The biggest bears in the garden - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 20. The biggest bears in the garden

I have met two former heads of the KGB in my life and I liked them both. The last to hold the job before the KGB changed its name, though not its spots, was Vadim Bakatin. Intelligence services, somebody clever said, are like the wiring in a house: the new owner moves in, he drops the switch, and it’s the same old lights that come on again.

It is 1993. Vadim Bakatin, the retired head of the extinct KGB, is drawing broken arrows on his doodle-pad. They have nicely tailored feathers and slim shafts. But halfway along they make a right-angle turn and become boomerang arrows, each tip pointing in a different direction and always out of the page. He draws them while he sits strictly to attention at the long table in my Russian publisher’s conference room, his centurion’s back arched and his head drawn stiffly into his shoulders as if for ceremonial inspection. Reforma Fund says the English side of his badly printed card. International Fund for Social & Economic Reforms.

He is a heavy, gingery, Nordic-looking man, with a sad smile and mottled, capable hands. Born and bred in Novosibirsk, he is by training an engineer, a former director of state construction, former member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, former Minister of Internal Affairs. Then in 1991, to his surprise and not altogether his pleasure, Mikhail Gorbachev handed him the poisoned chalice: take over the KGB for me and clean it up. Sitting listening to him now, I could well imagine what might have prompted Gorbachev to offer him the job: Bakatin’s patent decency, which is of the deep-running, stubborn sort, made of awkward silences while he carefully weighs a question before delivering the carefully weighed answer.

‘My recommendations were not popular with the KGB,’ he observes, and draws another arrow. And as an afterthought: ‘This was not an easy assignment.’

He means: not an easy assignment to breeze into KGB Headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square one summer’s morning, purge it at one blow of its autocratic tendencies and deliver a new, sanitized, socially aware spy service fit for purpose in the reconstructed democratic Russia that Gorbachev dreamed of. Bakatin knew from the beginning that the going would be tough. But how much he knew is anyone’s guess. Was he aware that the KGB was a streamlined kleptocracy that had already pocketed a large chunk of the nation’s stock of hard currency and gold reserves and stashed it abroad? That its chieftains were hand in glove with the country’s organized-crime syndicates? That many were old-guard Stalinists who saw Gorbachev as the Great Destroyer?

Whatever Bakatin did or didn’t know, he performed an act of such glasnost that it remains unique in the annals of intelligence services across the globe. Within weeks of taking office, he handed to Robert Strauss, the United States Ambassador to Russia, a chart, together with a users’ handbook, of the listening devices that had been installed by the KGB’s audio team in the fabric of the new building designated to replace the existing US Embassy. According to Strauss, he performed this gesture ‘unconditionally, out of a sense of cooperation and goodwill’. According to Moscow’s many wits, when the American sweepers had taken out the KGB’s devices, the building was on the point of collapse.

‘With those technical people, you could never be sure,’ Bakatin earnestly confides to me. ‘I told Strauss it was the best I could get out of them.’

As a reward for this courageous act of openness, he earned himself the full fury of the organization he commanded. Cries of treason went up, his post was abolished and for a short time, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the KGB was parcelled out to other departments, only to have itself promptly resurrected with increased powers and a new name under the personal command of Vladimir Putin, himself a child of the old KGB.

Back to his broken arrows, Vadim Bakatin is musing about spying. Those who do it for a living are obsessives, out of touch with normal life, he says. He himself entered and left the spy business as a novice.

‘You know far more about it than I do,’ he adds suddenly, looking up.

‘But that’s not true,’ I protest. ‘I’m a novice too. I did the work when I was young and got out thirty years ago. I’ve been living off my wits ever since.’

He draws an arrow.

‘So it’s a game,’ he says.

Does he mean I’m a game? Or the spying industry is? He shakes his head, as if to say it doesn’t matter either way. Suddenly his questions become the mystified outcry of a man deprived of his convictions. Where is the world going? Where is Russia going? Where is the middle way, the humanitarian one, between capitalist and socialist excess? He’s a socialist, he says. He grew up a socialist:

‘I was brought up from childhood to believe that communism was the only true path for humanity. Okay, things went wrong. Power got into the wrong hands, the Party took some wrong turnings. But I still believe that we were the moral force for good in the world. What are we now? Where is the moral force?’

