Oleg Gordievsky (right) with US President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Photo: Mary Anne Fackelman – Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Oleg Gordievsky was a former colonel of the KGB who became a double agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, from 1974 to 1985. He was born in Moscow in 1938, the son of an NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) officer. He studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and joined the KGB in 1963.
The KGB was the main security and intelligence agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1991. It was a successor of several previous agencies, such as the Cheka, NKVD and MGB. The KGB had many functions, including foreign espionage, counterintelligence, internal security, border protection and surveillance of the population. The KGB was headquartered at Lubyanka Square in Moscow and was notorious for its repression and brutality against dissidents and enemies of the state. The KGB was dissolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was replaced by different agencies in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Gordievsky was posted to East Berlin by the KGB in 1961 and then to Copenhagen in 1966. He became disillusioned with the Soviet system after witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.
He began to signal his willingness to cooperate with MI6, who recruited him in 1974 and gave him the codename SUNBEAM. He was considered one of their most important assets. He returned to Moscow in 1978, where he remained until 1982, when he was posted to London as the KGB resident-designate and bureau chief. He provided valuable information to MI6 and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), such as Soviet military plans, political assessments, and the identities of several KGB agents operating in the West. His information helped to avoid a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union and hastened the collapse of the communist system.
Gordievsky is credited with helping to prevent a nuclear during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, which the Soviets feared was a cover for a NATO attack. Gordievsky, revealed the Soviet alarm and helped to defuse the crisis. Able Archer 83 is considered by some to be one of the closest moments to a nuclear war in history since the Cuban Missile Crisis, although some scholars dispute this.
When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited London in 1984 for a meeting with the Prime Minister that would accelerate the end of the Cold War. Gordievsky was advising both sides. He was telling Thatcher how to approach Gorbachev and he was telling Gorbachev how to respond to Thatcher.
Gordievsky was recalled to Moscow in 1985 under suspicion of being a double agent and was interrogated by the KGB. Gordievsky’s betrayal was never fully explained. He suspected that he was exposed by a mole within the CIA or MI6, but no conclusive evidence has been found. Some sources suggest that he was compromised by traitor Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence officer who was a KGB mole. Ames had been spying for the Soviet Union and Russia since 1985. He was arrested by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1994 and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He was responsible for compromising more than 100 CIA operations and revealing the identities of at least 10 CIA sources, some of whom were executed by the Soviets. He received more than $4 million USD from the KGB for his espionage activities.
Gordievsky managed to escape from the Soviet Union with the help of MI6 in a daring operation code-named Pimlico. He followed a secret escape plan that was hidden in invisible ink in a book of Shakespeare sonnets. He evaded his KGB surveillance and met two British diplomatic cars at a remote spot near the Finnish border. He hid in the trunk of one of the cars and crossed into Finland undetected by the Soviet guards. He then flew to Norway and from there to Britain.
His wife, Leila, and their two daughters, were forced to live under effective house arrest in Moscow. The family were finally allowed to be reunited in Britain on 6 September 1991, three months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They split up in 1993, because the pressure was too much for them.
Gordievsky was granted British citizenship and became a writer and a political commentator. He was sentenced to death in absentia by the Soviet Union, but he survived several assassination attempts. According to Gordievsky, he was poisoned by Russian agents at his home in Surrey in November 2007. He fell unconscious for 34 hours and was taken to a private clinic where he spent two weeks recovering. He still has no feeling in his fingers. He claimed that he was on an assassination list drawn up by rogue elements in Moscow, along with other dissidents and critics of the Kremlin. He also said that he had been targeted by a hitman who tried to shoot him outside his home in 1994 but missed because of a faulty silencer. He believes that he is still under threat from Russian spies who want to silence him.
According to his own account, Gordievsky exposed a plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev by sending a secret message to the Soviet leader in 1991. He warned Gorbachev that hardline communists were planning a coup against him and urged him to take precautions.
As a writer, Gordievsky published several books about his life and career as a spy, as well as about the history and operations of the KGB and GRU. Some of his books are:
- Next Stop Execution: The Autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky (1995), where he recounts his personal and professional journey from a loyal Soviet officer to a disillusioned defector.
- KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (1990), co-authored with Christopher Andrew, where he reveals the secrets of the Soviet intelligence service and its role in world affairs.
- Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975-1985 (1991), co-authored with Christopher Andrew, where he exposes the documents and directives of the KGB during the final decade of the Cold War.
- Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985 (1993), co-authored with Christopher Andrew, where he presents more evidence of the KGB’s activities and objectives around the world.
He lives in safe house under a different name in a town near London. He is considered one of the most important spies of the Cold War. For his service, he was appointed Companion Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) by the Queen on 18th October 2007.
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