YESTERDAY’S MAN

Gorbachev and VladHe was always good at timing, Mikhail Gorbachev. His elevation to de facto Soviet leader in 1985 was good timing for a West wearying of four decades playing a chess-game with only one potential checkmate in sight; he offered a far more optimistic future than the diehard dodderers he succeeded and arrived in office right at the very moment when his opposite number in the White House was open to de-escalating the arms race. His death at the age of 91 has reminded the world there once was a time when Russia was led by a man who (to paraphrase Mrs Thatcher) the West ‘could do business with’ – as opposed to a warmongering megalomaniac turning back the clock that Gorbachev stopped. And his death comes at a point when his most despotic successor is doing his utmost to trash the progress made by one of the world’s last great statesmen; after all, if any single individual deserves credit for accelerating the end of what I guess we must now refer to as the First Cold War, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ghosts have an inconvenient habit of haunting the headlines and giving those left behind an inconvenient reminder of how lowly they languish in the long shadows these apparitions cast. For the last Premier of the Soviet Union to shuffle off this mortal coil when one of the worst legacies of the Soviet era is currently waging an old-school imperial war in Ukraine, dismantling every achievement of his far more illustrious predecessor, is a sad irony. But for a moment, we pause and recall that it wasn’t always like this. Unlike Putin, who has an incurable appetite for starting conflict, Gorbachev actually brought a phenomenally futile military engagement to an end (Afghanistan) and also oversaw the death throes of another long-running farce with innumerable casualties, the USSR.

By the mid-80s, it was evident to anyone not spoon-fed Soviet propaganda that the Iron Curtain was so corroded by ideological rust that it could crumble away with little in the way of pressure; if it were to be removed as painlessly as possible, the task required a man whose vision was not clouded by misguided nostalgia for – and blind faith in – a system not fit for purpose. Both Gorbachev and Putin were schooled in this system, yet one realised its days were numbered and sought to reinvent it while the other is desperate to bring those ‘glory’ days back, regardless of the collateral damage along the way. Gorbachev was a consummate politician, whereas Putin is a military man with a one-track mind. How Russia went from one man to the other probably has something to do with the corrupt, pissed-up disaster wedged historically between them – Boris Yeltsin – as well as the fact the Russian people never forgave Gorbachev for waking them up from the comforting dream of the Soviet Empire.

Born in 1931 to peasant stock of Ukrainian descent, Mikhail Gorbachev was raised in a country suffering from the stranglehold of Stalin, yet by the time Gorbachev had graduated from Moscow State University with a Law degree, Stalin was dead and Nikita Khrushchev was attempting to reform the nation with a process of de-Stalinization that was to be echoed on a far wider scale 30 years later when Gorbachev himself instigated unheard-of freedoms of speech without fear of arrest and imprisonment known as glasnost. Although beginning his political career loyal to the principles of Communism, the deposing of Khrushchev in 1964 and his replacement with the less flexible and far more hardline Leonid Brezhnev perhaps indicated to the ambitious young politician it would take longer to wrestle the nation free from the grip of traditional totalitarian approaches to governance. This awareness was also expanded during Gorbachev’s visits to Western Europe as he climbed the greasy pole and was regarded as safe enough to venture beyond the Eastern Bloc. The shock of seeing how the other half lived in West Germany and, particularly, France – where he experienced open criticism of government that wouldn’t be tolerated in the USSR – caused him to make comparisons that his more isolated, not to say insulated, colleagues back home were denied.

Gorbachev’s rise up the ranks was aided by the death of Brezhnev in 1982 and by his replacement Yuri Andropov, who served as Gorbachev’s mentor and was clearly grooming his pupil to succeed him; it seemed the ultimate prize was within Gorbachev’s grasp. However, Andropov had barely a year as Soviet Premier before he too passed away, and the Central Committee demonstrated their timidity and lack of vision by opting for an ageing Brezhnev leftover called Konstantin Chernenko as Andropov’s successor rather than take a chance on the younger man; this move seems to have parallels with the election of Joe Biden as US President – an elderly, ailing and ineffective individual too old and bewildered to achieve anything in office other than having the correct credentials for a governing party incapable of looking to the future. As it turned out, Chernenko’s unremarkable rule lasted not much more than a paltry twelve months and Mikhail Gorbachev’s moment finally arrived, elected as de facto Soviet leader by the Politburo. Nobody, not even Gorbachev himself, had any idea at the time that the new man would be the last leader the country would ever have.

