Happy birthday, Oleg

Oleg Gordievsky was born on October 10th, 1938. He was almost certainly the most important spy of the Cold War, as a high-ranking KGB officer and head of their station in London, while secretly working for British Intelligence from 1974 to 1985.

He was a conviction spy, and his initial refusal to accept money when he was recruited alarmed the British, since this was a major way they controlled agents. Initially stationed in Berlin just before the wall was built, he became disillusioned with the Soviet system when the wall was put up to keep the population imprisoned. The last straw for him was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to extinguish its programme of liberalization.

Posted to Denmark, he began behaviour that indicted to Danish Intelligence that he might be recruited. MI6 were called in, and the overtures began. He was able to feed MI6 with detailed knowledge of Soviet spying activities in Western countries. Even more significantly, as he rose in rank and position, he had access to the thinking of the Soviet leadership via the briefings they sent out to foreign KGB stations. When he became head of the KGB station in the Soviet Embassy in London, he was able to pass on to MI6 full details of the Kremlin’s thinking.

He helped avert a nuclear war in 1983 when the stream of messages from Moscow indicated that they thought a planned NATO exercise was cover for a planned first strike against the USSR. As the Warsaw Pact prepared a military response to it, an alarmed Gordievsky hastily alerted MI6, who passed on his warning to America. The exercise was drastically scaled back, reassuring the Soviets that their presumption had been mistaken.

Gordievsky also alerted the West that Mikhail Gorbachev, then a figure little known outside the USSR, was being groomed as a future Soviet leader. He was of extraordinary use in the run-up to the Reykjavik Summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, at one stage briefing both sides. He advised Reagan not to concede on the Strategic Defence Initiative, saying that the Soviets could not compete militarily or financially. The summit ended without agreement because scrapping the SDI was the top item on Gorbachev’s agenda. The Soviet system subsequently collapsed, as Gordievsky had predicted.

His identity was betrayed by the high-ranking CIA officer, Aldrich Ames, who sold secrets to the KGB to fund a lavish lifestyle. Recalled to Moscow, drugged and interrogated, he was then rescued, or ‘exfiltrated,’ by a daring MI6 operation that smuggled him out through Finland in the boot of a car. The account in Ben Macintyre’s “The Spy and the Traitor” is as thrilling as any spy fiction story.

In 2007 Gordievsky was appointed Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for "services to the security of the United Kingdom," the same honour the fictional James Bond received. The security at his safe house “somewhere in London” has been stepped up after the Skripal poisoning, and there is no doubt that ex-KGB President Putin regards him as one of the worst enemies his country has ever had.

In the West, however, we owe him a debt of gratitude for the way he opposed, and helped to bring down, the poisonous ideology that was inflicted on so large a part of humanity for so many decades. He did so at great risks to his own safety because it was a cause he believed in passionately. On this day we offer our thanks and say “Happy 81st birthday, Oleg.”