The KGB double agent who prevented a nuclear World War III

KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky

Ronald Reagan’s July 21, 1987 meeting with MI6 asset Oleg Gordievsky.

Oleg Gordievsky started his KGB career fully indoctrinated in the Soviet system. His father was an operative of the NKVD, a state security predecessor to the KGB. He learned quickly and could speak German before he went to university in Moscow. By the time he graduated from the KGB’s training, he could speak three more languages and was an expert in spycraft.

Unlike most of the KGB agents who served the Soviet Union, however, he became disillusioned with communism, and the ideals it championed that never happened in reality. In particular, he saw the Berlin Wall erected – the worker’s paradise was more like a worker’s prison. 

Gordievsky was sent to East Berlin in 1961, his first assignment with the foreign service. Though the Soviet Union turned out to be less than he grew up believing it was, he still did his assigned duties, and in 1963 joined the KGB. His first posting was in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1966. It wasn’t too long before the USSR disappointed him once more, and this time it pushed Gordievsky into the arms of the West. 

In 1968, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to crush a popular liberalization of the Soviet-style government. A new Czech president, Alexander Dubcek, ushered in a new series of political and economic reforms while loosening restrictions on media, speech, and travel. The uprising, known as the Prague Spring, was violently put down when 650,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country. This was too much for Gordievsky. 

While posted in Denmark, he tried to signal to Danish intelligence that he would be a willing double agent, but nothing would come of it. After returning to Moscow for a few years, he was sent again to Copenhagen, where he was able to establish contact with British intelligence, MI6. Beginning in 1974, there was no turning back, Gordievsky was a double agent. 

KGB double agent oleg gordievsky
Oleg Gordievsky in 2007.

Between 1974 and 1978, Gordievsky provided information to MI6 under the code name Sunbeam. He was sent back to Moscow between 1978 and 1982 because it was discovered he was having an affair and had to divorce his wife. He couldn’t pass information while in Moscow, but it gave him the opportunity to work toward a posting in London. 

Gordievsky started learning English and lobbied for an open position at the London embassy, which he eventually won. He was sent to London in 1982, where MI6 fed him secret information to aid his career and elevate him in the ranks of the KGB. They would also target Gordievsky’s superior officers at the KGB rezidentura, hoping Soviet intelligence would put the double agent in his place. 

In return, MI6 received a steady flow of information directly from the man who would eventually become the KGB’s top man in London. During his time there, even before he became the KGB’s station chief. In 1983, the U.S. and NATO conducted Able Archer, a five-day exercise that simulated the buildup to a DEFCON I nuclear war. 

The exercise, along with the recent arrival of new Pershing II missiles in Europe, and President Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric led many in the Soviet Union’s leadership to believe the exercise was a false pretense to a nuclear first strike. Soviet nuclear forces in East Germany and Poland were put on high alert. The Soviet Air Forces began loading nuclear weapons onto aircraft. 

It was Gordievsky who warned the U.S. and NATO through MI6 that the Soviet Union was planning its own first strike in response to NATO’s Able Archer activity. The news impressed upon President Reagan that the Soviet Union was genuinely fearful of an American first strike, and led to his rapprochement with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Gordievsky was eventually betrayed by the work of the CIA’s own double agent Aldrich Ames. Weeks after being named KGB station chief, he was recalled to Moscow, drugged, and interrogated. He wasn’t executed, but the KGB suspected him of treason and Ames’ revelation sealed it. He would never work abroad again. 

Luckily, Gordievsky was able to contact MI6 in Moscow, despite being under KGB scrutiny. British intelligence operatives were able to whisk him away from the USSR and to London, where he openly divulged Soviet secrets for the next six years.