Wednesday, September 14, 2011


A few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis (note the capitals), I was lunching with another Russian expatriate who rejoiced in the name of George George. I knew him well as he was a great friend of Alex’s. He ran a small import/export business from a minuscule office in Jermyn Street and was a fairly frequent traveller to Europe, including the occasional visit to East Germany (sorry, the GDR).
Early in the meal, he said, in almost an off-hand way, “I hear you’ve had a spot of bother with the War Office.”
I was staggered when he said he knew of my fracas with Colonel Allen. Then I remembered George’s tale of how he came to Britain.
He had been in the last class of the Imperial Russian Military Academy, escaped shortly after the revolution and eventually set up in Germany where he qualified as a lawyer. In the early 1930s, he didn’t, as he said, “like the look of Hitler” (though he was not Jewish); he felt that Germany was not for him. He had corresponded with some vague relations who lived in Scotland, a situation which went back to the late 18th century when there was a flourishing trade in timber between Scotland and Russia, so, after much thought, for he spoke virtually no English, set off for the United Kingdom.
He found his German law degree was quite useless in Scotland. Indeed, an English law degree did not qualify one there either. So he left for London.
He much enjoyed telling of his time after war was declared in September, 1939.
“I went along to the authorities and said I would like to volunteer. I pointed out that I was fluent in Russian and German and had more than a working knowledge on Italian, Spanish and most Slavic languages, so thought I might be useful as a censor. They thanked me but pointed out that my request for naturalisation had not yet been approved. So I was sent off to learn how to be an air-raid warden.
“Someone may have pulled a string or two, as my naturalisation was approved quite quickly and I was sent for by what we now call MI5. They decided to use me in
their foreign language department……..and put me in the Dutch section; I knew, perhaps, a dozen words of that language.
I digress. George, very tactfully, asked me if I was still seeing a lot of Alex.
“I suppose I see him most days when we are both in London.”
“I had a call from Jim Craufurd. He’s worried about your friendship with Alex.”
In parenthesis, I would mention that Jim Craufurd was a cousin of my father-in-law and, thus, knew me, though slightly.
“Gosh, is that old fool still with the spooks?”
“That’s not very polite, Michael. He’s among the most revered ex-members of the intelligence service.”
“I’m astonished. I know what my wife’s immediate family think of him. I knew he was a KC in the dim and distant past but that most judges wouldn’t have him in their courts as he was almost impossible to understand.”
“Be that as it may. He is worried about Alex.”
“My dear friend. You know Alex better than I do. You know he is almost the archetypical Russian. He loves Russia, loves using the Russian language, he’s volatile and demonstrative. But he’s no more a fellow-traveller than Winston Churchill.”
Then I remembered the chance encounter in Geneva but thought better than to mention it to George, sure that, despite the lady’s nationality, nothing of a sinister nature had occurred (if you omit the cuckolding of a husband)
“Oh, well, I know it’s a difficult situation. I’ll trust your judgement.”
Blimey, I thought. Dear little (he was just over 145 cm tall in his Homburg hat) George was still heavily involved in the defence of Her Majesty’s realm. I supposed it was a case of ‘once in MI5, you’re there for life’, though that rule had hardly applied to Messrs Burgess MacLean and Philby
1963 arrived and with it the “Profumo Scandal”. A fairly senior Cabinet Minister (the Secretary of State for War—i.e. the bloke in charge of the Army under the Minister of Defence) had been accused of having an affair with a famous (?notorious) call-girl, Christine Keeler. That might have been tolerated but it transpired that among those enjoying her favours at the same time, was a Russian naval captain, one Evgeni Ivanov. Golly, I thought. Wasn’t he one of the blokes I met with Alex in the Moscow Arms?”
He was indeed and, it turned out, no more a naval captain than our daughters’ nanny for he was identified as the head of the London office of the Russian secret service, the NKVD. Obviously, ‘our chaps’ in MI5 had known this, hence their great interest in Alex. Incidentally, it is amusing to recall that British spies in embassies, whether in friendly or not-so-friendly countries nearly always seem to use the cover of “The British Council representative”, while our American cousins are often undercover as “Agricultural Attaché”.
I have often wondered what MI5 thought when one day early in 1962, they saw the front page of The Manchester Guardian (as it was then called). There, slap in the middle was a photo taken at the British Iron and Steel Federation’s trade mission to the USSR. Three men were depicted. One was the head of the BISF, another was Comrade Khruschev. Standing between them acting as interpreter, was Alex.
In the summer of 1964, I called on Alex in his flat in North Notting Hill one Saturday afternoon. It was on the top floor of four, no lift, quite spacious and comfortable. I knocked on the door and Alex answered immediately. He greeted me “Slav Style” with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Ho, ho,” I thought. “He’s been at the vodka.”
I went into the living-room and was introduced to a cheerful-looking chap, about fifty or so.
“Meet ‘Uncle Vanya’,” said Alex.
Now I had heard of the Chekhov play, but this fellow wasn’t dead. He solved my unspoken question by saying,
“I am Major-General Efremov, Senior Military Attaché at the Embassy.”
Here we go again.
What with one thing and another, plus the undoubted fact that Alex and “Vanya” were at least two very large ones ahead of me, I let that one through to the keeper. Vanya told me of his time as a parachutist in “the Great Patriotic War” and I, without too much exaggeration, retailed some of my Korean experiences.
“We were bloody fools to back that awful Kim Il Sung,” remarked my New Best Friend. I felt I could pluck up the courage to ask him to come to the window which overlooked the street below.
“Look at that──those two cars opposite.”
The automobiles in question were a Morris Minor with two men in bowler hats in the front and a large black car which I picked out as a Russian Zil. In this were a couple of hefty-looking chaps in large fedora-type hats.
‘Uncle Vanya’ roared with laughter.
“Those fellows in the little car are your chaps watching me. The blokes in the black car are my chaps watching your chaps watching me. Bloody stupid. Your MI5 know that the new head of the NKVD here in London is he ambassador’s chauffeur. I am what I told you; the senior military attaché. But they continue this charade. Gives them something to do on a wet Saturday afternoon.”
That was (almost) the end of the affair save that, once more I heard from Curzon Street. Not the rude Colonel Allen but a much more polite chap who asked me what I thought of Efremov.
So Our Spooks know I met him. Here we go again.
But it turned out a little different.
“What was your impression of the General? Does he like it here?”:
“He certainly seemed to. Indeed, I have wondered whether he might be ‘turned’”.
“Yes. But he doesn’t have his wife and family with him. The NKVD/KGB think he’s not totally reliable, so they keep them in Moscow as a kind of hostage to ensure his return to the Soviet Union.”
And that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of my (very sketchy) entry into the world of the NKVD, MI5, KGB and anyone else who had thought that my mate Alex was a fellow-traveller.


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