Commentary Magazine

Agents of Influence

Soviet archives, confessions, and memoirs are establishing as never before the extent of Soviet interference in the internal affairs of other countries—which turns out to have been far deeper than even the most vigilant observers ever supposed. Through terrorist movements, peace campaigns, strikes, and disinformation the Soviet Union sought either to exploit genuine grievances abroad or to create artificial ones. No other power has ever manipulated its opponents so imaginatively, or to such effect.

In the past, though the Soviet leadership used to reject with indignation any accusation of subverting Western democracies, glimpses of the reality could be obtained from Soviet defectors. These men—Walter Krivitsky, Igor Gouzenko, Ivan Pavlov, Arkady Shevchenko, and others—brought archival information or its equivalent, providing Western intelligence services with names of traitors and so-called agents of influence. In the nature of things, Western intelligence services preferred to release as little of this information as possible—an instinct which in retrospect can be seen to have contributed to the widespread ignorance in the West of Soviet aims.

And there was another source of Western ignorance: the manifold activities of a vast and mostly volunteer array of Soviet collaborators and “fellow-travelers,” usually intellectuals well placed in the media, the arts, and the universities. Even now, with the opening of Soviet archives, the full range of their activities may never be known. Whitewashing or otherwise obscuring the nature of their collaboration, they can hope to place the Soviet Union in an ambiguous perspective which keeps alive the ideology of Communism. That is their last service to the cause. A recent episode in London helps to explain how this is to be done.



The story begins in 1985, with the defection of a senior KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky. His long, firsthand experience of Soviet subversion in Britain made Gordievsky invaluable to the British secret service, which seems to have provided him with a house and a salary and occasionally allowed him to appear in the media. Recently, and presumably with official clearance, he wrote his memoirs, which were submitted to a publisher (Macmillan) in late 1994.

Rumor immediately began to circulate that these memoirs—which are not to be published for several months yet—contained the names of at least a score of British public figures, including Labor-party Members of Parliament, who allegedly served as KGB agents or collaborators. The Sunday Times in due course supplied a preliminary list of these figures, who almost all proved to be trade-union bosses well-known as Communists or Soviet sympathizers.

In a class all his own was Michael Foot. Now eighty-one, Foot was for five years a minister in past Labor governments and for three years leader of the Labor party. His record as a veteran fellow-traveler was a significant element in his overwhelming defeat by Mrs. Thatcher in the general election of 1983. A defender of the prewar Hitler-Stalin Pact, he had widely supported Soviet positions throughout the cold war, and had also been a vociferous advocate of unilateral British disarmament. In KGB files he appeared as the recipient of twelve payments of £150 each. Supposedly these were covert subsidies for Tribune, a hard-left weekly which Foot had once edited, and with which he is still associated. Tribune specialized in the argument that Soviet wrongdoing did indeed occur but that this in no way faulted Communism.

The revelation of Foot’s name had been preceded by another trial balloon sent up by one of Gordievsky’s ghostwriters. In an article in the weekly magazine the Spectator (December 10, 1994), he revealed that among hitherto unsuspected KGB agents in Britain was a journalist by the name of Richard Gott. For 30 years Gott had served on the Guardian newspaper as an editorial writer, foreign correspondent, and features editor; finally he was put in charge of its literary pages.

According to the Spectator article, Gott had been recruited by the KGB in the early 70’s, but had then somewhat lapsed, only to be reactivated in 1984. The role of Gordievsky was not given its due weight in the article. Other controlling officers were referred to, and they were said to have passed Gott notes in a cheap wallet: £600 at a first meeting and an average of £300 for each later meeting. Quite how much money he accepted altogether was not specified.



As it happens, Richard Gott was a contemporary of mine at Oxford University, and we have friends and acquaintances in common. In 1962, after graduating, I was living in Haifa, Israel, researching the first of several books about the Middle East. Not far away, Gott (who is not Jewish) was at Kibbutz Ma’abarot, learning Hebrew in an ulpan. His signature, I see, is in the visitors’ book I kept, and he appended an address in one of the smartest districts of London. At that time he declared himself to be an admirer of Israel, on the ground that it was a genuinely socialist society.

Amiable, with a squeak in his voice and a somewhat apologetic smile, Gott seemed a familiar type of the self-conscious eccentric, remaking the world according to the abstractions and compulsions in his head, one of the leftist beard-and-sandal brigade immortally caricatured by George Orwell. Another case-history in the making, he came from a privileged background—one uncle had been a well-known wartime general. As a student at Winchester, traditionally the most academic of schools, and then at Oxford, he had learned to despise the very establishment in which he had been educated to take his place. Communism offered him the heady prospect of rejecting his whole background while entering an establishment far more commanding than the British.

