For decades veteran England watchers could only speculate about life in the brutal shadow world of the British secret police. Now, thanks to a political prisoner’s daring daylight escape, they have a firsthand—and shocking—glimpse of life in the imprisoned island monarchy. In August Soviet cultural journalist Oleg Bitov, 52, slipped away from the clutches of his British captors and fled to freedom in Moscow. There he revealed the unspeakable horrors of life in Queen Elizabeth’s gulags.
Bitov’s tale of terror began on September 8, 1983 in Italy, where he was covering the Venice Film Festival for Moscow’s Literaturnaya Gazeta. After viewing Ingmar Bergman’s decadent, bourgeois movie, Fanny and Alexander, Bitov strolled into his hotel room, only to find it inexplicably darkened. “I paid no attention and stepped forward into the darkness,” he says, “only to get a terrible blow at the back of my head.” His assailants—British intelligence officers who were apparently eager to learn the official Soviet line on Bergman—injected Bitov with mind-altering drugs and flew him secretly to Britain, where he was thrown into a luxury hotel room, interrogated, threatened with violence and ordered to take a “well-paid job in the gallery of mudslinging anti-Sovieteers.”
That job smacked of Western-style psychological slave labor. Bitov was quartered in a $500-a-month apartment in a London suburb and forced to tool around in a red, five-speed Toyota Tercel hatchback. Coerced into writing two long, anti-Soviet slanders in the London Sunday Telegraph, he was then compelled to accept advances of $6,000 from a British publisher and $15,000 from an American publisher for a book of libel against the Soviet Union. Then, just as the agents of Britain’s infamous MI-5 thought they had bought an accomplice, Bitov chucked his home, his car and his $50,000 bank account and flew back to the bosom of socialist solidarity.
That, roughly speaking, is the strange story that Bitov related at a Moscow press conference on September 18. The British tell a different, considerably more credible tale: Bitov voluntarily defected, eagerly wrote exposés of the Soviet system and enjoyed the accoutrements of middle-class British life. “He enjoyed the benefits of Western capitalist society,” says Hilary Rubinstein, his literary agent. Duff Hart-Davis, 48, a Sunday Telegraph feature writer who collaborated with Bitov on two long articles, agrees: “He said he fell in love with the green hills of England. He visited Winchester Cathedral and was so impressed that he said he felt a religious awe that he’d never experienced.”
Although he considered Bitov a “vain” and “rather pompous” man, Hart-Davis enjoyed working with the defector for three months last winter. “What brought us together is that we are both writers,” he says. “What he really enjoyed was our working together to find exactly the right phrase, and when we hit on that phrase his face would light up.” Hart-Davis also enjoyed Bitov’s sardonic sense of humor. “He made a lot of jokes about how the CIA was supposed to have kidnapped him and drugged him, and he said, ‘Well, if my experience to date is to have been kidnapped and drugged, I rather like it. I’d like to have some more of it.’ ”
But Bitov was not always in a mood for jokes. He desperately missed his wife, Ludmilla, 38, and daughter Xenia, 16. In February he wrote an open letter to Konstantin Chernenko in the Sunday Telegraph, begging the Soviet leader to release his family. “He was very naive,” says Hart-Davis, “and he came here thinking that he could get them out.” Predictably, Chernenko ignored the plea, and Bitov’s loneliness deepened. That loneliness, Hart-Davis speculates, might have impelled Bitov to return to the Soviet Embassy in London and, from there, to Moscow. “He was very homesick and he talked constantly about his daughter,” Hart-Davis recalls. “I think they may have used that to put pressure on him. Maybe they told him that his daughter had had an accident or something. Certainly something lured him into the embassy.”
Hart-Davis is not optimistic about Bitov’s future in the Soviet Union. “His Russian émigré friends think that he’s much too dangerous to be allowed out for long,” he says. “They think that he’ll quite soon ‘fall ill’ and unfortunately have to go to a hospital from which he won’t ever emerge.”