It would be hard to find a greater contrast between two men: the introspective Bakatin, engineer and Party stalwart from Novosibirsk, and the Georgian-bred Yevgeny Primakov, half-Jewish son of a woman doctor and a politically persecuted father, scholar, Arabist, statesman, academician and - in the course of half a century’s service to a system not famed for its tenderness towards those who fall foul of it - master survivor.

Unlike Bakatin, Yevgeny Primakov was eminently qualified to take over the KGB or any other heavyweight intelligence service. As a young Soviet field agent, codenamed MAKSIM, he had spied in the Middle East and in the United States, now as correspondent for Moscow Radio, now as a print journalist for Pravda. But even while he was in the field, his ascent through the scientific and political ranks of Soviet power continued. And when Soviet power ended, Primakov continued to prevail, so it surprised nobody when, after five years as head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, he was promoted to Russian Foreign Minister, in which capacity he came one day to London to discuss NATO matters with the British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind.

And it was on the evening of that same day that my wife and I were summoned at no notice to dine with Primakov and his wife at the Russian Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens. In the morning, my literary agent had taken a breathless call from Rifkind’s Private Office: the Foreign Secretary requires a signed book of mine to present to his Russian opposite number, Yevgeny Primakov.

A particular book, or just any book? my agent asks.

Smiley’s People. And he needs it fast.

I don’t keep stacks of my books around me, but I managed to dig out a hardback copy of Smiley’s People in reasonable condition. No doubt for reasons of national economy, Rifkind’s office had said nothing of providing a courier, so we rang for one, wrapped up the book, addressed the parcel to Rifkind care of the Foreign Office, SW1, and dispatched it.

A couple of hours later, the Private Office rang again. No book, for God’s sake, what’s happened? Frantic calls by my wife to the courier service. Package under advisement was delivered to Foreign Office at such-and-such an hour and signed for by recipient. We relay this information to the Private Office. Oh Christ, then it must be stuck in bloody Security, we’ll check. They check. The book, having presumably been sniffed at and shaken and X-rayed, is wrested from the clutches of bloody Security, and perhaps Rifkind adds his name to mine, along with a collegial line or two, one foreign minister to the other. We shall never know because neither my agent nor I had another peep out of Rifkind or his Private Office.

Time to dress up and call a black cab. My wife has invested in white orchids in a pot for our hostess, the Russian Ambassador’s wife. I have put together a carrier bag of books and videos for Primakov. Our cab pulls up outside the Russian Embassy. No lights burn. I am obsessive about punctuality, so we’re a quarter of an hour early. But it’s a balmy evening and there’s a red diplomatic police car parked a few yards down the kerb.

Good evening, officers.

Good evening to you, sir and madam.

We have a small problem, officers. We’re dining at the Russian Embassy, but we’re early, and we’ve brought these gifts for our hosts. May we leave them in your care while we take a stroll round Kensington Palace Gardens?

Of course you may, sir, but not in the car, I’m afraid. Put them down on the pavement there and we’ll keep an eye on them for you.

We put our parcels down on the pavement, stroll, return, collect our parcels, which in the meantime have not exploded. We mount the Embassy steps. A sudden blaze of light, the front door opens. Very big men in suits glower at our parcels. One of them reaches for the orchids, another pokes inside my carrier bag. We are nodded through to the splendid drawing room. It’s empty. I am assailed by inappropriate memories. At the age of twenty-odd, as an aspiring young spy in the British interest, I had attended a string of awful Anglo-Soviet Friendship meetings in this very room, before being spirited upstairs by over-friendly KGB talent-spotters, there to watch Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin for the umpteenth time and submit to yet another courteous inquisition about my life, origins, girlfriends, political leanings and aspirations, all in the vain hope that I shall become the target of a Soviet intelligence pass and thus acquire in the eyes of my British masters the coveted status of double agent. It never happened, which - given the scale of Soviet penetration of our intelligence services in those days - should not surprise anyone. Or perhaps I just didn’t smell right, which wouldn’t surprise me either.

Back then, there was also a tiny bar in a corner of this beautiful room. It dispensed warm white wine to any comrade hardy enough to fight his way through the crush. It is still there, and tonight it is manned by a babushka in her seventies.

‘You want drink?’

‘Very much.’

‘What you want drink?’

‘Scotch, please. Two.’

‘Whisky?’

‘Yes, whisky.’

‘You want two? For her also?’