The Guardian was a natural habitat for him. With a daily circulation fluctuating between 300,000 and 400,000, it has long been the flagship publication of the Left. Under its original name, the Manchester Guardian, however, the paper had once exemplified the rather austere streak in British culture of Protestant nonconformism. “Comment is free but facts are sacred” was its proud motto.1

A highbrow reputation like the Guardian’s is slow to dissipate. The paper was first thrown off balance long ago by enthusiasm for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But then, in the period of Stalin’s collectivization and enforced famine, its Moscow correspondent was the late Malcolm Muggeridge, who in the British press was almost alone in reporting these crimes truthfully. In his memoirs, Muggeridge records how the Soviet official in charge of the foreign press, Konstantin Umansky, had the highest hopes for him and his paper, and was furious at Muggeridge’s unexpected refusal to join in an orchestrated denial of reality. Soviet archives now reveal that Karl Radek, responsible for overall Soviet propaganda, had issued explicit instructions to make use of the Manchester Guardian as a leading outlet in the campaign to plant stories in the British press.

By the 60’s and 70’s, many and perhaps most Guardian writers identified the Soviet Union with the cause of virtue and hope, and the West with vice and decay. The paper promoted its special blend of advocacy for Western disarmament, pacifism, and militant feminism, and disdain for the mainstream cultural values of Britain and America. A 1975 comment by its American correspondent about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, expelled from the Soviet Union shortly before, catches the characteristic tone of innuendo and misrepresentation that unspokenly justified Soviet ends:

Solzhenitsyn believes that all international relations should be forged on the basis of an intense personal morality—his own—and firmly believes Communism to be foully evil and that even the remotest evidence of warmth toward it and its protagonists is morally wrong. That kind of talk has gone down extremely well with this society’s more Neanderthal brothers and sisters and overnight, it seems fair to say, this man, who via the Book-of-the-Month Club (which has ensured that millions of unread copies of Gulag lie on coffee tables from Scarsdale to Sausalito) and the kind of media blitz so popular in this country, has become the darling of the redneck population.

Then there was the paper’s Moscow correspondent, Martin Walker, one of whose themes was the comparability of the British and Soviet ways of life, especially on weekends, when Soviet families packed their possessions in station wagons and headed off to country homes—this, at a time when there was no market in either houses or cars in the Soviet Union, and the ratio of cars to population approximated that in West Africa. Facts had become free in the Guardian, but comment was sacred.



Even in such company, Richard Gott stood out. The Six-Day War of 1967 convinced him that Israel had converted from socialism into a monstrous brand of American-inspired imperialism, and he became a supporter of the PLO. Other particular heroes of his were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba—he was proud to have been among the very first to pay respects to the corpse of Guevara—and Salvador Allende in Chile. He idealized South American terrorist movements, and the Maoists waging civil war in several African countries. Features and literary pages for which he was responsible were likely to celebrate someone or something unfamiliar to many readers but invariably flattering to Communism.

Like many Soviet collaborators in the Brezhnev era, Gott became anxious that the Soviet Union was not living up to expectations. Not that he saw its brutality at last—on the contrary, the problem was that the Kremlin was watering down Communism, and only in China were the purest of the pure setting a proper example. Despite this turn, the KGB must have perceived that Gott’s espousal of Maoism offered a virtually undetectable cover; whatever version of Communism he promoted, he remained of use.



It is deeply ironic that one of Gott’s journalistic specialties was, in the words of the Spectator article I referred to earlier,

to unmask the hypocrisy of particular individuals [in the West]—politicians, bureaucrats, journalists—who claim to uphold freedom and democracy but whose actions are actually dictated by a secret agenda which has nothing to do with either.

Certainly no British publication has been louder than the Guardian in its accusations of declining probity in British public life. But when it came to Gott’s own secret agenda, different rules applied.

Confronted with the Spectator article, Gott invoked an ingenious form of self-defense. Admitting the truth of the charge, he resigned immediately from the Guardian, but then claimed that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. The very day of his resignation an article by him appeared in the form of an open letter to Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, under the cute title, “I Was a Mellow Traveler.” In it, Gott pointed out that, after all, his “incorrigibly leftist” beliefs had been out in the open for all to read. Yes, he had taken “red gold,” but this was not as a reward for services rendered but as advance expenses for costly trips to Vienna and Nicosia and Athens (where he met KBG controllers). To accept such expenses was “culpable stupidity,” but nothing more. His sole regret was that he had not informed Preston about an interview he had held with the British secret service, which had summoned him for the purpose of “tidying up the details of the case.”

“It would have been sensible for you,” he now informed Preston insouciantly, “to know about this long and essentially harmless saga.” And he continued, in the same jaunty vein: “I rather enjoyed the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere which will be familiar to anyone who has read the spy stories of the cold war.” Finally, he claimed that he was no different from anyone else: “The cold war was a very bizarre period, and perhaps none of us always acted the way we should have done.”



