KGB vs. MI5 in 1970's London

Lights, Camera, Covert Action

KGB Colonel Stanislav Lekarev (1935-2010) was an especially apt observer of the interplay between intelligence, culture and deep politics. While we know about the CIA’s extensive ties with Hollywood, the KGB had its own assets in the USSR film industry. Here Lekarev, an officer of the KGB First Chief Directorate, goes undercover as a Soviet film executive in 1970’s London, where he crosses swords with British counterintelligence, MI5. 

SovExportFilm wasn’t a cover for everyone – you could crash and burn quickly here. A three-month probation period in State Cinema before my departure gave me little to work with. Moscow negotiations with Western commercial representatives didn’t allow me to delve into the nuances of SovExportFilm’s specifics. Viewing Western productions also didn’t help me any. And it was so obvious their quality was higher. Only on the job do you understand that you have to figure out the details of film production – be able to precisely determine the worthiness of reels from the point of view of mastery by scenarists, directors, cameramen, actors, as well as the quality of the film. It’s additionally useful to know the basics of the Stanislavsky System; this impresses those conversing with you. Along with all of that, you need accounting knowledge and the ability to write reports. If you don’t go the distance, the question of your replacement will be raised. So it happened – people wishing to replace you will always be found.

British Counterintelligence

MI5 Headquarters Thames House
MI5 headquarters at Thames House.

England is a country with police traditions and a high culture of counterintelligence. You’ve yet to arrive in the country, while a file on you – more accurately the skeleton of a future dossier – is already in a counterintelligence officer’s safe. Usually this is a form, photograph, and a detailed recording of your discussion with the consular officer at the British embassy in Moscow, as well as a report by the MI6 Moscow station. The latter may collect initial data on the intelligence officer through its sources in State Film. Further, sewn into the dossier are checks through all possible records of British intelligence and the intelligence services of nations where the intelligence officer managed to make official visits.

During the first phase, such a set of data is obligatory, but insufficient. Bosses everywhere are the same. They require determining “who is who” in order to not waste valuable funds on “clean” clients. A “skinny” dossier provokes special attention from agents and surveillance. That’s why an intelligence officer strives to help his colleague from the opposition’s counterintelligence fill his file with information that corresponds to the position he holds, which is beneficial to the intelligence officer.

“Natural Cover” 

Valery Lekarev
Lekarev’s father Valery Petrovich Lekarev, seen here playing Napoleon Bonaparte in The Ships Storm the Bastions in 1953.

My biography made this cover fully “natural.” My parents tied their whole life to the theatre. My father, Valery Petrovich Lekarev, a people’s artist of Russia, worked in the Ermolovsky Theater from the day of its founding and acted in movies. My mother, Marianna Vasilievna Khoroshko-Levkareva, was an actress of the same theater, an actress, and acting instructor. I couldn’t follow in their footsteps. However, in the Cold War thaw period, when the romanticism of work in Soviet intelligence attracted many, I imagined that this profession would enable me to combine my multiple “ambitions” with my natural inclination towards my parents’ profession. Indeed, if one were to take a peek, within intelligence we have our own playwrights; directors; actors; extras; makeup artists; costume designers; lighting specialists responsible for props and staging. Everything with the exception of applause.

In timely fashion through London connections, MI5 received the authentic and vetted information that SovExportFilm’s new representative was the son of a people’s artist who had played several roles in film and was one of the favorite actors of USSR Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva. Indeed, my father’s name and his artistic biography were included in the Soviet Encyclopedia of Theatre. Meanwhile, connections in the USSR (blat), as we know, were a grand affair.

There remained the trifling matter of knowledge of the English language. I obtained it in our country’s best institute – the Institute for Foreign Languages. My colleagues taught me the rest. For clothes you should choose the European style. Avoid similarity to “Soviet commissars” in your appearance and behavior. If you’re working with emigres – and there are plenty in British films – pepper your speech with a selection of expressions such as, “How may I be of service to my lady?” “On my honor.” “Be so kind,” and “Russian representation” instead of Soviet embassy.

Experienced colleagues recommended that I demonstrate full independence from the USSR embassy. At the beginning I almost never went around there. Aside from that, it followed to “signal” a complete absence of ties with KGB officers, including their wives and children.

Show Business

Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Image: Mosfilm

A mark of an intelligence officer’s work as a representative of Sovexportfilm was the sum of foreign currency gained from sales of Soviet movies. Another was the use of films as a means of propaganda for the Soviet way of life.  It’s hard to say what could be more difficult. In State Theatre the former was valued, while in the Foreign Ministry it was the latter. Therefore, we had to try to please both. Several times in England I had to run film festivals (on the 30th anniversary of the victory over Germany) and Soviet film weeks (in Leeds and Dublin), as well as organize premiers of our movies (Solaris, Carmen Suite) and arrange thematic showings in British universities. Such political measures were quite welcome in Moscow, so I could check that off. The embassy reported to the Foreign Ministry with excerpts of news from the local press. In similar fashion Sovexportfilm reported to State Theatre. “At the London premiere of Tarkovsky’s Solaris were present so many viewers.” Go and check.