‘Please. With soda, no ice.’

‘Water?’

‘Water’s fine.’

But we have barely taken a first sip when the double doors fly open and enter Primakov, escorted by his wife and the Russian Ambassador’s wife, then the Ambassador himself and a troupe of suntanned power-men in lightweight suits. Coming to a halt before us, Primakov pulls a comic smile and points an accusing finger at my glass.

‘What are you drinking?’

‘Scotch.’

‘You are in Russia now. Drink vodka.’

We return our un-drunk Scotches to the babushka, join the troupe and at light-infantry speed proceed to the elegant pre-Revolutionary dining room. One long table, candlelit. I sit as directed, three feet across it from Primakov. My wife is two stops down on the same side, looking a lot calmer than I feel. Big-shouldered waiters fill our vodka glasses to the brim. Primakov, I suspect, has already refreshed himself. He is very jolly, very twinkly. His wife sits beside him. She is a blonde and beautiful Estonian doctor with a motherly glow. On his other side sits his interpreter, but Primakov prefers his own vigorous style of English with an occasional prompt.

The power-men in lightweight suits, I have meanwhile been told, are Russian ambassadors from across the Middle East, summoned to London for a conference. My wife and I are the only non-Russians at the table.

‘You will call me Yevgeny, I will call you David,’ Primakov informs me.

Dinner has begun. When Primakov speaks, no one else does. He speaks suddenly, after much thought, consulting his interpreter only when he’s stumped for a word. Like most Russian intellectuals I have met, he has no time for small talk. His subjects for tonight, in the following order, are Saddam Hussein, President George Bush Senior, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and his own abortive efforts to head off the Gulf War. He is an agile and vivid communicator of great charm. His eyes do not lightly let you go. Periodically he breaks off, beams at me, raises his glass, proposes a toast. I raise my glass, beam back and respond. There must be a waiter with a vodka bottle for every guest. There is certainly one for me. When you’re caught for a vodka marathon, an English friend urged me the first time I went to Russia, stick to vodka and don’t for God’s sake go for that lethal Crimean Sekt (champagne). I have never been more grateful for his advice.

‘You know Desert Storm, David?’ Primakov demands.

Yes, Yevgeny, I know Desert Storm.

‘Saddam, he was a friend from me. You know what I mean by friend, David?’

Yes, Yevgeny, I think in this context I know what you mean by friend.

‘Saddam, he telephones to me’ - indignation mounting - ‘“Yevgeny. Save my face. Get me out of Kuwait.”’

He allows time for the significance of this request to sink in. Gradually it does. He is telling me that Saddam Hussein asked him to persuade George Bush Senior to let him pull his forces out of Kuwait with dignity - save his face - in which case there need be no war between the United States and Iraq.

‘So I go to Bush,’ he continues, striking angrily at the name. ‘This man is’ - tense discussion with the interpreter. If it is on the tip of Primakov’s tongue to use strong language to describe George Bush Senior, he restrains himself.

‘This Bush is not cooperative,’ he asserts reluctantly, and allows himself a grimace of indignation. ‘Therefore I come to England,’ he resumes. ‘To Britain. To your Thatcher. I come’ - another flurried consultation with his interpreter, and this time I catch the Russian word dacha, which is about the only one I know.

‘Chequers,’ says the interpreter.

‘So I come to Chequers.’ A hand flies up commanding our silence, but the entire table is dead silent already. ‘For one hour this woman lectures me. They want the war!’

It is after midnight when my wife and I return down the Russian Embassy’s front doorsteps to England. Did Primakov ask me a single personal or political question during that whole long evening? Did we talk literature, spying, life? If we did, I have no memory of it. I remember only that he seemed to want me to share his frustration; to know that as a peacemaker and a reasonable human being, he had done his damnedest to stop a war, and that his efforts had foundered on what he regarded as the pig-headedness of two Western leaders.

There is an ironic epilogue to this tale that I only recently caught up with. It’s a decade later. With the younger Bush in power and the invasion of Iraq again imminent, Primakov flies to Baghdad and urges his old friend Saddam to hand over whatever weapons of mass destruction he may or may not have to the United Nations for safekeeping. This time it’s not Bush Junior but Saddam who gives him the brush-off, on the grounds that the Americans would never dare do it to him: they had too many secrets in common.

