The only really mystifying feature of the Oleg Bitov episode is why such a fuss was made of him. He was not, in Western terms, a big fish at all – except perhaps in his own eyes. If anything, he was something of an embarrassment to the British and Soviet Intelligence services, both of whom, however, attempted in their own ways to extract what political value they could from his defection and his return to the USSR a year later. Those Westerners with a professional interest in the episode – security, Sovietology, journalism, broadcasting – appear to have come to the conclusion that it is scarcely worth the trouble to disentangle the truth from the web of lies around Bitov, because his escapade is of little real significance.
What may be of some importance, however, is Bitov’s background – his role as a representative of the middle echelon of journalists working on one of the most interesting Soviet newspapers, the Literary Gazette. This is not, as its title might suggest, a Soviet counterpart of the London Review of Books. It is a big-format newspaper, published three times a week, which in matter and tone is aimed at a very specific readership – the Soviet intelligentsia. Because this is deemed to be such an important element in Soviet society, the newspaper’s content is under the direct control of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; at the same time, the level of professional competence and writing ability makes it far livelier and more readable than the great grey slabs of stodgy, indigestible prose that fill the columns of Pravda and Izvestiya.
As head of the Foreign Department of the Literary Gazette, he enjoyed what was, by Soviet standards, a truly plum job. He said himself that he loved his work and derived great satisfaction from it. His salary of approximately £4,000 per annum may not seem princely, but since he earned at least as much again in translation fees and royalties, his income was four times higher than the average Soviet wage. He was a translator from English of Science Fiction, an immensely popular genre in the Soviet Union, where translators are far better paid than in most Western countries; his translations include, for instance, two SF novels by Arthur C. Clarke. Even more valuable than his cash earnings, however, were the attendant perks of the job. Apart from the right to buy scarce or otherwise unobtainable goods in special shops open only to the Party’s nomenklatura appointees, the privileges that would have made Bitov the envy of his peers among the Soviet literary intelligentsia were the right of virtually unrestricted travel abroad, with generous allowances of foreign currency, and – most coveted of all in a censored, information-starved society – total access to newspapers, books and broadcasts from the West. He was one of a trusted handful of Moscow journalists who are entitled to receive transcripts from special radio receivers that eliminate the jamming signals whereby the Soviet authorities make it difficult or impossible for ordinary mortals to pick up the Russian-language transmissions of the BBC, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Furthermore, although Bitov greatly enjoyed his job (in itself a revealing and none too flattering admission), he was completely free of illusions about the moral quality of what he was doing.
In an apparently frank interview broadcast over the BBC Russian Service during his stay here, he gave a realistic account of the permanent editorial policy of the Literary Gazette’s Foreign Department. The reviews, reports and other articles are in two categories – ‘yellow’ and ‘white’. ‘Yellow’ is the in-house description of the line taken on all cultural news from capitalist countries (kapstran in Russian Newspeak: Orwell’s ‘Ingsoc’ captures with the precision – and prevision – of genius the Soviet propensity to make barbarous portmanteau words). Neither factual truth nor aesthetic values play any part in such writing: it is designed to be uniformly critical of the West, in detailed conformity with the Party’s current line of attack. ‘White’ articles are those reporting on the arts and literature in Soviet-bloc countries (yes – socstran) which are invariably, in Bitov’s words, ‘boring but approving’. Untroubled, it seems, by any qualms of journalistic or critical conscience, Bitov much preferred writing ‘yellow’ pieces, because in them you could at least convey the content of whatever piece of rotten bourgeois trash you were reviewing, and it could be an enjoyable exercise in sophisticated verbal abuse.