It’s true that any such activity was inevitably accompanied by protest demonstrations. Local Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish organizations stood out, setting up pickets with slogans condemning concrete human rights violations in the USSR. Someone invited a group of young Jewish female activists who had been standing by the theater entry with signs “for free exit to Israel” to a viewing of Solaris. I took them into the gallery, and they enjoyed the movie. They not only fulfilled their mission, but they were also culturally enriched.

MI5 Stalks the Receptions

Miss Moneypenny
Miss Moneypenny romanced by James Bond. Image: United Artists

The main index in an intelligence officer’s work was always recruitment and his circle of operational connections. It’s understood that the former directly depends upon the latter. Connections are made at receptions. That is, with one particularity. Official receptions are attended by people well known to counterintelligence, which uses this in its interests. At London premiers for cinematic events, there was always a photographer from the “Timeline” section of the popular magazine Film Review. In the period this story is told, this work was diligently performed by a 30-year-old woman who looked the image of British intelligence’s Moneypenny from the James Bond movies. She shot a lot, then published short notes on the event in the weekly magazine. The remaining material on contacts and individuals went into MI5 dossiers, where data on KGB ties at official receptions was accumulated. A detailed analysis of such photographs can give a counterintelligence officer rich food for thought. At one reception I was able to “treat” the lady counterintelligence agent to dinner, and afterwards escort her to the hotel room of her magazine. There we had a “heart to heart.” She spilled some details, but apparently reported to her superiors. She would no longer appear at the receptions. She was replaced by an elderly, non-drinking cameraman. Zero results, but as a famous NKVD chief once said, “trying isn’t torture.”

MI5 didn’t limit itself to surveillance. They also sent agents who acted at premiers, freely searching for whoever they could hook. I remember how at one such gathering an elderly representative of a minor English firm approached me. He turned out to be a combat veteran and swore his love to the victorious Soviet Union. To get me to like him, he had the habit of opening a bottle of whisky with a characteristic crunch of the fastened stopper, pronouncing his death sentence: “The German’s neck!” He studied my inclination to drinking and my relation to British actualities. Just as we did – when the objectives are similar, the techniques are the same.

Concentric Circles of Connections

Soviet Embassy London
The Soviet (now Russian) Embassy in London, where Lekarev didn’t spend much time.

One can understand that at such receptions you wouldn’t snag a useful connection, since everything was under MI5 control. Accounting for this situation, the residency developed a concept of so-called concentric circles. Among those present at an official reception, you choose an individual who doesn’t present interest to MI5 and establish personal contact by inviting them to your home for a domestic celebration. Then a return invitation would usually follow. That’s how the second circle of connections is accessed, where MI5 presence is almost excluded. Acting by the same principle, acquaintance with a new contact is realized, which leads to the desired “third circle,” which MI5 has no possibility of reaching.

During one such meeting I accessed the former director of British military counterintelligence during the war. An old anticommunist, full of malice for SMERSH, Moscow, and the Kremlin. Moreover, his wife was a charming 45-year-old Scotswoman who periodically arranged expositions of contemporary Soviet avant-garde artists, complementing them with showings of Soviet films.

Valued Contacts

In the London residency, contacts with Americans were especially valued. The main adversary was also the main one in film. At an American movie premier, there’s a crowd of politicians, businessmen, and military – all yet to be recruited by Soviet intelligence. Contacts with the haute bohème were always attractive. To make it to such a get-together, one had to excel. Joint film expositions were in fashion; I decided to grab onto that. During meetings with representatives of the film companies 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Universal, and Warner Brothers, I began to push “killer” plots. The first was constructed on a virtual story of the joint fight of James Bond and the KGB against world evil embodied by a Triad connected to Chinese intelligence.

The second plot was even cooler – it actually took place. This fact was confirmed by the acting USSR military attache in London. In the Second World War in winter, a Soviet rifle regiment became surrounded north of besieged Leningrad. The deep snow didn’t allow the Germans to destroy the surrounded men, who for the same reason couldn’t receive reinforcements. The Wehrmacht’s anti-aircraft guns wouldn’t let our air force in. They awaited an outcome. Then the commander of the surrounded regiment proposed that the General Staff drop paratroopers, ammunition and food from a low altitude into the snow without parachutes. They carried out the landing. Many, they didn’t fall on the slope covered by snowdrifts, perished. The regiment, if with losses, was relieved. Famous British actor Peter O’Toole was to play the German general, while the no less famous American of Russian origin, Yul Brynner, was to be the Soviet colonel.

