Yuri Kobaladze now hosts a radio show on Echo of MoscowSource: Itar-Tass
I am a very fortunate person! I’ve been lucky since birth — in my family, my children, my friends and my work. Although my mother fainted when she heard that I had gone to work for the KGB. She moaned and sobbed and begged me not to. She had horrible memories of the repressions in the 1930s when her father, my grandfather, was interrogated. A tsarist officer before the Revolution, he had gone on to serve the Soviet regime loyally and well. But of course when I left Tbilisi for Moscow I had no thought of working in intelligence. My dream was to go to MGIMO [Moscow State Institute of International Relations], I imagined myself as an ambassador in white regimentals with gold buttons sipping a glass of champagne…
We’re you recruited to spy as soon as you entered MGIMO?
Everything happened when I was already working at TASS. I wasn’t offered anything like that while I was studying. I suppose they took their time making up their mind because of my big mouth… After MGIMO, I was hired on at TASS where an intelligence officer was waiting for an assignment to go abroad under cover as a journalist. It was he who suggested that I follow in his footsteps. I didn’t refuse and by 1972 I was studying in an intelligence school. From there I went straight to the third (English) section of the First Main Administration of the KGB.
When did yourwife find out that your work in journalism was just a front and that in reality you were defending the Motherland?
STATUS: married, with two daughters
EDUCATION: Moscow Institute of International Relations, graduating in International Journalism (1972).
• Foreign Intelligence Service of the KGB (1972-1999)
• Soviet news agency TASS
• British correspondent, Gosteleradio
• Central office of PGU, KGB
• Director, press bureau of the Foreign Intelligence Service
• First deputy director, news agency ITAR-TASS
• Since 2000: executive director of investment bank Renaissance Capital; later managing director of retail group X5.
I told her even before we were married, but after that I tried to let Alla know as little as possible about my work. Only once did I ever ask her to help me with something intelligence-related. We’d been driving all over London for hours to make sure we weren’t being tailed, then we stopped by a telephone booth. I dictated a number to Alla, asked her to call it and tell the person at the other end where to come and at what time. And that was all! When Alla got back to the car, I thought she’d have a heart attach: her hands were trembling, and her face was streaming with sweat… After that I promised myself never ever to do that again. But I had colleagues who told their wives literally everything. Why? So their wives would see what heroes they were and fear for their lives? When my older daughter Katya was 15, this was after we’d come back from England, she took her little sister Manana into the bathroom one day, turned on the tap so my wife and I wouldn’t hear, and said in a loud whisper: “Do you want to know a deep secret? Papa is a spy!” Manana was stunned, she hadn’t suspected anything.
Where did you learn the craft of espionage?
At the Krasnoznamenny Institute of the KGB. We studied not in Moscow, but in an unremarkable little village where we were taken secretly in buses. The attitude toward students there was humane — there was no regimentation. On the contrary, the atmosphere was relaxed — we joked and put on skits and played soccer. At the same time, we didn’t forget about our studies. The focus was on foreign languages and special disciplines. For example, how to leave something at a dead drop. The craft of espionage hasn’t changed much in recent decades. The methods and approaches are the same, only the technical equipment has improved. In my time an agent would leave a note in the hollow of a tree or under a crooked stump by the side of the road, now one communicates with the help of ingenious electronic devices. We were taught how to use everything that espionage had invented up to that point. Although when I arrived in England a few years later I was convinced that our “secret” inventions were being freely sold in a special shop in London frequented by detectives from Scotland Yard, security officers and other people whose business it was to find out other people’s secrets.
Did you ever meet the defector Vladimir Rezun, better known as Viktor Suvorov, the author of bestselling historical novels?
I met him long-distance in the early 1990s when I was running the SVR’s press bureau. We both participated in a TV-bridge between Moscow and London devoted to the Cold War. A couple of days later, my secretary looked into my office and, apologizing, said there was a man on the phone who asked to be introduced as a traitor, a scoundrel and a bastard. It was Rezun. He thanked me for not lumping everything together, for separating the treason committed by Rezun from the books written by the popular Suvorov… You can’t brush something like that aside. We lost the ideological debate for years through our own stupidity. By the early 1990s people in the West had already published mountains of books about Russian spies which were sold throughout Europe and America. The best of these was thought to be a book by Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew. It was sold everywhere but the USSR. Only years later Yevgeny Primakov decided to respond by telling his own story himself. It was then that many previously classified documents were made available. And this produced results. For example, a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was presented in the States. American experts came up to us afterwards and said that they had begun to see the problem with different eyes. Why did we have to spend so long hiding these documents? What were we afraid of giving away?
