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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

We're a Kinder, Gentler, Clubby Bunch of Spies

Where else but in Moscow can you find a spies' club? We assemble inconspicuously at the next meeting point. More often than not, the rendezvous occurs in restaurants, where we could be taken for a group of geologists returning from an expedition or professors celebrating the birthday of one of their colleagues. Former spies who are now bankers arrive in chauffeur-driven Mercedes; those who have gone on to work at companies as middle-level security officials or have become jobless lieutenants living on a miserly pension travel there in crammed trolley buses. But all are united by one thing. We all worked in the London-based KGB office, and now almost all have retired from the intelligence service.


A significant part of the club members became victim to the Cold War: They were locked out of the comfortable and not at all foggy Albion in 1985 after the British were tipped off by Oleg Gordievsky, who worked as both KGB resident in London and English spy. He was lured back to Moscow, but the British foreign intelligence agency, MI6, organized his escape to London.


The mere mention of the double agent's name causes the mouth to drop and muscles to tighten up on the part of those who worked under Gordievsky. The head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Press Center, General Yury Kobaladze, who worked in London undercover as a journalist, tells of the time when, after being thrown out of London and having returned to Moscow, he unexpectedly received warm New Year's greetings from Gordievsky. What was he to do? He took his wife, sat in the car and drove to a place where he could get a breath of air, calm down and forget about everything. When he got back from the walk, he discovered that he had parked his car in front of the British Embassy. He was ready to confess everything to the high-ups, but it later turned out that the friendly greetings were a practical joke played on him by his colleagues.


Despite the terrible blows that the British secret service dealt us, we remain inveterate Anglophiles all the same, and at the club the atmosphere of Pall Mall reigns. The members are likely to be seen in sports coats from Austin Reed, flannel trousers, Churchill shoes and even Etonian neckties. The conversation is often in English and, naturally, like all true gentlemen, everyone drinks Scotch whisky exclusively, preferably 12-year-old single malts.


Former Chekists reminisce not about how many enemy agents they strangled -- in fact, contrary to stereotypes in the Western press, we are very kind and decent people -- but about the treasures of the National Gallery, dog races, the Henley regatta and gatherings in the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub.


At the start of our meetings, we usually give the floor to an honored guest. This can be anyone from a veteran Chekist, who in his time stole atomic secrets, or a former Soviet ambassador to a leading writer, artist or film star.


The club quite recently had the honor of receiving the English human rights defender Nicholas Bettel, who called on the former spies to repent for their persecution of dissidents, which did not evoke any enthusiasm on the part of the club members. If anyone is to repent, it should be those whom the intelligence service faithfully served: Politburo members and the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, including former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and President Boris Yeltsin.


Among the ex-agents are democrats, nationalists and communists. But the general consensus is that the intelligence service should serve the entire nation and not a particular party.


Many club members believe that Western countries are not treating Russia properly. For example, in Moscow alone, more than 40 former CIA agents and many British citizens, who at one time were considered persona non grata for their ties to MI6, are peacefully working in Moscow. They run up against absolutely no obstacles in getting a visa. The Americans, on the other hand, quite recently arrested a former Russian intelligence agent, Vladimir Galkin. Many former KGB workers have been refused U.S. visas even though they have long been in retirement and do not hide their former affiliation with the secret service.


The British authorities, for their part, refuse to grant visas to the pensioners who were given away by Gordievsky. Why? By general consensus of the club, the West was far less prepared than Moscow for the changes that have taken place as a result of the end of the Cold War.


In our club, the question over how intelligence has changed since the end of the Cold War often arises. Both Americans and Russians continue to spy. Now, however, they spy on the orders of "my friend Bill" and "my friend Boris," who are on kissing terms. The expenditures on espionage in Russia cannot begin to compare with those in the United States, which amount to some $30 billion, including technical and space intelligence.


What is the solution to this situation? It is very simple: to make friends and continue to spy. As former U.S. president Ronald Reagan said: "Doveryai, no proveryai!", or "Trust, but verify!" The United States continues its pro-Israeli policies even though Mossad agents are in U.S. prisons. French-British relations did not worsen when it turned out that MI6 had stolen secrets about French atomic submarines. But Russian espionage is still seen as something extraordinary in the West.


The result is that it is all right for Western countries to spy in Russia -- Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Kovalyov recently said in Davos, Switzerland, that around 38 Russian citizens have been arrested on charges of working for foreign intelligence -- but it is not all right for Russian agents to spy abroad. Where is the famous Anglo-Saxon sense of fair play?


The post-Cold War period should take on new characteristics. It is time to stop the mass expulsions, which worsen relations between states and increase society's suspicions. Intelligence services have used leaks to the press to push for more money from the budget. The press takes the bait and makes mountains out of mole hills. This practice only inflates the scandals and gets in the way of closer ties between countries.


It is also time to end the taboo on granting visas to former intelligence agents, and, on the contrary, to open the gates and welcome cooperation between the pensioners of various intelligence services. This could also serve the cause of peace.


We discuss these and other problems as we sip Glenlivet and hope that a day will come when American, English and other ex-spies sit with us around the table, and the club begins to travel from Moscow to Washington and other world capitals.


As the playwright and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov wrote, "Blessed is he who believes, warmth to him on Earth."





Mikhail Lyubimov, the chairman of the spy club, is a former KGB colonel who headed the London office in the 1970s. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.