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Thirty Years Later, Soviet-Era MI6 Double Agent Describes Escape From KGB

Former Russian KGB Colonel Oleg Gordiyevsky at a reception at Buckingham Palace, London.

Former Russian KGB Colonel Oleg Gordiyevsky at a reception at Buckingham Palace, London.

The KGB colonel knew his cover was almost blown.

He had been suspiciously summoned to Moscow. They had got him drunk on cognac while a KGB general grilled him for four hours. He'd be executed if they could catch him. They seemed to be closing the net. But the MI6 double agent couldn't risk openly fleeing.

After he sobered up at home, Oleg Gordiyevsky turned to his last resort -- an emergency escape plan devised by the British intelligence services that was hidden in invisible ink in a collection of Shakespeare sonnets.

Pulling bed sheets over his head to elude surveillance cameras in the ceiling and walls of his Moscow apartment, Gordiyevsky soaked the book cover in water, revealing a set of instructions. He set about memorizing them.

The plan sketched out a risky rendezvous with two British diplomatic cars at the bend of a road near Finland. From there, Gordiyevsky would be smuggled across the border in the trunk of a car right under the nose of Soviet guards.

If the plan failed, the British security services would lose a prized asset, sometimes considered the West's most valuable Cold War intelligence source. The plan was backed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: if uncovered it would spark a major diplomatic incident; for Gordiyevsky it would mean certain death.

Recruited in 1974 in Copenhagen by MI6, Gordiyevsky, a KGB colonel, was an unparalleled source within the secretive Soviet state, passing reams of information to the British, who shared it with the CIA. It led to him being compromised. Gordiyevsky blames Aldrich Ames, a KGB mole in the CIA, who he says told Moscow there was a leak in the KGB London station where Gordiyevsky was posted.

'Toward Death's Embrace'

Gordiyevsky was summoned to the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters in Moscow, ostensibly so that he could be confirmed as station chief. But Gordiyevsky suspected something was up.

"I realized I was going toward death's embrace. But I still decided to go to show that I'm not scared," he said. He took with him a backup escape plan written by British spy John Scarlett, the man who went on to become "M," the head of MI6.

"It was all arranged ahead of time," Gordiyevsky said 30 years later in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service at his two-floor house in a town near London.

All he had to do was inform the British of the proposed date of his extraction. But even that proved hard.

A first "control" meeting arranged at Kutuzovsky Prospekt was botched. A second rendezvous was planned at St. Basil's Cathedral, where he was meant to pass a note to a British spy on the narrow staircase leading up to the iconic tourist site's second floor.

But after walking for three hours to shake off his KGB tail, Gordiyevsky arrived to find the plan had been foiled -- the whole of Red Square was closed for renovations.

Finally, a third control meeting was successful. The plan was on.

Oleg Gordievsky in 1980, when he was still a double-agent

Oleg Gordievsky in 1980, when he was still a double-agent

​At five o'clock on a Friday afternoon on July 19, 1985, a short, thick-set man in a worn jacket and corduroy trousers stepped out of a west Moscow apartment. Staying close to the bushes to avoid detection by a surveillance vehicle, he quietly slipped across to an adjacent street.

Within an hour Gordiyevsky was at Moscow's Leningrad train station, where he bought tickets to Leningrad before travelling by suburban electric train to Zelenogorsk. From there, he jumped on a bus to Vyborg.

Hours Of Waiting

The meeting place was somewhere along the way, but he had only a description of the meeting place and no precise location.

Unsure exactly where to get off but having passed a big bend in the road that resembled the meeting place, he feigned sickness and nausea to convince the driver to let him off, and walked back along the road until he found the designated meeting place.

"I was surrounded by woodland where I laid down waiting for the diplomatic car of the [British] embassy. I lay there three hours waiting for the moment when the car was meant to come. At 2:20 a.m. two cars with two drivers arrived. They managed to hide around the bend for a few minutes away from the KGB car following them from Leningrad."

"I dived into the trunk of one of the cars. The whole operation took no longer than a minute, we managed to get going again before the KGB tail appeared round the corner."

Luckily, a slow goods train chugging through a railway crossing had separated the British diplomats from the KGB tail and put considerable distance between them. The KGB sped forward to catch up, but the British cars had waited by a small hill out of sight and the KGB overshot them.

"Our pursuers, having reached a traffic police post, asked the police: 'Where are the English cars?'"

"'What cars? No one has passed,' [they answered]. And then our cars appeared. They surrounded the English: 'Right, that's it, now they're going to arrest us,' they thought. But the KGB were also tired. It was half past five, Saturday, end of the working day. They'd been on duty since about 7 that morning and let us go through to the border point without checking us."

From the trunk of the car, all Gordiyevsky could hear was the driver turn on a piece of music by Sibelius called Finlandia.

"That's how I realized we were on Finnish territory."

In Finland, Gordiyevsky was let out of the stuffy trunk of the car and met by a young British diplomat named Michael Shipster. He called MI6, Gordiyevsky recalls, and announced: "The luggage has arrived. It's all in order."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at