NPF: THE GREAT ESCAPE, FEATURING CANDY

I've never cared much for spy movies or novels, but I find the real thing absolutely fascinating. Governments still spy on one another enthusiastically, of course. It's just not the same as it was during the Cold War era; the romance and drama of "human intelligence" has been replaced by technicians sitting at consoles combing through billions of phone, email, and bank records trying to identify patterns. The days of the Cambridge Five and Soviet double-agents and dead drops and all that other John le Carre / Ian Fleming type stuff are long gone.

Apropos of nothing, here's one of my favorite spy stories. It's from the dying years of the Cold War, that regrettable period of time we call the mid-Eighties.

To make a long background story short, a Soviet diplomat named Oleg Gordievsky had a change of heart about the Soviet system when the political leadership of the country ordered the military to suppress, with some measure of brutality, the Prague Spring in 1968. He made his disillusionment know to MI6, the British intelligence service. Eventually he was recruited as an MI6 "asset". From the Soviet embassy in Denmark, Gordievsky was a minor part of CIA/MI6 operations for many years. Then in 1982 he was appointed the head KGB agent at the Soviet embassy in London.

In other words, he became the Soviet official in charge of all Soviet spies in the UK while serving as a British spy himself. He provided useful information – for example, identifying Gorbachev as the future leader of the USSR long before Western governments really even knew who he was – and detailed the growing divide between the (How many times did you hear this phrase in the 80s) "aging hardliners in the Kremlin" and the rest of the country. Eventually, and probably but not certainly because of CIA turncoat and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, the KGB learned of Gordievsky's connections to MI6. In 1985 they abruptly called him back to Moscow. MI6 encouraged him to defect immediately. Perhaps out of concern for his family, he returned to Moscow instead.

The KGB treated him to days of drugged interrogation about being a double agent; somehow he was able to resist, or for some unknown reason the KGB decided to back off. Regardless of the explanation he was released and returned to his wife and kids in Moscow, albeit under heavy KGB surveillance. Knowing that it was only a matter of time until the KGB uncovered enough dirt on him to arrest, try, and execute him, he decided he needed to escape.

He sent a secret signal to an MI6 contact to meet him. Initially he sneaked into the toilet at the Lenin Mausoleum, wrote "In very bad trouble, need exfiltration" on a scrap of paper, and went to slip it to an MI6 contact in the crowded Red Square. However, he did not know who to look for so the plan failed. A second plan was hatched. He was assigned a street corner and a date and time to appear. MI6 asked him to hold a Safeway shopping bag to make himself easy to spot and told that his MI6 contact would be absolutely, unmistakably British-looking.

Now. This is the part I love. Picture a bunch of MI6 guys hatching this plan and brainstorming subtle ways to make a secret agent look Way British.

Gordievsky waited with the shopping bag about 20 minutes past the appointed time. Finally he saw a gentleman walking toward him in a sharp felt bowler hat holding a Harrods department store bag and eating a Mars Bar. It was the Mars Bar that saved Oleg Gordievsky's life. The two only made brief eye contact, which was enough to set into motion a ridiculous escape plan.

Gordievsky began jogging every morning. His KGB watchers were generally too lazy to run after him, so they took to following him in a car. Watching a man jog for months is pretty dull, so eventually they got pretty lax about following him. Eventually when his wife and kids were far away on vacation in Kazakhstan, he left the house in running clothes, broke into a trot toward the nearest train station, and began a series of train trips that would take him to the remote area along the Russian-Finnish border.

He went to a prearranged spot – a patch of trees along a rural highway – and laid in the ditch next to the road as he had been instructed. Put yourself in his position; how long would you lie in a ditch next to a highway, your mind going a billion directions at once, waiting for mysterious strangers to retrieve you? After a few hours two cars of British spies arrived. They hid him in a false bottom in the trunk and, posing as diplomats attending a conference in Helsinki, made for the border. A female spy brought a (presumably unwilling?) infant along, hoping that a screaming, pooping baby would encourage Soviet border guards to move them along more rapidly.

It worked. Eventually Gordievsky heard the orchestra piece Finlandia playing through the car stereo, the signal that they had successfully crossed the border.

He made it. The ending was not quite happily ever after, though. He's still alive and enjoying life in the UK, but he left behind his family. It took almost a decade of separation before he could see them again, and by then his wife had married another man and his children no longer remembered him. But he lived, and he has developed relationships with his (now adult) children.

I'm telling you, you can't make up anything this good.

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11 Responses to “NPF: THE GREAT ESCAPE, FEATURING CANDY”

  1. FMguru Says:

    It took place a little later (the 1980s), but my favorite Cold War spy story has to be the Farewell Dossier and the Trans-Siberian Pipeline explosion it led to.

    The deets: http://www.damninteresting.com/the-farewell-dossier/

  2. Robert Says:

    Ed, that was amazingly great. I was seeing the movie in my head as I read. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Nunya Says:

    Thanks, Ed. Who says the human touch is dead?

  4. c u n d gulag Says:

    Wow, seriously great story!

    Back in the late 70's, because Russian was my first language – even though I was born in the US – when I was in college and minoring in Russian, the CIA and NSA recruited me.
    I wasn't interested.
    I had no interest in sitting around all day, translating materials – and I suspected that my abilities as a spy, would probably look a lot like Inspector Jacques Clouseau.
    After the Russian got done laughing, I didn't think things would end happily after that.

  5. Well mostly Says:

    I'll never look at candy bars the same after reading this story. Fascinating!
    And grown men (mostly) sit around all day thinking up things like this.
    Apparently secrets drive some people pretty near crazy.
    Thanks for the story and, FM, that link.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    During the Cold War I always heard tales about the beautiful but dangerous Russian spies who would use their feminine wiles and charm to obtain valuable secrets.

    Never could find one…….dammit.

  7. jharp Says:

    How did the Mars bar save his life?

    Thanks in advance.

  8. Major Kong Says:

    They're very popular in England and probably very difficult to get in Russia at that time.

    A person eating a Mars bar and wearing a bowler hat would be like carrying a big sign that says "I'm British!"

  9. Jim Says:

    In Soviet Russia, Mars bar eats you…..

  10. mothra Says:

    Fucking Aldrich Ames.

  11. chautauqua Says:

    "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the Mars Bar, the Mars Bar also looks into you."