[This report examines a hoax perpetrated on Chapman Pincher, one that was soon afterwards foolishly picked up by Peter Wright, and later irresponsibly echoed by John Costello and Nigel West. It concerns a deception exercise, named Operation TARANTELLA, probably managed by Joseph Stalin himself, in which a celebrated MI6 officer, Harold Gibson, was sadly misused.]
- Gibby’s Spy
- Harold Gibson
- Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae
- The NKVD Dossier
- The Nigel West Theory
- The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher
- Count Nelidov
- A Spy in the Kremlin?
- Hints of Disinformation
- Operation TARANTELLA
- Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
- The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters
In recent weeks I have been involved in energetic email discussions with Keith Ellison, an intelligence sleuth like me. Mr Ellison is, however, a genuine intelligence expert, having served in Britain’s Intelligence Corps. He has written a very penetrating study of MI6’s Section V during WWII (see https://www.academia.edu/63976327/Special_Counter_Intelligence_in_WW2_Europe_Revised_2021_ ), and discovered coldspur while he was researching wireless usage by the ‘double agents’ of MI5. Keith is engrossed with the identity of ELLI, and challenged me on one or two points of my recent analysis of Gouzenko’s testimony. (He assures me that, despite his name, he is not ‘the son of ELLI’.) Regular coldspur readers will recall that my current supposition is that ELLI was Stephen Alley, identified because of a misunderstanding by Colonel Chichaev over a former agent of George Hill’s, but my analysis is in one aspect flawed in that it does not take into account Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI’s moving ‘to the dubok method’. Such tradecraft would not have been necessary with Alley, since he enjoyed authorized contacts with Chichaev.
Naturally, there is nothing I welcome more than a spirited, well-argued exchange of ideas (unlike some of the unsupported bluster that I do receive from some quarters), and Keith and I entered the debate in a constructive and serious manner. Our discussion kicked off on the question of whether ELLI had been a GRU or an NKVD asset. Since Gouzenko worked as a cipher clerk for the GRU in Toronto, the general assumption has been that he would have had access to GRU traffic only, as the two departments were supposed to have maintained tight compartmentalization. Yet Colonel Chichaev, who reported the fact that George Hill was supposed to be running an agent inside the Kremlin, was an NKVD appointee, and reported to Lieutenant-General Pavel Fitin, head of Foreign Intelligence. The events suggested that encryption and decryption services may have been shared in Moscow by the NKGB (as the foreign sections of NKVD became in 1943) and military intelligence, the GRU. Indeed, the evidence supplied by Walter Krivitsky to MI5 reinforced the notion that sharing of intelligence took place back in Moscow, since Yezhov had been focused on combining the offices of the NKVD and the GRU’s Fourth Department. In Deadly Illusions (p 202) Costello and Tsarev echo the fact that the NKVD’s signals department collaborated with the Fourth Department.
Yet some of these contributions to the record are not precisely dated, and have to be treated cautiously. For example, did Yezhov’s integrative impulses survive his execution? The answer might appear to be ’yes’. Donald Rayfield wrote, in Stalin and His Hangmen, that Beria by 1940 ‘had completed Ezhov’s [Yezhov’s] work destroying Red Army intelligence: everyone of the rank of colonel or above had been shot’. Under those circumstances, how could an independent GRU staff have processed encrypted signals from abroad? Moreover, while Gouzenko appears to suggest that there was a strict division of responsibilities between the cipher departments of the GRU and the NKVD (a chart that he drew for his interrogators in Toronto is ambiguous), one has to question whether the Soviet authorities could afford such dispersal of their cipher teams in times of stress – especially when the units were moved from Moscow to Kuibyshev as the Germans advanced in December 1941. We continue to explore this issue.
As Keith and I delved again into the archival material, and discussed for whom ELLI worked, we agreed that it was indeed probably SOE, but could have been MI6. Guy Liddell had quickly concluded that he (or she) was in SOE, but dismissed the possibility that it could have been the known SOE employee and traitor Ormond Uren, who had been arrested, convicted, and jailed in 1943. We agreed that, as every month and then year passed, the evidential material emanating from Gouzenko for identifying ELLI sharpy deteriorated, and our focus thus turned sharply to the role of Colonel Chichaev. We decided that it was important to verify whether Chichaev did indeed handle any of the Cambridge spies (or their affiliates), to help out Gorsky and Krotov, as Genrikh Borovik claimed in The Philby Files.
And then we changed course. During our email conversations, as we discussed possible moles, Keith incidentally drew my attention to an anecdote reported by Peter Wright in Spycatcher, where the retired MI5 officer described how Anthony Blunt had responded to Wright’s accusation that deaths had occurred because of Blunt’s betrayals, and Blunt appeared to have acknowledged his responsibility in the execution of an MI6 asset behind Soviet lines. I had obviously read this passage when I first encountered Spycatcher, but its implications had not registered very deeply. I decided to investigate.
- Gibby’s Spy
The section runs as follows, where Wright describes his attempts to extract further information from Blunt in 1964 (p 220):
I switched tack, and began to press his conscience.
“Have you ever thought about the people who died?”
Blunt feigned ignorance.
“There were no deaths,” he said smoothly, “I never had access to that type of thing . . .”
“What about Gibby’s spy”? I flashed, referring to an agent run inside the Kremlin by an MI6 officer named Harold Gibson. ‘Gibby’s spy’ provided MI6 with Politburo documents before the war, until he was betrayed by Blunt and subsequently executed.
“He was a spy,” said Blunt harshly, momentarily dropping his guard to reveal the KGB professional. ‘He knew the game; he knew the risks.”
Blunt knew that he had been caught in a lie, and the tic started up with a vengeance.
What to make of this? The impression that Wright gives is that the knowledge of ‘Gibby’s spy’, and of his elimination, was common across MI5 and MI6, and that Blunt’s speedy acknowledgment was tantamount to the fact that he had been responsible. The anecdote also suggested a possible source for the asset in the Kremlin who had provided information that appeared in the famous ‘Imperial Council’ report that Walter Krivitsky discussed with his MI5 interrogators in 1940. But can one trust what Wright wrote as an accurate account of what happened? Certainly, he seems to be aware of a person known as ‘Gibby’s spy’, but can we accept that the challenge, and Blunt’s riposte, actually took place? For example, how did Wright know that Gibby’s spy had been executed? Did Blunt tell him??
I decided to dig around a bit. Quite extraordinarily, Nigel West’s 2009 work Triplex, which covers a broad array of documents passed on to Moscow by the Cambridge spies (many of which appeared for the first time in English, since they were translations back from the Russian transcripts of documents that have never been released by the British government) appeared to provide some strong insights and conclusions. [The translations were performed by Dina Goebbel and by a figure familiar to readers of coldspur, Geoffrey Elliott.] After introducing his readers to Blunt’s recruitment by MI5 in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk, and his ability to gain access to the ‘famed Security Service Registry’, West lays out Blunt’s probable culpability: “Thereafter he seems to have copied whatever files he was requested to, and there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents contained in the pages that follow.”
Again, it is worth quoting West’s full text of explanation here:
The first among these documents is a summary of the NKVD’s October 1940 interrogation of Aleksandr S. Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt. When the art historian joined MI5 in May 1940, transferring from the Field Security Police after the Dunkirk debacle, he lost no time in pillaging the Registry for information that would prove his bona-fides to his NKVD controllers. One of the first items he passed on was information about a highly successful agent recruited years earlier by the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson. Although in the Registry documents a weak attempt was made to protect the source with a code name, there was sufficient collateral data for the ruthless NKVD investigators to narrow the field of suspects, and according to the file released for publication in this volume, it was at this time that they extracted a confession from Nelidov.
West then explains that SIS had ignored the implications of Nelidov’s unexpected arrest, and that Wright’s accusation of Blunt, to his face, was the first occasion on which the connection had been made. (This, in itself, is quite extraordinary. Would MI6/SIS not have undertaken an investigation when their source dried up?) Furthermore, West interprets the passage as indicating that Blunt admitted his guilt, and concludes by observing that ‘In reality, unknown to either Wright or Blunt, Nelidov committed suicide in 1942, having confessed to two decades of collaboration with SIS’. Where West derived this information is not clear. A biography of the Soviet intelligence officer Vasily Zarubin revealed it – but that was in 2015. If West learned of it from his collaborator on Triplex, Oleg Tsarev, one might have expected Tsarev to have attempted to dissuade West from his theory that Nelidov was ‘Gibby’s Spy’.
Yet West is adamant. He next introduces three long confessional statements by the hapless Nelidov. The implication from West is that Nelidov might have been the Kremlin source at the time of the ‘Imperial Council’ affair. The identity of this person – whose existence Krivitsky confirmed from a discussion with his boss, Avram Slutsky, during his last period in Moscow in April or May 1937 – has never been determined. Much analysis has focused on the identity of the mole inside the Foreign Office or MI6 who gave the information to the Soviets (as I wrote about, back in February 2019: see http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/ ), but no investigation into the remarkable ability of an MI6 agent to survive in the Kremlin, and pass on intelligence to the British service, has been undertaken, so far as I know. ‘Was ‘Gibby’s Spy’ the person in question?
Yet my reaction to this farrago of nonsense in West’s prelude was utter disbelief (which I shall soon explain). Firstly, however, I set out to explore who this Harold Gibson fellow – ‘legendary’ (mythical) or real-life – was, as part of my methodology of creating a time-line, an understanding of geography and logistics, and developing an analysis of roles and motivations.
- Harold Gibson
Not much has been written about Gibson in the places where you might expect an officer of ‘legendary’ status to be chronicled. A Wikitree entry gives the following on his early life:
Harold Charles Lehr Gibson was born in Moscow in 1897 (other sources claim he was born in either in 1885 or 1887 which is probably incorrect). He attended primary school in Moscow from 1909 to 1913 and then completed his education at Tonbridge School. He also studied at the technical faculty of Moscow University. In March 1917 he was recruited into MI6 for his knowledge of Russian, was attached to the British Consulate General in Moscow as a clerk, was transferred to the Military Permit Office of the British Embassy in Petrograd and in March 1918 returned to the Consulate General in Moscow. He left Russia for London in October 1918 with the remnants of the British and French Missions – and probably the rest of his family.
