An unwitting witness to history: How I almost crossed paths with a Soviet double-agent

In late July 1985, I arrived in Moscow after a week on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing. I was hoping to be met at the station by my friend Valery, who had been studying at the same university as me in Beijing and had invited me to stay. Instead, I was immediately surrounded and interrogated by half a dozen KGB agents demanding to know what I was doing in the Russian capital.

I was eventually rescued by Valery who arrived with a sheaf of documents from his boss at Radio Moscow authorizing him to host this suspicious looking foreigner at his apartment for the next week.

I did not know what to make of this heavy-handed greeting at the time, even Valery seemed perplexed by the events. Mikhail Gorbachev had just come to power, so perhaps everyone was on their guard more than usual but even so, it still seemed a bit over-the-top.

Now, 38 years later, having just watched the Netflix documentary on Oleg Gordievsky and Operation Pimlico, I think I have the answer. Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky was a double-agent in the KGB who had been providing intelligence to MI6, the British secret service since 1974.

In 1985, he was betrayed by another double-agent, the notorious CIA officer Aldrich Ames, and Gordievsky was recalled to Moscow. He was not immediately arrested but he knew it was only a matter of time. So, he gave a pre-arranged signal to his MI6 contact to initiate Operation Pimlico, an audacious plan to smuggle him out of the county and into Finland in the boot of a car.

Gordievsky somehow made it to Leningrad and got to the Finnish border but his presence in the car boot was almost discovered by the Soviet border guards’ sniffer dogs. It was only thanks to the quick thinking of the wife of the MI6 agent who was driving car that the operation was a success. She first attempted to distract the dogs with potato chips but when that did not work, she discarded her baby’s soiled diaper behind the car and that was more than enough to keep the dogs at bay.

After his safe arrival in England in late July, Gordievsky was feted by the British establishment, and personally thanked by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan for his invaluable efforts in spying on the Evil Empire.

The incident was of course a huge embarrassment for the KGB. So, when I arrived in Moscow just a few days after Gordievsky’s exfiltration, their reaction was perhaps not so surprising after all.

The rest of the week passed without incident. There was not much to do in Moscow at that time except explore the monumental architecture of the city. But as I travelled around on the ornate subway system, it was clear that people were keeping an eye on me. I got the impression that Valery was very relieved when I boarded the train again, heading to Berlin this time. I have not been back to Moscow since.

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