It is 7.30 am on July 16, 1985 in Moscow. Oleg Gordievsky (Moscow, 1938) stands, standing, at the door of a small bakery on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of the most important and busiest in the center of the capital. In one hand he holds a plastic bag from the British supermarket Safeway. At 7.46, another man walking across the street with a bag from the Harrods department store and a Mars chocolate bar briefly crosses his gaze with him, without exchanging a single word.
Those two bags and the chocolate bar were the signals that launched Operation Pimlico, one of the most novel and far-reaching rescue plans of the Cold War, created to take Gordievsky out of Moscow when he learned that the KGB had discovered him. We are talking about the most valuable spy that Great Britain has had during the 20th century, often described as the best double agent in history or as the mole who avoided World War III and saved millions of lives. The Safeway bag, in particular, was the signal of this to MI6 to warn them that it was in danger of death, while the bite to the Mars bar by the English agent confirmed that they had received the message.
It has taken 35 years for us to know the identity of the agent responsible for designing and directing that historic operation. Specifically, until his death at age 90 in West Clandon, a small town in the county of Surrey, in England, on December 28, as reported by “The Times”. Her name, Valerie Pettit, who answered for years that she had been a simple secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was no other answer when asked and he always quickly changed the subject. After her retirement, she dedicated herself to caring for her mother and sister, going to the theater and church, and promoting a campaign to preserve the forests around her home. Until now, beyond a small handful of MI6 officers, not even her closest friends knew that the simple Miss Pettit had been one of the most important spies in her country.
In July 1985, however, this English Secret Service officer had it all figured out to extract Gordievsky. Everyone was convinced that it was practically impossible for it to go well, except her. It was a time trial operation that started in that bakery on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. Pettit had been conscientiously chosen as he was in front of an apartment complex where foreigners lived, including British MI6 officers under diplomatic cover. That way it would go more unnoticed.
For seven years, MI6 had guarded and monitored with field agents that avenue and that bakery, looking for the man with a Safeway bag. And they did it on an almost daily basis so as not to raise suspicions among the Soviet intelligence services, as if it were their daily routine on the way to work, regardless of whether or not Gordievsky was in Moscow at the time. That is why all British agents used to carry a chocolate bar, in case the famous double agent appeared.
Upon receiving the signal, Gordievsky was to proceed to an isolated spot near the Finnish border. Before, he had to circumvent the follow-up that, for a couple of months, he had known the Soviet agents were doing 24 hours a day. There he would be received by two MI6 officers in diplomatic cars and, hidden in the trunk, they would be illegally removed from the USSR. In principle, these official vehicles were not subject to registration by customs police. All this had been planned by Pettit, who was monitoring the operation at a distance. He had even trained her with agents in the Guildford woods. Nothing could go wrong.
The first alarm
The first alarm signal for Gordievsky occurred on the afternoon of May 22, 1985, while he was quietly in his London office. It had only been five months since he had been appointed head of the KGB in the English capital, after the expulsion of his boss, General Arkadi Guk, from the country. An important promotion that gave the British Government the opportunity to introduce him to the top of the command posts of the USSR after years of covert espionage. And so it happened.
«We were not worried and neither was Oleg. He himself had the idea that, probably, everything was in order with his new position with respect to the Soviet Government, ”a former MI6 officer told the Daily Mail two years ago. But even then the prestigious British newspaper did not name Pettit nor did it know of his existence. Gordievsky, meanwhile, was greeted as a hero when he arrived in Moscow for his appointment. No one suspected him. In addition, introducing a mole to the top of the KGB was a triumph for British intelligence, which would receive information on the plans of the Soviet Union, the great enemy of the West in the middle of the Cold War, long before the CIA.
Everything went smoothly for five months, until that May 22 the telegram arrived in which his presence in Moscow was immediately required. “Important discussions,” he said simply. Something was wrong and he knew it, so he left his diplomatic building in London, went to a phone booth several miles away and called his MI6 contact, Simon Brown. Should he defect and flee to the UK with his family for fear of being sentenced to death, or go to Moscow’s call and continue to play his part?
A life of novel
Until then, the life of Gordievsky, the son of a Russian intelligence officer, had had all the elements of the best novels by John le Carré or Ian Fleming. He had studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and recruited for the almighty KGB upon graduation. Then he felt the illusion of belonging to the elite of the Soviet intelligence services and serving the communist cause. He proudly passed his training at the shadowy School 101 and was transferred to then East Berlin in August 1961. It was there that his ideals began to falter, as he saw the Berlin Wall rise by order of his superiors. He then witnessed Soviet terror and the so-called Prague Spring, until his betrayal and subsequent conversion into a double MI6 agent arrived.
