Oleg Gordievsky

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Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky in 2007.jpg
Gordievsky in 2007
Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky

(1938-10-10) 10 October 1938 (age 82)
  • British
  • Russian
OccupationSpy (retired)
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Espionage activity
AllegianceSoviet Union Flag of the Soviet Union.svg (British secret agent since 1974)
United Kingdom Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Service branchKGB
RankColonel of the KGB

Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky, CMG (Оле́г Анто́нович Гордие́вский; born 10 October 1938) is a former colonel of the KGB and KGB resident-designate (rezident) and bureau chief in London, who was a double agent, providing information to the British Secret Intelligence Service from 1974 to 1985.[2] He was exfiltrated from the USSR in July 1985 under a plan code named Operation Pimlico. The USSR subsequently sentenced him to death in absentia.[3]


The son of an NKVD officer, he was born in 1938.[4] He proved an excellent student at school, where he learned to speak German. He studied at a premium Moscow University (MGIMO), and later undertook NKVD training, where in addition to espionage skills, he mastered his expertise in German, and he also learned to speak Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. On completion of his studies, he joined the foreign service where he was posted to East Berlin in August 1961, just before the completion of the Berlin Wall.[4] The building of the wall appalled him, and he became disillusioned with the Soviet system.[5] After spending a year in Berlin, he returned to Moscow.[4] He joined the KGB in 1963 and was posted to the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen in 1966. It was there that he agreed to pass secrets to the SIS, in 1974, a step he viewed as "nothing less than undermining the Soviet system".[6]

During May 1985 he was the KGB station chief in London, after a few years back in Moscow. He continued to send secret documents to MI6 as had for the previous 11 years. During those years, his code names at MI6 were SUNBEAM and NOCTON, while the CIA referred to him as TICKLE.[7] When Gordievsky was suddenly recalled to Moscow, the Secret Service encouraged him to go, but began to plan a method for extricating him at a later date. He was betrayed in mid June of that year, possibly by Aldrich Ames, but was not criminally charged in Moscow; instead he was to be placed in a non-sensitive area of the KGB.[8] According to the journalist Ben Macintyre, it was clear that he was under serious suspicion of being a double agent but managed to send a plea to London to be rescued.[9]

British secret agent[edit]

During his Danish posting, Gordievsky became disenchanted with his work in the KGB, particularly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.[4] That had been noticed by the Danish Security Intelligence Service, which resulted in extensive efforts to see if Gordievsky could be recruited. Convinced an approach could be made, the DSIS contacted MI6. Because of their relatively small size, the DSIS felt that they needed a partner among the big intelligence agencies to make the operation successful.[10] MI6, via DSIS, subsequently made contact with Gordievsky.

The value of MI6's recruitment of such a highly placed and valuable intelligence asset increased dramatically when, in 1982, Gordievsky was assigned to the Soviet embassy in London as the KGB resident-designate ("rezident"), responsible for Soviet intelligence gathering and espionage in the UK.

Two of Gordievsky's most important contributions were averting a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, when NATO exercise Able Archer 83 was misinterpreted by the Soviets as a potential first strike,[11] and identifying Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet heir-apparent long before he came to prominence. Indeed, the information passed by Gordievsky became the first proof of how worried the Soviet leadership had become about the possibility of a NATO nuclear first strike.[12]

Escape from the USSR[edit]

Gordievsky was suddenly ordered back to Moscow in mid May 1985. Although Gordievsky was advised to defect and stay in London, on 22 May 1985 he left for Moscow. On arrival, he was taken to a KGB safe house outside Moscow, drugged, and interrogated.[13] Gordievsky was questioned for about five hours. After that, he was released and told that he would never work abroad again. He was suspected of espionage for a foreign power, but for some reason, his superiors decided to stall. In June 1985, he was joined by his wife and two children in Moscow.[13]

Although MI6 had passed on information provided by Gordievsky to the American CIA, the British would not reveal their source, so the CIA conducted a covert operation to discover who the source was. After about a year, they realised that it must be Gordievsky. There was great suspicion that a high-ranking American CIA officer, Aldrich Ames, who had been selling secrets to the KGB, reported Gordievsky's treachery to Soviet counterintelligence. A 1994 report by the Washington Post, however, stated that "After six weeks of questioning Ames ... the FBI and CIA remain baffled about whether Ames or someone else first warned the Soviets about Gordievsky". An FBI report later stated that Ames had not advised the Soviets about Gordievsky until 13 June 1985; by that time, the spy was under KGB surveillance but he was not charged with treason as of 19 July 1985 when MI6 agents began the process of his escape.[14]

Although he almost certainly remained under KGB surveillance, Gordievsky managed to send a covert signal to MI6, which activated an elaborate escape plan that had been in place for many years for just such an emergency.[13] Gordievsky waited on a particular street corner, on a particular weekday at 7.30 pm, carrying a Safeway bag as a signal. An MI6 agent walked past carrying a Harrods bag, eating a Mars bar, and the two made eye contact. That indicated that the escape plan was in place.

