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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Under the Noses of the KGB
By Helen Womack

Gordievsky in the UK

he telephone rang; it was Russian journalist Olga Belan. “Can you come to my office?” she said. “There’s someone I think you should meet.”

“Can’t you be more specific?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “just come.”

So I got in my car and drove to the newspaper Sobesednik. There, in Olga’s office, sat a woman in her forties, looking very tense. She was primly dressed in a fawn skirt, blue cardigan and blouse. Her long brown hair was held up with clips.

“Meet Leyla Gordievskaya,” said Olga.

“Wow,” I thought, “the wife of Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB rezident at the Soviet embassy in London, one of the highest ranking Soviet defectors to the West.

I hastily remembered what I knew about him.

While working at the embassy, he had shared with the British his inside knowledge of Kremlin politics. The KGB became suspicious of him and called him home to Moscow for “consultations”. Leyla and her daughters Maria and Anna were lured back from London shortly afterwards with a message that Mr. Gordievsky had suffered a heart attack.

A few weeks later, the British had succeeded in spiriting Mr. Gordievsky out of Moscow, right under the noses of the KGB. Nobody knew how the escape had been managed but one theory was that the spy had been hidden in a diplomat’s removal van. His wife and children were left behind.

All this had happened in 1985. The Soviet authorities had tried Mr. Gordievsky in absentia and sentenced him to death for treason. Leyla and the girls had been stuck in Moscow ever since, kept under 24-hour KGB surveillance.

I chatted with Leyla in the newspaper office before she invited me to go home with her. We got into my car, the spy’s wife sitting in the front passenger seat. A posse of goons on the street outside sprang into action and followed us in three black cars. I waved cheekily to them and they waved back. At one point, when I got into the wrong lane on the Ring Road, they held up the traffic for me so that I could re-position. We drove in convoy back to Leyla’s flat on Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Over soup in her bugged kitchen, Leyla told me how the KGB had forced her to divorce Oleg. But from England, he had managed to send a 40-page letter, saying he still loved her. “I understood the divorce meant nothing. I am still Gordievsky’s wife,” she said.

After the meeting, I phoned for a comment from a British diplomat. He was in a mood to put me off until I mentioned the name Gordievskaya. “This is not a telephone conversation,” he hissed. “Meet me out on the embankment in five minutes.”

The upshot of it all was that when, in September 1991, Margaret Thatcher’s successor John Major and his wife Norma came to Moscow, they met Leyla and her problem was sorted. The August coup attempt had just been defeated and the Gordievsky family benefited from the new spirit of détente that was in the air.

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