Men of Quality

Peter O Toole II
Peter O’Toole as British spy Lawrence of Arabia. Image: Columbia Pictures

The work of State Cinema’s London office was going successfully. High-ranking diplomats from the socialist countries (Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria) came to Sovexportfilm’s receptions. With them they brought connections from among foreign diplomats. Living legends of Broadway and Hollywood were periodically at our agency:

Peter O’Toole – A man of tremendous personal charm and humor, in an elegant suit, aristocratic and confident of his infallibility in acting. He was planning to play do Uncle Vanya on the London stage and came to us with a request to watch Smoktunovsky in this role. O’Toole arrived in an open Rolls-Royce, in which a no less film-worthy chauffeur in a uniform cap sat with a stone face.

Peter Ustinov – The great nephew of the famed Russian artist Aleksandr Benois, and one of Great Britain’s best theatre directors. Imposing and tragicomic, he at once resembled Pierre Bezukhov and Ilya Oblomov. With a light, ironic grin, he loved to watch the film versions of Chekhov’s plays. He told how his father, a former German army officer, came to Russia at the height of the Revolution to find out the fate of his parents. He stayed for a week in Saint Petersburg, where he fell in love and was joined in lawful marriage. When his parents left Russia in 1920, Peter Ustinov was already “in development.”

Sean Connery – A star of the first order, he managed to appear in the USSR in The Red Tent. At receptions he’d appear with bodyguards. He combined a feeling of his own style, confidence, masculinity, and an attractive appearance. He was considered the ideal man: energetic; handsome; clever; flawlessly attired; and always behind the wheel of a sports car. I had to train for the preparation of James Bond’s favorite cocktail, the Martini – the same one that’s shaken, not stirred.

But more than anyone else, I was especially interested by the son of a family of Russian emigres, the incomparable Yulii Borisovich Brynner. Everyone should remember him from the film The Magnificent Seven. The fact is that his father, Boris Yulevich Brynner, the Far Eastern Republic minister of trade and industry, was married through his second marriage to my grandmother’s cousin, MKHAT actress and Stanislavsky pupil Yekaterina Ivanovna Kornakova. It was she who gave her stepson a letter of recommendation to Mikhail Chekhov, who went over to the United States and opened a school of master acting. Many Hollywood film stars were his students. The contact with Yul Brynner didn’t get any development. He held a fierce hostility to the USSR, something he didn’t hide. Let the reader not be surprised. In the KGB they didn’t know that I was the grandnephew of his stepmother. In those times only close relatives were vetted; otherwise I wouldn’t have been representing Soviet cinema in London.

A Natural Blonde

Ingrid Pitt II
Ingrid Pitt seduces Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare. In jest or not, Lekarev says she was an “MI5 honeytrap.”

The closest connection of Sovexportfilm’s London office was the British movie star Ingrid Pitt, an Anglo-Jewish/Polish-German actress and natural blonde. She played vampires in films by Hammer Studios. Because of her showy appearance, she was invited to USSR embassy receptions for November 7th and May Day. She was a walking honey trap, walking the halls of the embassy and ready to smother any Soviet intelligence officer with her bust. At one of the receptions, ending up at the same table with a descendant of Leo Tolstoy, Pitt didn’t pay him any attention at first. Yet when his relation to the great classic author was announced, she tilted toward him with the words, “Why didn’t you immediately say that you’re the writer of the movie War and Peace?” She wanted to be clever and turn attention to herself, but everyone thought that the owner of the luxurious bust had posed the question in seriousness.

The Ambassador

In those years the USSR ambassador in London was CPSU Central Committee Revision Commission member Nikolai Mitrofanovich Lunkov. Because of his [Cyrillic] initials H.M. (English acronym “Her Majesty”) he was called “His Mitrofan Highness” behind his back. Such things aren’t forgiven. Neither he nor his diplomats came to Sovexportfilm receptions. The expensive company dining ware and our neighboring office, its interior decked out in purple tones, annoyed him.

He disliked the Sovexportfilm office. Soviet film viewings were being attended by all-too-sophisticated guests; such people didn’t drop by the embassy. He received reports that we were watching Color of Pomegranates by Parajanov, who was under investigation at the time. It was also reported that the South Korean military attache wanted to buy a copy of the documentary film Forcing of the Dniepr. This didn’t fit the CPSU Central Committee’s line. God forbid that the North Koreans find out about Moscow’s contacts with South Korea; there would be a scandal. As the Sovexportfilm representative, I’d be threatened with recall to the USSR at minimum. Lubyanka didn’t take offense, and I got off with a spoken admonition.

Original Articles: Part I Part II

Translated by Mark Hackard

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