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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playboy, Prisoner, Salesman, Spy




He was a KGB agent posing as a Canadian jukebox salesman, and his successes made him a hero spy of the Soviet Union. But a new book by his son says Konon Molodiy became a critic of the Kremlin -- and may have died for it.


Like Yury Gagarin, who became an icon after his return from space, Soviet spy Konon Molodiy got the big hero treatment when he was released from a British jail and came home to Moscow. But according to his son, Trofim Molodiy, he was a disillusioned man, who complained so vociferously that his KGB masters may have had him killed.


Konon Molodiy was better known in the West as Gordon Lonsdale, a KGB agent who entered Canada on a stolen passport, then went on to Britain posing as a jukebox salesman. What he really did was to steal the submarine secrets of the Portland Underwater Weapons Establishment. Jailed in 1961 for 25 years, he spent only three years behind bars before being swapped for a British spy held in Moscow. He died in 1970. Officially, it was said he had high blood pressure.


Tired of all the propaganda written about his father, Trofim Molodiy has just finished a book that aims to tell the "true story" of the legendary spy. Trofim, 40, served as a border guard officer on the Soviet Union's frozen frontier with Norway before setting up the Moskovsky Shchit (Moscow Shield) security firm that he now runs. Not a professional author and short on memories -- since he was only 12 when his father died -- Trofim had help in writing from Leonid Kolosov, a retired KGB agent who used to spy in Rome under cover as the Izvestia correspondent there. "Uncle Lyonya", as Trofim calls him, although they are not related, studied with Konon Molodiy in the late 1940s and befriended him again after his return from Britain in 1964, and thus was able to add reminiscences to the younger man's childhood memories.


Their Russian-language book, to be published by Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) and presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair later this year, will be called "Dead Season II." So far there are no plans for an English translation. The title will have resonance for Russians, who remember "Dead Season," a 1960s spy film loosely based on the life of Konon Molodiy. Stupidly, Soviet censors banned it, which only doubled its popularity. Indeed, it was at a private showing of this very film that the authors of the new book first met in 1970.


"Dead Season II" may not add much to what is already known about Gordon Lonsdale's time in the West but it is interesting to hear the story told from the Russian point of view. And the account of what happened to Konon Molodiy after he returned as a "hero" to the Soviet Union is fascinating for Russian and Western readers alike.


Konon Molodiy, whose Ukrainian roots account for his name, was born in Moscow on Jan. 17, 1922. His father died when he was a child and his mother, finding it hard to cope, sent him to live with an aunt in California. Genrikh Yagoda, head of the Soviet secret police from 1934 to 1936, helped the boy get a passport to go to America. "Evidently the KGB had their eyes on him when he was only 12 years old," said Trofim. The young Konon stayed in California for four years, long enough to start speaking fluent English with an American accent. But he missed his mother back in the Soviet Union and so returned to complete his schooling in Moscow, then went on to fight for his country in World War II.


The fact that Konon had grown up speaking English enabled the KGB to use him later as an "illegal" -- not a spy with the usual diplomatic cover, but an agent with the riskier job of passing himself off as a native in the target country.


When the Soviet Union took part of Finland after the war, it inherited public records there. In 1953, the KGB sent Konon to Canada on the passport of a dead man, whose late mother had been a Finn married to Canadian citizen Arnold Lonsdale. Thus Konon became Gordon. In Canada, he made no attempt to look up his distant Lonsdale relatives; on the contrary he avoided anyone who might realize he was an impostor.


From Canada he went on to the United States, where he trained with the legendary Soviet atomic spy Rudolf Abel. In Moscow, he had already received much theoretical training, but he gained valuable practical experience by helping Abel with his communications. In America Konon also met Peter and Helen Kroger, two East European Jews working for the KGB out of Communist commitment, who were to be part of his spy ring in Britain.


Finally, in 1954, he was ready to infiltrate Britain as Gordon Lonsdale, head of Lonsdale Ltd, a company that sold jukeboxes and chewing gum machines to pubs.