On 19 July 1985, Gordievsky went for his usual jog, but he instead managed to evade his KGB tails and boarded a train to Vyborg, near the Finnish border, where he was met by British embassy cars, after they managed to lose the three KGB surveillance cars. Lying down in the boot of a Ford Sierra saloon, he was smuggled across the border into Finland, and then flown to the UK via Norway.[citation needed] Soviet authorities subsequently sentenced Gordievsky to death in absentia for treason,[15] a sentence never rescinded by post-Soviet Russian authorities, but which cannot be legally carried out because of Russian membership in the Council of Europe. His wife, Leila (an Azeri) was a KGB officer who was loyal to Moscow and who was unaware of her husband's defection. She and their children were on holiday in the Azerbaijan SSR at the time of his escape. She was interrogated and detained for some 6 years, the Soviets presuming (wrongly) that she had been complicit in Gordievsky's activities. However, the marriage was effectively dead by then and eventually it foundered completely. It was reported in 2013 that, since a date in the 1990s, Gordievsky had had a long-term relationship with a British woman.[16]

Gordievsky's exfiltration greatly embarrassed both the KGB and the Soviet Union and resulted in disruptions by Viktor Babunov, the KGB's chief of counterintelligence, within the KGB including Sergei Ivanov's career with the KGB, who was KGB resident in Finland, as well as numerous members of the Leningrad KGB, which was responsible for surveillance of British subjects, and numerous persons close to Vladimir Putin, who was a member of the Leningrad KGB.[17]

Gordievsky included a discussion of his exfiltration in his memoir, Next Stop Execution, published in 1995.[18]

Life in the UK[edit]

Gordievsky (right) with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987

Gordievsky has written a number of books on the subject of the KGB and is a frequently quoted media pundit on the subject.

Gordievsky noted that the KGB were puzzled by and denied the claim that Director General of MI5 Roger Hollis was a Soviet agent. In the 2009 ITV programme Inside MI5: The Real Spooks, Gordievsky recounted how he saw the head of the British section of the KGB express surprise at the allegations that he read in a British newspaper about Roger Hollis being a KGB agent: "Why is it they are speaking about Roger Hollis, such nonsense, can't understand it, it must be some special British trick directed against us". The allegiance of Hollis remains a debated historical issue; the MI5 official website has cited Gordievsky's revelation as a vindication of Hollis. [19]

In 1990, he was consultant editor of the journal Intelligence and National Security, and he worked on television in the UK in the 1990s, including the game show Wanted.[20] In 1995, the former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot received an out of court settlement (said to be "substantial") from The Sunday Times after the newspaper alleged, in articles derived from claims in the original manuscript of Gordievsky's book Next Stop Execution (1995), that Foot was a KGB "agent of influence" with the codename 'Boot'.[21]

In the Daily Telegraph in 2010, Charles Moore gave a "full account", which he claimed had been provided to him by Gordievsky shortly after Foot's death, of the extent of Foot's alleged KGB involvement. Moore also wrote that, although the claims are difficult to corroborate without MI6 and KGB files, Gordievsky's past record in revealing KGB contacts in Britain had been shown to be reliable.[22]

On 26 February 2005, he was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Buckingham in recognition of his outstanding service to the security and the safety of the United Kingdom.[23]

Gordievsky was featured in the PBS documentary Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy.

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" in the 2007 Queen's Birthday Honours (in the Diplomatic List).[24] The Guardian newspaper noted that it was "the same gong given his fictional cold war colleague James Bond."[25]

Work in recent years included being a consultant editor for the journal of National Security, co-hosting a TV show titled Wanted in the Nineties and writing content for Literary Review.[26]

Gordievsky lived for years in a "safe house" in London, and security has been tightened since the Salisbury poisonings. Putin is said to especially dislike Gordievsky because Putin was at the time part of the KGB group that failed to foil Gordievsky's escape to Finland; but Macintyre considers that Putin is unlikely to authorise any assassination attempt on Gordievsky.[27] A September 2018 article indicated that by that time he was living in an undisclosed location in the Home counties of England.[28]

Suspected poisoning[edit]

In April 2008, the media reported that on 2 November 2007, Gordievsky had been taken by ambulance from his home in Surrey to a local hospital, where he spent 34 hours unconscious.[29] Gordievsky claimed that he was poisoned with thallium by "rogue elements in Moscow".[29] He accused MI6 of forcing Special Branch to drop its early investigations into his allegations;[29] according to him, the investigation was only reopened thanks to the intervention of former MI5 Director General Eliza Manningham-Buller.[30]

In Gordievsky's opinion, the culprit was a UK-based Russian business associate who had supplied him with pills, which he said were the sedative Xanax, purportedly for insomnia; he refused to identify the associate, saying British authorities had advised against it.[31]

In the popular media[edit]

In March 2020, Oleg Gordievsky's story was recounted in an episode of Spy Wars With Damian Lewis, on the Smithsonian Channel in the US, streaming on various cable services. The episode, The Man Who Saved The World, recounts the "years-long effort by Gordievsky to pass Soviet intelligence to the British, all but preventing a nuclear Armageddon between the Soviet Union and the West". [32]