That caught him in Copenhagen, where he was sent under diplomatic cover, in 1966, after his stay in Germany. There a large amount of valuable information began to pass to the enemy, including the identities of numerous Soviet spies and intelligence officers operating in the West. He did this at regular meetings that were held in a safe house located in the northern suburbs of the Danish capital. Before leaving the country to return to Moscow in 1978, Gordievsky asked his British liaisons to come up with an escape plan in case he needed to flee Moscow.
The task fell to Officer Valerie Pettit, who was then 48 years old. He had been born on June 13, 1929 near Lord’s Cricket Stadium in London. He had graduated from the University of Exeter and joined the British Foreign Office soon after. Soon she gave evidence of having a sharp mind and being a modest, patriotic and rigorously discreet person, which earned her transfer to MI6. The year Gordievsky asked for her extraction plan, she had just been promoted to acting as deputy chief of MI6’s P5 section, the same one that directed Soviet agents and their operations.
However, the two did not meet until 1982, when the KGB first sent the double agent to the Soviet embassy in London. For three years, they met regularly at a safe house in the Bayswater neighborhood, and it revealed a wealth of top-notch information. The English government relayed much of that information to the CIA, but never disclosed its origin or the identity of the double agent. Surprised, the United States secretly investigated to try to find out, but did not succeed.
No western information service has ever obtained a mole of such high level as him. Disrupted Soviet operations in Denmark, uncovered the activities of important Norwegian and Swedish collaborators with the Kremlin, reported on how the KGB operated inside with all kinds of details, names and operations, alerted to the relationship of Labor leader Michael Foot with the Kremlin and He reported to journalists and politicians who were paid by the embassy of the USSR in different countries, all with the supervision of Pettit.
His two most important contributions, however, were to identify Mikhail Gorbachev, long before he was elected, as the president who would promote the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and, above all, avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The last case occurred in the context of NATO’s Able Archer 83 maneuvers, carried out in November 1983. A routine simulation of a nuclear attack that was carried out every year, but this time the Alliance decided to include some modifications: use a new coding, raise the alert to its maximum Defcon 1 level, mobilize the heads of state and deploy atomic missiles next to the Berlin Wall. This led Gorbachev and his senior military officers to believe that the enemy was preparing a real nuclear attack.
The reaction was immediate. The Soviets prepared their own atomic weapons and even set a date to pre-empt the attack from the West: November 11. All the top KGB officers spread across Europe, including Gordievsky, received the information on the offensive on November 9, which would undoubtedly trigger World War III. Our mole quickly alerted MI6 and MI6 immediately informed the CIA and President Ronald Reagan. This caused NATO to lower the tension and organize a meeting between the latter and Gorbachev, which prevented the death of millions of people.
Reagan and Gorbachev
Two years later, in May 1985, a disgruntled CIA officer named Aldrich Ames approached the KGB in Washington and sold information to the Russians, including the identities of the spies behind the Iron Curtain who worked for the West. That was the end of Gordievsky who, a day later, was called to Moscow. After the subsequent call to his MI6 liaison, he finally decided not to defect and go see what happened. The Soviet high command had discovered him, but instead of arresting and torturing him, they chose to put him under surveillance to catch him red-handed in full communication with the British … which was a mistake on the part of the Communists .
On July 16, he went to the aforementioned bakery with his bag from the Safeway. Given the signal, he eluded his pursuers and left for the rendezvous point near the border. Four days later, with Pettit directing the operation in detail, two MI6 officers and their wives picked him up, wrapped him in a reflective blanket to prevent infrared cameras from detecting him, and put him in the trunk of one of the diplomatic vehicles. The customs dogs, on the other hand, did smell Gordievsky’s body and began to circle the car. The women played their last card and it worked: one of them opened a bag of potato chips with cheese and onion to eat it and the other dropped a dirty diaper of her son to the ground, which confused the dog for a moment and they were able to follow his path.
Upon entering Finland they headed to a clearing in a nearby forest for Gordievsky to get into a third car with the MI6’s second extraction team. When the trunk was opened, the first person he saw was Valerie Pettit, who was waiting for him. “She was the first person I saw as a free man,” wrote Gordievsky, who is now 81 years old and still lives in a safe house in Britain. And she added: «She was a perfectionist who always showed great kindness and patience. He was, and always will be, my angel ». .