Then again, the Soviet propaganda machine was never known for turning on a dime. We sat for so long behind the iron curtain I guess we began to be lulled by our own fairytales. I remember a meeting in the 1970s where the bosses were reporting on a speech by Yuri Andropov about how to work in Western Europe. At first we took it very seriously: after all, these were directives from the head of the KGB. But six months later in London I realized that either Andropov was crazy, or I was. Everything he had said missed the point; he didn’t understand anything! They had practically prepared us to hang a red flag over Big Ben… The same was true of Vladimir Kryuchkov [head of the KGB from 1988-1991]: he truly believed that the Soviet Union had done a good thing by sending troops into Afghanistan. And only when our men began to come back and talk about what was actually going on there did the powers that be begin to see clearly. But by the time they fully understood the situation, years had gone by and thousands of lives had been lost.
Did you ever receive your rank ahead of schedule?
Once. I think I became a lieutenant colonel a year earlier than I was supposed to. I was working in London at the time.
Had you done an especially successful interview?
Your irony is misplaced. After studying at the KGB’s Krasnoznamenny Institute I went back to TASS for a year and a half, then I moved to a national TV station and in 1977 I went to London as a correspondent for Gosteleradio. For almost a year I worked as a cameraman for Boris Kalyagin, then our correspondent in Britain. Borya and I are still friends.
Did the English know you were a spy from the start?
It wasn’t so difficult to figure out. All they had to do was compare my work schedule with Kalyagin’s, compare the frequency of visits to the embassy, notice a certain license in my behavior, and abundance of contacts in local circles… I mean why should a full-time correspondent have such a vast number of acquaintances in all spheres of society? An intelligence officer needs informants: the more, the better.
There were some amusing episodes. Kalyagin set up an interview with the editor of an influential paper, a highly respected and knowledgeable man. I acted as cameraman during their conversation; I had to keep track of the light, the camera, and other things besides. So I asked Kalyagin ahead of time to pose questions that interested me. Borya became so wrapped up in the conversation that he forgot all about my request. What to do? The interview was over and as I was gathering up the lighting equipment, I asked the interviewee by the way, as it were: “Mister Smith, what do you think about U.S.-Chinese relations?” “Mister Smith” looked up for a second, grinned and said: “Russia is an invincible country if even the cameramen are interested in such questions…”
Some of our best informants were English journalists covering Britain. They knew about everything and everyone — the various political forces, scandals, intrigues, alliances. The irony is that these veteran reporters thought the Soviet spies were not us, but the pure correspondents. We would travel tirelessly all over the country in search of information, then be up all night getting pickled in pubs with our British colleagues. In short, we behaved like regular journalists. The pure correspondents, on the other hand, lived the life of London dandies: they sent the required number of reports to Moscow and the rest of the time they relaxed and didn’t poke their noses in anywhere they weren’t supposed to.
Among those English reporters I had some real friends despite the fact that the years 1977 to 1984, when I was based in England, were not the easiest in terms of relations between our countries. Those were the years of Margaret Thatcher, her rapprochement with America, missiles aimed at the “evil empire”, and the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Every single day was so tense, oh my God!
At the same time problems often cropped up for no reason at all. I’ll never forget the scene with [theater director] Yuri Lyubimov when he was invited to London to stage Crime and Punishment. On the eve of his arrival we received a telegram saying that the Taganka director, famous for his anti-Soviet remarks, should be watched carefully… Yuri Petrovich was indeed very forthright; he called a spade a spade. He became the subject of a heated debate at a Party meeting in the embassy. What should be done about this man who publicly insulted the Motherland? In the end, the decision was taken to send a messenger to the theater. The messenger was to give Lyubimov a stern talking-to and ask him to come to the embassy “for a conversation”. Pasha, the cultural attaché, was nominated for this task, the sweetest and quietest of men. The day of the premiere, London’s beau monde was out in force, the press and their photographers were jostling backstage… Pasha, feeling horribly nervous, walked up to Lyubimov and was at pains to choose the right words: “Yuri Petrovich, the ambassador would like to see you since certain remarks of yours…” Lyubimov didn’t let him finish and began shouting for the whole room to hear: “They’ve sent a KGB agent in here! He’s threatening me with reprisals!” By then Lyubimov had decided to remain in the West and not to return to the Soviet Union. He needed an excuse to create a public scandal, and here it was. He couldn’t have asked for anything better! Poor Pasha couldn’t get out of the theater fast enough… The last thing Pasha said to Lyubimov in his panic was: “Watch out, Yuri Petrovich! There’s been a crime, beware the punishment!” The phrase was picked up by the English press and splashed across the front pages with commentary to match. The editors claimed that the bony arm of the KGB was at the maestro’s throat… That’s how legends are born. It all happened before my eyes; but the “office” had nothing to do with it.
Did Britain ever try to recruit you?
