As the Cold War was beginning to thaw, a 1985 defection of a senior agent of the KGB, the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1991, triggered a series of diplomatic moves raising concerns among British officials over the further collapse of relations with the USSR, according to secret British government files released by the National Archives on Tuesday.
The declassified papers revealed that the defection of KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky led to a number of officials being expelled by both countries. The then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher intervened personally to strike a deal with Moscow after Gordievsky came under suspicion, according to the files. Gordievsky, who leaked Kremlin secrets to London for more than a decade under the codename “Hetman,” was considered one of the British intelligence agency MI6’s most valuable Cold War assets, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
After Gordievsky was suspected of spying for the British government, he was ordered back to Moscow and interrogated by the KGB. He was later smuggled out of Russia in a car trunk by two MI6 operatives while his wife and two daughters were still in the Soviet Union. After his defection, Thatcher proposed to Moscow that Britain would not expel the 25 KGB agents that Hetman had exposed if Gordievsky’s family was allowed to join him in London.
“Having children of my own, I know the kind of thoughts and feelings going through your mind each and every day. But just as your concern is about them, so their concern will be for your safety and well-being… There is always hope. And we shall do all we can to help you through these difficult days,” Thatcher replied to a letter written by Gordievsky, in which he pleaded that the British government reunite him with his family, The Independent reported.
However, Moscow rejected Britain’s offer, prompting Thatcher to remove 25 Russians despite protests from the then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. The Soviet Union responded by expelling 25 Britons, which led to another round of expulsions in which both Russia and Britain sacked six more officials each, AP reported.
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, agreed to allow Gordievsky’s family, which had been kept under 24-hour KGB surveillance for six years, to join him in London.