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Oleg Gordievsky was born into the KGB: shaped by it, loved by it, twisted, damaged, and very nearly destroyed by it. The Soviet spy service was in his heart and in his blood. His father worked for the intelligence service all his life, and wore his KGB uniform every day, including weekends. The Gordievskys lived amid the spy fraternity in a designated apartment block, ate special food reserved for officers, and spent their free time socializing with other spy families. Gordievsky was a child of the KGB.
The KGB—the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or committee of state security—was the most complex and far-reaching intelligence agency ever created. The direct successor of Stalin’s spy network, it combined the roles of foreign- and domestic-intelligence gathering, internal security enforcement, and state police. Oppressive, mysterious, and ubiquitous, the KGB penetrated and controlled every aspect of Soviet life. It rooted out internal dissent, guarded the Communist leadership, mounted espionage and counterintelligence operations against enemy powers, and cowed the peoples of the USSR into abject obedience. It recruited agents and planted spies worldwide, gathering, buying, and stealing military, political, and scientific secrets from anywhere and everywhere. At the height of its power, with more than one million officers, agents, and informants, the KGB shaped Soviet society more profoundly than any other institution.
To the West, the initials were a byword for internal terror and external aggression and subversion, shorthand for all the cruelty of a totalitarian regime run by a faceless official mafia. But the KGB was not regarded that way by those who lived under its stern rule. Certainly it inspired fear and obedience, but the KGB was also admired as a Praetorian guard, a bulwark against Western imperialist and capitalist aggression, and the guardian of Communism. Membership in this elite and privileged force was a source of admiration and pride. Those who joined the service did so for life. “There is no such thing as a former KGB man,” the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin once said. This was an exclusive club to join—and an impossible one to leave. Entering the ranks of the KGB was an honor and a duty to those with sufficient talent and ambition to do so.
Oleg Gordievsky never seriously contemplated doing anything else.
His father, Anton Lavrentyevich Gordievsky, the son of a railway worker, had been a teacher before the revolution of 1917 transformed him into a dedicated, unquestioning Communist, a rigid enforcer of ideological orthodoxy. “The Party was God,” his son later wrote, and the older Gordievsky never wavered in his devotion, even when his faith demanded that he take part in unspeakable crimes. In 1932, he helped enforce the “Sovietization” of Kazakhstan, organizing the expropriation of food from peasants to feed the Soviet armies and cities. Around 1.5 million people perished in the resulting famine. Anton saw state-induced starvation at close quarters. That year, he joined the office of state security, and then the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Stalin’s secret police and the precursor of the KGB. An officer in the political directorate, he was responsible for political discipline and indoctrination. Anton married Olga Nikolayevna Gornova, a twenty-four-year-old statistician, and the couple moved into a Moscow apartment block reserved for the intelligence elite. A first child, Vasili, was born in 1932. The Gordievskys thrived under Stalin.
When Comrade Stalin announced that the revolution was facing a lethal threat from within, Anton Gordievsky stood ready to help remove the traitors. The Great Purge of 1936 to 1938 saw the wholesale liquidation of “enemies of the state”: suspected fifth columnists and hidden Trotskyists, terrorists and saboteurs, counterrevolutionary spies, Party and government officials, peasants, Jews, teachers, generals, members of the intelligentsia, Poles, Red Army soldiers, and many more. Most were entirely innocent. In Stalin’s paranoid police state, the safest way to ensure survival was to denounce someone else. “Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away,” said Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the NKVD. “When you chop wood, chips fly.” The informers whispered, the torturers and executioners set to work, and the Siberian gulags swelled to bursting. But as in every revolution, the enforcers themselves inevitably became suspect. The NKVD began to investigate and purge itself. At the height of the bloodletting, the Gordievskys” apartment block was raided more than a dozen times in a six-month period. The arrests came at night: the man of the family was led away first, and then the rest.
It seems probable that some of these enemies of the state were identified by Anton Gordievsky. “The NKVD is always right,” he said: a conclusion both wholly sensible, and entirely wrong.
A second son, Oleg Antonyevich Gordievsky, was born on October 10, 1938, just as the Great Terror was winding down and war was looming. To friends and neighbors, the Gordievskys appeared to be ideal Soviet citizens, ideologically pure, loyal to Party and state, and now the parents to two strapping boys. A daughter, Marina, was born seven years after Oleg. The Gordievskys were well fed, privileged, and secure.
