Chapter 6 – The Bill Morrison Affair


1. The KGB has pounced
2. The Drama in the Saferoom
3. The Russian Speakers Dilemma

It was one of those beautifully warm early Moscow summer weekends when all life and nature seemed at ease with itself and the idea of KGB conspiracies seemed as unreal as the winter cold only a few months earlier.

I was home when the doddery ambassador phoned for me to go to the Embassy immediately. 

In the Embassy safe room (all Western embassies had these large, box-like contraptions with electronic defences to prevent Soviet eaves-dropping) the ambassador was confronting a badly-shaken Bill Morrison.

1. The KGB has pounced

Morrison said he had been visiting a Russian friend’s house in Moscow when KGB officials had barged in and told him that unless he cooperated with them the Soviet media would announce the next day his expulsion for selling used clothing to his maid – something that was supposed to be illegal at the time.

It was a retaliation for the Skripov affair, he said.

True, ASIO had only a few months earlier carried out a messy entrapment and expulsion of Skripov – a fairly senior official at Moscow’s Canberra embassy. 

We had all assumed it was only a matter of time before Moscow would retaliate by expelling someone from our Embassy, and Morrison was the obvious target.

But why try to do it in such a crude way? And why had Morrison, knowing that he was the likely target, not been taking precautions – making sure he was accompanied when he went to meet Russians?

But sure enough, the next day Izvestia did carry a small notice about how an Australian diplomat, Morrison, had been declared persona non grata for selling used clothes and other illegal activities, and had been given a week to leave the country.

Canberra reacted quickly: we were instructed to lodge the strongest possible formal protest with the Soviet authorities.

Morrison’s alleged crime was a nothing compared with Skripov’s spy recruiting activities. Australia might even consider breaking relations with Moscow.

But was Morrison’s story true? 

Knowing Morrison, I had a gut feeling there was more to it all. There were also contradictions about times and places.

I persuaded the ambassador to delay making the formal diplomatic protest (a severe breach of diplomatic protocol, I discovered later. Official protests should be delivered immediately). 

(But fortunately it was delayed).

2. The Safe Room Drama

Gradually, over several days of intense questioning in that cramped safe room, we began to get the true story. (And my breach of protocol began to be more justified.)

Morrison, it seems, had taken on the job of breaking open single-handedly the closed world of Soviet top society.

His Firyubin/Furteseva contacts had given him a circle of seemingly well-connected people — writers, artists, senior officials, who were supposed to be in the habit of meeting for happy drinking and discussion parties in a high-class dacha hidden away in the forests well outside Moscow, and presumably outside the areas where foreigners were allowed to travel.

He had gone along with all this because he felt he had the confidence of these people; that they wanted him to act as some kind of intellectual courier to the West. 

He knew the Skripov retaliation dangers. But these people were well above grubby KGB plots.

Or so he thought.

On this particular weekend they had arranged a very special party – vodka, caviar, charming ladies, an overnight stay. 

But just as the party was settling down for a two-day session, the KGB had burst in.

Morrison’s high-level Russian ‘friends’ quickly disappeared.

For the next 24 hours he was captive, grilled intensively by people who had detailed knowledge of his activities and even some of the reports that he had been sending to Canberra (supplied presumably by a Soviet mole in the Canberra establishment).

Finally they had given him a choice: either cooperate, or the next day Izvestia would carry the news of his expulsion for the squalid crime of selling used clothing to his maid (something he had in fact done, but to help the maid rather than himself, and which she had typically reported to her KGB masters).

He would be the laughing stock of Moscow. His career as a diplomat, not to mention as a Russian specialist, would be finished.

To his credit, Morrison had come directly back to the Embassy to report the KGB threat. To my discredit, perhaps, I had persisted in trying to drag the true story out of him.

At the back of my mind was the thought that the true story might make Canberra realise that maybe the Morrison affair was indeed on a par with the Skripov affair.

In both cases women and entrapments were involved. Maybe that would make Canberra think twice before getting too righteous about it all.

Canberra had made a rather silly song and dance over the hapless Skripov’s misdemeanours. Now it was Moscow’s turn to sing and dance. 

Maybe it was time for all of us to ease up on the entrapment business.

And maybe Moscow had some other reason for it all; it was not just pure retaliation. Morrison had very good U.S. Embassy contacts (his wife was American).

