Oleg Gordievsky: The message was clear; the listeners just didn’t get it (part 1)

October 8, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

In 1985 Oleg Gordievsky, a colonel in the KGB, was less than 24 hours from launching into a plan that would spirit him out of the Soviet Union and into asylum in the West.

For years, Gordievsky had been Western intelligence service’s chief asset within the Soviet hierarchy. Within that hierarchy, he had a reputation as a brilliant operative. His lineage was impeccable. His father had also worked inside the KGB. But Gordievsky had.seen the flaws in both the political and cultural system that he served, and he had decided to work against it from the inside.

He had just returned to Moscow from London, where he had headed the Soviet intelligence network. Being called back to Moscow like that could mean great honors, or it could be a death sentence. Almost as soon as he landed, Gordievsky knew that he was under surveillance and that it was time to get out. He contact the British intelligence service, which had promised to exfiltrate him when he gave the word. Now was the time.

It took a while for the British to put together a plan, but they did so, and a date in July was set.

The day before he left, he spent a good bit of time with his younger sister Marina. Then he went to visit his 78-year-old mother, Olga. He said nothing about his plans, of course, but he knew that it would probably be the last time he would see or speak to them. When he returned home, he called several friends and made plans to get together with them in the next few days. Those plans would not come to pass, but he wanted to leave the impression with those who were bugging his phone that he believed there was nothing amiss.

One of those calls was to his friend Mikhail Lyubimov, a man he had known for year and someone who enjoyed English literature, especially Somerset Maugham. He knew that Lyubimov had a complete set of Maugham’s works, and during the conversation, Gordievsky causally brought up the author. He asked his friend if he had read Maugham’s short story, “Mr. Harrington’s Washing.”

The story is about a British spy who escapes Russia through Finland — the route Gordievsky was set to take.

“You should read it again,” he told his friend. “It’s very good.”

Gordievsky was betting that those listening in would not get the reference and wouldn’t bother looking the story up. It was a challenge to those who were watching him. It was his saying, “You’re not as smart as you think you are.”

Only much later, after Gordievsky had left the Soviet Union, did the KGB discover that they had missed the clue that could have alerted them to what was about to happen.


This story is one of many intriguing tales contained in the book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre, the best true-espionage writer of our age.

Next week: An account of how Gordievsky got to Finland — with the help of a dirty diaper.

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