In the early 1980s, Oleg Gordievsky was arguably the most important spy in the world. This was not primarily because of his work for what was ostensibly his employer, the KGB, but because he was a double agent for MI6. For over a decade, he leaked Russian secrets that would inform international policy in both London and Washington.


His is an extraordinary story, now outlined in a documentary series on BBC Two, Secrets & Spies: A Nuclear Game, which looks at how espionage shaped the end of the Cold War. More than that, it may well have helped save the world from Armageddon at a time when the USSR and the United States possessed, respectively, 33,000 and 22,000 nuclear warheads.

Who is Oleg Gordievsky and why does he matter?

Now in his 80s and living, it’s said, somewhere in the south of England, Gordievsky was a career KGB spy who rose to become bureau chief in London in the early 1980s. Yet by then, he was also committed to passing information to British secret intelligence, fuelled by a disillusionment in the system he was serving.

“I hated the communist system, I wanted to fight against it,” he says in an archive recording, which features in the new documentary.

Agent Oleg Gordievsky is played by Martin Munroe
Agent Oleg Gordievsky is played by Martin Munroe in BBC documentary, 'Secrets & Spies: A Nuclear Game'. (Image by BBC Pictures)

While we now know the Cold War was winding down, that’s not how it would have felt to those living through that time, with aggressive rhetoric coming from both sides and when it seemed that one misstep might have led to nuclear calamity. Gordievsky’s insights proved to be invaluable to the British and their US allies as they tried to manage relations with the Soviet bloc.

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How did Gordievsky come to occupy such an important position?

To take the long view, espionage was a family business. Born in Moscow in 1938, Gordievsky was the son of an agent in the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, the Soviet secret police and the forerunner of the KGB. His older brother would also serve in the KGB.

A talented student with a knack for languages, Gordievsky studied at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations. On graduating, he joined the foreign service and was posted to East Berlin as a diplomatic trainee in 1961, in time to see the wall go up.

Soldiers of the East German National People's Army erecting barbed wire fences to close off a street in preparation for the construction of the Berlin Wall
Soldiers of the East German National People's Army erecting barbed wire fences to close off a street in preparation for the construction of the Berlin Wall. The division of Berlin was a decisive moment in the Cold War. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The division of Berlin was a decisive moment in the Cold War, and remained a potent symbol for nearly three decades; for Gordievsky, it was one of the causes for his turn against communism. Still, he joined the KGB less than a year later.

What persuaded Gordievsky to become a double agent?

In 1966, Gordievsky was posted to Copenhagen for his first tour of duty in Western Europe. “There was so much beauty, such lively music, such excellent schools, such openness and cheeriness among ordinary people, that I could only look back on the vast, sterile concentration camp of the Soviet Union as a form of hell,” he later wrote about his experiences.

He looked on as the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring, an attempt to reform and liberalise the political system in Czechoslovakia, in August 1968. His aversion to communism grew, especially after he returned home to work in Moscow.

In 1972, Gordievsky was posted to Denmark again, this time with a willingness to cooperate with the West. Recruited by MI6 officer Richard Bromhead, he began working for the British following – according to the author Ben Macintyre, speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast – “a long, complicated dance”.

Macintyre, who was discussing his 2018 book on Gordievsky, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, explained that while Gordievsky wasn’t a senior KGB figure, he was nevertheless “a huge catch”.

How did Gordievsky come to be posted in London?

He worked to make this happen. Having been recalled to Moscow in 1978, he was briefly in the KGB doghouse after having an affair and getting divorced; the kind of personal life complications frowned upon in Soviet secret circles.

While in Moscow, though, he learnt English, partly at the behest of MI6, and mastered the language within just six months. It’s odd, says Macintyre, that his spy masters weren’t suspicious of their Scandinavian expert taking such an interest in the UK, but in 1982 Gordievsky succeeded in his efforts to be sent to London.

In the meantime, the British remained patient. Realising the dangers of Gordievsky sharing secrets while in Moscow, they limited their actions to setting up a system by which he could send a message if needed. Otherwise, he was left alone.

