Childhood & Early Life
Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky was born on October 10, 1938, in Moscow, in the erstwhile USSR, to Anton Gordievsky, an ‘NKVD’ official, and Olga Nikolayevna Gornova, a statistician.
His entire life, right from childhood, was shaped by the ‘KGB.’ Born during a tumultuous time in Russia, Gordievsky was conditioned into thinking that there was no life beyond the USSR and the ‘KGB.’ His father and elder brother both were ‘KGB’ officials. His father’s obsession with the uniform and lack of morality of any sort did not instil much humanity in young Gordievsky’s heart.
He was made to learn the principles of communism at school. He was fascinated by subjects such as language and history, since a young age. He read German and learnt about foreign lands during his school days. Following the norm for teenagers at the time, Gordievsky joined the ‘Komsomol,’ or the ‘Young Communist League.’
Stalin’s Russia did not offer a normal childhood to Gordievsky or his elder brother, Vasili. Though he left school with a silver medal and as head of the ‘Komsomol,’ the secretive undertone in the Gordievsky family had already left an indelible mark on him.
He enrolled at the prestigious ‘Moscow State Institute of International Relations’ at age 17. This was after Stalin’s death and during the brief period of relaxation Russia witnessed. Gordievsky, who studied history, geography, economics, and international affairs, wanted to learn English as a language. Unable to do so, he took his elder brother’s advice and learnt Swedish. He took up cross-country running during his university days.
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Even though he knew his life would revolve around serving the Soviet Union, either in the foreign office or as part of the intelligence service, the way he was pulled into the system was not intentional. The ‘Institute of International Relations’ housed a small ‘KGB’ station, which began looking for new recruits. Gordievsky’s brother, Vasili, who was training to be an illegal spy, told the officials that his brother would be interested in the service. Gordievsky was asked to sit for an interview in German. Thus, by one swift stroke of fate, he was inducted into the dangerous world of spies, in 1961.
Gordievsky was sent to East Germany as a translator in August 1961, for a short tenure of 6 months. He stayed there in a student hostel, made contact with his brother (who was already working there as a spy), and ran some errands (which he later found out was a litmus test for him). This was the time when a mass exodus from East to West Berlin was taking place and the infamous Berlin wall was getting built. Gordievsky witnessed how people, trying to flee to the other side, were oppressed and shot at by the administration in East Berlin.
After his short test in Berlin, Gordievsky was sent to the ‘KGB’ covert training centre called ‘School 101,’ deep into the woods in North Moscow, along with 120 other trainees. He was trained thoroughly in every aspect of intelligence service, including, intelligence, counter-intelligence, surveillance, and combat. After getting trained in the tricks of the trade, Gordievsky chose his first spy name, “Guardiyetsev.”
Unlike his brother, Gordievsky was assigned a desk job in Moscow and was required to create documentation for other spies to mask their true identities. It was not until 1965, that he received his first assignment as a handler for spies in Denmark, under the cover of a consular official dealing with visas.
Gordievsky got disenchanted with the ‘KGB’ and by Russia after their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There were huge protests outside the Russian embassy in Denmark, which made him feel ashamed. Whatever little sense of belonging he had toward his country or his father’s beloved ‘KGB,’ quickly changed into rage and anguish.
Gordievsky made contact with the Danish security services. When he tried it for the first time, it went unnoticed. After another failed attempt from the Danes, it was time for him to return home, to a more repressive and psychotic Russia, in 1970. He was promoted while in Moscow, but all he could think about was how he could go abroad.
After Gordievsky’s brother died on duty, his request to leave Moscow was accepted in 1972, and he was sent to Denmark again, this time as the Second Secretary at the Russian embassy in Copenhagen. His visa was cleared by the Danes intentionally, in consultation with the ‘MI6.’ He was approached by the British intelligence head of the local station, codenamed “Bromhead.” His codename was “SUNBEAM.” He calmly accepted to take up the dubious role.
In 1975, after a year of passing valuable information the West, he was called back to Moscow. Though there was no substantial threat, the ‘MI6’ engineered an escape plan, codenamed “PIMLICO,” for their prized asset. However, there was no need to execute the plan at the time.
Over the next few years, he passed on information from within the ‘KGB’ to the West, keeping a cautious but consistent contact with his handlers at the ‘MI6.’
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In 1981, the chairman of the ‘KGB’ mistook a ‘NATO’ exercise as the “first nuclear strike” by America and its allies. An operation named ‘RYAN’ was put in place to find out the details of the attack. Gordievsky was posted in London as the Deputy Chief of the ‘KGB’ at the embassy. He was briefed on ‘RYAN’ before he left Moscow, but by the time he reached London, the operation was well on its way. He informed his handler, James Spooner of the ‘MI6,’ of Soviet’s paranoia. This averted a nuclear war between the two super powers.
The ‘MI6’ had to share Gordievsky’s whereabouts with the Americans. The rivalry between the ‘MI6’ and the ‘CIA’ about gathering intelligence put their most prized agent at risk after 1982.
Gordievsky was called back to Moscow in 1985. However, he now became sceptical. By then, he had been made the chief of ‘KGB’ at the London embassy. Upon his arrival in Moscow, he was sure that he was under surveillance and his house was bugged. However, he could not risk trying to escape openly. He was put through grueling questioning for hours, but he did not divulge any information. He was informed that he would never be posted overseas, and in June 1985, his family was brought back to the USSR. Gordievsky managed to escape in July 1985, while his wife and children were on a vacation.
Gordievsky was sentenced to death by the Soviet Union after his escape from his country, a sentence which was never rescinded by post-Soviet Russian authorities. However, it cannot be legally carried out because of the Russian membership of the ‘Council of Europe.’
He has written quite a few books on the ‘KGB.’
Family & Personal Life
Yelena Akopian was a 22-year-old German girl training to be a teacher, when Gordievsky met her in 1960s. Both of them had high aspirations in life. Gordievsky was stuck at a desk job in Moscow, and she wanted to escape the mundane life she was living in a small house with her parents and five siblings. They were married before his first foreign posting in Denmark.
Oleg’s personal life was a romantic thriller of sorts. He was a married man and a spy with a secret love affair with the daughter of a Major in the ‘KGB,’ a life fit for a movie plot. Leila, his second wife, was a typist and was completely different from his first wife. He had two daughters with Leila.
After defecting to the UK in 1985, Gordievsky did not meet his family for 6 years, till they were allowed to leave Moscow in 1991, and join the spy. Leila and Gordievsky divorced soon after her arrival in London.
Gordievsky’s mother was not thrilled when she was told that her younger son was following in his father’s footsteps. That was when she, for the first time in her life, disapproved the regime and voiced her anger openly.