A Russian swallow and a Singaporean cypher officer

29 04 2011

The Cold War was a period that now seems a distant past. Its end, not so long ago, came with the demise of the Soviet dominated bloc of Communist States in the early 1990s. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the playing out of the Cold War was very much in evidence. This was seen in even in the space race, which might have seen to have been won by the free world with the first lunar landing at the end of the 1960s.

There were also the many tales of espionage. While much that was read was of the fictional variety told – found in the many books and movies featuring the likes of Secret Agent 007 and through the much read novels of John le Carré, the were also real-life dramas that surfaced from time to time. One  that caught my attention – when I was in my teenage years –involved a Bulgarian dissident and playwright Georgi Markov. Markov, living in exile in London and on his way home from work at the BBC’s offices during rush hour, was killed in a James Bond like fashion. Waiting at a bus stop at Waterloo Bridge, he felt a stinging pain in his thigh after he had been jabbed by an umbrella. He thought nothing of the incident, and continued on his way home, dying three days later. It was later established that the umbrella a Bulgarian agent had stabbed him with had been modified to fire a pinhead sized pellet containing a poison, ricin by the KGB. KGB, an acronym synonymous with Soviet espionage stood for Komitet Gosudarsvenoy Bezopanosti or the Committee for State Security –  the Soviet secret service.

There were also tales that were more lurid. One that was very well known to me even if it preceded my arrival into the world, dubbed the Profumo affair, was made into a movie entitled Scandal in 1989. That incident involved a setting typical of spy thrillers of a fictional nature with its cast of society girls, people in high places, spiced up by ingredients of sex and deceit. It main character was an up and coming politician in the Conservative set up and the Secretary of State for War by the name of John Profumo. His affair with Christine Keeler, reputedly the mistress of a suspected Soviet spy and his denial of it in the House of Common, not only brought him down but was also instrumental in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation.

We were not insulated from such incidents even in tiny Singapore. One that came to light in 1980 involved a rather innocent looking cypher officer with our Embassy in Moscow. The cypher officer, was contacted by a certain Luba Lubov Maluba, about a year into his May 1978 posting to Moscow on the pretext that she was a friend of the previous occupant of the apartment in which the cypher officer, his wife and young daughter were living in. It would turn out that Maluba to whom the cypher officer fell prey, was a “swallow” – a female agents trained to seduce susceptible foreign men with the aim of blackmailing them to obtain information. In the course of their interactions, the cypher officer would pass transcripts of decoded messages to Maluba and later, settings for the cypher machine. He was only found out when he was arrested for trying to smuggle religious icons out of the Soviet Union to Finland and was recalled to Singapore where he confessed to the CID. The cypher officer was charged and jailed for a total of 10 years. More of the tale can be found in the online Straits Times archives.




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