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Tinker, tailor, poison, spy

  • Published at 12:43 pm March 18th, 2018
  • Last updated at 08:02 pm March 18th, 2018
Tinker, tailor, poison, spy
The recent nerve agent attack on a former double agent in Britain brought back an unforgettable line from 80s TV comedy Yes, Minister. In the episode, “Official Secrets,” there is an indiscretion and a leak to the press which enrages the PM, who calls his cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and the press secretary to discuss a damage control move. Sir Humphrey calmly suggests: “Why don’t you expel 76 Soviet diplomats,” and when the PM gives a perplexed look, adds unflinchingly, “that’s been our practice when we want to ensure the press lose interest in something.” An eager press secretary supports, saying cracking down on “Red spies” will appear extremely patriotic on one side and distract the media from the other issue. Anyway, the recent poisoning episode which has seen a former spy and his daughter end in hospital seems to be dominating international news. As much as we like stories about the shadow world of spies and their clandestine activities, using poison or a nerve agent to get rid of someone in real life is certainly condemnable. Though spy related rows between Russia and Britain are nothing new, there have been several episodes in the past which can put fictional plots to shame. Markov, poisoned umbrella, and Gordievsky A Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, defected to the West in 1968 and worked for the BBC, a virulent critic of the Bulgarian regime at that time. In September 1978, he was killed by a micro pellet fired from an umbrella on a London street. Later, it was found that poison ricin was used. The common belief is that a man pretending to be pedestrian fumbled with the umbrella behind Markov, made the shot on Markov’s leg and then disappeared. At that time, this created quite a stir since the cold war was at its height and espionage shenanigans were staple plot lines for bestsellers. Though the killed dissident was Bulgarian, it was believed that in carrying out the assassination, the support of the Soviet KGB was taken. Gordievsky was a Russian colonel who became disillusioned and decided to work for the West. However, while in Denmark, his cover was blown and was asked to go back to Moscow. Certain that death awaited if he went back, the man acted fast. According to revealed facts, he contacted his MI6 handlers who arranged a plan to smuggle him out. Going for a jog, Gordievsky boarded a train to the Finnish border, crossed over, was put in the boot of a car, and then flown to the UK. Gordievsky also claimed that in 2008 he was poisoned by Thallium. According to him, a Russian business associate gave him the pills claiming they were sedatives. And of course, there is the recent Polonium 210 episode where former KGB agent Litvinienko died after drinking a cup of tea laced with the deadly radioactive isotope.
As much as we like stories about the shadow world of spies and their clandestine activities, using poison or a nerve agent to get rid of someone in real life is certainly condemnable
Has the World Cup got anything to do with it? After the recent incident, hard rhetoric and expulsion of diplomats, I talked to a few keen observers of international events. One university professor indicated that if the current frosty state of affairs, which can be called the nadir in the relation between Russia and Britain, persists, then the adverse impact will be felt on the upcoming football world cup to be held in Russia in two months. “If certain countries unite in one platform and this results in isolating Russia, then automatically, ticket sales from outside Russia will fall, thus negatively impacting the success of the World Cup.” He went on to add that World Cup football is not just a global sporting extravaganza but is also about making profit from a properly held event. With tensions mounting, a sense of anxiety is sure to permeate in those wanting to go to Russia for the games. However, another global affairs specialist thinks that the recent incident will work as a distraction from the Brexit talks. “Once the focus is on spies, poisoning and espionage, concessions made to the EU may go unnoticed.” So, what do student of international relations think? “I personally feel that the cold war dynamics only changed slightly in a new millennium, with the mutual distrust always in place, evolving with the time’s priorities,” said Asrar Ahmed. Reigniting interest in yesterday’s spooks As soon as the recent spy incident happened, I received a phone call from a friend. “Have you still got the book on Kim Philby?” He sounded excited. Philby was the suave, Cambridge-educated spy who, for ideological reasons, worked for the Russians, and, upon being discovered, defected to the Soviet Union. Philby later received the Order of Lenin for his services. Then there was another flamboyant agent called George Blake who also changed sides after he saw the massive destruction unleashed by the West during the Korean War. Anyway, whatever the ramifications of the current cold war style face-off, sales of spy books gathering dust on shelves, will see a rise. Right, where did I stash my John le Carre collection? Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.
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