(see also: https://elenawatson.weebly.com/gibson.html )
The primary serious source at hand was Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6, so I set out to determine what feats had transformed Mr Gibson into this figure of renown. Here follows a précis of what Jeffery wrote:
Gibson was a ‘Petrograd veteran’, like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Maclaren, who had arrived in Odessa in early 1919, and was ‘wanted by the Bolsheviks’. Gibson’s father had managed a chemical works in Moscow, and Harold had become bilingual in English and Russian by virtue of spending so much time there, and was also a qualified interpreter in French, German and Czech. He left Russia through the south in 1919, and was posted in October of that year to the SIS station in what is now Istanbul. After three years there, he was moved to Sofia in Bulgaria in October 1922, and to Bucharest in Rumania two months later. In Istanbul Gibson had reportedly recruited networks of Russian anti-Communist agents, including one former Tsarist officer who moved with Gibson to Bucharest, although Jeffery records (without identifying the authority) that ‘it was thought likely that the OGPU had become aware of him’.
In Bucharest, Gibson assembled a sizable network of sources, including a clerk in the Sevastopol naval base, who ran sub-agents himself placed as far apart as the Ukraine and Irkutsk in Central Asia. Gibson’s intelligence was highly regarded back in London by Menzies, and he took his White Russian agent HV/109 (who had also worked for him in Istanbul) with him on his next posting. In 1931, Gibson replaced Rafael Farina as head of station in Riga, Latvia. Yet he did not stay there long, being transferred again, in February 1934, to Prague. This was a critical period, and in early 1938 Gibson was instructed to make contact with Colonel Moravec, the head of Czechoslovak Military Intelligence. From this association Gibson was able to gain valuable intelligence about German military movements in Austria. Gibson was instrumental in extracting Moravec, alongside his senior officers, and a valuable archive, out of Prague to London on March 14, 1939, and he himself escaped on March 30.
In 1941 Menzies appointed Gibson as head of operations in the Balkans, where, as SIS representatives withdrew in the face of the Axis advance, he turned out to be responsible not only for Turkey, ‘but also for “stations-in-exile” from Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade and Athens’, operating out of Istanbul. The celebrated SIS officer Frank Foley thought highly of Gibson (and his brother Archie), while commenting on the fact that the station had too many ‘second-raters’. Gibson was dismissive of the expertise and patronizing attitude of the ambassador Knatchbull-Hugessen, who tried to bring SIS under his control, but Gibson’s misgivings were justified when the CICERO spy was uncovered. A brief later experience is regretted by Jeffery, when Gibson was allowed to go into Bulgaria in September 1944 despite the fact that Gibson had apparently been blown to the Soviets as an SIS officer while he was in Istanbul. (I note from FCO 158/193, p 33, that Konstantin Volkov, during his attempted defection there in 1945, disclosed to Reed that the identity and role of Gibson were well-known to the KGB.) Jeffery does not explain the revelation or the misjudgment in any detail, simply referring to the starry-eyed visions of the Foreign Office in aspiring to ‘co-operate’ with the Communists. He also writes nothing about Gibson’s spell in Prague after the war, even though his history is supposed to record events up until 1949. And that is all Jeffery has to say.
What about other histories of MI6? Apart from some fresh insights into Gibson’s handling of the valuable Nazi informer Paul Thümmel, using the contributions of the journalist Eric Gedye (of Philby and Vienna renown), Nigel West’s MI6 has little to add – except for an explosive revelation concerning Gibson’s latter years. It is worth quoting the whole paragraph:
The prospect of long-term penetration of the Secret Intelligence Service led to a review of all the evidence for more extensive wartime and postwar betrayal. Some of the leads had been cold for a long time. Harold Gibson, for example, was one. He had returned to Prague in 1945 and had then been posted to Germany in 1949. After a two-year tour of duty in Berlin, he went back to Broadway and then went to Rome as head of station in 1955. He retired on his sixtieth birthday in 1958 and remained in the Italian capital. On 24 August 1960 he was found shot dead in his apartment at 25 Via Antonio Boso. The British and Italian investigators concluded that he had committed suicide. However, three years later, MI5 re-opened the file following defector reports that the Soviets had indeed planted ‘moles’ in SIS, and that these spies had strong Russian backgrounds or Russian connections. Certainly Harold Gibson had these basic qualifications. He had been born in Russia and had been educated there. English was a second language to him and he had married two Russians. His first wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, was the daughter of an engineer from Odessa. She had died in 1947 and the following year he had married Katarina Alfimov. Apart from the suspicious circumstances of his death, there was nothing to suggest that Gibson had been anything other than loyal.
In The Friends (1998), West’s study of MI6 after the war, the author picked up this thread of molehunts, drew attention to Gouzenko’s observation about the ‘Russian connection’, and listed some of the officers who could have been suborned in some way by Soviet Intelligence. “All the SIS White Russians, for different reasons, must have been targeted by the KGB at some time”, he wrote. “Sulakov had worked closely with Philby at the Istanbul Station; Dunderdale had managed Tokaev’s defection in 1948; Steveni had received Boris Bajanov, Stalin’s personal assistant, back in 1928; the Gibson brothers had worked for SIS throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” His mentioning of Sulakov is particularly damning since, elsewhere, he writes very casually that, in 1947, Philby left ‘the management of individual agents to Roman Sulakov, the station’s long serving, White Russian assistant who had been recruiting and running spies in the region for at least two decades.’ Some assistant: some spies.
I had three major reactions to this astounding passage in MI6:
- It suggests strongly that an MI5 file on Gibson exists (or existed). Enough detail, including the names of his two wives, is presented to indicate that much more information on him was gathered. Yet no one appears to have delved into his post-war activities. Why is this? And why has the file not been released?
- The murky circumstances of his death echo the persecution of agents or perceived traitors who may have fallen foul of their KGB oppressors (e.g. Wrangel, Miller, Agabekov, Poynts, Reiss, Krivitsky, Harris?, Foote?, Skinner?, Graham?). The verdict on his death is disturbingly inconclusive. Maybe Gibson had personal demons, but the circumstances of his final hours cry out for further examination.
- The nature of his marriages also suggests parallels. To marry a Russian woman once is surely romantic: to repeat the performance perhaps an error of judgment. The Soviet authorities did not allow foreigners to take their brides abroad without suborning them with pressures to spy (e.g. Rudolf Peierls). Moreover, Jeffery stated that Gibson had been exposed as an SIS officer during the war. Where did he meet his second wife, and was she perhaps a loyal servant of the KGB?
Michael Smith, in Six, sheds further light on Gibson and his team when discussing the system of digraphs that identified all MI6 officers and agents, telling us that ‘Victor Bogomoletz [sic] who ran intelligence operations into the Soviet Union for Gibson, was given the designator 31109, indicating that he worked to Gibson’s deputy (31100) as his ninth agent’. This number bears a very close resemblance to the anonymous HV/109 referred to by Jeffery, so it is probably safe to conclude that they are one and the same. Smith goes on to express a very ambivalent judgment about the degree to which Russian émigrés were trusted, suggesting that while some were quite reliable (Bogomolets being included in that category), ‘the Service was extremely wary of Russian émigré sources, largely as a result of the activities of the Trust and the Sidney Reilly affair’. (The Trust was a massive counter-intelligence project by the Cheka and OGPU to suggest to exiled White Russians and the western democracies in general that a vibrant counter-revolutionary organization existed in the Soviet Union.) One MI6 officer is even cited as stating that they treated ‘practically all reports from White Russian circles in the same way, namely on the assumption that they are partly, or wholly inspired by the GPU and we leave them severely alone’.
Smith also gives an account of the career of the defector Boris Bazhanov (West’s ‘Bajanov’), who did indeed work in the Kremlin, and served as secretary to the Politburo and to Stalin, and who might possibly have been a candidate for Harold Gibson’s agent. Yet Bazhanov defected in 1928, and his memoir, Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin, gives no indication that he was recruited by British Intelligence. As it happened, his escape route did take him to India, where, according to Bazhanov, the British misunderstood him, since they assumed that he wanted to reside in Britain. His goal had always been to go to Paris, where the vibrant White Russian community lived, and it was there he made his home. He could not avoid MI6, however. Jeffery describes how Bazhanov was interviewed at length by Dunderdale (who was head of station in Paris). Furthermore, Dunderdale managed to extract ‘140 pages of information from him’, and also reported (in a document that is not generally available) that Bazhanov ‘considerably exaggerated the strength of the anti-Bolsheviks and the results attained by them in their secret anti-Soviet work abroad’. Thus, while he proved to be an effective interpreter of propaganda and misinformation emanating from Soviet sources during the 1930s, he could not have been the ‘Gibby’s spy’ active during the era of the Imperial Council leakage.
What Bazhanov did record, however, is the fact that he was able to warn the British about fake documents being handed to them. In his memoir he writes (p 203):
Some time after my arrival in France [1928-1929], a representative of the British Intelligence Service [presumably Dunderdale] came to ask for my advice. Gaiduk (obviously a pseudonym, not his true name), OGPU representative in Riga, was selling Politburo minutes to the British who, thinking them authentic, were paying dearly for then. In actual fact Gaiduk had never seen real Politburo minutes and was fabricating them according to his own concept of them. The British knew even less than he about the subject. I had, however, written so many of them that I was able to establish beyond doubt that the British were buying fakes. They thereupon stopped doing so.
