Spy stories have been a legitimate literary genre ever since Joshua Ben Nun was sent into the Land of Canaan; at their best they combine elements of tension and surprise, of politics, intrigue, military adventure, and occasionally sex. The output reached high tide in the years after the first and second wars; some were partly fictional or exaggerated; others, as far as one could judge, quite realistic; a few became bestsellers. The cold war, on the other hand, has so far produced little authentic spy literature. There are of course good reasons for this; the clash of ideologies makes everything more complicated. Instead of good old-fashioned intrigue we get long-winded and boring political arguments. The great age of the individual spy seems to be past. Today’s master spy is neither a crack pistol shot nor necessarily a great womanizer, but a faceless man belonging to an anonymous organization.

Perhaps a more important reason is the reluctance of these organizations, in West and East, to let their members or ex-members rush into print. We have had to be satisfied with sketchy reports by defectors and written-up versions of trial reports, some superior, others on the level of popular journalism. I do not want to imply that there was actually a gentleman’s agreement between West and East not to publish; simply that bureaucratic machines everywhere usually have the same reactions. It came therefore as a considerable surprise when the Russians decided for the first time to break this unwritten law; some observers have attributed Gordon Lonsdale’s memoirs to the department of misinformation in Moscow which has of late shown increased activity. America and England almost immediately retaliated with The Penkovskiy Papers—another first in the field. It remains to be seen whether, when spies fall out, historians come into their own.

Gordon Lonsdale, a high-ranking Soviet spy, was arrested in London in March 1961 and sentenced at the Old Bailey to twenty-five years imprisonment. Three years later he was released and handed over to the Soviet authorities in East Berlin in exchange for Greville Wynne, the Englishman who had been involved in the Penkovskiy affair (about which more below). Spy, according to the dustjacket, is the whole truth about Lonsdale’s life. Apart from the undeniable fact that Mr. Lonsdale was born, the reader would be well advised to take nothing in the book at face value. Even the date of Mr. Lonsdale’s birth, not to mention his subsequent activities, seems to be open to doubt. According to Spy he was born in Cobalt, Ontario on August 27, 1924. But in a letter to his wife Galyusha, in January 1961, which fell into the hands of the British police at the time of his arrest, Lonsdale wrote: “I’ll be thirty-nine shortly.” The solution to this riddle is not too difficult: The man posing as Lonsdale was really born Konon Molody. But it would be unfair to subject Mr. Molody’s book to detailed critical analysis. In contrast to his publisher, he does not claim to report the whole truth; he says in his Introduction that it is not his intention to present hostile intelligence services with information that might be of use to them. What seems indisputable is that he left Russia in 1954, went first to Canada, then to the United States, and ultimately to Britain, where he posed first as a student of Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies and then as a free-wheeling entrepreneur with a special interest in vending machines and juke boxes. He also set up a little espionage net to get photographs of atomic submarines, details about the design and specifications of the ships used by the Royal Navy, etc.

What kind of man was Lonsdale-Molody? He describes himself as a convinced “collectivist” (read communist) with nothing but scorn for rugged Western individualism, commercialism, and preoccupation with material goods. From his letters to his wife (unfortunately not included in his book) a very different picture emerges; they discuss not dialectical materialism but whether Konon should send her a tight-fitting white brocade dress and similar status symbols not ordinarily associated with proletarian class consciousness. Molody says he was sickened by Washington, revolted by Miami, and even in Tallahassee felt “strangely restless” and had a “feeling of not belonging.” This is very odd, for one suspects that he would in fact have fitted ideally into Tallahassee. The Lonsdale that emerges from this book is exactly the brash, pushing, hail-fellow-well-met rugged individualist who would be the pride of the junior chamber of commerce in most of the places he professes to loathe so much.

