroger, East Europeans who got 20 years each, and Harry Haughton and Ethel "Bunty" Gee, British traitors sentenced to 15 years each for having helped Moscow lay its hands on the secrets of the Portland Underwater Weapons Establishment. Lonsdale's identity emerged when a Pole working for the West unmasked him. It was a tip- off from the same Pole that led to the arrest on Waterloo Bridge.

Lonsdale/Molodiy was taken to Winson Green Prison, Birmingham. By his own account, he was in entertaining company, for, although he was in a single cell, he fraternised with some of the Great Train Robbers. The authors of the book gleefully publish a snobbish letter from a certain Geoffrey N Draper to Lonsdale, cancelling his membership of the Royal Over-Seas League because of his changed circumstances.

But he did not remain long behind bars. In 1964 he was swapped in Berlin for Greville Wynne, a British businessman jailed in Moscow for his contacts with the Soviet traitor Oleg Penkovsky.

Thus Konon went back to the Soviet Union, where he ceased to be a man and became a myth. He was treated like a hero at first, being given a bigger flat for his family, according to Trofim. A special section of the KGB museum was devoted to Molodiy, who obviously could no longer be active but who got well-paid work as a consultant.

Konon contributed to the propaganda about his career. When he was in prison, a British publisher sought to buy his memoirs. The offer was discussed in Moscow and when the head of the KGB, Vladimir Semichastny, grasped that the money could buy "75 Volga limousines", he gave permission for the book to be written. But Konon had to accept KGB censorship. Other books came out, including one in which the KGB put words in Galina's mouth and even paid her for the honour, and all plugged the line that Konon was a hero.

The truth, say Kolosov and Trofim, is that he was angry. Like Kim Philby, who became depressed when he saw the reality of life in the Soviet Union for which he had betrayed Britain, Konon grew disillusioned with Communism, because he had the yardstick of his Western experience by which to measure it.

Also, he was bitter about the way the KGB had handled him. When the Pole blew the whistle on the Portland spy- ring, his controllers should have warned him not to go to Waterloo Bridge, he said. Finally, it maddened him that the KGB, thinking he may have been turned while in prison, did not trust him, and followed him and bugged him in Moscow, even though he was supposed to be a hero.

Six years after returning home, Konon collapsed while walking in the woods outside Moscow and died on 9 October 1970. His death came "prematurely, when he was at the height of his creative powers", said the short official biography that was the only document Kolosov, despite having been a KGB officer, could extract from KGB archives when researching Dead Season - End of a Legend. The book argues that it is possible the KGB murdered Konon to shut him up.

Kolosov especially is inclined to believe this. He says his friend was healthy when he came back from Britain.

But soon he began complaining that KGB doctors were calling him in and giving him injections for supposed high blood pressure. He told Kolosov he was getting headaches he never had before the injections but the doctors said he should expect to "feel worse before he felt better".

Shortly before he died, Konon also spoke of a palmist in Britain who had predicted he would "wear handcuffs, but not for long" and that when he returned to his "country of origin" he would be "in danger from seeming friends and unethical doctors".

Trofim is more sceptical. "There was a history of high blood pressure in our family and I can't really see why the KGB would wait six years to kill him when they could have done it as soon as he returned from Britain. On the other hand, I do not exclude the possibility."

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