The Circus, the KGB and Reuters
Wednesday 13 January 2021
It was interesting to read the reflections of Andrew Gray and Peter Gregson on Reuters and its parallels in the Cold War world of cloak and dagger. But perhaps there were more than similarities and we were closer to that milieu than we could have imagined at the time.
Trained in the late 1950s on National Service as a Russian interpreter, I joined Reuters in 1962 after a post-graduate year at Moscow University. Some six months in, I was on duty on Westaf Desk when the phone rang. On the other end was, judging by his accent, a Scot. (No offence, Andrew.)
He obviously recognised me immediately, or at least knew for certain that I would be answering. He announced himself as a “friend of a friend” (what else?) and invited me for a drink.
Amid the beer fumes and the cigarette smoke in a bar near Bush House, it was soon clear that the Scot knew plenty about me (but not much about my friend). Had I enjoyed my year in Moscow? Did I get to know many Soviet people? Then: what did I think about making contact with Soviet exchange students in London? Just keep an eye on them, see what they’re doing, and let him know.
There was a just a hint that he knew more about people in Reuters than he was letting on, but he was evasive when I tried to push him. Years later, fed on John le Carré and Len Deighton, I sometimes mused over that encounter. Did the Circus (or whatever) have a talent spotter at 85? There were, I thought, candidates for the role. But they are now all dead, so it doesn’t matter.
Anyway, if there was one, he (it was certainly a he in those days) had not done his homework too well. I certainly didn’t have any talent that might have suited me for the shadows. And I had just met my future wife, so I was far too busy to spend time with homesick young Russians.
I didn’t say no to the nice Scot, just that I’d think about it and let him know. I did think about it and I didn’t call him, and I never heard from him again. When I was first posted to Moscow in 1965, I wondered if he might reappear with much more risky (for me) propositions. He never, did so a possible career as a secret agent was aborted.
Over 17 subsequent years, on and off, for Reuters in Moscow, the Soviet KGB was an unseen presence in my life and that of other foreign journalists, including my Reuter colleagues. But we learned to live with it, and joke out loud for the unseen listeners.
Over those years, some foreign reporters, two from my own bureau, were expelled for “anti-Soviet activities” (translation: active reporting of the dissident movement) by the Foreign Ministry, certainly at the instigation of what the dissidents called the gebeshniki. Others were sent home after refusing KGB attempts to recruit them.
I had fleeting contacts with Donald Maclean, the British diplomat who defected to Moscow in 1952 after years of spying for the Russians, and with Reuter defector John Peet who announced his decision in a story to London in 1950, left the West Berlin office and crossed to East Germany.
But, I think, the gebeshniki made no attempt to recruit me. Probably, like the Circus (or whatever), they saw a total lack of talent for their line of work. ■