Every few pages Molody stresses that neither the Americans nor the British were really a match for a well trained, intelligent spy like himself who was acting out of motives of patriotism and Weltanschauung. He found England in particular a wide open country, a veritable heaven for spies; both the British and the Americans were so hospitable and so unsuspecting. This is no doubt largely true; Russians have been traditionally far more suspicious of their fellow human beings than Westerners. This reached grotesque proportions under Stalin but it began much earlier. The British and the Americans, never having experienced invasion or totalitarian rule, often display a touching naiveté vis-à-vis political systems and working methods that are different from their own. The general attitude in Britain towards the spy cases in America in the Fifties was one of superiority—it could not possibly happen here. When it did happen (and on a worse scale) the reaction was one of massive bureaucratic stupidity; for example, it is I believe now impossible for a young man or woman to become a meteorologist unless both his parents were born in Britain. Such measures are scheduled to prevent espionage à la George Blake…Even so, Lonsdale has no reason to feel that superior to the British for, after all, he was caught in the end; putting all the blame on a “traitor” only shows that he is a bad loser. The job of a spy, after all, is not to be betrayed by a colleague or subordinate.


Lonsdale is a man of some charm, his appearance in court was confident, even cocky, far superior to that of Westerners in Soviet courts. Admittedly, he had little to fear; life as a spy these days is not terribly dangerous. He can be virtually certain that he will be exchanged (like Abel or Lonsdale) after two or three years at most; it is the poor wretches, his local assistants, who are not protected and who have to sit out the twenty-five-year sentences. The main discomfort spies seem to experience these days is separation from their families; both Abel’s and Molody’s letters make revealing reading. Another occupational disease is boredom; as Molody wrote to Galyusha: “There is a great emptiness in me. I am always happy when holidays end and ordinary working days restart.” Lonsdale seems to have been the ideal operator; clever, adaptable, exceedingly industrious and full of initiative, and not very intelligent. It is really awe-inspiring to read how much ingenuity was invested to install, say, a deadletter box in the toilet of the Classic Cinema in Baker Street, London, or to meet a certain “Jean” in a Paris street. Spies, including the “well trained and intelligent operators” like Lonsdale, are so busy that they never take time off to pause and ask themselves whether it is really worth it. One has the strong suspicion most of the time that much of the material transmitted by spies like Lonsdale could also be collected by an intelligent newspaper reader, or is classified but unimportant, or important but cannot be verified and is therefore useless. The innate Russian distrust works both ways; how can they be sure that secret information received has not been fed by enemy sources? Stalin knew before June 21, 1941 that the Germans were about to attack but he refused to believe it. What statesman will base a vital decision on an unconfirmed intelligence report that may or may not be correct? Perhaps it is different with information of a highly specialized technical character which can possibly be checked, presumably at high cost. It appeared at Lonsdale’s trial that most of the photographs he had received at considerable risk to himself and his “net” had already been published in either the daily papers or the technical journals. Really important spies, spies who have changed the course of history, have been few Raheb perhaps, the harlot of Jericho, but neither Nathan Hale nor Timothy Webster; Colonel Redl perhaps, the head of the Austrian counter-intelligence (a figure which had so much fascination for John Osborne), but neither Edith Cavell nor Mata Hari, not even Silber, the German agent who spent World War I as a censor in London. The Tsarist agents among the leaders of the revolutionary movement, including the Bolsheviks, did not help to stem the tide of revolution. Hitler knew from “Operation Cicero” about the coming invasion; like Stalin in 1941 he thought it was a forgery that had been planted on him. Mr. Fuchs seemed very important at the time—but wouldn’t the Russians have caught up anyway in a few years?

If Molody-Lonsdale was a collector of snippets of information, Oleg Penkovskiy belongs to a very different category in the annals of espionage. A Colonel working in the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff, he had access to all the military, economic, and political information available at the very summit of the Soviet hierarchy. According to the prosecution at his trial, from April 1961 to August 1962, he passed on to Western agents top space secrets, as well as information on the East German peace treaty, material on Soviet troops in East Germany, lists of Soviet Intelligence officers, and what not. Colonel Penkovskiy’s trial resulted in the demotion of the Soviet Marshal in charge of tactical missiles, of Serov, the chief of Soviet military intelligence, and the recall to Moscow of some three-hundred intelligence officers from their assignments abroad. Whether even this highly-placed spy changed history is a difficult question, for one would have to know whether and to what extent President Kennedy relied in his confrontation with Khrushchev over Berlin in 1961 and over Cuba in 1962 on information supplied by Penkovskiy.