To make his cover convincing, Lonsdale really did work in this trade, and was a very successful entrepreneur. But he had to give his profits to the KGB, which in turn paid for the playboy lifestyle necessary to keep up his image. He had a fleet of cars and a yacht, so no eyebrows were raised when once a year he said he was going on vacation to the Canary Islands. In reality, he flew to Prague or Warsaw for R and R with his Russian wife, Galina.


"She had absolutely no idea what he really did," Trofim said. "He told her he was a Soviet trade representative in China. He said the living conditions there were too poor for her to join him and so they could only meet like this. During one of those meetings in Eastern Europe, I was conceived."


Leonid Kolosov was equally in the dark about Konon's life, although they had drunk together and shared girlfriends when they had both been students at Moscow's Institute of Foreign Trade after the war. Kolosov had yet to join the KGB at that stage but, unknown to him, Konon had already been recruited by Lubyanka bosses impressed by his anti-fascist fervor at the front.


The story that Konon had gone off to China after college was plausible because he had studied Chinese at the trade institute. But one fishy incident made Kolosov suspicious.


"A mutual friend told me he had seen Konon at Orly Airport in Paris. 'Impossible,' I said, 'Konon's in China.' But he said he had gone up to him and greeted him. At first Konon spoke English and pretended not to know him. But when he persisted, Konon took him aside and whispered in Russian: 'Fuck off.' I found this very puzzling."


Matters were clarified for both Galina and Kolosov after Scotland Yard caught Lonsdale red-handed taking secrets from an agent on Waterloo Bridge. The Soviet spy was sentenced to 25 years in a British jail. Kolosov read all about it in the Italian press, to which he had access because he was preparing for his KGB posting to Rome. Galina was informed by the government. "KGB bosses came to our apartment in Moscow and gave her a 12-piece tea service," Trofim said. "They told her not to worry. Her husband was a hero and they would get him out of prison as soon as they could."


The agent whom Lonsdale met on the bridge was a British traitor called Harry Haughton who, together with his mistress, Ethel "Bunty" Gee, had leaked the secrets of the Portland Underwater Weapons Establishment to Moscow for money. Haughton made the mistake of sending an anti-Semitic letter to a colleague at the submarine base and this led to a police investigation, during which it was noticed that he and his lover were spending far more money than they earned. Simultaneously, a Pole who was loyal to the West tipped MI5 off that Lonsdale was really Konon Molodiy and that he was working with his old friends from his time in America, Peter and Helen Kroger. Thus, the members of the notorious "Portland Spy Ring" were caught.


This was how the Daily Express, then a serious broadsheet, reported the trial in its edition of March 23, 1961: "Stocky, 39-year-old Lonsdale ... faced Lord Parker, the Lord Chief Justice, with a smile on his face, a flush on his cheeks and the fading words of his counsel in his ears: 'At least it can be said of this man that he was not a traitor to his own country.' But at the tone of Lord Parker's voice, the smile vanished and he paled. A gasp broke the silence of the packed court at the 25-year sentence -- the longest passed there in memory."


Peter and Helen Kroger were condemned to 20 years each. The Express said Kroger "staggered backwards, brow creased in pain at the prospect of a near life-time parting from his wife after 20 years of marriage. Two warders grabbed his arms but he reached out to touch his wife's sleeve." Haughton and Gee got only 15 years each because, although they were branded "greedy," they were deemed to have been used by Lonsdale. The judge noted that Haughton, an ex-navy master-at-arms, was "an old 56 and it is against all our principles that a sentence should be given which may involve a man dying in prison."


Lonsdale/Molodiy was taken to Winson Green Prison in Birmingham to start his sentence as inmate No. 5399. By his own account, he had entertaining company there, for although he was kept in solitary confinement, he managed to fraternize with some of the Great Train Robbers during meal breaks and visits to the library. With great glee, the authors of the book publish a snobbish letter from a certain Geoffrey N. Draper to Lonsdale in prison, canceling Lonsdale's membership in the Royal Over-Seas League -- which promotes contacts with former British colonies -- because of his changed circumstances.