Here, then, was a nose-thumbing challenge to his editor, a man who presumably had taken Gott’s opinions on trust, only to discover that he had been well and truly duped by a paid agent of the KGB. Yet Preston met this challenge in a reply printed below the “Mellow Traveler” letter, where he eulogized Gott as, of all things, a “free spirit,” and as a brilliant journalist whose resignation he accepted only with the heaviest of hearts. “I know that nothing you wrote or commissioned for the paper was tainted,” he said, without troubling to explain how he could conceivably know any such thing. And then he quipped that if the Russians thought of recruiting Richard Gott, it was no wonder they had lost the cold war.

Not content with specious justification, Preston also went over onto the attack, claiming that the Spectator article was nothing but a piece of spiteful revenge for a campaign the Guardian had been conducting against a junior Conservative government minister whom it was accusing of accepting favors from an Arab friend and former business associate. The Spectator article, Preston concluded, was therefore so much “tactical slime.”

A spate of comment followed in the British press, in which Gott attracted more sympathy than condemnation. One Guardian writer to rally to his side was, predictably, Martin Walker. Another defender was Christopher Hitchens, a leftist journalist now living in America, who in one place put the Spectator article down to McCarthyism, and in another to conspiracy on the part of the intelligence services. Neal Ascherson lamented about damage needlessly done to a left-wing position that had “integrity.”2

Gordievsky’s character was much savaged. By virtue of the fact that he had worked for the KGB, he was deemed untrustworthy, though similar strictures apparently did not apply to Gott. And just to cap it all off, the trustees who control the Guardian made an unexpected intervention in the affair by promoting Preston to a new post as editor-in-chief of both the Guardian and the Observer.



Just how are we to judge Richard Gott? He was no Kim Philby, to be sure; he had nothing secret or important to tell the KGB. Yet he was highly valuable in his own way. His service consisted, in part, in preparing Guardian readers for their endless rounds of political demonstrations and marches, sit-ins at military bases, meetings, mass letters, and general fist-shaking at the authorities. With a steady diet of selective, distorted, and simply false information, he helped to craft and fortify their indignation and constant collective protest against the values which alone guaranteed them the freedom to behave as they pleased. In short, Richard Gott did his bit and more than his bit for those in the Kremlin manipulating the apparently spontaneous outbursts of public dissent in a country more than a thousand miles away.

Of course, the public dissenters were under no compulsion to buy or to read the Guardian, and if they wished to deceive themselves about reality, that was their business. The real accusation against Gott is not that he misled his readers—though he did so, knowingly and shamelessly. His true crime was against the prisoners in the gulag, whose population at the time Gott was pocketing his first wallet of KGB money was so large that nobody can number them accurately. Rightfully expecting support and solidarity from people who were free, these unfortunates could never have guessed that a leading staff member at a British newspaper of world renown had found it “harmless” to throw in his lot with the very same KGB which was holding them behind barbed wire.



As for Michael Foot, he has rejected as a “shocking libel” the allegation that he had been a Soviet agent of influence, knowingly or unknowingly. Everybody to whom he spoke about it, he said in an initial reaction, had dismissed the very notion of such a possibility, and so he did not propose to sue. He claimed to be unable to remember whether he had in fact accepted any payments but saw no objection to such a thing in principle, explaining, “We can always take money for Tribune” For instance, the paper had carried paid advertisements from Soviet sources, and that was only business. His contacts with the Soviets, he continued, had been at diplomatic levels, and he had visited the Soviet embassy as he might have done the American or German embassies. No distinction was to be drawn among the policies these governments were pursuing through their embassies.

True to form, the Guardian judged that the allegations against Foot had attracted “widespread ridicule” and published on its front page a photograph of him taken that day reading Karl Marx’s Capital. Gott himself could hardly have improved upon a touch like that. But after a few days more, Foot announced that he proposed after all to take the Sunday Times to court.



Anyone who collaborated with Nazism has been required to answer for it. The likes of Martin Heidegger, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Paul de Man, by no means war criminals, in their various ways played a part in legitimizing a murderous enterprise. Yet no matter how great their intellectual distinction, they and those like them have been universally denounced as morally defective.

In just the same manner as they, Gott did what he could to legitimize another enterprise of mass murder. Now, he and others of like mind think it appropriate to shrug off this activity as so much frivolity, so much “culpable stupidity.” But the truth about the Soviet Union is now out in the open. It is for the sake of that truth, and in the name of the victims, that those who collaborated with Soviet criminality have to be held to account.


1 The paper, which has a weekly international edition, has lately taken over the Observer, an ailing Sunday newspaper which has made a comparable political trek. If, once upon a time, Observer readers could rely for information about Soviet reality from the likes of Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, and Richard Lowenthal, in the 80's its star columnist was Neal Ascherson, who liked to insist that whatever Communists might do in practice, the ideals of the Left remained untarnished.

2 In the United States, the New York Times, after inexplicably waiting a month to inform its readers about the Gott affair, played down its significance, reporting that the CIA and other Western spy agencies had, after all, routinely done the very same thing: “There is no doubt that the Soviets actively sought to cultivate Western opinion-makers, just as Western intelligence agents tried to propagate their own ideas and values abroad by covertly financing magazines and providing favors and trips to writers abroad.”

About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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