Saturday’s Daily Telegraph magazine included a fascinating account by Kirsty Buchanan of the “Moscow mules”. It documented how a Russian émigré based in Lewisham, George Miller-Kurakin, recruited young Conservative activists to undertake clandestine missions across the Iron Curtain in order to smuggle in materials to assist those operating in opposition to the Communist regime.
Several of those whose exploits were recounted in the piece subsequently went on to fame and fortune, some holding important positions in public life. I was also mentioned.
We read for, instance, of the contribution of the man who is now the Minister of State at the Department of Education:
“Letter-posting was also an important part of the couriers’ work: providing dissidents with facts to help counter Soviet propaganda. Nick Gibb was a young graduate of 21 in 1982 when he was sent to Leningrad, now St Petersburg, to deliver up to 100 letters, which were strapped to the inside of his legs under ‘horrible baggy black cord trousers’ and tucked into his boots in order to evade Soviet customs.
“Posing as an ordinary tourist on a £200 Thomson’s package tour, the future minister checked into the Leningrad Hotel and spent the next few days walking the city streets posting letters into the blue boxes for domestic mail, a handful at a time so as not to attract attention.
“‘I had to learn the rudiments of the Russian alphabet so I could follow street signs,’ he recalls. ‘It was my first foreign trip alone. I remember standing on the banks of the River Neva watching these great ice blocks flowing down river and thinking, “This time yesterday, I was in my flat in London and now here I am.” It was exhilarating and, yes, it was fun.’
“Like many of the recruits, Gibb had been trained by a German ‘handler’, known only to the young activists as Alex. They would meet in a café near Victoria Station and meticulously go over the details needed to evade detection. The grandson of a Russian émigré, Alex is now 75 and lives in Frankfurt. He still works for the NTS publishing house Possev, which printed many of the works smuggled out by couriers and which the KGB once tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb.”
His younger brother Sir Robbie, subsequently the Number 10 director of communications, was also recruited. Along with his then girlfriend, now Lady Gibb.
Most of those who went over were involved in the Federation of Conservative Students. My own mission took place when in 1982 when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy [see photo above].
It was organised by Miller-Kurakin and Julian Lewis – now the Conservative MP for New Forest East MP and the chairman of the powerful Commons Intelligence and Security Committee.
It was unusual in that, rather than it being imperative for me to evade capture, Miller-Kurakin and Lewis were most anxious that I should be arrested by the KGB. I achieved this, ahead of schedule – though my collaborator Peter Caddick-Adams did not, despite ostentatiously handing out leaflets on the Moscow underground.
The point was to generate publicity in the West to undermine the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – which had been holding mass demonstrations and gained the support of the Labour Party for a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The content of the leaflets – concerning ending the arms race – was printed in English and Russian. They were written by Lewis, but despite his hawkish views there was nothing specifically pro-NATO or anti-Soviet in them. They were simply peace leaflets – support for multilateral disarmament. What was the Soviet response when the message was put forward to their own people?
I was arrested by the KGB at Moscow Airport. This was after I had been caught attempting to smuggle in leaflets “down my socks”. Actually, they were surgical stockings. The bulge of the leaflets was not obvious as I was wearing unfashionable flared jeans.
However, when I was taken off to be body-searched the game was up. For whatever reason, the Soviet authorities were on the look out for me. The plan which was thwarted had been for me to go to the GUM department store and to be detained after spraying the leaflets down from the balcony.
Then I was placed in a bedroom in an army barracks; I was held for just over 24 hours before being deported. I was given nothing to eat or drink. There would be various interrogators coming and going asking me who had sent me and who else was in my group. I recited some comments I had rehearsed about wishing to see someone from the British Embassy and quoting some sections of the Soviet Constitution and the Helsinki Final Act about freedom of expression.
At one stage, I was told I would be put on a flight home in half an hour, but hours later that had not happened. Eventually, I was sent home after being told that I was “banned for life” from returning and that I was “a registered enemy of the Soviet Union”.
I later read in Brian Crozier’s memoirs that the CIA provided the funds. Crozier was a magnificent “cold war warrior” involved in an array of initiatives – open and clandestine – to defeat communism. On my return. home the media coverage was considerable.
The most frequent question was whether my parents knew about it – they did and had been astonishingly sanguine, regarding it as my decision. I was particularly pleased to do an interview for the BBC Russian Service – which I felt rather made up for the failure to reach any Russian members of public.
Various people over the years have said how “brave” we were. Perhaps there was an element of youthful bravado. Certainly there was plenty of fun and excitment.
But the overwhelmingly probability for us was that even if arrested we would be rapidly deported to resume our lives of safety in the west. Far greater courage was shown by those citizens of the Soviet Union who worked to resist the totalitarian system they were living under.
There were parallel operations, of course. Sir Roger Scruton’s work with dissidents – especially in what is now the Czech Republic – is well documented. Sir Roger, a great pessimist, told me that he never expected to see the fall of Communism in those countries during his life time, despite devoting a considerable proportion of his energy to working towards such an outcome.
Such pessimism was understandable. During the era of “detente” (or appeasement as some of us considered it) the Soviet Empire expanded. Many western commentators – with faux sophistication – cynically advanced the theory of moral equivalents. Only during the Reagan/Thatcher era did we really recover our self belief.
Those of us referred to in Buchanan’s piece tended to be more optimistic. Miller-Kurakin convinced me that, while monolithic, the Soviet system would not be permanent. That could not be taken for granted. Though neither can the cause of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – as the way Russia has regressed under Putin makes all too clear.
Miller-Kurakin sadly died in 2009 aged only 54 – I wrote an obituary about him which appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Our efforts may have been individually modest. But while retaining a sense of humour is always useful, we needn’t be unduly self-deprecating. Small actions are cumulative – and the Soviet system eventually was brought down.
What do the 16-year-olds of today make of it all? Given the sanitised account of the Soviet Union they will have been taught in school, any of them reading Buchanan’s account may be a bit surprised. I hope, at least, it might convey an understanding that the Left does not have a monopoly of idealism. So often Conservatives are traduced as having base motives. To quote from The Prisoner, an iconic libertarian TV series with a considerable following among some of the “Moscow mules”:
Observer: “I have my duty to everyone. Have you no values, Number 6?”
Number 6: “Different values.”