KGB's fight to counter the cunning chaps in smart suits

In the latest of our series, a former spymaster tells Helen Womack that old espionage habits die hard

Helen Womack
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:34

Moscow - During the Cold War, agents at the KGB school at Balashikha, outside Moscow, were taught that the CIA was the glavny protivnik, or main enemy. But they were told to pay special attention to the British, for they had a reputation as the most subtle spies.

Even today Russians love to hate the pinstripe-suited, two-faced Briton as much if not more than the loud American. During last year's presidential election, the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky told Russians to be on the alert for foreign spies of all nationalities but in particular to be cautious of the perfidious British.

"The Russian stereotype of the British is that they are cunning and hypocritical," said Mikhail Lyubimov, head of the British section at KGB headquarters after being expelled from London in 1965. The KGB's wariness of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, was based on more than prejudice. SIS, founded in 1909, was older than Soviet intelligence or the CIA and therefore perceived to have the advantage of experience. Also, Britain had a long history of rivalry with Russia.

"Britain was afraid of tsarist Russian influence in India and Afghanistan. We saw you as being not only anti-Soviet but Russophobic well before the Bolshevik Revolution," Col Lyubimov said over a cup of tea in his Moscow flat. In 1917 Britain was still the glavny protivnik, as the CIA had not been formed. "Britain did all in its power to help those who opposed the Bolsheviks," said Col Lyubimov, now a writer. But by the 1930s Soviet intelligence was starting to turn the tables. "There was a strong anti- fascist mood across Europe and people wanted to help us fight Hitler," said Col Lyubimov. This was when the "Magnificent Five", as the Russians call Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt, were recruited. But they were just the tip of the iceberg. "I can't name names but there were many more," he said. How many? "We're talking in the tens."

During the Second World War the Allies were supposed to stop spying on each other and pool their efforts. But Stalin, who had made a secret pact with Germany in 1939, suspected the British were not sincere. This was partly because Kim Philby was giving Moscow full reports of what the British knew as a result of having cracked the Germans' Enigma code, which enabled Stalin to see Churchill was not sharing all his information with him.

In an atmosphere of mistrust, war turned into cold war, the main source of friction after 1945 being the future of East Europe. Col Lyubimov said the Russians were impressed by the British performance in the struggle for influence over this region. But they were fighting a losing battle and many SIS agents were caught, in part thanks to Philby. For example, 16 Polish generals accused of spying for Britain on Soviet territory were executed, and a British spy called Felix Rumnies was arrested in Latvia.

"As you British say, 'It is not the winning that counts but playing the game'," chuckled the colonel.

With the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, SIS entered a long period of crisis as it searched for the Third Man, Philby, who fled to Moscow in 1963. Before that, he had been MI6's representative at Langley, Virginia, which meant the British lost much credibility with the increasingly powerful CIA. Moscow now paid more attention to the activities of the Americans.

Col Lyubimov thinks the traitor who did most damage to the Soviet Union was the military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky, who passed secrets to the British businessman Greville Wynne. Thanks to Penkovsky, the West realised Khrushchev was bluffing during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Penkovsky was executed; Wynne, who was sentenced to eight years in prison, was later swapped for the Soviet spy, Gordon Lonsdale.

Recruiting agents on Soviet soil was difficult for the British, said Col Lyubimov. "KGB surveillance was extremely strong." Back-up staff at embassies were all from the Russian service to diplomats, which automatically reported to the KGB. Rooms and telephones were bugged. Unless they are mistaken, the Russians believe they intercepted all their citizens who approached or were approached by the British in Moscow.

Which is why SIS preferred to recruit Russians in London or third countries. Their most famous catch of recent years was the former London KGB resident Oleg Gordievsky, who began betraying his country in the 1970s, when he worked at the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen.

Found out in 1985, he made a dramatic escape to Britain from Moscow hidden, it is widely believed, in a diplomatic removal van.

The SIS also recruited Ivan Kuzichkin in Iran and Viktor Suvorov in Geneva. Mr Kuzichkin provided information on Moscow's relations with the illegal Iranian Communist Party, while Mr Suvorov revealed military secrets, including details of the operations of the Spetsnatz special forces.

The Cold War is over but last year a tit-for-tat expulsion incident between Moscow and London caused a brief icy blast from the past. Four Russian diplomats were ordered out of Britain after the same number of British diplomats were expelled from Moscow for having contacts with a young Russian called Platon Obukhov. Mr Obukhov, now awaiting trial for treason, claims that he was gathering material for the latest of the popular spy novels which he writes.

Some observers suggested President Boris Yeltsin needed a dispute with Britain, normally now seen as a friendly country, to look tough before the presidential elections.

But Col Lyubimov dismissed this theory, saying there was never smoke without fire; he was sure the British diplomats had been up to something.

"They failed and I can only sympathise with them," said the KGB veteran who, in 1965, was set up by two men "smelling of fish" in a London pub and declared persona non grata in the country he regards as his second home.

Col Lyubimov said the Obukhov case had contributed to a new Russian suspicion about the British in the era after the Cold War. "Now again, after the euphoria of the post-Communist period, when we thought we could co-operate, mistrust has returned. I personally don't see a threat but our secret services still think in terms of perfidious Albion. It will take centuries for the cliche to die."

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