What happened after Gordievsky was posted to London?

Helped by MI6, who made life difficult for his direct superiors, Gordievsky rose to become the USSR’s chief spy in London.

In that role, he not only passed on secrets, but helped the UK and, indirectly, the US understand the Soviet perspective on the Cold War tensions. In the early 1980s, the Russian leader Yuri Andropov (who was premier from 1982-84) grew increasingly worried about a pre-emptive strike from the West.

Andropov’s paranoia – and that is not too strong a word – reached a peak in November 1983 when NATO conducted its annual Able Archer military exercises. As a result of the information coming from Gordievsky, US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to rein in their “evil empire” rhetoric. According to Macintyre, “it’s one of those [rare] occasions when the information from a single agent actually begins to have an effect on global policy.”

When Mikhail Gorbachev visited the UK in late 1984 and met Thatcher, the future Soviet premier received briefing documents from the KGB in London. Gordievsky became, unbeknown to the USSR, a kind of secret middleman, paving the way for Thatcher’s famous remark: “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”

How did Gordievsky get caught out?

Being discovered was a constant danger for Gordievsky. This explains why, despite Western leaders acting on his insights and leaks, the British never shared his identity, even with the Americans. The fewer people who knew who he was, the less chance of his identity being revealed.

Nevertheless, the CIA set to work on discovering the name of a figure they dubbed ‘Tickle’. It would, says Macintyre, have got more and more embarrassing to brief the president and, if asked where the intelligence came from, “being forced to reply, ‘It comes from the Brits and we trust it.’ That’s not a good look.”

American former CIA counterintelligence officer and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames (right) leaves the courthouse after receiving a life sentence.
American former CIA counterintelligence officer and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames (right) leaves the courthouse after receiving a life sentence. (Photo by Larry Downing/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the CIA worked out Gordievsky’s identity during the course of unmasking one of their own, Aldrich Ames. An embittered KGB expert in financial trouble, Ames had taken money from the Russians, and over the course of his relationship with the Soviets he gave up the names of multiple double agents. This included Gordievsky. Ames is now serving a life sentence with no hope of parole.

How did Gordievsky survive his identity being discovered?

In 1985, Gordievsky was called back to Moscow. “I felt instinctively that my time was running out,” he later said. And yet he went anyway. Following an initial interrogation that included being given a ‘truth serum’, he was set free, however.

Why? Macintyre’s explanation is that the KGB would have hoped to catch Gordievsky in the act of contacting his handlers, which would be a humiliation for the British. They may have also blithely, but not unreasonably, assumed he could never escape the USSR anyway. Instead, there would have been a military trial, followed swiftly by an execution.

Instead, in a stunning act of espionage craft worthy of a John le Carré novel, Gordievsky did manage to get out of the USSR, via Finland, from right under KGB surveillance.

Oleg Gordievsky
Oleg Gordievsky in disguise, in the Marlborough Hotel in London, 1990. He arrived for the photo shoot wearing a wig, false beard and glasses. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Operation Pimlico, as his escape plan was codenamed, was triggered by Gordievsky standing by a bakery holding a Safeway bag, which the British knew to be a signal that he needed to be extracted. A few days later, employing his considerable craft to evade pursuit, Gordievsky made his way to a remote, mosquito-infested meeting place.

There, the British, themselves harried by the KGB en route, picked him up and bundled him into the boot of a car prior to crossing the border. Even then, all might have been lost but for the quick-thinking wife of diplomat Raymond Asquith, Viscount Asquith and MI6 station commander in Moscow at the time. By changing their baby’s dirty nappy on the boot, she successfully threw border officials and sniffer dogs off the scent – by now quite unpleasant after being on the run – of Gordievsky.

Against the odds, Gordievsky escaped the USSR, the irate KGB, and the communist system he had grown to hate, and embarked on a new life in the West.


All episodes of Secrets & Spies: A Nuclear Game are available now on BBC iPlayer, and include rarely heard archive interviews with Oleg Gordievsky