The Penkovskiy Papers are said to have been written in the Soviet Union and smuggled abroad; they consist of a series of unconnected general observations on Soviet policy, military preparations, espionage, as well as personal remarks. The Soviet Union protested vigorously against the publication of the “papers,” which it called a forgery; some Western readers have found certain inconsistencies in it. My own feeling is that the Penkovskiy Papers were not actually written in the Soviet Union; they read as if they were the answers to a very detailed questionnaire. Perhaps they are an edited version of the taped interviews that took place between Penkovskiy and American and British intelligence agents in London. It is just possible that some bits and pieces were added from the actual intelligence reports sent by Penkovskiy from Moscow. But these are only guesses; does the content of the “papers” sound authentic?

The Soviet government has not given specific grounds for its indignation; the essential facts seem to be beyond dispute, namely that there was an officer named Penkovskiy, that he spied for the West and was executed. What irked Moscow apparently were the sections in which Penkovskiy maintains that Khrushchev prepared for war, that the “first strike” doctrine had been accepted by the Soviet General Staff, and that the General Staff was working day and night formulating various plans of attack. “I always wonder, why does the West trust Khruschchev? It is difficult to understand. We in the GRU sit around and talk and laugh; what fools, they believed us again.” Penkovskiy says time and again that if Khrushchev is not “slapped down,” and if the West does not show both firmness and vigilance, there is good reason to expect the worst. The Russian authorities were also no doubt irritated by the revelations about the extent of Soviet espionage; Penkovskiy maintains that 60 per cent of Soviet personnel stationed abroad (diplomats, journalists, experts) cooperate with one or other of the espionage agencies. Penkovskiy certainly provides much evidence to this effect; I wonder whether the Soviet authorities are not hypersensitive, for, as Mr. Crankshaw says in his Preface, these things are nowadays taken for granted.

All this no doubt sounds very shrill, alarmist, and cold warish. Could it be a CIA fabrication, as has been suggested? It should be recalled that in 1960-1961 Soviet policy had not yet been fully adjusted to what one may euphemistically call the implications of nuclear warfare; the more peaceful approach came only after Cuba. One forgets too easily the threatening noises made by Khrushchev in 1960-61. Penkovskiy’s appraisal of the military and political situation, and especially the prospects for the future, may have been influenced by his own strong feelings; citizens of totalitarian countries who become disaffected usually react with total rejection—there is no room for halftones and intellectual detachment. If my assumption is correct, namely, that these so-called papers were not written but actually dictated, this would also explain some sweeping, and perhaps crude, statements. Most people are far more exact in their formulations when they write than in conversation.

Penkovskiy, one suspects, was a unique case; it is only very rarely that a country receives secret information directly from the nerve center of another. Even if it does, the difficulties of communication are enormous; if the spy is efficient he is bound to be caught sooner or later. As for the sort of traditional cloak-and-dagger stuff practised by Lonsdale, it is doubtful whether it is more than a nuisance. When Khrushchev came to America, he met Allan Dulles in San Francisco and said in conversation with him that the intelligence services ought to be pooled or merged, since the White House and the Kremlin were getting the same reports, probably from the same people; Mr. Dulles is said to have agreed, but it is unlikely that either gentleman was quite serious. Too many vested interests are involved in the continuance and expansion of the activities of the various secret services. There is the traditional belief that somehow a decisive advantage can be won over the enemy by superior intelligence. Historical experience shows that this hardly ever happens, unless perhaps in very exceptional circumstances. There may be a need in the computer age for electronic device supervision from satellites and other such contraptions, but the age of false beards, dark glasses, and dead-letter boxes is clearly drawing to its close. Soon Mr. Gordon Lonsdale will be as much a museum piece as his well known kinsman, Sir Richard Hannay.

This Issue

January 20, 1966