One can scarcely doubt Bazhanov’s integrity, but the actions of Gaiduk are less clear. The date is vague: it could have well been in 1931, when Gibson was installed in Riga. Was Bazhanov sure of Gaiduk’s affiliations with the OGPU? Was Gaiduk acting with full authority of his masters? If, indeed, the OGPU was encouraging the leakage of fake Politburo minutes, it would presumably have taken greater care over their apparent authenticity. Maybe this misbegotten exercise prompted Stalin to ensure that further releases were utterly credible. As for the British, whether they truly heeded Bazhanov’s advice is up for debate. It may have been lost, or not passed onto the appropriate officers. Whether his prime interrogator was Dunderdale, or (as Nigel West reported) one Major Steveni, Bazhanov’s advice should have been assimilated and acted upon. The unavailability of any of the evidence makes objective assessment impossible.
(Tantalizingly, Bazhanov also writes about a figure called Vladimir Bogovut-Kolomiets, ‘an adventurer on a grand scale, [who] often visited the Soviet Embassies in London and Paris.’ In an Endnote, Bazhanov describes this colourful character as ‘a Russian émigré who lived, as the British put it “by his wits”. He was motivated by greed and worked secretly for the OGPU while professing anti-communism.’ A ‘known GPU agent’ Bogovout-Kolomitziev [sic] is identified on July 28, 1930 by Guy Liddell in the Agabekov archive (KV 2/2398-3, p 41). Could Bogomolets perhaps be a contraction of Bogovut-Kolomiets?)
One last puzzling account of Gibson’s activities refers to his possible involvement with the extraction of Polish ENIGMA expertise in 1939. An authoritative-sounding Web report, at http://www.alternativefinland.com/first-british-volunteer-unit-atholl-highlanders/, has him meeting ‘Lewinski’ in 1938 in Warsaw, reporting to his bosses on the offer of information on decryption, and in June 1939 assisting in his escape after Dilwyn Knox and Alan Turing of the GC&CS went to Poland to meet him and his colleagues. (The source for this story is surely Anthony Cave-Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies.) Yet such accounts must be treated very cautiously: David Kahn’s Seizing the Enigma does not even recognize that encounter, and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s ENIGMA: The Battle for the Code indicates that it was Knox and Alastair Denniston who met Langer and Cięźki on July 24-25 1939 outside Warsaw. No mention is made of Gibson, who was back in the United Kingdom by then. Alan Turing did not join Bletchley Park full-time until after the start of the war. Other accounts have it that the Poles attending the meeting were Zygalski, Rejewski and Rózicki, who escaped to Bucharest after war broke out, were rebuffed there by the British Embassy, and eventually made their way to Vichy France. After Rózicki was killed the other two made it to England via Portugal. Details of the separate escape to France by Langer and Cieźki in September are murky: they were later betrayed to the Germans in 1943 as they tried to cross into Spain. Another muddle to be cleared up at some stage.
3. Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae
A main part of the puzzle – explaining where West and others had gained their information – was solved when a coldspur correspondent alerted me to a paper written in 2010. The Wikitree extract cited above appears to derive from the family archive held by the widow of Harold’s brother Archibald. The historian Hugh Seton-Watson, who had served with SOE as a translator in Egypt, had in 1983 suggested to his fellow-academic, Dennis Delettant, a historian of Romania, that he contact Archibald’s widow concerning papers she held on the two brothers. Seton-Watson introduced Delettant to Patrick Maitland, who had been a special correspondent for the Times between 1939 and 1941, covering the Balkans. In turn, Maitland, who told Delettant that Gibson’s role as Times correspondent in Romania had been a cover for his position with MI6, introduced him to his widow, Kyra.
Kyra Gibson invited Delettant to use a trunk of papers that she held in her house. Delettant then wrote a monograph in 2010, published in the SEER (Slavonic and East European Review) journal, that exploited a typed curriculum vitae that Harold had written up in October 1958, six months after his retirement from the Foreign Office. This corrects Harold’s date of birth to 1897 (he was seven years older than Archibald), and adds some details about Harold’s time in Russia, also contradicting the suggestion that he left Russia for London in October 1918:
One month later [i.e. March 1919] he was despatched to the British Military Mission in Odessa as interpreter. In May 1919, he joined the mission of Sir Halford Mackinder to South Russia, to report on the state of the anti-Bolshevist forces led by General Denikin and in July was appointed secretary to a Foreign Office fact-finding commission in Bessarabia. In October 1919, he was sent to the MI6 station in Constantinople under cover of working at the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces of Occupation, to report ’mainly on matters relating to Russian security and refugees’. In December 1922, he was posted to Bucharest as head of station where he worked until March 1931 when he was transferred to Riga.
Delettant’s account also adds some fascinating details about Gibson’s activities in Istanbul as head of station in World War II. He worked with the Czech Military Intelligence representative Lt.-Col. Heliodor Pika, in running the famous German agent A-54 (Thümmel) until Pika’s transfer to Moscow in spring 1941. Gibson then joined the mission in Bulgaria in September 1944, but had to leave the country when all Britons were expelled from Bulgaria by the Russians ‘probably because they were aware of Harold Gibson’s senior position in MI6 and his knowledge of Russian’. Later, in Prague, disaster was to strike Pika. In 1948 Gibson was accused by the Czech authorities of involvement in a plot to undermine the state, and was expelled. But Pika was accused of spying for Britain, tried, convicted, and hanged on June 21, 1949 – in fact the first of hundreds. While he had probably consorted with Gibson, the evidence against him indicating conspiracy was obviously faked. Pika had brought trouble on himself ever since his time in Moscow, when he had openly criticized the Party’s plans for post-war control in Czechoslovakia, and had thus been marked out for punishment.
One last contribution to Gibson’s career comes from a 2015 Finnish source. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in January 1940, there were calls from the public for intervention, and Gibson was soon appointed director of a committee called the Finnish Aid Bureau, an outwardly private initiative, but in fact an operation sponsored by the British Government. This resulted in a small volunteer force being sent to Finland, but the only way it helped Gibson was to draw the attention of the Soviet régime to Gibson’s involvement with anti-communist activism. The Finnish article also re-presents the bare details of the Bogomolets affair, and echoes the claim that Gibson was exposed only in 1945 – a clear cosmetic treatment of the facts.
In relation to the main story of ‘Gibby’s Spy’, the account of Gibson’s career has other profound implications. Gibson was never posted in Moscow (where SIS apparently had no formal station). If he had recruited his old friend, it must have been on a visit from Riga. For his pal to evade surveillance, and set up a meeting with his old school-friend, would be quite an achievement. For his friend to commit to espionage, and then be able to deliver material to someone other than Gibson, when there was no SIS presence at the Embassy, all through the horrifying period of the Great Purge, is beyond belief – unless, of course, it was a set-up, and his contact was somehow allowed to pass on disinformation that the British Secret Service swallowed. Gibson could not possibly have ‘run’ his agent inside the Kremlin from some other European capital: Wright’s claim must be nonsense.
Moreover, Gibson’s rather clumsy enterprises in spy-handling (apart from his clever and successful extraction of Moravec and his archives from Prague, endorsed by the General in his memoir Master of Spies) must be questioned. Was it really good tradecraft to take one’s primary asset around with him as he was transferred from capital to capital, and delegate to him the selection of agents? The enemy’s counter-espionage units would presumably track such movements. And that network of sub-agents extending to Irkutsk? Could they really be trusted? Jeffery’s study of the ‘legendary’ career of Harold Gibson is less than thorough.
- The NKVD Dossier
And yet there exists a much fuller account of Gibson’s career. It astonishingly also appears in Triplex, and consists of a dossier compiled by the KGB in 1949 (although presented by West as the last of the ‘NKVD Reports’). It is clear that the agencies had been maintaining a file on Gibson for some time, and the dossier also intriguingly reflects the contributions of ‘British intelligence agent Vasiliev in 1945’, as well as from source PAVLOV in 1944.
First of all, it makes clear that Gibson was a true ‘enemy of the people’. The report states that he ‘hates the USSR and the People’s Democracies’, and that he even served in the Russian army in the First World War as a soldier and a junior officer. The Czechs, moreover, reported that Gibson had ‘played an active role in a plot against the Soviet regime’ in 1917. The dossier sheds some light on Gibson’s two Russian wives without explaining where they were born, or whether the government considered them Soviet citizens. The first wife is not named, but died in 1947. His second wife, Ekaterina Alfimova, was born in 1920, ‘a dancer, speaks Russian, French, Romanian and a little Turkish’. From 1941 to 1945 she ‘lived in Turkey as the wife [not legally married?] of the British journalist Morton Allen Mackintosh, the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph’, and resided in the UK from 1945 to 1947. Gibson apparently met Alfimova in Turkey in 1941, and married her in 1948.
The structure of Gibson’s Intelligence Group in southeast Europe is then laid out, featuring his brother Archibald as his assistant and secretary, with Victor Bogomolets as his assistant for agent handling. As the various stations are described, it become clear that Gibson relied very heavily on former Russian General Staff officers as his residents in Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia and Riga. It credits Gibson with being able to infiltrate agents into Soviet territory by recruiting a variety of alienated ex-citizens, defectors, or even Soviet sailors whom the Poles had persuaded to jump ship. Why MI6 believed that such characters would volunteer to return to the Soviet Union as spies, and get away with it, is obviously not explained. One remarkable statement runs as follows:
In 1930 the British station sent to Moscow two agents who were employed in Gosplan, Volodya (a Pole) and Luka (a Ukrainian who sold newspapers in Warsaw). When they returned, they brought with them valuable information on the Soviet Five-Year Plan.
Just like that.
Most of the dossier concentrates on Gibson and his network of contacts in Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1948. It proceeds with a stunning denouncement of the power and reach of his contacts:
In carrying out his intelligence work in Czechoslovakia, Gibson’s relied on merchants, former plant and factory owners, princes, members of the Czechoslovak diplomatic service, members of the Popular Socialist Party, Social Democrats, Fascists, White émigrés from tsarist Russia, persons owing allegiance to Germany and hostile to the USSR, newspaper correspondents, Czechs and Slovaks who spent the war in England, scientists with reactionary attitudes, heads of national side industries, staff members of the Turkish Embassy and medical workers employed in civilian and military establishments.
