Russia’s activities in London are in the spotlight again. Years back, our Russian neighbours in London became our friends – or our foes. Or both.

6 December 2019 By Paul Martin

Russian interference in the elections of Western nations is once again highlighted. This time in the British election. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn triumphantly brandished a 400-page document that he said proved the current government were negotiating with the USA to “sell off” parts of the state-owned, state-run, taxpayer-paid National Health Service. It later turned out that, according to the internet platform reddit, which first carried to leaked document, where and how it was posted, and who it targeted, were orchestrated by a Russian government-backed operation.

The analysis was done by the Graphika report:

“The unredacted UK-US trade documents that leaked in the lead-up to Britain’s general election were amplified online in a way that closely resembles the known Russian information operation “Secondary Infektion.” The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it.

  • The leaks were published on October 21, 2019, by a Reddit user called Gregoratior. That account used grammatically incorrect English and made specific errors that were also characteristic of “Secondary Infektion”.
  • Single-use burner accounts were repeatedly used on the same three sites as part of Russian operation Secondary Infektion, which was originally exposed in June 2019.
  • The operation struggled to draw attention to the documents it disseminated and employed various strategies for doing so. Only after unknown actors emailed the Reddit post directly to political activists in the UK in late November did the leaks make the news.
  • The most urgent question is how the leaked documents – apparently genuine – came to be disseminated online in what appears to be an information operation, six weeks before the UK’s general election.”

Correspondent.world has no inside information on whether this is true, and whether Corbyn or his Labour Party knew about the dubious nature of the leak.

But I can exclusively reveal that my own family was subject to our very own (ultimately unsuccessful) Russian intelligence plot!

It all began in 1985.

“Four to 20,” the man in the dark, old-fashioned suit informed me, peering intently at his watch, as the No. 53 bus to Highgate swayed to and fro. “You mean 20 to 4?” I suggested.

“Are you Russian?” I enquired. “How did you guess?” the man exclaimed.

I must say I was surprised when Yuri eagerly accepted my on-the-spot invitation for him and his family to visit us – an acceptance I thought was not actually going to be followed through.

It had turned out we were neighbours. The Soviet Trade Delegation’s headquarters were close by, and he said he lived not far from there, though he never told us precisely where.

Neither did he ever give us his home phone number, saying there was only a communal phone (suitably communist), and whoever answered was unlikely to speak English. Should that have raised our suspicions?

The building of the Soviet Trade Mission, London

Should we also have wondered why he had the freedom to visit us, when other East-bloc people were so reticent toward us local folks who lived near the trade delegation? When you greeted them in the street with your best effort at pronouncing "Dobryi dyen"(“Good day”), they only responded with a thin smile or a curt nod.

A previous attempt at breaching the Iron Curtain — when I accidentally joined three East-bloc people in a game of tennis on our local public courts — had ended abruptly in embarrassed guffaws after I told them I was a journalist.

Anyway, to our intense surprise, Yuri and his wife Natalia did phone to accept our tea invitation. Now sporting casual jeans, Yuri and his wife turned up along with their two daughters Lena, aged 4, and one-year-old Irina.

Lena and our daughter Laura were the same age, and the subject of children proved useful for breaking the ice. An attractive woman wearing casual but elegant clothing, Natalia was, she said, “astonished” at how scantily the British clad their youngsters.

“Back home, we dress them very warmly,” she said, a point reinforced by Lena’s and Irina’s woolen hats and layers of clothing, as our child frolicked barefoot on the carpet.

Laura was presented with a small Russian wooden doll, and we recounted aspects of our enjoyable vacation in the Soviet Union four years ago, avoiding unfriendly details, like the tour guide who whispered: “I think Solzhenitsyn is a very brave man.”

Yuri and Natalia had arrived early this year and were planning to stay for three years. Ours appeared to be the first Western home they had been in: They were clearly impressed, explaining that homes in Russia were considerably smaller. They were even thinking of putting Lena in a British state school, although Natalia worried that Lena’s lack of English would inhibit her.

Lena delivered her only English sentence with great gusto, however.

“Tasty, tasty — very, very tasty!” she intoned, imitating a well-known television commercial here.

Yuri and I found common ground: our interest in sports. He would sit glued for hours at our home watching British soccer on television. I even took him to a cricket match I was playing in.

“If you want to understand British society and politics, you must understand cricket,” I told him, explaining how, as with British politics, one side comes in to bat and the other side tries to get the batting side out. Then government and opposition swap sides, and very often the game ends without a result, but no one seems to mind, I said pointedly.

Our Russian friends popped in from time to time, and even offered to take us for a ride in their newly acquired (Western-made) motorcar.

They showed no apparent interest though, when I suggested we visit the grave, very near our house and the Trade Mission, of Karl Marx, who wrote his famous Communist text, Das Kapital, sitting in our local library.

Image result for new statesman "paul martin" yuri spy"

Image result for new statesman "paul martin" yuri spy"
The grave of Karl Marx (top), defaced with red-paint slogans in 2019.

But then the spy scandal blew up. Oleg Gordiyevsky, 46, chief of the British branch of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, had defected and provided a list of his agents.

There it was in black and white in the morning paper:

Yuri P. Rozhkov, 37, translator, International Cocoa Organisation. Dependents: wife and two daughters.

His name and description were second to last on a list of 25 Soviets being expelled for “activities totally incompatible with their status and declared tasks” — the diplomatic euphemism for spying.

Image result for Yuri P. Rozhkov, 37, translator, International Cocoa Organisation. Dependents: wife and two daughters."

What dark secrets of global strategic import, I wondered, lurked in the vaults of the International Cocoa Board?

I am proud to say I betrayed none of my country’s state secrets. It was just as well, however, that no-one had entrusted any to me. Mind you, I had to sign acceptance of the Official Secrets Act upon joining the British Broadcasting Corporation, so perhaps the Soviets figured I was more important than I am!

To be serious: Was I really seen as a potential “mole’? Or is the more mundane explanation for Yuri and Natalia’s friendship with us simply that they wanted some Western company, just as we were interested in getting to know some Russians?

I wrote an article the next week in the left-wing New Statesman magazine. It ended: “Yuri may have been a Russian spy, but he is still my friend.”

A week later I was passing by the Soviet Trade Mission and saw a large single-decker bus turning in through the iron gates. No-one was allowed in there except the residents, but I thought I would have a go.

I asked the guard if I could speak to Yuri, who, I explained, was a friend. A few minutes later, amazingly, I was allowed inside. Everyone leaving the country had already boarded the bus. But Yuri, his wife and daughters came out.

“I read your article in the New Statesman,” he said. Oh no, I thought, he will have hated it – especially the bit about the ill-fitting grey suit, and also my cricket-analogy about the way democracy works in England.

But he broke into a big smile and said: “It was very very good!”

Phew!

Of course I never expected to see him or his wife or the girls again.

But on a reporting trip to the Soviet Union in 1991 I had the unique experience of getting inside the notorious Lubyanka, the grey-walled headquarters of the KGB.

KGB headquarters, Moscow

Only a couple of days before, the shambolic military coup had ended in failure, and it was possible to get in to places none of us journalists could ever previously have dreamed of reaching.

The KGB chief himself showed me around the still-mothballed office of Yuri Andropov, the only head of the KGB to also become the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the USSR’s head of state.

I asked the current KGB chief if he could let me meet my old friend Yuri.

His face froze and became expressionless. “We are not aware of any such individual,” he said.

Some things about spies (especially Russian ones) will forever remain secret.

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