The signal Gordievsky was to give to MI6 when he was ready needed to be precise and sufficiently unusual in order to avoid the entire complex escape procedure being kicked off by some innocent action misinterpreted. In practice, this meant the signal was mildly absurd, which did not necessarily induce confidence on the part of Gordievsky. A man wearing a particular type of trousers, carrying a particular bag and eating a particular brand of chocolate would walk past Gordievsky to acknowledge that he signal had been received. The first time Gordievsky waited at the point, there was nothing. Had he left too soon? he wondered. He tried again the following Tuesday. This time a man, unmistakably British in his attire, carrying a Harrods bag and eating a Mars bar strolled past him and looked him in the eye saying nothing.
One of Gordievsky's final acts in Moscow was to phone a friend. He called Mikhail Lyubimov and said he would like to meet him on Monday. Lyubimov noticed a confidence to his friend's voice that was in sharp contrast to the nervous wreck who had appeared in his apartment only a few weeks earlier. They agreed to meet at Lyubimov's dacha in Zvenigorod an hour outside Moscow where he was taking a break. Gordievsky knew the phone was bugged but also asked an odd question. Did his old friend remember a short story by Somerset Maugham called 'Mr Harrington's Washing'? The reference was a risky joke. 'I knew the KGB was not bright enough to work it out.' The story by Maugham, a former British Secret Service officer, involved a plan to escape from Russia over the border with Finland.
The Gordievsky escape plan at the end of the Cold War mirrored the plan hatched during Harrington's escape during the days of the Bolshevik Revolution in that it required a risky crossing of the border into Finland. In case his family was coming, two cars were needed, each driven by one of the MI6 officers in the Embassy. They would leave Moscow on Friday and stay overnight in Leningrad before going over to Finland on Saturday. The pretext was one of the officers' wives needing some specialist, but not too serious, medical treatment in Helsinki which had led the two families to decide to make a weekend trip together. Phone calls were made to London to establish the cover story. The first problem was an unfortunate coincidence. A new British ambassador was due to fly in that very Friday and he was going to have a welcome reception for staff. Would two of his staff really miss the opportunity to attend? So they would have to leave afterwards and drive through the night to make the rendezvous. The Ambassador was also briefed on the escape plan, and he was highly reluctant. He could just see his first week in the job being marked not by the usual introductions but by a huge diplomatic row as two of his staff were caught smuggling a spy out of the country. It could be the shortest posting in Foreign Office history. But he was overruled. The plan required political clearance and this had gone to the highest level.
Getting an agent out of Moscow was about as risky an operation as one could ask for. Getting caught in the act could have major diplomatic repercussions at just the time when the Prime Minister was working hard to improve relations with Gorbachev. As a result, the decision on whether or not to go ahead was one for Margaret Thatcher herself to take. The problem was that when the moment came she was not in Downing Street. She was up in Scotland staying at Balmoral Castle undertaking one of the Prime Minister's regular visits to the Queen. The conversation could not be held on the phone in case of interception, so Thatcher's Foreign Affairs Adviser Charles Powell had to race to Heathrow to catch a flight to Aberdeen and then take a car to Balmoral to seek approval. On arrival, the Queen's aides were none too amused when he explained that he could not tell them why he had come and what was so urgent. For all the risks, Thatcher had no doubt that the escape plan had to be put into action. 'We have an obligation and we will not let him down,' Thatcher remarked. The escape plan was always high risk. There were people at Century House who thought a trap would be waiting. Surveillance was heavy and the fear was that Gordievsky had been broken and it was a provocation, much like the arrest of the American after clearing Penkovsky's dead drop a quarter of a century earlier.
A stunning summer sunrise on Saturday morning greeted the two cars as they drove towards Leningrad. There was a mix of fatalism and excitement as the two officers set out with their families. There was the knowledge that, succeed or fail, it was the end of their time in Moscow. Expulsion was inevitable, but it would be faced either while basking in the glow of a daring escape or, more likely, having been caught in the act. The pessimists gave the plan about a one-in-twenty chance of working. Everything had to go right. Cumulatively the chances of one thing going wrong that would throw all the timings were high. Surveillance vehicles followed them almost all of the way. They had to reach the designated spot close to the Finnish border at exactly the right moment – not too early or too late, so when they had some time to kill they visited a monastery, still under surveillance. As they drove out of Leningrad, city surveillance handed over to provincial. They would need to be shaken off somehow. A stroke of lucky helped. All the cars on the highway were stopped for ten minutes to allow a convoy of tanks to pass. Time was ticking by. Once the tanks had passed, the drivers floored the accelerator. A gap opened up with the surveillance cars behind still coming out of the queue of traffic.
The two cars pulled off the main road into a layby in a forest to have a picnic. The surveillance cars, now desperate to catch up, roared past. As the picnic items were unpacked and the tea was being poured, a smelly-looking tramp got out of a ditch. 'Which car?' he said.
From The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera. Copyright 2012 by Gordon Corera. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books.