Gibson was obviously a very busy man, and approached his intelligence mission with Stakhanovite dedication. Truly a ‘legend’. But what is alarming is the fact that he was being surveilled with utmost Communist diligence: one fears for what happened to this mass of potential dissenters who had unwisely consorted with the MI6 head of station. Heliodor Pika was surely not the only victim who lost his life.
Lastly, a really troubling exposure. The NKVD had access to Gibson’s personal diary for the years of 1927 to 1941 (the year that Gibson met his second wife), which offers, as a possible explanation, that his first wife might have disclosed such confidences to the Soviet counter-intelligence service in a fit of jealousy. The extract shows all the cities, with frequencies, that Gibson visited during the period in question. The fact that Gibson kept such a diary, full of vital meetings, is rather scandalous – unless it were a hoax, which appears extremely unlikely, given the richness of its entries. This exercise constituted appalling tradecraft, and cannot have been encouraged by his bosses at MI6: the revelation that it existed must have come as a great shock to them, whenever it was discovered. If MI6 did indeed gain a suspicion that the OGPU/NKVD had worked out what he was up as far back as Bucharest in 1930, it is not surprising that Jeffery’s History carries a very muted account of his activities.
- The Nigel West Theory
To return to Nigel West’s theory about ‘Gibby’s Spy’. First of all, the text is a prime example of glib journalese, with the carefully chosen but clichéd epithets and verbs – ‘the famed Security Service Registry’, ‘pillaging the Registry’, ‘the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson’, ‘the ruthless NKVD investigators’. The assertions are blandly made: ‘there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents’, ‘Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt’. Yet West offers no supporting evidence: he does not even explain the origin of the ‘Gibby’s spy’ anecdote, with which, he assumes, his readers are familiar.
Irrespective of the fact that there could had been a spy in the Kremlin, and that his name might have been Nelidov, and Blunt might possibly have revealed details about him in a ‘pillaged’ file (West probably meant to say ‘pilfered’, as Blunt was probably not responsible for the destruction of the records in a fire at Wormwood Scrubs in November 1940), the case, as laid out by West, is absurd:
1) Blunt worked for MI5, not MI6. If there had been records of ‘Gibby’s spy’, they would have been tightly held in the MI6 Registry, famed or not, at Broadway. For a new recruit like Blunt to be able to start poking around in MI6 archives defies belief.
2) Blunt did not join MI5 until June 1940. (In Triplex, West writes that he joined in May: Blunt’s biographer indicates he started in July, but Guy Liddell, in his Diary, points to an early June recruitment.) The first segment of Nelidov’s confession is dated August 1940. A document of that length, attached as part of the CID paper, would not have been transcribed and transmitted by wireless. It would have gone by diplomatic bag, which was a slow process. That would not have given time for even the ‘ruthless NKVD investigators’ to narrow down their search, arrest the unfortunate Nelidov, and extract a confession from him.
3) The Cambridge Five were in any case without a NKVD handler at this time. Anatoli Gorsky had been withdrawn from London in February 1940 because of concerns about the network’s being compromised, and he did not return until late in the year, meeting Blunt for the first time on December 28. Blunt had no one to pass documents to in the summer of 1940.
West seems slightly aware of the logistical and chronological objections to his account: he even acknowledges and describes the reasons for Gorsky’s absence. Moreover, in The Crown Jewels, co-authored with Oleg Tsarev, he in fact records that Blunt did not pass on his first report until early 1941! Yet while West introduces his collection by writing: ‘The documents reproduced in these pages were translated into Russian in Moscow by the NKVD and now have been translated back into English’, and carelessly highlights Blunt’s contribution by stating that he copied the four NKVD documents that West reproduces, it is clear that this confession is not a stolen document, but simply a Russian original retrieved from the KGB’s archives, a native extended statement written by Nelidov himself.
Then there is the question of whether Nelidov could possibly have been ‘Gibby’s spy’ in the Kremlin – or anyone else’s, for that matter, based on the biography he offered to his interrogators. But, before I analyze the confessions themselves, which appear to be an extraordinary mix of fact and rumour, guaranteed to discombobulate even the sharpest NKVD goon, I want to investigate where West got his ‘Gibby’s spy’ story from.
To begin with, West had first revealed his belief in the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story in 1989, when he published The Friends. He rather undermined the talents of the ‘legendary’ Harold Gibson by writing: “Apart from all the White Russian émigrés who were of dubious value, there had only been one really good agent run personally by Harold Gibson.” He continued by explaining that, in 1933, in Riga, Gibson had met an old school-friend who happened to be private secretary to Anastas Mikoyan, the Foreign Trade Commissar. While West did not say what the friend committed to do, he did state that Gibson moved to Prague to run his agent, ‘but contact was broken late in 1940 after Gibson had been evacuated to London’. (That escape actually occurred in 1938.). Again, how being resident in Prague helped the process is not explained. And then, to cap it all: “When discreet enquiries were made in Moscow, it was discovered that Gibson’s agent had been arrested and executed.” Discreet enquiries in Moscow? How were such investigations carried out? By careful conversations with the head barman at the Moscow branch of White’s Club? It is all very ridiculous.
- The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher
Keith Ellison pointed out to me that John Costello’s Mask of Treachery (1988) constitutes a useful pointer. If you look up ‘Gibson’ in Costello’s index, you will see one entry for ‘Biggy’ Gibson, as if he were a rapper, or possibly an associate of the Kray twins. No matter: he is our man. On page 375, the author reveals more details, and again, for the sake of a complete record, I reproduce the first paragraph in full:
The redoubtable Miss Huggins, however, did not assert her authority over the director [of B Division, Guy Liddell] fast enough to save the life of a Russian mole whom the British had run for seven years on the Politburo staff in Moscow. He was a school friend of an MI6 officer named Harold “Gibby” Gibson, who had been educated in prerevolutionary Russia. While Gibson was in Moscow in 1933 he had been able to persuade his friend, who was then working in the private office of Anastas Mikoyan, that his disenchantment with Stalin could be repaid by espionage. Shortly after Blunt’s arrival in the fall [sic] of 1940, this valuable inside source in Moscow dried up.
Costello then paraphrases what Peter Wright wrote in Spycatcher, in an attempt to seal the deal. His Notes and Sources credit Chapman Pincher for the story: “See Pincher, Treachery, pp. 112-113, for the details, which were subsequently confirmed by Wright, Spycatcher, p 220.” Now I found this a little perplexing. Why was the journalist Pincher, rather than Wright, an MI5 officer, the source of the story? And Treachery was not published until many years later. First I checked out both my editions of that book, to verify that Gibson does not appear in the Index, and that the anecdote had not been re-presented. Costello does not provide a consolidated Bibliography, but I quickly determined that the volume to which he was referring was in fact Pincher’s 1981 work Their Trade Is Treachery.
Indeed, on page 112 of that volume can be seen Pincher’s insights. They are a mess. Gibson is described as an MI5 officer, and Pincher reports that his friend, working in Mikoyan’s office, had been working as an MI5 source-in-place for seven years. Blunt apparently admitted that he had passed on one of his reports to ‘Henry’ (Gorsky), and, soon after, Henry told him that the source had been eliminated. It was absurd to present MI5, responsible for domestic security, as having agents in the Soviet Union, let alone the Kremlin. With the knowledge that Gorsky was out of the country all this time, one can swiftly dispense with the story as pure disinformation.
Pincher must have realized that he had been the victim of a scam, a word in his ear, no doubt, by a trusted source in MI6, since, in some embarrassment, he carefully expunged this incident from the greater bulk of his final analytical composition, Treachery. No explanation or apology followed, so far as I can see. John Costello, another student of intelligence, died unexpectedly from apparent food-poisoning on a flight from Miami to London in 1995, and thus did not survive to challenge his colleague, or revise his own work. But what is extraordinary is why Nigel West, in 1989, and then again in 2009, was taken in by the whole rigmarole, and re-presented such loose rumours as fact. He discovered the document on Nelidov, called up the flimsy story about Gibby’s Spy, and put two and two together to make seven, while trying to sound very authoritative about the whole affair. It is a disgrace.
What is astonishing is the fact that John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, in their exploitation of KGB files in Deadly Illusions (1993), echoing Costello’s former opinions, trust completely what Peter Wright wrote about Gibby’s Spy and Anthony Blunt. Having claimed that ‘NKVD records showed that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’, they fondly suggest that this person could have been Gibby’s Spy, recruited by Gibson, although they undermine their case by asserting that Gibson ‘was an undercover officer with the British Embassy’ – certainly not true. (In a section below I explore further the manner in which they trip over themselves because of their succumbing to a ‘deadly delusion’.)
I thus see three questions remaining (apart from the riddle that no one has sought to debunk this nonsense, so far as I can judge). Who was Nelidov, and does his profile match up with a possible asset for MI6? Was there a real spy inside the Kremlin who did provide some valuable information to the British in the years immediately before the war? And was Gibson’s network penetrated from the outset by OGPU/NKVD/KGB (which would account for the fact that MI6 has tried to throw a veil over his career)?
- Count Nelidov
The confessions of Nelidov (in Triplex) are an extraordinary mélange of betrayal, naivety, and disingenuous mendacity. Count Nelidov was an obvious ‘trader’, an acquirer and seller of information without any ideological convictions who at various times served (or claimed to serve) the British, the Germans, and the Soviets. From his account, he was not an ‘agent’ employed by MI6, but actually started off his career as an officer. But we now have to face a troubling dilemma: are Nelidov’s memoirs more, or less, reliable than what the authorized history of MI6 claims? After all, we should not discount the fact that the Secret Intelligence Service might have wanted to put a different spin on its embarrassing experiences with the Russian count.
