A Russian swallow and a Singaporean cypher officer

29 04 2011

The Cold War was a period that now seems a distant past. It wasn’t that long ago that it actually ended, its end coming with the demise of the fast crumbling Soviet bloc at the start of the 1990s. Having grown up during a period during which the Vietnam War was very much in evidence, as well having witnessed as a wide eyed boy, the exciting phase of the space race during which the first lunar landing was made, I was never short of seeing the Cold War being played out in one way or another. Of of the many ways in which the Cold War had been expressed, the one that probably caught a young boy’s attention most was the tales of espionage that we never seemed to be short of: of both the fictional variety in the guise of Secret Agent 007 and later living the tales out through the novels of John le Carré; and of real-life drama that never failed to catch the attention of the boys around me.

One of the real life dramas that caught my attention when I was in my teenage years was one that involved a Bulgarian dissident, playwright Georgi Markov, who whilst in exile in London, was killed in a James Bond like fashion. Markov had been working in London with the BBC, and while waiting for a bus on the Waterloo Bridge near the BBC’s offices during rush hour, felt a stinging pain in his thigh. He had apparently been stabbed by an umbrella, which was modified to fire a pinhead sized pellet which contained ricin, a poison. He had thought nothing of the incident, and continued on his way home. He died three days later. The umbrella had reported been carried by a Bulgarian agent, and was developed by the KGB, an acronym synonymous with Soviet espionage, which referred to the Komitet Gosudarsvenoy Bezopanosti, the Committee for State Security, which acted as the Soviet secret service.

There were many other lurid espionage related tales – one well known one that preceded my arrival into the world that was still a hot topic was the one dubbed as the Profumo affair, which was made into a movie Scandal in 1989. That incident involved a typical setting associated with a spy thriller of society girls, politicians in high places, sex, and deceit. This involved a certain John Profumo, an up and coming politician in the Conservative set up, and the Secretary of State for War. His affair with Christine Keeler who was the reputed mistress of an suspected Soviet spy and subsequent denial in the House of Commons about the affair, not only brought him down, but was perhaps instrumental in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation.

In Singapore, we weren’t far from similar incidents ourselves. One such incident that came to light in 1980, involved a cypher officer with our Embassy in Moscow. The cypher officer, who had been posted to Moscow in May 1978, was contacted by a certain Luba Lubov Maluba, about a year into his posting, claiming to be a friend of a previous Singaporean occupant of the apartment in which the cypher officer, his wife and young daughter resided. Maluba turned out to be a “swallow”, a term used to describe female agents trained by the Soviets to seduce susceptible foreign men to obtain information from them, and the cypher officer fell prey. He was subsequently blackmailed and passed on transcripts of decoded messages and later settings for the cypher machine. The cypher officer was only found out when he was arrested for trying to smuggle religious icons out of the Soviet Union into Finland and recalled to Singapore, where he confessed to the CID. More of the tale can be found in the online Straits Times archives. The cypher officer was charged and jailed for a total of 10 years.

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