Reading Christopher Andrew’s impressive authorised history of the British counter-intelligence service MI5, The Defence of the Realm, one would suppose that the team were increasingly on top of the Soviet threat to British security after a string of successes to their credit following the disappearance of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess in 1951, leaving Kim Philby to face the music.
Thus MI5 proceeded with the unmasking of John Vassall, the Admiralty spy who had been compromised as a homosexual while serving in Moscow, “Gordon Lonsdale” (Konon Molody), whose spy ring was revealed only by a timely defector, and later, after Philby unaccountably absconded from Beirut, the defection of KGB officer Oleg Lyalin in 1971, followed by the sudden expulsion from London of an unprecedented number of KGB operatives under diplomatic cover. Ninety were expelled and another fifteen were denied the right of return to Britain. This left the KGB in London without the tools to do the job, though most of them appeared to have been engaged in industrial rather than political espionage.
But what of those they recruited? The working assumption at MI5 appears to have been that these were all or mainly Communists who would have joined the ranks of the KGB out of ideological conviction some time before the death of Stalin and his exposure by first secretary Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956 as a psychotic dictator. The model was George Blake. The baby boomer generation in Britain, on the other hand, were too well informed about the Soviet Union to fall for the gospel according to Lenin. However leftist, undergraduates generally scorned any connexion with Moscow, whether through the Communist Party or its front organisations; and even those connected to the Party were on the defensive about its loyalty to the Soviet Party line. The London School of Economics, during the late sixties, was the focal point of student opposition to the war in Vietnam. There the main club other than the Jewish Society was the Conservative Society. The vociferous hooligans who overturned their stalls in the corridors, disrupted our lectures and all public events attended by Conservative politicians or hosted by the Director identified mostly with Lev Trotsky, some with Mao Tse-tung. What they had in common was that they openly despised the Soviet system, which had not improved under Khrushchev and which severely worsened under general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 anyone who joined the Party really needed their head seeing to.
So who would the Russians have recruited? In the 1970s one of my own students was turned down for a security clearance on the grounds that, in her late teens, she had lived with a Trotskyist agitator at Essex University. MI5 could not have been more mistaken about Trotskyism. MI5 was the same organisation that missed the fact that chiropractor Stephen Ward, embroiled in Profumo affair, was working with Soviet military intelligence out of his hatred of the Americans. This was no accident. The answer to the undiscovered Russian recruits appears to lie, as I have previously suggested (Near and Distant Neighbours: A New History of Soviet Intelligence), in anti-Americanism. And none resented the Americans as much as empire-minded Conservatives; the same was true in France, where recruitment of the disillusioned was even easier. Who had effectively kicked the British and French out of the Middle East? Certainly not the Russians but our American cousins upon whom our security against the Soviet Union depended.
Assigned to the Soviet embassy in the late 1940s, Alexander Feklisov found two new categories to recruit: admirers of the Red Army, that saved so many in Europe from extinction by the Nazi murder machine; and, no less importantly, those who thoroughly disliked the Americans who were “oversexed” as well as “over here” during the war and hastened back after the Cold War began in earnest. Feklisov’s revelation, ignored by the authorised history of MI5, should be set against what the foreign intelligence service now says about Boris Rodin, who was number two at the residency in London from 1947 to 1952 and then returned as head of station after his predecessor, Sergei Kondrashev, was recalled to Moscow in 1956. Rodin was no shining star, but then, despite his undoubted linguistic skills, Kondrashev’s charm was overrated, as was his intelligence and his understanding of the West. But Rodin, a former air force officer who had served in military intelligence in the United States (1939-1944), showed himself to be proficient enough. In marking his birthday, the website of Russian foreign intelligence (svr.gov.ru) refers to the fact that during his period as rezident from 1956 to 1961 he “expanded the network of agents.” If, indeed, he did, who are they and where are they now?