But on closer examination there were fissures in the family façade, and layers of deception beneath the surface. Anton Gordievsky never spoke about what he had done during the famines, the purges, and the terror. The older Gordievsky was a prime example of the species Homo Sovieticus, an obedient state servant forged by Communist repression. But underneath he was fearful, horrified, and perhaps gnawed by guilt. Oleg later came to see his father as “a frightened man.”
Olga Gordievsky, Oleg’s mother, was made of less tractable material. She never joined the Party, and she did not believe that the NKVD was infallible. Her father had been dispossessed of his watermill by the Communists; her brother sent to the eastern Siberian gulag for criticizing collective agriculture; she had seen many friends dragged from their homes and marched away in the night. With a peasant’s ingrained common sense, she understood the caprice and vindictiveness of state terror, but kept her mouth shut.
Oleg and Vasili, separated in age by six years, grew up in wartime. One of Gordievsky’s earliest memories was of watching lines of bedraggled German prisoners being paraded through the streets of Moscow, “trapped, guarded, and led like animals.” Anton was frequently absent for long periods, lecturing the troops on Party ideology.
Oleg Gordievsky dutifully learned the tenets of Communist orthodoxy: he attended School 130, where he showed an early aptitude for history and languages; he learned about the heroes of Communism, at home and abroad. Despite the thick veil of disinformation surrounding the West, foreign countries fascinated him. At the age of six, he began reading British Ally, a propaganda sheet put out in Russian by the British embassy to encourage Anglo-Russian understanding. He studied German. As expected of all teenagers, he joined Komsomol, the Communist Youth League.
His father brought home three official newspapers and spouted the Communist propaganda they contained. The NKVD morphed into the KGB, and Anton Gordievsky obediently followed. Oleg’s mother exuded a quiet resistance that only occasionally revealed itself in waspish, half-whispered asides. Religious worship was illegal under Communism, and the boys were raised as atheists, but their maternal grandmother had Vasili secretly baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, and would have christened Oleg too had their horrified father not found out and intervened.
Oleg Gordievsky grew up in a tight-knit, loving family suffused with duplicity. Anton Gordievsky venerated the Party and proclaimed himself a fearless upholder of communism, but inside was a small and terrified man who had witnessed terrible events. Olga Gordievsky, the ideal KGB wife, nursed a secret disdain for the system. Oleg’s grandmother secretly worshipped an illegal, outlawed God. None of the adults in the family revealed what they really felt—to one another, or anyone else. Amid the stifling conformity of Stalin’s Russia, it was possible to believe differently in secret but far too dangerous for honesty, even with members of your own family. From boyhood, Oleg saw that it was possible to live a double life, to love those around you while concealing your true inner self, to appear to be one person to the external world and quite another inside.
Oleg Gordievsky emerged from school with a silver medal, head of the Komsomol, a competent, intelligent, athletic, unquestioning, and unremarkable product of the Soviet system. But he had also learned to compartmentalize. In different ways, his father, mother, and grandmother were all people in disguise. The young Gordievsky grew up around secrets.
Stalin died in 1953. Three years later he was denounced, at the 20th Party Congress, by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Anton Gordievsky was staggered. The official condemnation of Stalin, his son believed, “went a long way towards destroying the ideological and philosophical foundations of his life.” He did not like the way Russia was changing. But his son did.
The “Khrushchev Thaw” was brief and restricted, but it was a period of genuine liberalization that saw the relaxation of censorship and the release of thousands of political prisoners. These were heady times to be young, Russian, and hopeful.
At the age of seventeen, Oleg enrolled at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. There, exhilarated by the new atmosphere, he engaged in earnest discussions with his peers about how to bring about “socialism with a human face.” He went too far. Some of his mother’s nonconformity had seeped into him. One day, he wrote a speech, naïve in its defense of freedom and democracy, concepts he barely understood. He recorded it in the language laboratory, and played it to some fellow students. They were appalled. “You must destroy this at once, Oleg, and never mention these things again.” Suddenly fearful, he wondered if one of his classmates had informed the authorities of his “radical” opinions. The KGB had spies inside the institute.
The limits of Khrushchev’s reformism were brutally demonstrated in 1956 when the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to put down a nationwide uprising against Soviet rule. Despite the all-embracing Soviet censorship and propaganda, news of the crushed rebellion filtered back to Russia. “All warmth disappeared,” Oleg recalled of the ensuing clampdown. “An icy wind set in.”
