Our September Book of the Month is the most gripping true spy story of the Cold War: Next Stop Execution, the autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky.
This second edition comes with a new foreword from Gordievsky where he comments on the continuing relevancy of his story, and which we’ve included below.
This book was originally published over two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Cold War, which ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the countries of Eastern Europe that had been under Soviet domination since the end of the Second World War. It was a time of huge change — and hope. After years of confrontation between two world systems — Soviet Communism and Western values — which had come at times dangerously close to catastrophic military conflict, it seemed a new era had arrived, in which the values of freedom, democracy and openness had finally overcome totalitarianism and oppression.
Many of us, especially those who had resisted the Soviet regime from within, were full of hope that real change was under way, even in Russia itself. That sense of optimism was reflected in the final pages of the first edition of Next Stop Execution. The communist system that I had come to despise, and against which I had fought in secret for so many years, was finally gone. The apparatus of tyranny by which the party, and its chief agency of oppression, the KGB, had kept the people in a state of fear and subjugation, was being dismantled. Russia began to open up, with a spirit of freedom not only in politics but in all spheres of society, not experienced since before the First World War. It was a heady, exciting time.
People were hungry for change, but also to understand what kind of system they had been living under; and, with that knowledge, to build strong institutions that would protect their new-found freedoms and create an open society. For a while, it seemed as if anything was possible, and perhaps it was.
It takes time to build democracy and accountable institutions able to limit the exercise of power, especially through independent media and a fair legal system. The new system of government which immediately succeeded Soviet rule was far from perfect, and this opened the way for a reversal of the gains which had been achieved. In the late 1990s and early years of this century Russia took a decisive step backwards, with the return to power of many of the individuals and institutions, albeit renamed, which had upheld the old Soviet tyranny. In particular, the former security and intelligence agencies succeeded in regaining their former positions of power and control, and now once again dominate the Russian state, including all the major political institutions, the economy and the military.
The old KGB, under its new names, now constitutes the real government in Russia. It is even more powerful, relatively speaking, than the KGB of old. The new Russia, shorn of the former communist ideology, and without its veneer of idealism for a better world, is interested only in power: power for Russia itself and unchallenged power for the new ruling class; those few individuals and their cronies who now dominate all spheres of Russian politics, society and life.
As in the Soviet era, this new regime will use any means to consolidate its authority, and to try to undermine those institutions and countries it regards as its enemies and rivals. So we are now seeing a return to the brazen methods and instruments of the past, including use of military force — (invasion of Eastern Ukraine, seizure of the Crimea, military adventures in the Caucasus and Syria) — and subversion of democratic processes and institutions in the West, including interference in elections and the criminal elimination of its enemies, including journalists, lawyers and oppositionists, some of whom have settled in the West, who dare to speak out against the regime. In its reckless choice of murder weapons, endangering innocent bystanders, it seems not to care whether its hand is revealed. Indeed, such brazen use of force seems now to be, as it was in the Soviet era, a deliberate part of the tactic to silence and to intimidate opposition and protest, just as terrorists seek to do.
Today, the former Soviet regime and its confrontation with Western values during the Cold War are fading in popular memory. But the challenges today, to continue to fight for freedom and openness, and to expose subversion and underhand methods to destroy the precious institutions of democracy, remain, sadly, all too real and pressing.
The dangerous situation we now face did not come about spontaneously: it grew out of the conflicts and struggles of the past. It is my hope that the retelling of my own story of struggle and opposition may have lessons for our present struggle, and remind us that it is by remaining true to our values that we have the best chance to protect our way of life from those who seek to destroy or undermine it.
It is over thirty years since I settled in the United Kingdom. Life has been good to me. I enjoy freedom and democracy, I enjoy openness and debate. I would like the same privileges and opportunities to be more widely available in the world. I am grateful for the support and protection I continue to be given; and I wish success to those who protect and safeguard the institutions and values of this country, and its international partners, both now and in the challenging years ahead.
Oleg Gordievsky, 2018