The English knew very well with whom it made sense to ingratiate themselves, and with whom it was useless. No one came near me, but they did try to lure a friend of mine. They promised him a house, a car, a job and half a million pounds in expenses — a colossal sum at the time. I guess they had some compromising information about him, although even now my friend won’t tell me what it was. At the time he said to his would-be recruiters: “How will I be able to look my father in the eye?” They gave up… It’s not everyone who can live with a sin on his soul, though traitors try to justify their treason. Oleg Gordievsky cultivated the image of a Soviet Philby, who, in essence, was a traitor. Kim Philby first chose the path of serving communism and only then entered into contact with Soviet intelligence and, at its request, went to work for British intelligence. Oleg, too, tries to give the impression that he went over to the enemy not because of money, but solely for reasons of ideology.
How long did you work in intelligence?
32 years and now I’m officially retired. I can honestly say that I did nothing to be ashamed of in that time. Then again I wasn’t responsible for any remarkable feats, I didn’t steal any nuclear secrets, but I did the work I was asked to do faithfully.
As I said, I consider myself a fortunate person. It’s through my work that I came to know people whom I would never have met otherwise — people who became my friends.
Once I went to Convent Garden to record an interview with the great Luciano Pavarotti. I remember I had to fight my way into his dressing room through a crowd of fans. I rattled off my prepared questions and was about to leave. I said in all sincerity that unfortunately I didn’t have much time. Then Pavarotti said: “What’s the problem? Let’s continue.” Amazed at my own impertinence, I invited the maestro to the Association of Foreign Journalists where I was a board member. And Pavarotti came! Moreover, he gave us a whole bunch of interviews, we drank champagne… For five years, you see, I was head of our association’s restaurant club and I also ran the wine club… During the years I spent in England I was able to go deeply into that matter… I feel nostalgic for Britain… By means of natural selection I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing better than a 16-year-old Scottish Lagavulin, which I first tried in England. Later, in the 1990s in Moscow, everyone became interested in whiskey and I was regularly called in as an expert. The high point was my participation in a show on national TV where I was asked to identify three different types of drinks based on their smell and taste. In the second glass there was something ordinary, Red Label I guessed, and I was right. In the third glass they had poured what I took to be a single-malt whiskey. I didn’t know the name. But I could tell that it had been diluted with something. It turned out that the props men, while waiting for the show to go on, had taken swigs from the bottle and then made up the difference with tap water. When this was discovered, the professional bartender who was judging the contest took his hat off to me. He told me that this was the first time in his 40-year career that he had met a man able to tell from one sip whether a drink had been diluted. That made my reputation as great whiskey expert, but it all began, as I say, with ordinary visits to London pubs.
By the way, I once beat the owners of a pub in their traditional beer-drinking contest (Yard of Lager). What you had to do was simply this: knock back a yard-high vessel of beer (three pints) in one go, without stopping. This was in Brighton. First the local beer-drinking masters tested their strengths, but failed. Then I tried. And I drank an entire yard of lager. The Englishmen all round me were completely disgraced. They didn’t realize that here was a Georgian able to drink from a horn! The main secret was to quietly turn the vessel and release the air. Then more air gets in. In short, I left a bright trail in the history of Britain, and when my tour was over Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary was at my farewell party. As a sign of particular respect and goodwill. I doubt he knew I worked for Soviet intelligence, he wouldn’t have come if he had, but I was pleased…
To round off this conversation about famous people, I’ll tell you about one more amusing episode — how I once managed to “outeat” Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush. This was in Washington during the Soviet-American summit. After their negotiations, the two held a press conference. Before the presser was over I went off to look for something to eat with a friend. We were ravenous! Our acute sense of smell led us to a room where a buffet had been laid out. I naively decided that the tables had been set for the press and without waiting for everyone else I suggested we dig in. We hadn’t gotten past the hors d’oeuvres when the doors flew open and in walked Gorbachev and Bush… They saw us… There was a long pause… I pretended that the wine had been poured for them, took the liberty of recommending the dishes I’d already tried and made a hasty exit. Mikhail Sergeyevich and George Bush began discussing the results of their meeting. It seems Bush never did figure out who those two Russians were chowing down at the President’s table…
I once told this story to Sergei Lavrov (we were students together), now our Foreign Minister. He laughed and said that he’d try not to let me near Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, lest they go hungry…
But I have other reasons to meet with Lavrov: for the last 15 years we’ve gone rafting together on rivers in the Altai Mountains. We took our first rafting trip on the Katun River and both fell in love with the Altai. An extraordinarily beautiful region! Incidentally, do you know Lavrov’s nickname? Moose! He’s incredibly fit, and as strong as an ox. He’s the one who usually makes the fire, in any weather, with one match. He loves to chop wood. Even when he worked in New York at the U.N., he would spend weekends in the country chopping wood. That’s his hobby! And as for how Sergei plays the guitar… Well, I’m probably giving away secrets here. But if you get a chance, ask him, he’s a superb storyteller, no worse than me, that’s for sure…
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