Realising that if the Soviet Union was to survive then it had to move away from the detached distance of the out-of-touch fossils in the Kremlin, Gorbachev certainly created a different impression than the men who came before him. The distinctive birthmark that baldness revealed made him immediately identifiable to a global public and he seemed possessed by a youthful dynamism that especially found the kind of favour in the West that no other previous Soviet leader had achieved. In order to bring in the reforms he knew the nation needed, Gorbachev filled the Politburo with allies and began relaxing some of the more severe curbs on personal freedoms, even releasing notable dissidents who would otherwise have seen out their days in Gulags. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 provided Gorbachev with a further opportunity to publicly air his views on decades of Soviet mismanagement and incompetence, confident the public would henceforth understand the urgent need for change.

Gorbachev was made for the world stage, charming America’s NATO allies en route to his first summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan and enjoying tea and crumpets with Her Majesty; despite mistrust and suspicion on both sides from the aides and advisers surrounding Reagan and Gorbachev, several summits took place and though neither man entirely warmed to the other in the beginning, by the end of Regan’s term in the White House relations between the two Cold War superpowers were undoubtedly better than they had been in decades. At home, however, Gorbachev received it in the neck from both liberals (who thought his reforms not far-reaching enough) and hardline Communists (who thought his reforms were too close to capitalism for comfort); he was also criticised for standing back and allowing the old Soviet satellite states to rise up and reject the system that had kept them under Moscow’s thumb since the end of the Second World War.

Boris Yeltsin, a man Gorbachev had promoted, turned out to be a persistent thorn in his side during this period and the fact Yeltsin was credited with successfully extinguishing the attempted coup d’état by Communist hardliners in August 1991 further weakened Gorbachev’s position. The writing was on the wall for both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. He resigned as President on Christmas Day 1991 and the USSR itself ceased to exist on New Year’s Eve. What followed is another story for another day, but like any loss of a world leader whose era now seems a long way away, one can’t help but make comparisons – not just between Gorbachev and the psychopath who today wears his shoes, but with all the other excuses for world leaders we have in 2022. From Boris to Biden and from Macron to Trudeau, this is not an age of great men, and greatness can obscure a multitude of sins that utterly exposes those without it.

© The Editor

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OUR MAN IN MOSCOW

Although the generally accepted lifespan of the Cold War stretches from the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 all the way to the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s, it was perhaps at its dramatic height on UK soil from 1956 to 1966. This remarkable decade began with the public exposure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, five years after their joint flight to Moscow, and ended with the escape of George Blake – another senior British Intelligence figure in the pocket of the KGB – from Wormwood Scrubs. The death of Blake at the age of 98, which was announced yesterday, finally brings the curtain down on a cloak-and-dagger era that inspired some of our finest novels and TV dramas of the 1960s and 70s. That Blake should die within a fortnight of John le Carré, a writer perhaps more responsible than any other author for turning unpleasant (not to say embarrassing) spy fact into page-turning spy fiction, seems somehow fitting. The shadow of the enigmatic traitors whose activities contaminated the SIS for decades not only permeated the likes of ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, and ‘The Sandbaggers’ on television, but turned a former MI5 and MI6 man into one of the world’s foremost storytellers of the subject.

The early 1960s saw a staggering succession of spy scandals that suggested Britain was overrun with KGB operatives – Blake arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in 1961; the suburban spies of the Portland Spy Ring exposed and imprisoned that same year; Royal Navy civil servant John Vassall arrested and sentenced in 1962; the exposure of Kim Philby as the Third Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring and his swift flight to Moscow in 1963; and Blake’s escape from prison en route to the same destination as Philby in 1966. There was enough sensational material revealed in that short period to keep le Carré in typewriters for the rest of his life, and it was no coincidence his first best-seller, ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’, was published the year of Philby’s publicised defection. Coupled with the fantasy espionage of James Bond and the cinematic and televisual genre 007 spawned once the 60s began to swing, spy fiction became big business whilst the real thing was exposed as a tawdry trade riddled with dirty tricks and double agents. Even an otherwise-classic British political sex scandal such as 1963’s Profumo Affair seemed incomplete without a Russian spy being thrown into the salacious mix.