I had not seen Primakov or spoken to him since that dinner. No letter, no email had passed between us. Now and then an invitation trickled down at third hand: tell David any time he’s in Moscow, et cetera. But Putin’s Russia didn’t draw me, and I didn’t call him. Then, come the spring of 2015, I received a message that he was ailing and would I send him some more of my books to read. Since nobody said which books, my wife and I made up a great box of them in hardback. I signed each book, added a dedication, and we dispatched the box by courier to the address we’d been given, only to have it returned by Russian customs on the grounds that it contained too many books at one time. We broke the books up into smaller lots and presumably they made it through the lines, although no word came back.

And now it never will, because Yevgeny Primakov died before he could read them. In his memoirs, I’m told, he writes kindly about me, which pleases me very much. As I write, I am trying to get my hands on the text. But this is Russia.

How do I see that evening from this distance? I have long ago discovered that on the odd occasions when I come face to face with people of power, my critical faculties go out of the window and all I want to do is be there, listen and watch. To Primakov, I was an evening’s curiosity, a bit of time out, but also, as I like to think, a chance to speak from the heart to a writer whose work had rung bells with him.

Vadim Bakatin had only agreed to talk to me as a favour to a friend, but once again I like to think I provided him with an opportunity to speak as he felt. People at the epicentre, in my limited experience of the breed, have little idea of what’s going on around them. The fact that they are themselves the epicentre makes it all the harder. It took an American visitor to Moscow to ask Primakov which character in my books he related to:

‘Why, George Smiley of course!’

Oldrich Cerný should in no way be compared with either Bakatin or Primakov, both professed communists of their day. In 1993, four years after the Berlin Wall came down, Oldrich Cerný - Olda to his friends - took over the Czech foreign intelligence service and, at the behest of his old friend and fellow dissident, Václav Havel, set about turning it into a place fit for habitation by the Western spy community. Over the five years in which he ran it, he struck up a close relationship with Britain’s MI6, notably with Richard Dearlove, who later became its Chief under Tony Blair. Quite soon after Cerný’s retirement from the post, I visited him in Prague and we spent a couple of days together, now in his tiny apartment with Helena, his companion of many years, and now out and about in one of the city’s many cellar bars, drinking Scotch at scrubbed pine tables.

Before getting the job, Cerný, like Vadim Bakatin, knew nothing whatever of intelligence work which, as Havel explained, was why he had chosen him. Once he took it over, he couldn’t believe what he had walked into:

‘The bastards didn’t know the fucking Cold War was over,’ he exclaimed between gusts of laughter.

Few foreigners can swear convincingly in English, but Cerný was the exception. He had studied at Newcastle on a grant awarded him during the Prague Spring, so perhaps that’s where he learned the art. On his return to a country once again under Russia’s heel, he translated children’s books by day and wrote anonymous dissident tracts by night.

‘We had guys spying on Germany!’ he went on incredulously. ‘In nineteen-fucking-ninety-three! We had guys out in the street with truncheons looking for priests and anti-Party elements they could beat the shit out of! “Listen,” I told them. “We don’t do that stuff any more. We’re a fucking democracy!”’

If Cerný talked with the exuberance of a man released, he had every right to. He was an anti-communist by nature and by birth. His father, a wartime Czech resistance fighter, had been imprisoned in Buchenwald by the Nazis, then given twenty years for treason by the communists. One of his earliest memories was seeing his father’s coffin being dumped on the family doorstep by the prison goons.

Little wonder then that Cerný the writer, dramatist, translator and graduate in English Literature should have waged a lifelong battle against political tyranny; or that he was repeatedly hauled in for interrogation by the KGB and Czech intelligence who, having failed to recruit him, persecuted him instead.

And it is interesting that, for all his protestations of being hopelessly ill-equipped to take over his country’s spies after its split with Slovakia, he held the job down for five years, retired with distinction, went on to direct a human rights foundation established by his friend Havel, and set up his own Security Studies think-tank that, fifteen years later and three years after his death, flourishes undiminished.

In London, shortly before Cerný’s death, I met the ageing Václav Havel at a private luncheon given by the Czech Ambassador. Tired and visibly ill, he sat alone and largely silent. Those who knew him best, knew to leave him to himself. Timidly, I approached him and mentioned Cerný’s name. I said I had had a good time with him in Prague. Suddenly he brightened:

‘Then you were lucky,’ he said, and sat smiling for a while.