To Catch a Spy With English Charm and Guile

"Keep far away from Englishmen. You yourself won't notice how fast they recruit you," the head of the secret service says in a fatherly way as he addresses his subordinates who are sent to countries in which working against England is not the main task.


No one has yet solved the mystery of why it is namely the courteous and obliging English who possess a particular ability to penetrate the Russian soul. They even learn to speak the Russian language without any kind of accent, unlike many other foreigners. The KGB most often cursed the English secret service and seemed to forget that its opponent was far less numerous than itself. Thus, the English were treated with respectful dread. And not for nothing: The English were brave enough to recruit even those engaged in counterespionage working against them in Moscow.


The English have a subtle sense not only of Russians in general but of the chekisti, officials of the Soviet secret service. The Russians' way of thinking is very clear to them. It was namely the English intelligence service that first tested such unusually effective means of fighting against the KGB as massively expelling its operatives from the country.


The unexpected arrival of a large crowd of uncovered chekisti who had lost the right to work abroad weighed extremely heavily on the rather lazy and sluggish personnel department of the secret service. It was accustomed to taking as long as a year and a half to process through a single officer. And now they were required to find work for such a mass of people within the KGB.


But the cunning of the English did not stop there: They deported several people who were not involved in the secret service but worked in the Russian Foreign Ministry or the Central Committee. Work against England on all fronts turned out to be paralyzed for quite some time. Any unplanned contact with an Englishman by a Soviet agent thus made the officer extremely anxious.


I remember the alarm that went through the KGB office in Tokyo when I met an operative of the British secret service by chance. We met in a suburban train that was taking us to a university outside Tokyo. At the time, I was going to the university to pick out prospective agents for the KGB from among the young Japanese students. In a crowd of Japanese, Europeans unwittingly glance at each other and often end up conversing in English. Our conversation was so pleasant and light that it did not even occur to me, a young major in the intelligence service, that I had a colleague before me.


I included the Englishman on the list of contacts I kept just in case. The next day, the head of the counterintelligence service in the KGB office in Tokyo looked at me gloomily and said, "You'll have to account for the Englishman personally with the head of the office." A cold shiver ran down my spine, and although I did not understand the situation, I already began to feel guilty.


After I was called in by the head of the Tokyo office whose watchful eyes seemed to be saying, "Such a young man and he is already preparing to cross over to the English." He advised me to write quickly to Moscow before I was identified by counterintelligence. He whispered that "if the heads of the intelligence service find out about your contact with an English operative from them, that's the end of your career."


It is no longer a secret that many of our colleagues secretly worked for Western intelligence services. We even had a joke within the secret service: Before you agree to be recruited by the English, you have to stand in line for several years, just like for an car. Of course they did not recruit every Russian agent who proposed his services.


As often occurs between unreconcilable rivals, the Russian and English intelligence services borrowed working methods from each other. Thus, it was typical for both of them to recruit unusual and even somewhat strange people. For such people were easier to recruit. An acquaintance of mine, Lieutenant P., recruited a great English physicist in such a manner. The physicist was odd in that he did not like to converse with others. In the course of almost a year, he and P. met at a chess club, played a couple of games and left, and did not speak a word to one another. In the end, the Englishman had begun to have such respect for his Muscovite friend that, without hesitation, he agreed to reveal secret information to him.


Platon Obukhov, the young Russian diplomat who recently was arrested for his ties with English people, is characteristic of the espionage contacts in our country in only one way: the strangeness of the affair. He appeared in front of NTV Independent Television news cameras wearing different-colored socks and something resembling a budyonovka, or the pointed helmet worn by the Red Army troops during the period of 1918 to 1921. It is also rather strange that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, allowed him to put on such things. Basically, however, he is unlike other eccentric agents in that he had no access to any serious secrets.


Even if Obukhov had blindly used the acquaintances of his father, who is an ambassador, he wouldn't have learned anything of importance. For ambassadors are rather decorative and know nothing, for example, of the activities of the secret service. I remember how Soviet ambassadors in London complained how they had no more than 10 people under them in the enormous embassy, since the others belonged to the special service. Therefore, it is entirely unclear what kind of information Obukhov could have given the English.


But what if the FSB organized the whole affair? Today, Russian counterintelligence suffers from an inferiority complex. Its prestige was greatly lowered during the democratic reforms, and it has not been able to reassert itself either in Moscow, Chechnya or anywhere else.


Successful spy cases were a traditional means for the KGB to encourage interest and respect for the organization among the population. If this case is the work of the FSB, then there is a message addressed to three different parties.


First, the Russian people should not forget that the FSB exists and that the many foreigners who live in Russia could also be spies. Thus, there is a need for caution. The second message concerns England, which has had cordial relations with Russia over the centuries but which were spoiled by the Soviet regime. For many in counterintelligence, Russians' sympathy for Britain seems like an insult that cannot be tolerated. Finally, the message might be that Westerners should not feel they are entirely welcome in Russia. "It is we, and not you, who are masters here," the FSB would seem to be saying. Such views are shared by those in the military-industrial complex, high-ranked army officers and, of course, communists, with whom many in the FSB sympathize.





Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel, is the intelligence analyst for Moskovskiye Novosti. He contributed this essay to