According to Jeffery, Nelidov was fired by MI6. It was Nelidov himself who claimed that he had ‘obtained a post in the Press Department of the British Secret Service’ in Constantinople as early as 1921. Of course, he may have thought it was the British Secret Service: it may have simply been the Embassy. However, Nelidov’s account of what MI6 was up to is more comprehensive than Jeffery’s, so MI6 may have been guiding their authorized historian down a path that indicated that Nelidov’s ‘offer of service’ was rejected, as they would prefer to suggest that they had washed their hands of him. In any case, Nelidov had a multitude of adventures thereafter, switching allegiances when it suited him, and trying to re-sell information he had given to one intelligence organization to its rival or enemy the next day. There is not the slightest possibility that he could ever have infiltrated his way into any of the departments of the Kremlin. He occasionally indicates that he came across Gibson in his career, but he mentions several other notable MI6 officers, such as Carr and Hill, much more frequently.
Both Walter Krivitsky and Pavel Sudoplatov (in charge of the NKVD’s Administration of Special Tasks from June 1941) had something to say about Nelidov, but, because of the circumstances and timing, admitted contrasting impressions of him. When Krivitsky was debriefed by MI5, he offered his experiences with Nelidov as evidence of the ease with which Soviet intelligence could acquire any information in Berlin in the early 1930s. Nelidov had approached Krivitsky, told him he had worked as a British agent in Constantinople, and offered to bring Krivitsky an enciphered telegram that had been just despatched by the British Legation. Since Krivitsky had access to all telegrams sent by any Embassy or Legation in Berlin, he was able to tell Nelidov, a day later, that the telegram was a forgery. The account of Krivitsky’s statement continued: “The same night he received information through a German intelligence agent that Nelidoff [sic] had offered to work for the Germans, together with Nelidoff’s account of his previous interview with Krivitsky!” The anecdote concludes with an account of how Nelidov sold a document to German Intelligence for $3,000, was confronted by them that it was a forgery, and thereupon repaid the amount – with forged money, consequently being prosecuted by the German police. Nelidov’s behaviour shows all the characteristics of Bazhanov’s ‘OGPU agent’ Gaiduk – but Nelidov surely was not working for the OGPU at this time.
Somehow (the record is not clear) Nelidov ended up working for Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr. As Pavel Sudoplatov, in Special Tasks, reports, Nelidov [actually Neledov in Jerrold Schecter’s translation] was captured by Polish counterintelligence when he was sent to Warsaw on a reconnaissance mission in August 1939. When the Soviets invaded Western Ukraine later that year, they found Nelidov in the Lvov prison, and brought him to Moscow. There he was able to impress Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky, later chief of the general staff, and General Filipp Golikov, director of military intelligence, with his knowledge of German war plans, including the critical information that, if the Germans were not able to make deep inroads in the first two or three months of the war, the invasion was doomed to failure.
Nelidov’s own confessions hint vaguely at this change of allegiance. He claims that, on his way to Berlin in 1933, to replace Captain Ellis (the notorious Charles Ellis, who betrayed MI6 secrets to the Abwehr), he stopped in Vienna, where he met the head of Soviet intelligence, and offered him material (which he claimed was accurate and valuable). Having arrived in Berlin, where his mission was to try to penetrate Soviet intelligence, he and Ellis concluded that ‘there was no material at all that might be used to interest Soviet intelligence’. He does not mention his encounter with Krivitsky, but the incident may have provoked that reaction. In a later confession he blandly states: “About two months after my arrival in Berlin, I left the British SIS and went to work for the Third Department of the German General Staff”, which he describes as a cover for the German Intelligence Service since the Versailles Treaty.
One significant outcome from this business was that, at the end of 1933, Nelidov was sent to London to establish a network of agents to report on Foreign Office attitudes to Germany, and claimed that his two leading agents were George Hill (now down on his luck, and short of money, having been dismissed from SIS because he had appropriated funds entrusted to him by Bruce Lockhart), and a Captain Francis, who worked at the Secret Service Registry. Hill was paid a salary of 200 pounds by the Reichswehrministerium, a fact that would no doubt turn out to be of inestimable value to the NKGB when Hill arrived in Moscow as SOE representative in December 1941. Nelidov also tracked Hill down to the consulate in Riga in July 1938, where Hill described how he gained information from the Latvian Police and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, and laid out details of his Russian Section team for the benefit of his ex-colleague and presumably current Abwehr handler. If all of Nelidov’s account is true, it constituted astonishingly reckless and treacherous behaviour by Hill, and reinforces how stupid the decision was to install Hill as head of the SOE Russian station.
But Nelidov was burned out. He had been seen through by the Russians, and had abandoned the British before they rumbled him, presumably. Canaris must have been really desperate to recruit a rascal such as Nelidov. Once the NKVD had bled him dry, and squeezed out all the information they could from him, he was of no more use to them, and as a ‘former person’ with a noble title, would have been despised and presumably eliminated. It is unlikely that he survived long enough to have committed suicide. (Robert Baker’s biography of Zarubin states that Lt.-General Fitin wanted to use Nelidov as an agent in Turkey, but that, when Zarubin went to brief him, found that he had killed himself. The sources of such a story need to be strictly verified.) And one function Nelidov could never have achieved was to be ‘Gibby’s Spy’ in the Kremlin.
- A Spy in the Kremlin?
Thus I return to the question: who provided the information from the Politburo meeting that made its way into the MI6 report? To recapitulate the events: Krivitsky recalled that, on two or three occasions when he was in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, he saw printed reports of the proceedings of the Committee of Imperial Defence, as well as other confidential reports, which had been photographed by OGPU agents in London. Moreover, he described how, during his final visit to Moscow in March-April 1937, his boss at INO (the Foreign Department of OGPU), Abram Slutsky, also his friend, had drawn his attention to the latest extracts provided by the ‘Imperial Council’ source, and asked him about a report bound up with it that concerned a special meeting of the Politburo that Litvinov, the Foreign Minister, had attended. Slutsky concluded from the material in the report that British Intelligence must have a source in Narkomindel (the Soviet Foreign Office). His opinion was shared by the man who ran the English section in INO.
Identifying this report was obviously important to MI5 and MI6. Eventually, Jane Archer showed Walter Krivitsky a copy of such a document that included a report from MI6 dated February 25th, 1937. Krivitsky immediately recognized it as the report that he had seen in Moscow in March or April of that year. Furthermore, Krivitsky mentioned that Slutsky was very concerned about identifying the source, since he was uncertain of his own position, and wondered whether Krivitsky had any ideas. One important aspect of the case is that, according to one of the minutes in the record, Krivitsky told Archer that Yezhov himself had asked him about the identity of the spy – a fact that failed to appear in Archer’s final report. But Krivitsky, witnessing the arrests and shootings carrying on at the height of the Purge, had only one thought – get out of Moscow, if he could, before he followed the other victims of Stalin’s desire to exterminate everyone who knew too much, or had been influenced by Trotskyism while abroad. He thus temporized with Slutsky, saying he would look into the matter, but never did.
Slutsky had reasons to be nervous. He had denounced his previous boss, Arthur Artuzov, when Yezhov, the new head of OGPU, started liquidating the men of his predecessor, Yagoda, a group that included Slutsky himself. Slutsky retaliated to save his own skin. Artuzov was sacked on January 11, 1937, arrested on May 13, and shot on August 21. Yet Slutsky gained only a temporary stay of execution. In December 1937, he submitted to his boss, Yezhov, a very creative report on the organization of the agents in Britain, but was killed – probably by poison, or possibly by injection after being subdued by chloroform – on March 17, 1938, in the office of the head of the GUGB, Mikhail Frinovsky. Frinovsky was himself executed the day after the same fate was delivered to his wife and son, in February 1940. Yagoda was shot on March 15, 1938: Yezhov on February 4, 1940. Krivitsky did well to get out of the Soviet Union when he did, but was killed in mysterious circumstances in Washington in January 1941.
It should not be discounted that the leak could have been deliberate, and the snippet of information passed on as something harmless to Soviet interests. If that were true, it is also possible that Slutsky had not been told what was going on. But whom can we trust on the facts behind the events? One of the leading sources is Deadly Illusions by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, the latter being at the time of publication a consultant to the Press Department of the Russian Intelligence Service. In his Acknowledgments, Costello expressed his homage to professional historians: “I am indebted to historians in academia whose rigorous scholarship sets the standard to which we non-academics – who some would dismiss as ‘airport bookstall historians’ aspire.” Yet writers who so naively swallow the whole ‘Gibby’s Spy’ farrago (as they do on page 203) must be treated very circumspectly (as indeed should ‘authorized historians’ from academia).
Their account of the leakages starts off confidently, but then drifts into confusion. Tsarev had access to the KGB Maclean files, and thus the authors write with assurance about the several occasions when Maclean passed on important Foreign Office reports, since they cite the content of such. Yet their narrative is sadly lacking in specific dates, and contains some startling errors. For instance, they write (p 200), ascribing it to an ‘Orlov memorandum, Maclean file, No 83791’:
The Centre had investigated how the Foreign Office knew about ‘mobilization of Soviet industry as recently carried out in 1932 in the Far East’, from his [Maclean’s] previous report, telling Orlov that it pointed to a British spy operating somewhere in the reaches of the Kremlin apparatus.
But Maclean did not start handling material over until January 1936: Orlov left the United Kingdom for the last time in October 1935. It seems as if the archive was being tainted with false material.
The muddle continues. They assert that items in the Foreign Office reports gave the NKVD ‘vital clues in hunting down spies [sic] who were operating undercover in the Soviet Union for the British’. Further, ‘NKVD records show that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’. The implications are clear: there was more than one spy (‘Gibby’s Spies?’), and the first detection occurred before the crucial minutes of the Imperial Council that took Slutsky by surprise. One has to question the authenticity of these KGB archives: to discover one spy with the capability to pass secrets to the British was remarkable, to be harbouring several traitors in that capacity is surely ridiculous. The authors show no evidence of other reports that reproduced intelligence gained from the Commissariat. Moreover, as was recounted by the defector Boris Bazhanov, who did occupy an important post in the Kremlin, and was Stalin’s secretary in the 1920s, controls on the use of documents were very strict.
