The Soviet sniffer dog had almost certainly never smelt anything like cheese and onion crisps before. She offered a crisp to one of the dogs, which wolfed it down before being led away by the unsmiling handler. The other dog, however, was now sniffing at the boot of the Sierra. Gordievsky could hear muffled Russian voices overhead.
As the dog circled the boot, Caroline Ascot reached for a weapon that had never been deployed before in the Cold War or any other. She placed Florence on the car boot directly over the hidden spy and began changing her nappy – which the baby, with immaculate timing, had just filled. She then dropped the soiled and smelly diaper next to the inquisitive Alsatian. The dog duly slunk off, offended. Olfactory diversion had never been part of the plan . The nappy ruse had been completely spontaneous and highly effective.
Ah, the unflappable Brits. To this day the Soviets can’t quite believe that diplomats trying to smuggle a Soviet spy over the border into Finland would take their wives, a picnic and a baby with them. In the boot of the Sierra was Oleg Gordievsky, a high-rating KGB officer who had been spying for the British for years and had been betrayed by the CIA spy Aldrich Ames. The story of how he got away is, as John Le Carre said, “The best true spy story I have ever read.” It’s not just the unlikely, nerve-wracking escape that makes it so. Gordievsky is a fascinating character, a man who never wavered once he decided that the Soviet system was a rotten one, and who made the choice to go back from London to Russia to keep doing that work rather than seeking asylum in Britain, even though he suspected his cover might have been blown. It had been. Somehow, he managed to frustrate his interrogators, throw off his followers, and get himself 800 kilometres across Russia to a rendezvous with the British rescuers.
It made me think about the hundreds of people working away behind the surface of international affairs, of the delicacy and complexity of the relationships between countries and leaders, and the immense consequences of misunderstandings. It made me understand (Donald Trump, I’m lookin’ at you) how essential it is that we have intelligent and stable leaders, whatever side of politics they’re on. Behind the scenes are brilliant and far-sighted people who develop policy, and mixed in with all that brilliance are our perennial human stupidities and weaknesses. Absolutely fascinating. By the way, baby Florence is now an expert in Russian art.