Ivan Serov’s defection - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 7. Ivan Serov’s defection

In the early sixties, with the Cold War at its height, junior British diplomats serving abroad were not encouraged to fraternize with their Soviet opposite numbers. Any such contact, be it accidental, social or official, had immediately to be referred to their superiors, preferably before the event. It therefore caused something of a flurry in official dovecotes when I was obliged to confess to my department in London that for the better part of a couple of weeks I had been in daily contact with a senior member of the Soviet Embassy in Bonn, and that no third person had been present at our meetings.

How this had come about was as much a surprise to me as it was to my masters. The West German domestic political scene, which it was my duty to report on, was undergoing one of its periodical convulsions. The editor of Der Spiegel was in jail for infringing Germany’s secrecy laws, and Franz Josef Strauss, the Bavarian minister who had put him there, stood accused of sharp practice in the procurement of Starfighter jet aeroplanes for the German air force. Each new day brought titillating snippets of Bavarian lowlife, featuring a cast of pimps, loose ladies and shady middle men.

So it was only natural that I should do what I always did at times of political turmoil: hurry down to the West German parliament to take up my seat in the diplomats’ gallery, and grab any opportunity to slip downstairs and take soundings among my parliamentary contacts. It was on my return to the gallery from one such sortie that I was surprised to find my seat occupied by a plump, genial gentleman in his fifties with tufted eyebrows and rimless spectacles, and sporting a voluminous grey suit which, surprisingly considering the time of year, included a waistcoat that was a couple of sizes too short for his ample stomach.

When I say ‘my seat’, this is merely because the gallery, which was small and perched like a box at the opera on the back wall of the Bundestag chamber, was always in my experience unaccountably empty save for a CIA officer called, unconvincingly, Herr Schulz, who, having taken one look at me and sensing probably a contaminating influence, sat as far from me as possible. But today there was just the one plump gentleman. I smile at him. He beams fondly at me. I sit myself a couple of chairs along from him. The debate on the floor is in full flood. We listen, separately and intently, aware of one another’s concentration. Come lunch break we stand up, fuss over who goes through the door first, make our separate ways downstairs to the Bundestag canteen, and from different tables smile politely to one another over our soups of the day. A couple of parliamentary aides join me, but my neighbour from the diplomatic gallery remains alone. Our soups consumed, we return to our seats in the gallery. The parliamentary session ends. We go our ways.

Next morning when I arrive, there he is in my chair again, beaming at me. And come lunchtime there he is all alone, taking his soup, while I gossip with a couple of lobby journalists. Should I invite him to join us? He’s a fellow diplomat, after all. Should I go and sit with him? My urge to empathize is, as so often, groundless: the man is perfectly happy reading his Frankfurter Allgemeine. In the afternoon he doesn’t appear, but it’s a summer’s Friday and the Bundestag is putting up the shutters.

But come next Monday, I have barely sat down in my old seat when he enters, one finger to his lips out of deference to the uproar below while he offers me his spongy hand in greeting: but with such an air of familiarity that I am seized with a guilty conviction that he knows me and I don’t know him; that we’ve met each other on Bonn’s endless diplomatic cocktail merry-go-round; that he’s remembered the encounter all along, and I haven’t.

Worse still, to judge from his age and bearing, there is every probability that he is one of Bonn’s numberless minor ambassadors. And one thing minor ambassadors don’t like is other diplomats, especially young ones, not recognizing them. It takes another four days for the truth to declare itself. We are both note takers: he in a ruled notebook of poor quality, held together by a red elastic band that he eases back into position after each entry; I in a pocket-sized pad of plain paper, my jottings lightly strewn with furtive caricatures of the Bundestag’s leading players. So it is perhaps inevitable that one dull afternoon during a recess I should find my neighbour leaning mischievously across the empty chair between us and enquiring whether he may take a peek; at which no sooner granted than his eyes squeeze themselves into slits behind his spectacles and his upper body squirms with mirth as, with the flourish of a magician, he spirits a dog-eared visiting card from his waistcoat pocket and observes me while I read it, first in Russian, then, for the benighted, in English:

Mr Ivan Serov, Second Secretary, Embassy of the USSR, Bonn, West Germany.

And hand-printed along the bottom in spidery capitals of black ink, also in English: CULTURAL.

Even today, I hear our ensuing conversation from a distance:

‘You want drink some time?’

A drink would be great.

‘You like music?’

Very much. I am in fact tone deaf.

‘You married?’

Indeed I am. Are you?

‘My wife Olga, she like music too. You got house?’

In Königswinter. Why lie? My address is there in the diplomatic list for him to read any time he wants.

‘Big house?’

