January 01, 2021

A Double Life

A Double Life
Konon Molody unmasked and back in Russia, in 1965. Alamy

Konon Molody, born January 17, 1922

I’m struggling to fathom what Konon Molody’s life must have been like, but I have trouble wrapping my head around it.

Let me try to tease apart its various oddities. Konon’s father, Trofim Molody, was a physicist. Before the revolution, his politics were obviously leftist, since he was expelled from the university for involvement in student unrest. For some reason he was never conscripted during the First World War, even though he was in the right age range. Apparently, his scientific research was considered valuable. After the revolution, he didn’t fight in the Civil War either. Instead he was given a post that involved making sure scientists had adequate living conditions, suggesting that he accepted the revolution. In addition to continuing his research and holding his government post, he published popular-science articles and scholarly books. All that sounds perfectly reasonable, but soon the Molody family story started taking some puzzling turns.

In 1929, Trofim Molody died of a stroke. Konon’s mother, a doctor, was left alone with two children at a difficult time: the Stalin Era and the first Five Year Plan were just getting underway. What happened next is hard to explain. In 1932 by some accounts or 1934 by others, the Soviet schoolboy Konon, who would have been either 10 or 12 at the time, left to live with his aunt in California. He lived there for several years. How could that be? It was the thirties, the Soviet Union was a closed country, and being let out was virtually impossible. In the case of 1932, the recent collectivization of agriculture had caused a horrific famine and the Gulag was just being established; if it was 1934, Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov had just been killed, an event that triggered what eventually grew into the Great Terror. This was not a time when Soviet children were being let out of the country to visit foreign relatives. This particular relative had left Russia before the revolution, so she was not part of the White emigration, but still. Almost everyone else with relatives abroad had their requests to leave rejected.

Off Season
Scene from The Off Season

If Konon’s son is to be believed, none other than the almighty head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, helped Konon’s mother with the necessary paperwork. What was so special about her son to earn him this honor? Was Yagoda a family friend? Even more puzzling is the question, Why? Konon Molody’s son (also Trofim, like his grandfather) assumes that Soviet espionage was already hatching some sort of scheme involving his father, but what sort of plans could they have been cooking up for a ten-year-old boy!?

We have all heard of “sleeper agents” placed by one country (often the Soviet Union) in another to be activated later – but a young boy? Did they tell him that he was being groomed as a secret agent? And if they didn’t, is it really likely that after teenage years attending an American school and living an American life he would have maintained his zeal for communism and desire to serve the motherland? And if he was a true Lenin-worshipping Pioneer the whole time he lived in California, did he share his enthusiasm with his friends and classmates?

Another puzzling detail in Konon Molody’s story is his return to the Soviet Union in 1938. I can certainly understand that his mother missed him, and he probably missed her. But Yagoda, the family’s friend (or handler?), had just recently been executed. One might have worried that the returning boy (now 16) would be doomed to arrest or worse. Why was he left untouched? Was he forgotten? Surely anyone returning from America would stick out like a sore thumb, and this was a time when the vast majority of foreign spies summoned home or volunteers who had gone off to fight in the Spanish Civil War were rotting away in the bowels of the Lubyanka. Young Konon, on the other hand, was now going to school in Moscow, and in 1940 wound up in the army, where he served as a military intelligence officer and demonstrated courage with his forays behind enemy lines in search of people to drag over to the Soviet side for interrogation. After the war he studied, and later taught, Chinese at the Academy of Foreign Trade. Then, his life took yet another interesting turn.

In 1951, Molody began (?) working in foreign intelligence. In 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, he went to Canada, but no longer as the Soviet citizen Konon Molody – he was now the businessman Gordon Lonsdale (Soviet intelligence somehow got its hands on the real Lonsdale’s personal information after his 1943 death in Finland). Here, as well, I struggle to imagine how he made his new life work. Molody/Lonsdale lived in Canada and the United States before moving to Great Britain. Obviously, he had to maintain a cover, and his cover was business, at which he was so successful he became a millionaire riding around in expensive cars with one girlfriend after another. Once a year he flew to Poland or Czechoslovakia – supposedly on business – to meet with his wife Galina, who thought that her husband was working all this time as a Soviet trade representative in China, and that life there was so difficult that he was unable to take her with him. 

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Molody to spend time with his poor, unfortunate wife, so unlike his London girlfriends. What were his feelings toward her? Love? Pity? Repugnance? Disdain? What did they talk about – or were their get-togethers all sex and shopping? After all, Polish stores must have been quite a treat for Galina, compared to Moscow.

Back in London, “Lonsdale” had to deal with his businesses while simultaneously staying in touch with a fairly large network of spies gathering information about English submarines and passing their intelligence back to Moscow. Did he have a split personality? What did he do when an urgent business matter came up just when he had a clandestine meeting with an agent? Which came first? Or was there never any question that “service to the motherland” took priority?

What did Molody do if, for instance, an old acquaintance came up to him in the Paris airport and started talking to him in Russian? Did he pretend his acquaintance was mistaken and respond in English (while basically telling him to “get lost” under his breath before hurrying off to his plane)?

And what must he have felt in January 1961 when British intelligence finally closed in on him and his agents, at which point they were arrested, interrogated, and tried? Or when they sentenced him to 25 years in prison, where he got to know some of the men behind the Great Train Robbery? What did they talk about? Did he share with them an accurate version of his life?

And what was it like for him to return to the motherland after three years in prison? How did he feel as he passed the Western spy for whom he was being exchanged at Berlin’s Heerstrasse Checkpoint? Did it feel more like homecoming or exile? What was it like settling into his apartment, which was undoubtedly luxurious by Soviet standards, but nothing like his villa or his London apartment? Probably Konon Molody felt about as at home in Moscow as Kim Philby and the other members of the Cambridge Five who happily served the USSR from afar, but would really have preferred to live out their last years in England rather than Moscow. But in Konon’s case, he truly was coming home to a native land he had faithfully served his entire life, a life he had risked in the process. He had cause to feel betrayed by this country, which could have warned him that he was in danger of being exposed but did not. He had to make peace with the fact that he would never again see London, with its colorful advertisements, raucous nightlife, and exclusive clubs, that he would never again dash about town in fancy cars and party with a revolving cast of girlfriends.

How hard it must have been to get used to the dreary streets of Moscow, the empty stores, and the grim realities of Soviet life. And how hard it must have been to realize that he was no longer an international man of mystery. What could he do with himself in this communist paradise? Give talks? Serve as a consultant? Drink?

One bright spot must have been the film produced based largely on his experiences. He could share the details of his erstwhile life with the director and scriptwriter and meet the man who would play him. Well, not exactly him, but at least someone who lived under an assumed name and had also been exchanged at a Berlin checkpoint. The protagonist of the 1968 spy film The Off Season (Мёртвый сезон) was played by the marvelous Donatas Banionis. Apparently, Molody didn’t think much of the film – his life was changed beyond recognition, and instead of his sophisticated London existence and procurement of submarine designs, the hero was depicted fighting fascists still up to their devious tricks after the war. Even the slot machines his business sold were transformed into jukeboxes.

Konon Molody died at the age of 47. While out gathering mushrooms, he fell unconscious and never came to. Later, there was speculation that the KGB had done him in. It is hard to understand why they would have felt the need. It would seem they had him well under control.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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