  • Gordievsky, Oleg; Andrew, Christopher (1990). KGB: The Inside Story. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-48561-2.
  • Gordievsky, Oleg; Andrew, Christopher (1990). The KGB. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016605-3.
  • Gordievsky, Oleg; Andrew, Christopher (1991). Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975–85. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-56650-7.
  • Gordievsky, Oleg; Andrew, Christopher (1992). More Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975–85. Frank Cass Publishers. ISBN 0-7146-3475-1.
  • Gordievsky, Oleg (1995). Next Stop Execution (autobiography). Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-62086-0.
  • Jakob Andersen med Oleg Gordievsky: "De Røde Spioner – KGB's operationer i Danmark fra Stalin til Jeltsin, fra Stauning til Nyrup", Høst & Søn, Copenhagen (2002).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Heroes and Villains". MI6: A Century in the Shadows. Episode 2. 3 August 2009. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. ^ Ben Macintyre, (2018)
  3. ^ "The Spy and the Traitor review – a gripping tale of escape from the USSR". The Guardian. 7 October 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d Carlisle, Rodney (26 March 2015). Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Routledge. pp. 273–274. ISBN 978-1-317-47177-6.
  5. ^ "The Spy and the Traitor" - 2018 - Ben MacIntyre
  6. ^ "In 'The Spy and the Traitor,' a tale of Cold War espionage that's both thrilling and true". Washington Post. 17 September 2018. Retrieved 31 December 2020. He grew to hate what the Soviet Union had become, and when the KGB posted him to Copenhagen in 1966, he began to move month by month toward the alternative pole of freedom.
  7. ^ "In 'The Spy and the Traitor,' a tale of Cold War espionage that's both thrilling and true". Washington Post. 17 September 2018. Retrieved 31 December 2020.
  8. ^ "Thirty Years Later, We Still Don't Truly Know Who Betrayed These Spies". Smithsonian. 1 November 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2020.
  9. ^ "Review: "The Spy and the Traitor"". EMissourian. 9 July 2020. Retrieved 30 December 2020.
  10. ^ "Historien om Politiets Efterretningstjeneste (2:3)" (in Danish). DR TV.
  11. ^ Jones, Nate. "The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook". The National Security Archive.
  12. ^ Gordon Corera. "How vital were Cold War spies? BBC News, 5 August 2009. (Retrieved 5 August 2009)
  13. ^ a b c Wise, David (November 2015). "Thirty years later, we still don't know who betrayed these Cold War spies"]". Smithsonian. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  14. ^ "KGB MAN TURNED BRITISH SPY CAN'T PINPOINT HIS BETRAYER". Washington Post. 16 June 1994. Retrieved 31 December 2020.
  15. ^ "Buckingham honours Oleg Gordievsky". Archived from the original on 25 September 2006. Retrieved 22 February 2006.
  16. ^ Harding, Luke (11 March 2013). "Gordievsky: Russia has as many spies in Britain now as the USSR ever did". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  17. ^ MacIntyre 2018, p. 103, 213, 317, 329.
  18. ^ "The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre review – the astonishing story of a cold war superspy". The Guardian. 19 September 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2020. The double life of a KGB insider recruited by MI6 features microfilm, Soviet secrets and a daring escape
  19. ^ "Inside MI5: The Real Spooks (ITV 2009)".
  20. ^ Urban, Mark (1996). UK Eyes Alpha: The Inside Story of British Intelligence. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-19068-5.
  21. ^ Rhys Williams "'Sunday Times' pays Foot damages over KGB claim", The Independent, 8 July 1995
  22. ^ Charles Moore: "Was Foot a national treasure or the KGB’s useful idiot?" The Daily Telegraph, 5 March 2010
  23. ^ Buckingham Honours Oleg Gordievsky Archived 25 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine, University of Buckingham, 28 February 2005
  24. ^ "No. 58358". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 June 2007. p. 3.
  25. ^ Esther Addley (16 June 2007). "Literary world applauds Rushdie knighthood". The Guardian. London.
  26. ^ "How Britain's best Cold War spy was smuggled out of the Soviet Union". Express Digest. 1 March 2020. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  27. ^ Ben Macintyre (2018). The Spy and the Traitor; The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.
  28. ^ "The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre review – the astonishing story of a cold war superspy". The Guardian. 19 September 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2020. The double life of a KGB insider recruited by MI6 features microfilm, Soviet secrets and a daring escape
  29. ^ a b c Gray, Sadie (6 April 2010). "Double agent Gordievsky claims he was poisoned by the Kremlin". The Independent. London. Retrieved 18 December 2010.
  30. ^ "'Russian spy poisoned me' says former double agent Gordievsky". News.scotsman.com. 6 April 2008. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  31. ^ Lawless, Jill. Ex-Russian Spy Claims He Was Poisoned, Associated Press, 7 April 2008.
  32. ^ "SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL ENTERS THE WORLD OF GLOBAL ESPIONAGE IN SPY WARS WITH DAMIAN LEWIS". Damian Lewis. 12 February 2020. Retrieved 30 December 2020.

External links[edit]

Media related to Oleg Gordievsky at Wikimedia Commons