It was no secret that the Americans and the Brits liked to use Commonwealth nationals in Moscow for their various spy stunts when using their own people would attract attention.

Morrison had hinted to me several times of being double-crossed by Firyubin, who also had a strong Indonesian connection, though I never got the details. Morrison also had had a deep interest in the details of the recent Oleg Penkovsky spy affair.

Penkovsky had been a top level Soviet official whose inside reports on Soviet military plans and thinking had been the intelligence coup of the century (he had since been uncovered and executed). 

Several senior U.S. and U.K. officials in Moscow had been expelled for their involvement in that affair – the Brits for providing the people to check out Penkovsky’s information drops.

In the eyes of the Russians, Australia too could well have been part of that tight Anglo-saxon nexus for spy activities.

3. The Russian Speaker’s Dilemma

By the end of the week I was feeling sorry for Morrison. 

Day after day we had been dragging from him the sorry details of his entrapment (I was also feeling sorry for myself; sitting in that cramped box for a week was not doing any good for any of us.)

Morrison had tried to keep a brave face on things. 

But the more he talked, the more he was signing his own death-warrant, not only as a Soviet expert but even as an Australian diplomat. 

There was no way a Soviet-hysterical Canberra would forgive him.

He had been caught in the dilemma that all of us Russian-speaking Western diplomats had to face in Moscow.There was no point learning the language and studying the system unless we went out to meet and talk to Russians. 

But the more we did that the more we became a target for KGB attention. Entrapment, followed by messy expulsion, could easily be the result.

For an English-speaking Russian diplomat to be expelled say from U.S. or Australia was no great tragedy. Back home he would probably be regarded as a hero. 

He could then go on to use his hard-won English ability in a posting to some other English-speaking nation (there are plenty of them).

But for a Russian-speaking Western diplomat, being expelled from Moscow could be a cruel end of the road. In those days there was nowhere else he could go to and use his Russian (except possibly Mongolia). Years of effort to learn the language and study the society would be wasted.

Worse, he would be branded forever as an enemy of the nation he had tried so hard to get to know and may even have come to like (Morrison was no rigid anti-Soviet hawk).

Faced with this dilemma, I am sure a few succumbed and cooperated with their KGB tormentors. To his credit, Morrison had resisted the pressure.

At the time I used to wonder why the Soviets allowed this seemingly self-defeating activity to continue. 

Through their ruthless KGB harassment of people like Morrison (and later myself, I was to discover) they would be creating a corps of resentful, anti-Moscow Soviet experts in foreign ministries around the globe.

In so doing they were leaving the field open to the many anti-Soviet hardliners seen as free from Soviet involvements because they had never made any effort to learn Russian or to have any dealings with anyone from the USSR.

The Soviets complained constantly about Western distortions of their ‘deistvitelnost’ (действительность, reality.) 

Yet they were targeting for entrapment and expulsion the very people who could help the world discover that ’reality. They were embittering the very people who, if treated properly, could do so much to help improve relations.

Certainly that would have been the case with Morrison who would have returned to a good position in Canberra and have done much to break down Canberra’s anti-Soviet hysteria.

And that had in fact been the case with Canberra’s previous ambassador to Moscow – Keith (Spats) Waller, yet another non-Russian speaker sent to represent Australia.

Waller had arrived when Moscow was trying hard to break away from its former Stalinist isolation. He had been treated sensibly by the Soviet authorities, and had moved much in Moscow’s very attractive artistic circles.

As ambassador, and to some extent as a non-Russian speaker, he had been free from the grubby entrapment attempts imposed on people like Morrison. Arriving back in Canberra to a senior position, Waller had called openly for reconsideration of Australia’s rigid anti-Soviet policies.

None of that would have happened if he had received Morrison’s treatment.

(Unfortunately his pro-Soviet sympathies were matched by intensely anti-Beijing prejudices. He presided over a marked increase in Canberra’s anti-China hysteria.)

But later I came to realise that for the KGB types, complaining about this targeting of Morrison (and later myself) was mere moralising. For them, whether we Russian-speakers came to like their country or not was irrelevant. 

They were operating at a level where one single entrapment could lead to incalculably valuable information breakthroughs. Penkovsky had been one such success for our side. 

They too had had their successes in the past, and were determined to continue.

Besides, their propaganda had already told them that all diplomats sent by the West to work in Moscow, the Russian-speaking ones especially, had to be possible spies to begin with. Otherwise we would not have been sent.