Costello and Tsarev then claim that it was a report passed on by Maclean in March 1937 that helped identify an agent in the Commissariat, but then, awkwardly, they inform us that the spy had already been betrayed by Maclean, and that this Commissariat secretary had been ‘turned’ to feed false information to the British until Blunt ‘inadvertently stumbled across this double deception operation’. An endnote contradicts this statement, indicating that Mally (the NKVD’s illegal rezident at the time) sent a letter in March 1937 pointing to an as yet unidentified spy. That would be more consonant with the timing of Krivitsky’s discussion with Slutsky about an unknown leaker at Narkomindel, but it is another mess. Slutsky and his lieutenants (e.g. Krivitsky, Mally) were clearly kept in the dark about the disinformation exercise, but it would have helped Artuzov and Stalin to know that their messages were being received and taken seriously.
It is evident that Costello and Tsarev disagreed about the proliferation of such spies. In an Endnote, Costello writes: “Turning the MI6 agent was in accord with Soviet practice (this hypothesis rests on the British author’s presumption that there was only one MI6 spy).” Why Costello would say this, having outlined the existence of multiple spies, is not clear, but it appears that he was fixated on the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story, as valid testimony of a lone operator, while Tsarev was taken in more by the doctored NKVD records. As for ‘turning’, that is of course nonsense. No ideological conversion would have taken place with a real discovered traitor. He would have been eliminated by the NKVD. But the channel to British Intelligence (a conduit that is never explained by either side) would have been supplied with further (dis)information to maintain the pretence.
Keith Ellison pointed out to me an important passage in The Crown Jewels (pp 211-212):
Another question which interested the Centre was the information received from Cairncross, through Burgess in September 1938, on the presence of an important British agent inside the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (NKID), who was alleged to be working as ‘head of non-territorial department’ and from whom British intelligence had received three reports, the most recent dated August 1938, concerning correspondence exchanged between Stalin and Edward Benes. The Centre wanted to know what else Cairncross knew about this British source which Moscow named TEMNY(‘Obscure’).
It is difficult to fathom this. The Great Purge was on. Slutsky had been killed in March 1938. If other spies had already been seized, and presumably executed, why would any bureaucrat encourage a bullet in his head by trying to transfer such routine documents to British Intelligence? Cairncross told Gorsky that he was not sure whether the latest supplier of information was the same agent who passed on Litvinov’s report at the Politburo meeting. He was not the only one confused. Moreover, the advice that Bazhanov had given a decade before, namely that the Politburo minutes were fakes, appeared to have been lost, or ignored.
Lastly, the role of time and place is very important. If the Foreign Office documents had to be photographed, and the films smuggled out by courier to Copenhagen, and then taken to Moscow to be developed and interpreted, there must be a time-lag of weeks, probably. (This seemed to be the operating procedure when the Soviet Embassy with its diplomatic bag could not be touched.) Thus for an MI6 report dated February 25 to have been submitted to the Foreign Office, included in the minutes of a meeting that were then published, ‘borrowed’ by Maclean (or King, or anyone else), and then routed by surface transport via Denmark and Leningrad to Moscow for processing and analysis, it is a strain to suppose that this could all have been accomplished by the end of March, when Krivitsky was in town. Yet that is what Krivitsky reported.
- Hints of Disinformation
One can detect from some of the autobiographical records of the time an awareness that there may have been ‘special departments’ (as they were called in Stalin’s bureaucracy) that were active in disinformation schemes. After all, as Krivitsky reported, Stalin manipulated the Gestapo to provide culpatory evidence about Marshal Tukhachevsky’s possible traitoriousness. (A few years later, Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group ran the COURIERS operation, which tried to deceive the Germans by claiming the existence of an anti-Soviet faction within the Russian Orthodox Church.) The OGPU, even if it had shut down its TRUST operation against Russian émigrés in 1927 after its kidnaps and murders had been laid bare in Paris, and it had declined to delivery strategic information requested, was still trying to undermine any White Russian cabals that were still struggling along. Thus a common element in Soviet schemes at this time is the exploitation of ex-tsarist officers.
For instance, in Our Own People, Elisabeth K. Poretsky, the widow of Ignace Reiss (who had been killed in Switzerland in 1937 after sending a defiant message to Stalin), wrote that the NKVD carefully selected candidates for tasks that their conventional European agents would never have performed. Such persons were mostly recruited from the GRU, and famous among them was Elisabeth Zarubin. “These were the people in the N.K.V.D. whom Moscow relied upon for burglaries, kidnappings, and murders. They were also the ones who recruited and directed a special section of former White officers about whom nothing was known outside the N.K.V.D.”, Poretsky wrote. Zarubin (then known by her maiden name Gorskaya, until she married another celebrated agent) was feared because of the way she had seduced Jacob Bluymkin and then in 1929 led him to his death (according to Andrew and Gordievsky). Blyumkin had been partly responsible for the death of the German ambassador to Moscow Count Mirbach, and had foolishly tried to relay a message from Trotsky to Radek while he was in Constantinople.
(The activities of the Zarubins merit further investigation. Sudoplatov states that Zarubin had in fact been married to Blyumkin for some years, and betrayed him because he handed over to Trotsky money intended for illegal operations in Turkey, but references to her as ‘Gorskaya’ would tend to undermine that assertion. She was later to be known as ‘Zarubina’, or under her codename ‘Zabilina’, when she worked with her husband in the USA purloining atomic secrets. Robert K. Baker’s biography of Vasily Zarubin, Rezident, indicates that ‘Gorskaya’ had been in a relationship with Blyumkin until November 1929. Baker also records that Zarubina spent some time in London – probably in 1940 – on a mission to track down the elusive agent ATTILA.)
Poretsky added a revealing note:
Krivitsky hints in his book that he had been told all about these activities, but neither he nor Ludwig [Reiss] nor Maly was ever officially told anything of the kind. Of course they had their suspicions, gleaned from newspaper items and hints dropped by Slutsky. But to be privy to this kind of information one had to be one of ‘theirs’, and Krivitsky, as he often told Ludwig, was not.
What Krivitsky wrote, in Stalin’s Secret Service, after witnessing Tukhachevsky’s trial, was that Stalin used fake ‘evidence’ taken from the Gestapo to frame his generals, that that evidence was fed to the OGPU [in fact the NKVD after 1934] from Czarist organizations abroad, and that he killed General Miller in order to destroy ‘the one uncontrolled source of information, apart from the Gestapo itself’, as the source of his evidence. One might question that last clause, but the implication is clear. Stalin was using disinformation to hoodwink his own counter-intelligence service so that it would persecute his enemies, and it is thus evident that some of his intrigues were kept secret from even the senior officers.
So who knew? The architect of the TRUST, Artur Artuzov, had been in charge of counterespionage (KRO) in the OGPU until 1929, when, after Yagoda decided to get rid of Trilisser, he was appointed deputy head of the Foreign Department (INO). The semi-authoritative history (KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky) is strangely silent on Artuzov’s term in office, and ignores both his promotion to INO head in 1931, as well as his move to the GRU in 1935, after he angered Stalin at a Politburo meeting in 1934 (according to Jonathan Haslam). The authors move quickly on to the denunciation of Artuzov by Yezhov in March 1937, but rely exclusively on Krivitsky’s account. What had Artuzov been up to, and did he have Stalin’s confidence during these years? Why did Gordievsky apparently not know about Artuzov’s activities? (My anonymous intelligence colleague informs me that Gordievsky, as a political intelligence officer, would not have known anything about counter-intelligence operations.)
- Operation TARANTELLA
In April 2007, a story appeared in the Guardian newspaper (see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/apr/03/russia.lukeharding) that described how, in 1946, Victor Bogomolets, a long-term spy for the British, recruited initially by Harold Gibson, had decided to betray his masters after being deprived of his British citizenship, and had approached the Soviets. As agent BRITT, he provided his new bosses with crucial information at the height of the Cold War. What is more, the report stated that the network of spies developed by Bogomolets within the Soviet Union were all fake, and that they supplied misinformation to the United Kingdom about the strength of the Soviet Union’s military and economic capabilities. This operation was known as TARANTELLA. Yet the story had a strange twist: Bogomolets had apparently stopped working for MI6 in 1934, when Soviet agents tried to lure him back to Moscow, but he had presumably declined, and escaped retribution, and had even resumed work for MI6 in 1944 in Portugal. That all sounded very odd.
The source for this story was a Soviet intelligence veteran, Major General Lev Sotskov, who had reportedly written a book based on newly accessed material in the Russian intelligence archives. He described Bogomolets as ‘a very big fish’, and was quoted as saying: “The only reason that the Russian émigré had not been identified before was that neither the British nor the Soviets had any incentive to unmask him.” Well, as I have shown, Bogomolets had been identified before, although perhaps not with the clarity that this disclosure claimed. But could it be trusted?
I believe the first English-language description of TARANTELLA came in 2015. That year, Professor Jonathan Haslam published a book titled Near and Distant Neighbours, subtitled A New History of Soviet Intelligence. It is rather a choppy compilation, and strewn with errors. (I had a rather difficult email exchange with Professor Haslam over his conflation of Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss into one person: he rather testily directed me to read his book more closely until I pointed out photographs of both illegals in Deadly Illusions, and he rather reluctantly conceded his error.) Yet his book also contains much fresh information, and Haslam displays an impressive familiarity with a host of arcane Soviet sources. Moreover, he has a complete sub-chapter (pp 49-53) on Operation TARANTELLA.