If Bitov was living in such clover, one may well ask, why should he defect? This point, indeed, represents the strongest argument in support of the theory that he did not defect at all, but was specifically sent by the KGB on a mission as a pseudo-defector in order to learn at first hand and in precise detail the techniques, personnel and locations used by the British Intelligence services in processing defectors, and to report on them on his return to Moscow after ‘seeing the light’. Further backing for the correctness of this scenario is given by the fact that Bitov’s press conference in Moscow on 18 September contained just such revelations – complete with telephone numbers – of his debriefing at the hands of MI5. This theory, however, is vulnerable to that deadly comment on all self-justifying testimony – Mandy Rice-Davies’s ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’
Bitov himself has been the most prolific source of conflicting versions of his disappearance in Venice, his appearance in London and his reappearance in Moscow, with each story altered to suit his listeners at the time. The version produced at his Moscow press conference was that he was sandbagged in an unlit hallway of the annexe to the Hotel Biasutti on the Lido (where he was staying while reporting on the Venice Film Festival), was injected with a powerful drug, and was kept in a state of semi-conscious stupor for a week, until he woke up to find himself in the rather different surroundings of a small hotel in East Grinstead. Somewhat at variance with this is the account of the same period that Bitov gave in his Russian-language broadcast for the BBC: in this version his anger and frustration had been gradually building up at the increasingly tight political control exercised over his work, making it into an ever cruder propaganda weapon; the last straw, allegedly driving him to defect, had been the shooting-down of the Korean airliner. The assignment to Venice had been the chance he was waiting for, and he had voluntarily sought political asylum.
There is also Version No 3, which Bitov gave when drunk to some friends and acquaintances among the Russian émigré colony in London, with one of whom he had been on friendly terms back in the Soviet Union. This time he had not only been kidnapped and drugged, but also knocked about and threatened. The difference between this and his subsequent Moscow story lay in the alleged perpetrators of his kidnapping. This time they were not British or Italian intelligence agents but what Bitov described as ‘White Guards’. This is Soviet shorthand for politically active Russian émigrés, and it usually refers to an organisation called NTS, the Russian initials of a fiercely anti-Soviet émigré political party – the National Labour Union – based in West Germany, which openly attempts to propagandise and subvert Soviet citizens travelling abroad. The ‘White Guards’, he claimed to his Russian acquaintances in the West, had kept him in a state of subjection until they were able to do a suitable deal designed to ‘sell’ Bitov to British Intelligence.
Yet another account of his ‘real mission’ was given by Bitov to another Russian émigré in London. According to this, he had been sent to Italy on orders from the very top of the Soviet leadership to discover by careful inquiries whether the Italian judicial authorities had enough hard evidence on the Bulgarian Antonov to bring him to trial as an accessory in the plot to assassinate Pope John-Paul II. Bitov claims that he did this job, found out that there was indeed plenty of material likely to incriminate Antonov, reported back to Moscow – and decided that since he now knew too much about Antonov and the anti-Pope plot for his own good, he would be safer if he did not return to Moscow. Hence his ‘real’ motive for the defection. After a while Antonov was released by the Italians because of lack of evidence, and Bitov (by now in London) breathed more easily. But the Italian Questura kept up its work, and earlier this year Antonov was rearrested. Italian judicial officers visited London and asked Bitov if he would come to Rome and give evidence against Antonov. In view of the risk, he refused to come, but did agree to write out his evidence in the form of a lengthy affidavit. Then, on the day before he was due to hand this document to the Italians, he – and his evidence – vanished from London.
The consensus among Soviet émigrés in London who knew Bitov and had dealings with him rejects these dramatic versions, however, and opts for a simpler story. Bitov, they believe, did defect, but grossly overestimated his value to Western Intelligence. He was a vain, greedy and self-important man, who, because he seemed such a big wheel in the Soviet context, saw himself as worth a great deal to the West as a defector. This was a complete miscalculation, and British Intelligence soon made it clear that they had little interest in him. Disillusioned, Bitov contacted the KGB and indicated that he might come back and ‘tell all’. The KGB agreed, but they called Bitov back considerably sooner than he had expected, which explains the mass of loose ends – unkept appointments, half-finished dentistry and £40,000 in a London bank – that he left behind him.