By the time of Anthony Blunt’s belated public exposure by the Thatcher Government as the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring in 1979, the story of KGB recruitment at Cambridge during the 1930s was already the stuff of legend. Anti-fascist sentiment and the blind eyes turned to Stalin’s purges when Hitler was deemed a greater threat pushed a generation of idealistic opportunists into the arms of the Soviet cause, albeit a cause requiring betraying one’s own country where the young men signing up to the Foreign Office and the SIS were concerned. The scandal surrounding two such sloppy (and squiffy) operatives as Burgess and Maclean had been an accident waiting to happen for years, but the old school tie was both an entrée into upper establishment echelons and a pleb-proof vest that guaranteed immunity from suspicion outside of the elite circles. By 1951, however, that immunity was being severely tested; joint CIA/MI5 investigations into a British mole supplying the Soviets with intelligence prompted MI6 double agent Kim Philby to tip off his old Cambridge colleagues, and Burgess and Maclean bolted.

That it took five years for their defection to the USSR to be officially confirmed perhaps underlines how reluctant the establishment were to publicly shop ‘one of their own’. That it also took another seven years before Philby himself was named and shamed (and also bolted) speaks volumes. The damage done by Philby to the international reputation of British Intelligence ricochets throughout the spy fiction of the decade following his defection; he was believed to be the primary source for the character of Bill Haydon – AKA ‘Gerald the Mole’ – in le Carré’s seminal ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ – and yet were this kind of un-cricket behaviour restricted to the Cambridge graduates of the 30s, perhaps the damage could have been minimised. As it was, there were many other KGB recruits operating in the UK that bore no connection to that particular spy ring. George Blake was cut from a very different cloth to Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby.

The son of a Spanish Jew who had earned British citizenship through fighting on the British side in WWI, Blake was Dutch by birth and lived in the Netherlands until his father’s death. He was then dispatched to an aunt in Egypt, which brought him under the influence of an older cousin committed to Marxism and Egyptian nationalism; a return to Holland in 1940 coincided with the German invasion and occupation that led to Blake’s recruitment by the Dutch Resistance. He escaped to Britain in 1943 and shortly after joining the Royal Navy was drafted into MI6; an immediate post-war stint in Hamburg was followed by a spell at Cambridge studying languages before he was posted to South Korea; Blake’s mission gathering intelligence on the Communist North was then disrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict proved life-changing when he was imprisoned for the majority of the War and the beliefs inculcated by his cousin in Cairo years before resurfaced; his revulsion at the bombing of North Korean villages by the US Air Force apparently sealed his allegiance to the Communist cause and to Soviet Intelligence.

His cover as a hero ensured upon his release and return to the UK in 1953, Blake’s position in the SIS was secure and he was sent to Berlin in order to recruit double agents. This post enabled him to pass on secrets to the KGB, and he was estimated to have betrayed over 40 MI6 men to the Russians during his decade in Berlin, contributing to the ruin of SIS operations in Eastern Europe. His cover was eventually blown by a Polish defector in 1961 and his recall to London resulted in arrest, interrogation and a trial at the Old Bailey in camera, where he was convicted on five separate counts of spying; the separate charges were responsible for his unusually large sentence of 42 years, though Blake probably wasn’t helped by the fevered climate in which his exposure and trial took place.

Blake was fortunate that his incarceration at Wormwood Scrubs brought him into the orbit of two imprisoned CND activists whose romantic idealism persuaded them he was the victim of an unjust system; they aided and abetted his escape from prison just four years into his sentence and provided several safe-houses upon absconding before their network of do-gooders helped smuggle him across the Channel and through the Iron Curtain, where he was finally reunited with his Soviet handlers in East Berlin. Like Kim Philby, Blake then settled in Moscow, where he was hailed as a hero. It must have been a curious community of old Englishmen abroad as the years rolled by and the cause for which they had betrayed their countries fell into obsolescence. Eking out what one imagines was a pretty dreary existence on a KGB pension, Blake’s status in Cold War mythology remained intact from the Russian perspective, however; at the age of 85, he was awarded the Order of Peoples Friendship by Vlad, whose own former career had relied on the contribution of men such as George Blake.

George Blake’s position is perhaps more understandable than the likes of Philby; the latter undoubtedly bit the hand that fed him, whereas Blake declared he had never felt accepted by the establishment that had nurtured the Cambridge Spies. It was far easier for him to betray Britain because he didn’t feel he was truly accepted as ‘one of ours’ by his SIS spymasters in the first place. But they were a unique breed indeed, products of their turbulent times and an unstable map of ever-changing alliances and allegiances. In the end, it really was every man for himself.

© The Editor