Haslam’s story runs as follows. After his success with the Trust, Artur Artuzov, the head of the OGPU’s International section (INO), in 1930 started a new operation to provide disinformation to British intelligence. OGPU had been tracking Victor Bogomolets, and his attempts to establish spies in the Soviet Union under Harold Gibson’s direction, for some time across Central Europe. Key to Artuzov’s plan was former tsarist general Boris Lago-Kolpakov, who had known Bogomolets since his Constantinople days. The narrative is irritatingly tangled at this point, but it seems that Lago (as I shall call him), after being recruited by the Cheka, was betrayed by Bogomolets when Lago turned up in Bucharest, and was imprisoned for several years. On his release Lago offered his services to MI6, who sent him to Vienna, yet the unprincipled trader reported to the Soviet Embassy for a full debriefing. Despite Lago’s disobeying OGPU’s instructions, and publishing memoirs in an émigré newspaper, Artuzov saw possibilities in exploiting Lago, and reinstated him. On his way to make contact with oppositional elements in Odessa, Lago briefed MI6 – on what, is not stated. On his return, he headed to Riga to brief Bogomolets and meet Gibson.
If this catalogue of hoodwinks and double-dealings fails to convince, there was more to come. In February 1934, Abram Slutsky, Artuzov’s deputy, working in the trade mission in Berlin, suggested recruiting Bogomolets to the cause. A young agent called Steinberg confronted Bogomolets with the fact that OGPU had been familiar with every operation with which Bogomolets had been involved. Game over, apparently. Yet Bogomolets resisted the blackmail, loyally told Gibson everything, and was rewarded for his pains by being sacked. Haslam, however, immediately abandons this aspect of the story, and leaves it hanging. He then switches into an account of the notorious Metro-Vickers trials (where British engineers were accused of sabotage), and abandons the whole TARANTELLA operation, and the reaction of Gibson and his bosses at MI6, as an irrelevance. Neither Gibson not Bogomolets has any later entry in the book.
It is difficult to know what to make of this. Haslam does not appear to have any strict methodology in his approach. His management of dates is haphazard. While the events described in the last paragraph are generally ascribed to West and Tsarev, and to Michael Smith (above), he offers no specific references for the sources for the critical encounters that he describes, while he otherwise appears to rely on two books in Russian by a Vadim Abramov, Evrei v KGB. Palachi i Zhertvy [Jews in the KGB: Executioners and Victims] (2005), and Kontrrazvedka. Shchit i mech protiv Abvera i Tsru. [Counterintelligence: The Shield and the Sword against the Abwehr and the CIA]. (2006) Yet, more bewilderingly, Haslam does not pay any attention to Sutskov’s book, which was published just the year after Abramov’s second title appeared, and would seem to present far more concrete evidence about Gibson’s embarrassing activities. He even failed to notice the press release that provoked the story in the Guardian in 2007. Since none of these books is easily available, or accessible to the common reader, one has to be very cautious before accepting this unlikely account of events as a reliable contribution to the development of solid intelligence historiography.
Moreover, the circumstances cry out for further analysis. If that is truly how Bogomolets reacted, one would have expected that he would have been killed by the Soviets, and that Gibson would have immediately closed down all his networks, and informed his bosses. Jeffery’s weaselly comment (in the passive voice) that Gibson and his networks may have been contaminated hints at this betrayal, but the historian utterly avoids explaining what the outcome was. The alarming possibility endures that MI6 was reluctant to give up Gibson – or his informers – completely, and his bosses may have tried to resuscitate his ‘network’ again when they thought the dust had settled. Yet the whole account clashes dramatically with the story promulgated by Sotskov, and picked up by the Guardian. Why would MI6 have picked up Bogomolets towards the end of WW2, and then deprived him of his UK citizenship?
Then, towards the end of this stage of research, a coldspur correspondent drew my attention to a remarkable article that had been published in Estonia in 1989. It essentially pre-played aspects of Haslam’s and Sotskov’s stories. Bogomolets had been an agent of the Russian rebel armies, but then had been recruited by Gibson in Turkey in 1921, and given large responsibilities for espionage against the Soviets throughout Europe. Boris Lago had a similar background, but in 1922, when in Prague, he applied to the Soviets for a visa to return home. They pressed him into performing espionage first, to prove his seriousness of purpose, but he proved to be too conspicuous in Prague and too inept in Berlin and Bucharest, in which latter city he was arrested and imprisoned in 1925, but released four years later. Bogomolets then offered him a job with MI6, a transaction that Lago reported to the OGPU. They were not at first interested. Then a critical event occurred. After the kidnapping of General Kutepov in 1930, the General Union of Russian Soldiers (ROVS) in Paris decided they needed a propaganda coup, and set about to assassinate Stalin. Bogomolets was the man chosen for the job, and he engaged his new recruit, Lago, as one of his team. Lago again informed his real bosses, the OGPU.
It was then that Artuzov realized that they could exploit this provocation in a much-needed counter-offensive intelligence operation to convince the British that the Soviets should be taken seriously as a counter to growing Nazi strength. Operation TARANTELLA was conceived as a plan to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s military vigour. Lago travelled to Moscow in the guise of an Austrian businessman, and there was allowed to ‘recruit’ imaginary agents in the Moscow Party Committee, the National Economic Council (the location of Gibby’s Spy?), and other institutions, all of whom gave him valuable information to pass on. The British lapped it up. Stalin himself reportedly managed the whole deceit, and, after the murder of Kirov in 1934, ROVS abandoned the idea of assassinating the dictator, since Lago told the British that Stalin was now too closely guarded.
The same year, however, an NKVD agent called Matus Steinberg approached Bogomolets and suggested that he work for the Soviets. Bogomolets was outraged, told Gibson about the approach, and MI6 decided to end the Lago operation. They had learned enough: apparently Stalin had by now gained what he needed. (Though he may have been infuriated that his scheme was blown prematurely, and punished the guilty.) Lago was slowly withdrawn (so as not to arouse suspicion), and TARANTELLA was wound down. Whether Artuzov’s demise was connected with this event is unclear. Lago was apparently shot in the Purges, alongside Artuzov, The article states that Bogomolets stayed away from intelligence duties until 1945 ‘when he was still [??] recruited into Soviet intelligence’, and that the British turned to him in 1946. What Bogomolets had been up to, and for which agency he had been working, between 1934 and 1945, nevertheless remains a mystery.
Yet the fact that internal ‘secret documents’ were still being leaked in 1936-1937, and that they were being taken seriously by MI6, suggests that TARANTELLA had not in fact been wound down.
- Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
What to make of all these vague and conflicting stories? I decided to acquire Sotskov’s book, published in 2007. It is a struggle to read – and not just because of my rather rusty familiarity with the language. As with all books in Russian that I have bought, it lacks an index, any endnotes or footnotes, and a bibliography. The squat Cyrillic characters do not lend themselves to rapid skimming. And yet it appears to offer some intriguing leads. It contains several photographs of Gibson and his contemporaries, including Bogomolets, Lago, Artuzov, Steinberg, and even Gibson’s second wife, Katerina Alfimova. It includes a photograph of a letter (partial envelope and handwritten text) from Gibson to Bogomolets, sent from London to Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo on August 1946, and the contents of other letters are reproduced in the text. It also presents authentic-looking memoranda, as well as identity cards and diplomatic passes for some of the characters. It makes a strong claim that the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/KGB had been keeping tabs on Gibson for thirty years, presumably from 1918 to 1948.
But can this book be trusted any more than those by Abramov which were issued shortly before his? The Introduction states that matters took a sharp turnaround at the end of World War II, when Bogomolets, after many years of impeccable service to his English masters, switched his allegiance to Soviet Intelligence. At that stage Operation TARANTELLA was closed down (i.e. not back in 1934), and Bogomolets assumed a new role as BRITT, a master of disinformation. Thus an immediate clash with the chronology and motivations described by Haslam in his interpretation of Abramov’s work appears. Moreover, among the more genuine-looking reproductions of correspondence and memoranda, the book includes some extended conversations between characters (such as Lago and Bogomolets) that must have been invented.
As I started to work my way through the text, it occurred to me that the narrative here might be just as unreliable as Abramov’s, so trustingly echoed by Haslam, and that engaging in a thorough translation might be an arduous yet futile exercise, as there was no reason why any assertions should be believed. I tried to contact Haslam again, to determine whether he was familiar with this alternative account, and how he interpreted it. Unfortunately, the email address I had was no longer valid, and my inquiries to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (from which he recently retired) have remained unanswered. This project definitely demands an acknowledged expert in intelligence matters with a good command of the Russian language to take control, and Haslam would appear to be the best fit. (I have since written a traditional letter to Professor Haslam at his home address in Princeton, but he has declined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, my communication.)
Pending an eventual response, I set about translating some of the most obvious artifacts in the case – three letters sent by Gibson to Bogomolets in the summer of 1946. Yet, even here, disturbing questions arise. The letter photographed has clearly been sent by airmail from London, dated August 31, 1946, yet the corresponding letter reproduced in the text (which matches the manuscript visible in the photograph) indicates it was written in Prague. Perhaps this was a standard practice, to avoid the censor by putting a letter in the diplomatic bag, and having it re-sent from London. In any case, Bogomolets must have been expecting such a procedure.
As a coda, in June 2022 General Sotskov was found dead in his apartment in Moscow, apparently a suicide by gunshot.
- The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters
Here is my translation of the three letters:
No 1: British Embassy, Prague, July 10, 1946.
Dear Victor Vasilevich!
Forgive me for not replying earlier to your letter of June 4th, but I have been away for a whole month, and only found it on my return. I was in London, and asked about you several times. I was told that you were already in Paris, and someone even added that he had seen you in London. I am thus very puzzled over what could have happened with your visa for France, and what led to the rumours about your departure from Egypt. I immediately wrote to London, asking for matters to be accelerated, and hope that my request will be satisfied.
I was very saddened to learn that your health has deteriorated, and offer you hearty wishes for recovery, but the most important thing is that you get out of Egypt soon, as its climate clearly does not suit you.
If, before the arrival of my letter, your question still remains unanswered, then ask me again to make contact, and I shall gain a response for you. I consider it a moral obligation to help you, and therefore please do not apologize for any trouble caused.
My wife is still very ill: that is very distressing for me. But at least she is with me now, which is some consolation after the separation during wartime.