Four bedrooms, I reply without counting.

‘You got phone number?’

I give him my phone number. He writes it down. He gives me his. I give him my card: Second Secretary (Political).

‘You play music? Piano?’

I’d like to, but I’m afraid I don’t.

‘You just make lousy pictures of Adenauer, okay?’ - with a huge pat on the shoulder and roars of laughter. ‘Listen. I got too small apartment. We make music, everybody complain. You call me once, okay? Invite us your house, we play you good music. I am Ivan, okay?’


Rule One of the Cold War: nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems. Everyone has a second motive, if not a third. A Soviet official openly invites himself and his wife to the house of a Western diplomat he doesn’t even know?Who’s making a pass at who in this situation? Put another way, what had I said or done to encourage such an improbable proposal in the first place? Let’s go over this again, David. You say you never met him before. Now you say you may have done?

A decision was reached, not mine to ask who by. I should invite Serov to my house exactly as he suggested. By telephone, not in writing. I should call the number he gave me, which was the official number of the Soviet Embassy in Bad Godesberg. I should state my name and ask to speak to Cultural Attaché Serov. Each of these seemingly normal acts was spelt out to me with huge precision. On being connected with Serov - if I am - I should enquire casually what day and hour suit him and his wife best for that musical event we discussed. I should aim for as early a date as possible, since potential defectors were prey to impulse. I should be sure to convey my compliments to his wife, whose inclusion in the approach - whose mere acknowledgement - was exceptional in such cases.

On the telephone, Serov was brusque. He spoke as if he vaguely remembered me, said he would consult his diary and call me back. Goodbye. My masters predicted that it was the last I would hear of him. A day later he called me back, I guessed from another phone since he sounded more like his jolly self.

Okay, eight o’clock Friday, David?

Both of you, Ivan?

Sure. Serova, she come also.

Great, Ivan. See you eight o’clock. And my best to your wife.

Throughout the day, sound technicians dispatched from London had been fiddling with the wiring in our living room, and my wife was worried about scratches in the paintwork. At the appointed hour an enormous chauffeur-driven ZiL limousine with blackened windows rolled into our drive and came slowly to a halt. A rear door opened and Ivan emerged, rump first, like Alfred Hitchcock in one of his own movies, pulling a man-sized cello after him. Then nobody. Was he alone after all? No, he was not. The other rear door is opening, the one I can’t see from the porch. I am about to have my first glimpse of Serova. But it’s not Serova. It’s a tall, agile man in a sharp, single-breasted black suit.

‘Say hullo to Dimitri,’ Serov announces on the doorstep. ‘He come instead of my wife.’

Dimitri says he loves music too.

Before dinner, Serov, evidently no stranger to the bottle, drank whatever was offered him and wolfed a plateload of canapés before playing us an overture from Mozart on his cello, which we applauded, Dimitri loudest. Over a dinner of venison, which Serov greatly relished, Dimitri enlightened us about recent Soviet accomplishments in the arts, space travel and the furtherance of world peace. After dinner, Ivan played us a difficult composition by Stravinsky. We applauded that too, again led by Dimitri. At ten o’clock the ZiL rolled back into the drive, and Ivan left bearing his cello, with Dimitri at his side.

A few weeks later, Ivan was recalled to Moscow. I was never allowed to know what was in his file, whether he was KGB or GRU, or whether his real name was indeed Serov, so I am free to remember him in my own way: as Cultural Serov, as I called him to myself, jovial lover of the arts, who now and then flirted wistfully with the idea of coming over to the West. Perhaps he had put out a few signals to that effect, without any great intention of seeing them through. And almost certainly he was working either for the KGB or the GRU, since it’s hard to imagine he would otherwise have enjoyed such freedom of movement. So for ‘cultural’, read ‘spy’. In short: just another Russian torn between love of country and the unrealizable dream of a freer life.

Did he see me as a fellow spy? Another Schulz? If the KGB had done their homework, they could hardly have failed to spot me for what I was. I had never taken a Diplomatic Service exam, never attended one of those country-house jamborees where potential diplomats are allegedly tested for their social graces. I had never been on a Foreign Office course, or seen the inside of the Foreign Office’s headquarters in Whitehall. I had arrived in Bonn from nowhere, speaking indecently fluent German.

And if all that wasn’t enough to mark me out as a spook, there were the hawk-eyed Foreign Service wives, who maintained as beady a watch on their husbands’ rivals for promotion, medals and eventual knighthoods as any KGBresearcher. One look at my credentials and they knew they needn’t worry about me any more. I wasn’t family. I was a Friend, which is how respectable British foreign servants describe the spies they are reluctantly obliged to count among their number.