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Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. The British embassy was a magnificent mansion built in the 1890s by a rich sugar merchant, on the south bank of the Moskva river. It looked directly across to the Kremlin. The view was dreamy: a grand palace, golden church domes and medieval spires topped with revolutionary red stars.
One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Steele had arrived in Moscow via the usual establishment route for upwardly mobile British spies: the University of Cambridge. Cambridge had produced some of MI6’s most talented cold war officials. A few of them, it turned out – to great embarrassment – had secret second jobs with the KGB. The joke inside MI6 was that only those who had never visited the Soviet Union would wish to defect.
Steele had studied social and political sciences at Girton College. His views were centre-left; he and his elder sister were the first members of his family to go to university. (Steele’s paternal grandfather was a coal miner from Pontypridd in south Wales; his great-uncle died in a pit accident.) Steele wrote for the student newspaper, Varsity. He became president of the Cambridge Union, a debating society dominated by well-heeled and well-connected young men and women.
It’s unclear who recruited Steele. Traditionally, certain Cambridge tutors were rumoured to identify promising MI6 candidates. Whatever the route, Steele’s timing was good. After three years at MI6, he was sent to the Soviet Union in April 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist bloc across eastern Europe.
It was a tumultuous time. Seventy years after the Bolshevik revolution, the red empire was crumbling. The Baltic states had revolted against Soviet power; their own national authorities were governing in parallel with Moscow. In June 1991, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic elected a democratic president, Boris Yeltsin. Food shortages were not uncommon.
There was still much to enjoy. Like other expatriates, the Steeles visited the Izmailovsky craft market, next to an imperial park where Peter the Great’s father, Tsar Alexei, had established a model farm. Here you could buy lacquered boxes, patchwork quilts, furry hats and Soviet kitsch. Steele acquired samovars, carpets from central Asia, a papier-mache Stalin mask and a hand-painted Tolstoy doll set.
Much of the Soviet Union was off-limits to diplomats. Steele was the embassy’s “internal traveller”. He visited newly accessible cities. One of them was Samara, a wartime Soviet capital. There, he became the first foreigner to see Stalin’s underground bunker. Instead of Lenin, he found dusty portraits of Peter the Great and the imperial commander Mikhail Kutuzov – proof, seemingly, that Stalin was more nationalist than Marxist. Another city was Kazan, in Tatarstan. There a local correspondent, Anatoly Andronov, took a black-and-white photo of Steele chatting with newspaper editors. At weekends, Steele took part in soccer matches with a group of expats in a Russian league. In one game, he played against the legendary Soviet Union striker Oleh Blokhin, who scored from the halfway line.