My heartfelt regards to you and yours,
No 2: Prague, July 28, 1946
Dear Victor Vasilevich!
I only just received your letter of the 18th. I very much hope that my intervention had the proper effect. Do not thank me prematurely: I just do what friendship and morality require. I understand your situation very well, and very much want to think that you will return to Paris to begin a new life and repair your health. I myself was in Paris a few weeks ago. Judging by my impressions, I fear you will find that much has changed for the worse there. Whatever we do, it is clear that it is our fate to live in a difficult world. Interesting but uneasy times.
Regards to you and your family. I thank you for your good wishes.
Your Harold Gibson.
No 3: Prague, August 27, 1946
Dear Victor Vasilievich!
I received your letter of the 20th yesterday and I am very chagrined by the fact that your affairs have become deadlocked. I shall now apply pressure through my personal connections in Paris. It is truly shocking that you and your family should have to undergo such obstacles. Yet all these things are now sent to try us – for example, I struggled for a year to obtain the freedom of my wife’s mother from one of our officials from a camp in the Soviet zone – an Austrian one. An elderly lady, whose only crime was that she happened to be of Russian origin.
I shall try to achieve all I can for you, because I feel every sympathy for you in your misfortune; indeed, besides that, I feel a moral duty in this matter. Continue to keep me informed.
There have been no special changes with me. My wife is still very sick, which causes me so much heartache.
With warm regards
I would draw three major conclusions from these letters, which appear genuine:
- It is clear that Gibson feels that he has severely let down Bogomolets, and owes him some reparation for previous treatment. Bogomolets has probably been rendered stateless. This is dangerously sentimental behaviour on Gibson’s part, as he should have been on his guard, knowing how the OGPU/NKVD acted. He should have asked himself how Bogomolets had survived.
- Gibson is not acting alone. He confers with his superiors in London, and uses them as an intermediary to send letters securely to Cairo. Thus it is safe to conclude that bringing Bogomolets back into the fold, and helping him and his family, was approved at higher levels.
- The Soviet hook of threatening a family member is evident. Gibson’s mother-in-law has been stranded in Austria, and Bogomolets can presumably assist in her extraction. It is poignant that Gibson’s wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, is ill: she died the following year, and Gibson married his ballet-dancer friend, whom he had known for several years during the time that he and Rachel were separated, in 1948. Heaven forfend that Gibson assisted in his wife’s demise in any way. (While Keith Ellison has pointed out that, if Gibson’s first wife was separated from him during the war, it is unlikely that she would have had access to his diaries in 1941, I would counter that Gibson wrote ‘during the war’, and that, for the Soviets, the war did not start until 1941, anyway. 1941 was the year in which Gibson met Alfimova, his second wife.)
Might these tribulations have contributed to Gibson’s death in Rome in 1960? Perhaps he discovered how he himself had been betrayed, and realized the suffering he had caused in Prague, especially concerning the execution of his close ally, Heliodor Pika. Or perhaps he had been tracked down by the KGB, and punished for breaking whatever agreement he had with them, or simply because he had been an ardent ‘enemy of the people’.
I shall place these issues on the back-burner for now, hoping to receive a swell of insights from coldspur readers, and perhaps a communication from Professor Haslam.
The anecdote of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ is an example of the saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain) that ‘a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’. A mischievous aside from an MI6 officer (Dick White?) to Chapman Pincher was picked up by John Costello and exploited by Peter Wright before being endorsed by Nigel West. (According to West, Gibby’s agent in Moscow was the officer’s only worthwhile spy, and, if that theory falls apart, it does not leave the legend with much of a track-record.) Neither Tsarev nor Mitrokhin nor Vassiliev nor Gordievsky has ever referred to such a spy in the Kremlin. Christopher Andrew has not yet (so far as I know) brought his authority to the story, but this embarrassing item of disinformation has established itself well into the lore of intelligence. It is, nevertheless, obviously a myth. The British intelligence-reading public has been badly served by the academic historians (Jeffery and Haslam), the airport-bookstall historians (Pincher, Costello and West), and the MI5 fabulist (Wright).
If information was leaked from the Politburo to western eyes, as showed by the Imperial Council report, it was probably performed as an exercise in managed disinformation, and the project was apparently concealed from Slutsky and his underlings until 1937, even though he had reportedly been exposed to Bogomolets a few years earlier. The mechanism by which this information was passed to the recipients is unclear, but the Soviet agencies presumably used the courier system on which Gibson and others were relying on for their sources in the Soviet Union. MI6 believed in the success of their agents, and the NKVD was happy to reinforce the charade. The authorized history of MI6 gives the impression that the network of MI6 agents within the USSR was regarded as completely genuine.
MI6 and MI5 are surely concealing files on Harold Gibson that would reveal far more than they have let be published about this very controversial character. It is scandalous that Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6 should step so awkwardly around the details of his career, in the belief, no doubt, that nothing would surface from inside Russia to embarrass them. There is a darker story to be told, no doubt, about the undermining of democratic tendencies in post-war Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union’s resolve to install, through the agency of the KGB, a sympathetic Communist government in Prague. MI6’s continued deployment of Gibson, even though they knew that his identity and role had been blown, was a classic error of judgment. (It is startling that the caption to one of the photographs of Gibson from Sutskov’s book asserts quite boldly that he had been watched by Soviet Foreign Intelligence for thirty years.) But how do you superannuate a competent senior officer with an apparently solid track-record?
A fresh examination of MI6 and the ‘Russian Connection’ is called for. MI5 opened a file on Gibson, and questioned his loyalties. His brother Archibald was also an MI6 officer. The Bolsheviks had a grievance against Malcolm Maclaren. Paul Dukes behaved very oddly later in life, and tried to cozy up to the Soviets. Harry Carr was born in Archangel in 1899, and returned to Russia in 1919 as an interpreter for General Ironside. Stephen Alley was a pal of Stalin’s, and was considered for a while as being ‘ELLI’. George Graham was a victim of a honey-trap, and went mad. George Hill was clearly rotten through and through, and Len Manderstam thought he was an agent of the NKVD. Manderstam himself had fought for Trotsky, and narrowly escaped execution in the Lubianka. Even Wilfred (‘Biffy’) Dunderdale, who crops up so frequently in histories of MI6 and SOE, had been born in Odessa of a Russian mother, and thus may have been subject to subornment. Charles Ellis had a White Russian wife, mixed with the White Russian community in Paris, and was suspected by MI6 of having been blackmailed by the KGB after the war. Isaiah Berlin held irregular meetings with Gorsky, the handler of the Cambridge Spies. Nigel West has written about Steveni and Sulakov. Anyone who had family in the Soviet Union was prey. This one will run and run.
The official SVR and other stories about TARANTELLA cannot automatically be trusted, given the lack of rigour in publications in the Russian language. It could perhaps be a gigantic hoax, designed by the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki: Foreign Intelligence Service) to boost its reputation. Several aspects of the case cast doubts: i) the bizarre notion that the discovery of a plot to kill Stalin triggered the counter-intelligence exercise; ii) the claim that the purpose of TARANTELLA was to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s economic power, which goal could have been reached by means of conventional propaganda; iii) the lack of original archival records; and iv) the fact that details about the operation were not revealed by Russian sources until 2005. Yet the overwhelming evidence of the Estonian report of 1989 citing TARANTELLA indicates that it was a genuine Soviet-era operation, probably one managed tightly by Stalin without the knowledge of the Russian Intelligence Services. (Yezhov’s apparent ignorance of a disinformation exercise, as revealed by Krivitsky, would confirm that theory.) The notion that the codename TARANTELLA was deployed as a retroactive flowery way of dressing up some conventional counter-intelligence projects is thus flawed.
Yet the dominant lesson teaches about Soviet professionalism and British amateurishness. The Soviets had a deep, long-term strategy of penetrating British institutions. They sent in ‘illegals’ who blended easily into the refugee/émigré world of western Europe/Britain. They selected agents before they had any stature or access to intelligence, and directed their careers into important institutions. Agents had to be approved by Moscow before being recruited. They were not supposed to mix socially (but of course they did). After the demise of the Great Illegals, they were handed off to professional intelligence officers, but, by then, their cover was so good, that it didn’t matter. Their cause was helped by the useful idiots and agents of influence.
And MI6? It was led in central Europe by the rather naive Harold Gibson, an overt enemy of the revolution, on whom the Soviets kept their sights for thirty years. (Philby informed his masters of MI6’s set-up, but that would not have occurred until 1942.) The notion of ‘illegals’ in Central Europe would have been absurd. Gibson was presumably supposed to handle agents himself, but delegated it to a dubious character whom he trailed round Europe with him, and to the charmer Roman Sulakov. It is doubtful whether either person had proper training. Nelidov thought he was employed by MI6: MI6 then denied that. Bogomolets was probably bogus from the start. How were agents selected? If they volunteered their services to you, that was a warning sign. Gibson and his superiors appeared to have no discipline in the process. Tim Bower (in The Red Web) and Stephen Dorrill (in MI6) have described MI6’s agent recruitment between the wars as ‘amateurish’. During the war, Gibson did not keep a low profile, but mixed socially and visibly with the Czech government-in-exile. Most of the Great Illegals were murdered on Stalin’s orders: Gibby became a ‘legend’.
In any case, enough evidence indeed exists (primarily in the Gibson dossier) to indicate that a concerted effort to exploit the frailties of British intelligence was successful in Eastern Europe from the early 1920s onwards, and continued past the well-documented TRUST operation. The fact that the myth of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ has endured so long suggests that MI6 was well and truly taken in to believe that it had effective spies working from inside the Soviet Union, and even inside the Kremlin. What exactly happened with Bogomolets remains to be determined. This must represent a significant opportunity for further research, with the inherent conflicts in the accounts of Abramov and Sotskov to be resolved. TARANTELLA should come out into the open.
(I thank Keith Ellison, and another coldspur colleague who wishes to remain anonymous, for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. The opinions in it are my own, and any errors in it are my own responsibility.)
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