‘The KGB solved my argument with my wife’: When spies get too close to their targets (2024)

The British diplomat stationed in Moscow could tell something was up. Waking in her apartment a little worse for wear one morning, she found a badly burnt saucepan left on her stove. Well aware she was being surveilled by local intelligence agents, she scribbled a note to admonish them. “You went a bit too far here…” she wrote, before heading out for the day. When she returned, a reply had been left. “You left it on,” the new note read, “we turned it off.”

That anecdote, told on social media recently by the writer Andrew Walker, who knew the British woman in question, was one of dozens told in response to a story recalled by the 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith in a new BBC documentary series, Secrets and Spies: A Nuclear Game.

The now 71-year-old Lord Oxford, as he is known, headed-up MI6’s station in Moscow during the mid-1980s, and famously managed to exfiltrate the double agent Oleg Gordievsky by driving him over the Finnish border after his cover was blown in 1985. In a lighter moment, he talked in the documentary about the surreal nature of being persistently surveilled – as was the norm in Soviet Russia at the time.

One day, he said, he and his wife were arguing about where they’d agreed to take their children for a picnic the forthcoming weekend. Fed up of the back and forth, Lord Oxford pettily addressed the ceiling: “Well, where did we agree?” To his amazement, a note shortly appeared under the door confirming they’d agreed on Kuskovo. Now, Lord Oxford smiles at the memory. “I thought that was a KGB surveillant who had a good sense of humour, actually...” he remarked.

These incidents might seem counterintuitive, perhaps even the opposite of intelligence: that a surveillance officer tasked with listening in on – or following, or setting up – a foreign target should not only make them aware of their presence, but actually interact with them. Yet in reality, it was (and perhaps is) much more common than you might think.

“History is replete with stories like this,” says the academic and historian Calder Walton, the author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West. “Surveillance of that kind actually started before the Second World War, but Western governments didn’t really understand the full extent of Soviet bugging until the Cold War got going.”

That point came with the discovery of “The Thing”, a covert listening device embedded in a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States. The plaque was given by the Soviet Union to W. Averell Harriman, the United States Ambassador, in 1945, and hung in Harriman’s residential study for seven years. By the time it was discovered, it was far from the only bug in the embassy. “After that, people started passing notes over the desk instead…” Walton says.

This was the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century, where intelligence was worth its weight in gold. “People [from the West] who were serving there as intelligence officers were subject to just this cascade of intimidation and threats – not just the surveillance and bugging,” Walton adds. Light as the anecdotes often are, the reality was far darker.

Soviet agents, in common with spies from all over the world, were more than happy to let their targets know they were watching them, Walton says. “They’d break into apartments all the time. One of their favourite things to do would be putting upturned drawing pins on people’s sofas. They’d rearrange things on your desk, use your toilet and make it obvious to you someone has used it…” Another common trick, used not just in the Soviet Union, was to change a person’s car radio station.

It all sounds slightly juvenile, but the whole point was “to let you know they’ve been there: to intimidate you and mess with you,” Walton says. “Somebody who is intimidated and paranoid is more predictable, more likely to slip up and compromise themselves.” And sometimes it’s far from subtle. Walton knows one story of a female MI6 officer in the Soviet Union who would get home to her apartment, then slip back out in disguise or through a side exit, to shake off her surveillance.

“It became increasingly obvious to them that she wasn’t in her apartment when she was meant to be, so she got home one day to find they’d boarded up all her windows. Once she was home, she literally couldn’t get out.”

In 2006, the Academy Award-winning German film The Lives of Others, about a Stasi captain monitoring a playwright in East Berlin, used the relationship between a surveillance officer and their target as the basis for a tense drama, as the Stasi officer came to know the intimate details of the playwright’s life. The real thing can be just as entertaining to outsiders, but occasionally even funny, especially when packaged as after-dinner anecdotes. A little different, you’d imagine, than experiencing the suffocating reality of always being watched.

Sometimes, for instance, targets would treat their surveillance like a proto Siri, or analogue Amazon Alexa. Deliberately communicating with your listeners is known in intelligence circles as “talking to the walls”, and can prove useful, if you’re after an invisible secretary. One Australian tweeter recalled recently that when his father was posted to Moscow during the Cold War, “he’d sit in his lounge chair and say things like, ‘Now, Walls, I need to meet Mr Prokoviev about XYZ’ and a week or so later he’d get a call from Mr Prokoviev’s office saying he’d like to see him.”

Others would ask for more towels in hotels (minutes later, guess what the maid knocking at the door happens to be offering?); audibly lament the lack of Scotch in the minibar (and what should their handler offer the next day?); or, in the case of one US astronaut, loudly request a pool table to quell boredom while working with the Soviets on a project (you can guess what happened). There are also stories of following cars subtly helping out with directions, and even cleaners being sent to tidy up apartments that could do with their attention.

In the Cold War, records can read as if there was almost a gentle camaraderie between surveillance and target, or at least an understanding that they were all pawns in a larger game. “Yes, there was a tradecraft. If the Soviets caught an intelligence officer behind the Iron Curtain, they wouldn’t execute that person, they’d get expelled. And the Western services wouldn’t do the same either. In certainly the Cold War there were rules of the game and people knew what to expect,” Waltson says.

“They were able, at times, to have fun with it. And there was a curious relationship between the two sides at times. I hope that still happens, because you need a sense of humour when the stakes are that high.”

But it wasn’t only the Soviets, Walton is eager to point out. “One story I found in the MI5 archives on the British Communist Party, the CPGB, was about the party having its phones bugged so the microphone was always on,” he says.

“There’s a moment where one communist says to the other, ‘We’ve got to be careful on the phone, the Secret Service are obviously listening in on us…’ And the other says, ‘Yeah, and one day, when the archive is opened, we’ll know what was really going on.’ Well, I read that in the archive when it was opened. So not only were they right, but that conversation about it was being picked up.”’

The fact that so many of these stories come from the 1980s and before is no coincidence, and not just because files from that time have been released. That particular conflict was conducted so much in the “grey zone” of surveillance and counter-surveillance that it was simply expected for everybody to be listening in on everybody else. These days, it’s even more insidious.

“All of these episodes, microphones hanging from chandeliers and what have you, is on one level, but we’re now in a time of what’s called ubiquitous technical surveillance (UTS). So if you’re a Western intelligence officer sent to Russia, China or even some African countries that have received Chinese technical surveillance kit, those societies are being run through things like facial recognition, CCTV, mobile phones entirely [monitored].

“So it’s a brave new world of Orwellian surveillance. And you hope that Western intelligence agencies are adapting, if it’s even possible,” Walton says. “These are all amusing anecdotes from the past, and there will continue to be amusing anecdotes, I’m sure, because it’s just blindingly obvious that everything’s being surveilled. But for good reasons, we just don’t know them yet.”

Until then, we’ll have to end on a final tale from Soviet Russia, relayed online recently, involving the UK embassy having a New Year’s Eve party. To mock the Soviets, the staff spent the night occasionally shouting things like, “The Commies don’t know how to party like this!”

A little after midnight, the phone rang. The embassy staff member who picked up simply “heard the sound of a champagne cork being popped and bubbly being poured into a glass.” Then the caller hung up.”

‘The KGB solved my argument with my wife’: When spies get too close to their targets (2024)
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