The Institute of International Relations was the Soviet Union’s most elite university, described by Henry Kissinger as “the Harvard of Russia.” Run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was the premier training ground for diplomats, scientists, economists, politicians—and spies. Gordievsky studied history, geography, economics, and international relations, all through the warping prism of Communist ideology. The institute provided instruction in fifty-six languages, more than any other university in the world. Language skills offered one clear pathway into the KGB and the foreign travel that he craved. Already fluent in German, he applied to study English, but the courses were oversubscribed. “Learn Swedish,” suggested his older brother, who had already joined the KGB. “It is the doorway to the rest of Scandinavia.” Gordievsky took his advice.
The institute library stocked some foreign newspapers and periodicals that, though heavily redacted, offered a glimpse of the wider world. These he began to read, discreetly, for showing overt interest in the West was itself grounds for suspicion. Sometimes at night he would secretly listen to the BBC World Service or the Voice of America, despite the radio-jamming system imposed by Soviet censors, and picked up “the first faint scent of truth.”
Like all human beings, in later life Gordievsky tended to see his past through the lens of experience, to imagine that he had always secretly harbored the seeds of insubordination, to believe his fate was somehow hardwired into his character. It was not. As a student, he was a keen Communist, anxious to serve the Soviet state in the KGB, like his father and brother. The Hungarian Uprising had caught his youthful imagination, but he was no revolutionary. “I was still within the system but my feelings of disillusionment were growing.” In this he was no different from many of his student contemporaries.
At the age of nineteen, Gordievsky took up cross-country running. Something about the solitary nature of the sport appealed to him, the rhythm of intense exertion over a long period, in private competition with himself, testing his own limits. Oleg could be gregarious, attractive to women, and flirtatious. His looks were bluntly handsome, with hair swept back from his forehead and open, rather soft features. In repose, his expression seemed stern, but when his eyes flashed with dark humor, his face lit up. In company he was often convivial and comradely, but there was something hard and hidden inside. He was not lonely, or a loner, but he was comfortable in his own company. He seldom revealed his feelings. Typically hungry for self-improvement, Oleg believed that cross-country running was “character building.” For hours he would run, through Moscow’s streets and parks, alone with his thoughts.
One of the few students he grew close to was Stanislaw Kaplan, a fellow runner on the university track team. “Standa” Kaplan was Czechoslovakian, and had already obtained a degree from Charles University in Prague by the time he arrived at the institute as one of several hundred gifted students from the Soviet bloc. Like others from countries only recently subjugated to Communism, Kaplan’s “individuality had not been stifled,” Gordievsky wrote, years later. A year older, he was studying to be a military translator. The two young men found they shared compatible ambitions and similar ideas. “He was liberal-minded and held strongly sceptical views about communism,” wrote Gordievsky, who found Kaplan’s forthright opinions exciting, and slightly alarming. With his dark good looks, Standa was a magnet to women. The two students became firm friends, running together, chasing girls, and eating in a Czech restaurant off Gorky Park.
An equally important influence was his idolized older brother, Vasili, who was now training to become an “illegal,” one of the Soviet Union’s vast global army of deep undercover agents.
The KGB ran two distinct species of spy in foreign countries. The first worked under formal cover, as a member of the Soviet diplomatic or consular staff, a cultural or military attaché, accredited journalist or trade representative. Diplomatic protection meant that these “legal” spies could not be prosecuted for espionage if their activities were uncovered, but only declared persona non grata, and expelled from the country. By contrast, an “illegal” spy (nelegal, in Russian) had no official status, usually traveled under a false name with fake papers, and simply blended invisibly into whatever country he or she was posted to. (In the West such spies are known as NOCs, standing for Non-Official Cover.) The KGB planted illegals all over the world, who posed as ordinary citizens, submerged and subversive. Like legal spies, they gathered information, recruited agents, and conducted various forms of espionage. Sometimes, as “sleepers,” they might remain hidden for long periods before being activated. These were also potential fifth columnists, poised to go into battle should war erupt between East and West. Illegals operated beneath the official radar and therefore could not be financed in ways that might be traced or communicate through secure diplomatic channels. But unlike spies accredited to an embassy, they left few traces for counterintelligence investigators to follow.