Britain's GCHQ spy headquarters. Files recently declassified show how the defection of a Russian double-agent caused a major spat between the two countries.
Britain’s GCHQ spy headquarters. Files
recently declassified show how the defection of a Russian double-agent
caused a major spat between the two countries.

He was one spy who left many others out in the cold.
Declassified
British government files reveal how the 1985 defection of a senior KGB
agent set off a domino-chain of diplomatic retribution that officials
feared could collapse relations with the Soviet Union just as the Cold
War was beginning to thaw.
As the two countries sent each other’s
spies packing, Britain’s ambassador in Moscow, Bryan Cartledge, warned
graphically of the danger posed by a spiral of tit-for-tat expulsions.
He cabled London: “Never engage in a pissing match with a skunk: He possesses important natural advantages.”
The
spat was triggered by the defection of KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky. For
more than a decade, he leaked Kremlin secrets to London; when he came
under suspicion, British agents smuggled him out of Russia in the trunk
of a car.

Intelligence historians consider Gordievsky – code-named Hetman – one of the era’s most important spies.
The
papers, released by the National Archives under the “30-year rule” for
declassifying secret documents, show Gordievsky was considered so
valuable that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved an attempt to
cut a deal with Moscow: If Gordievsky’s wife and daughters were allowed
to join him in London, Britain would not expel all the KGB agents he had
exposed.
Moscow rejected the offer, and Thatcher ordered the
expulsion of 25 Russians, despite objections from Foreign Secretary
Geoffrey Howe. He wanted the number kept to nine, fearing a mass
expulsion could scuttle relations just as reforming Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev was easing the stalemate between Russia and the West.
In
a memo, Howe said “the Russians would be likely to freeze the
Anglo/Soviet dialogue, probably for as much as two or three years.”
Moscow
responded by expelling 25 Britons, sparking a second round in which
each side kicked out six more officials. But, despite Howe’s fears,
diplomatic relations were never severed.
The files reveal
Thatcher agreed to a Foreign Office recommendation to “draw a line under
the Gordievsky episode” and not expel Czech, Bulgarian and East German
agents the defector had unmasked.
Gorbachev and Thatcher went on
to form a constructive relationship. The 1985 documents include a warm
exchange of birthday greetings between the two leaders.
Gordievsky’s family was kept under 24-hour KGB surveillance for six years before being allowed to join him in England in 1991.
In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Gordievsky a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.