But Konon did not, in fact, remain long behind bars in Britain. In 1964, he was swapped at the Glieneke Bridge in Berlin for Greville Wynne, a British businessman jailed in Moscow for his contacts with the Soviet traitor, Oleg Penkovsky.


Thus Konon went back to the Soviet Union, where he ceased to be a man and became a myth. He was treated like a hero at first, receiving a bigger apartment for his family on the prestigious Frunzenskaya Embankment down by the Moscow River, according to Trofim, who was only 6 then and was getting to know his father properly for the first time. A special section of the KGB museum was devoted to the great Molodiy, who for obvious reasons could no longer be active but who got well-paid work as a consultant to the Lubyanka.


Konon himself contributed to the propaganda about his glorious career. When he was still in prison, a British publisher had sought to buy his memoirs. The offer was discussed in Moscow at Politburo level and when the then-head of the KGB, Vladimir Semichastny, grasped that the money was worth "75 Volga limousines," he gave permission for the book to be written. But Konon had to accept KGB censorship. Other books came out, including one in which the KGB put words in Galina's mouth and even paid her for the honor. All plugged the line that Konon was a hero.


The truth, say Kolosov and Trofim, is that he was angry. Like Kim Philby, who got depressed when he saw the reality of life in the Soviet Union for which he had betrayed Britain, Konon became disillusioned with Communism because he had the yardstick of his Western experience by which to measure it. He gave no critical speeches as such but made careless, disparaging remarks, for example during a visit to a factory.


Also, he shot his mouth off bitterly about the way the KGB had handled him. When the Pole had blown the whistle on him, his controllers should have warned him not to go to Waterloo Bridge, he said. Finally, it maddened him that the KGB did not trust him, thinking he may have been turned by the British while in prison, and followed and bugged him in Moscow even though he was supposed to be a hero.


Six years after he returned home, on Oct. 9, 1970, Konon collapsed while on a walk in the woods at Medyn, 200 kilometers outside Moscow, and died five hours later in a poorly equipped provincial hospital. His wife and a friend who was a cosmonaut were with him and called to Moscow for help. But the KGB, despite its access to privileged medicine, sent no ambulance, only a Volga car to pick up the body.


Konon Molodiy's death came "prematurely, when he was at the height of his creative powers," said the short official biography that was the only document Kolosov, despite being a retired KGB officer himself, was able to extract from KGB archives when researching "Dead Season II." The book argues that the KGB may have murdered Konon to shut him up. Russian intelligence agents familiar with the authors' theory have said Russia is a free country now and anyone can write fiction if they like.


Trofim is not 100 percent convinced that his father was killed. "There was a history of high blood pressure in our family and I can't really see why the KGB would wait six years to kill him when they could have done it as soon as he returned from Britain," he said. "On the other hand, I do not exclude the possibility." Galina, now an old lady, has not thought much about it, he says, but his sister Lisa has her suspicions about the official version of events.


Kolosov is the strongest subscriber to the foul-play theory because of something disturbing that the spy told him in the last days of his life. Konon had seemed healthy when he came back from Britain but soon he began complaining that KGB doctors were calling him in and giving him injections for supposed high blood pressure. The spy told Kolosov he was getting headaches he never had before the injections but the doctors said he should expect to "feel worse before he felt better." Kolosov offered to take him to his own civilian doctor for an objective analysis and Konon welcomed the idea, but did not live to hear a second opinion.


Shortly before he died, Konon also spoke to Kolosov of a palmist back in Britain who had predicted he would "wear handcuffs, but not for long" and that when he returned to his "country of origin," he would be "in danger from seeming friends and unethical doctors."


The hint of murder certainly adds spice to the book and will help to boost sales. But readers should be aware that, elsewhere, Kolosov has suggested Kim Philby was so depressed he committed suicide, a claim hotly denied by his widow Rufa, who should know. The KGB were masters of disinformation. Now retired officers are after commercial success. Neither approach takes much account of the truth and a book like "Dead Season II," while fascinating, should always carry an academic health warning and be read with a large pinch of salt.