The Magazine

Little Old Traitor

Another spy goes unpunished.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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The Spy Who Came in from the Co-Op

Melita Norwood and the Ending
of Cold War Espionage

by David Burke

Boydell, 232 pp., $34.95

When the former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Great Britain in the 1990s, the treasure trove of material he brought with him identified scores of Soviet spies and details of hundreds, if not thousands, of KGB operations directed against Western governments, Soviet dissidents, and developing countries around the globe. Mitrokhin's collaboration with Christopher Andrew, the leading British scholar of Soviet espionage, resulted in two informative books.

No revelation got as much publicity as the news that Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old British housewife, had been a Soviet spy for 40 years, betraying a variety of secrets. Norwood did her greatest damage during World War II, when she served as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which, despite its bland-sounding name, had played a crucial role in atomic bomb research. The unrepentant Norwood, still a devoted communist in 1999, was entirely unapologetic about her decision to spy; only the government's conclusion that she was too old to prosecute saved her from a trial.

David Burke, a British historian, had already been interviewing Norwood for two years about her father, Alexander Sirnis, for his research on the Russian émigré community in Britain during the 20th century, when she was exposed. Sirnis, born in
Latvia, had been a disciple of Tolstoy, and had been active in the hothouse of émigré politics from the turn of the century through the 1920s. Intrigued by the connections between her family and several people later exposed as Soviet spies, Burke was nevertheless stunned one day, while on the way to speak with her, to read headlines outing her as a major spy.

Although Norwood continued to cooperate with Burke, gave him access to her papers, and discussed some parts of her espionage career with him, her memory was failing, and she clearly was reluctant to be totally honest. But Burke has been able to piece together a fascinating, if incomplete, picture of her espionage career, primarily by using British government documents made public in the last several years. The result is a book that tells us more about the culture of British communism and the ineptitude of British counterintelligence than the inner life of Melita Norwood.

Not surprisingly, Burke's knowledge of Russian exiles enables him to provide a thorough and fascinating account of the fervid political and social world from which Norwood emerged. Her English mother, an avid suffragette from a professional family, met Alexander Sirnis at Tuckton House, a center for Russian émigrés run by
Tolstoy's literary executor, among whose guests and inhabitants at times were the famed anarchist Prince
Kropotkin and Jacob Peters, a future leader of the Cheka. Theodore Rothstein, later Lenin's first secret agent in Britain, whose son Andrew, a major figure in the British Communist party, recruited Melita for Soviet intelligence in 1934, was also a habitué of the circle.

By the time Melita was born in 1912, her father was a member of both Lenin's organization and the British Labour movement. As one of Lenin's earliest supporters in Britain, Alexander translated one of his antiwar pamphlets in 1918 amid efforts by the British government to ban its publication. Suffering from tuberculosis, he died in November 1918. His wife and daughters remained committed left-wing activists. Melita joined the Communist party of Great Britain in 1935; at the time she was working as a secretary at the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. Her proclivities were hardly a secret. As an active militant in a left-wing secretarial union, Norwood had authored a resolution urging its members to make public information they obtained in the course of their employment.

She leaped at the opportunity to put her beliefs into practice. In 1934 she had met Andrew Rothstein, son of her father's old friend, at a meeting of the Friends of the Soviet Union, and, inspired by his speech, offered to give him useful material from her new job. By 1937, vetted by Soviet intelligence, she was a full-fledged spy. And MI5 had intercepted Rothstein's communications and was aware that he was seeking to obtain scientific information.