It was a rainy October morning as I stood outside a deserted London church, shivering as I waited to meet the man who would confirm to me whether or not the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had been taking money from the Soviets all through the Cold War.
The ‘funded by Moscow’ accusation is one that has been lobbed around at lefty campaigners for decades — the old saw was that CND stood for ‘Communist, Neutralist, Defeatist’. It’s all too credible — any number of British organisations on the left have now been proven to have taken ‘Moscow Gold’.
This tradition started with the British Communist party, which was founded on £55,000 of stolen jewellery, uncut precious stones and caviar smuggled into the country by the Comintern. The Morning Star used to ship half of its copies ‘for sale’ in the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s; paid for up front to the tune of a million quid a year by person or persons unknown.
CND, though, has always flatly denied it ever got a penny from the Russians. Bruce Kent, who was general secretary of CND in the 1980s, offered a £100 reward to anyone who could prove they ever got any money from Moscow. No one has ever managed to claim the money. Kent, a former priest, was the man I was meeting outside the church. I was hoping he had the cheque in his pocket. I saw a likely looking old fellow approaching me on the steps of the church and I turned to him and said: ‘Mr Kent, I presume?’
At one point in the course of researching this story, I thought Bruce Kent’s £100 was as good as mine. In June 1982, the KGB section chief in London, a man called Arkady Guk, had informed his superiors in Moscow that he had masterminded the huge CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square. ‘It was us, the KGB residency in London, who brought a quarter of a million people on to the streets,’ he boasted.
It seemed too good to be true. So I checked Guk’s claim with KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, who had been working under Guk at the time. I was disappointed. ‘There was no relationship,’ he replied. In his book, Gordievsky discusses the Trafalgar Square incident and says that once a Moscow official had left, the garrulous Guk turned to him and admitted: ‘Whoever heard such nonsense?’
It had been my first real experience of what it was trying to sift truth from fiction in the claims of former KGB men. The KGB took credit for practically every anti-government event in Britain in the 1980s. Their modus operandi seemed to be to claim responsibility for anything they read about in the papers that made them look good, and blame anything bad on the Americans.
For example, according to Guk’s fantastical stories to Moscow Centre, the SDP breakaway from the Labour party happened at the urging of the CIA.
As Kent and I walked away from the church towards a ritzy coffee shop, I put Guk’s claim to him – had the Russians ever tried to influence CND directly when he was in charge?
‘God, they tried,’ he said, laughing. ‘And it wasn’t just the Russians. We used to have the Americans coming round regularly too, trying to tell us the error of our ways. In fact, we had one situation where the Russian arrived late and the American arrived early, and it would have been incredibly embarrassing to have them bump into each other in the lobby…’
As we sat down and ordered a coffee, it became clear to me what Bruce Kent’s line was. Yes, the Russians had tried to directly influence CND, but knowing how fatal the taint of Soviet influence would have been to the movement, Kent always refused to take any money from them. ‘The man [Guk] was obviously trying to gild his reputation,’ he said, a view shared by Gordievsky and, by now, myself.
Having discounted the ‘direct funding’ argument, I moved on to the second arrow in my quiver to get his £100 prize — the KGB giving cash by other means. In the 1970s and 1980s, cash flowed freely out of the Eastern Bloc. For example, Bert Ramelson, a senior figure in the British Communist party, used to bring back suitcases ‘full of money’ from his trips to Prague.
It wasn’t just Ramelson who was laundering Moscow gold at the time. Reuben Falber was the man through whom the KGB funneled all its cash for British activists. The way in which the cash was passed over was wonder-fully amateurish – Falber would meet KGB men at Hampstead Heath or Barons Court tube station, where they would hand him huge bundles of used sterling notes in plastic bags. The cash was then stashed in the loft of Falber’s bungalow in Golders Green.
By his own account, Falber received a vast amount. In an interview, he said: ‘The largest sum of money I ever received was £100,000, a lot of which was used for the maintenance of the Morning Star, the Daily Worker as it was originally. I never kept a count of the total received over the years, but I doubt if it was more than a million pounds, and don’t forget, we’re talking of 20-odd years.’
Could any of Falber’s KGB money have ended up in the CND bank accounts? The way Falber had funneled the money into the Morning Star was via anonymous donations to the paper’s ‘fighting fund’. Over our coffee, I put it to Kent. Could Falber have been discreetly feeding CND through anonymous donations?
Kent denied it completely — as of course he would. What I didn’t expect was that he could prove he’d never accepted an anonymous donation — because CND have never accepted donations from anonymous sources. ‘It was far too dangerous — for exactly the reasons you’re pointing out!’ was Kent’s explanation for the policy. Having had a look at CND’s books for the period, they bear out Kent’s claim.
I had one shot left — a story I’d been told by an elderly former communist, who asked not to be named, for reasons that will become obvious. He claimed Falber had organised groups of committed young communists to attend CND rallies, carrying with them big wodges of notes, and told them to drop them into the collection buckets, thus funding CND by the back door.
Kent was incredulous when I told him this. ‘We never got much from the collection buckets — my God, I remember when we got a fiver once and framed it! There were certainly no bundles of notes.’
By this point in our meeting I’d very much warmed to Kent — and everything else he’d told me checked out. After our meeting, I mulled the collection bucket story over in my mind. It seemed all too likely that the earnest Falber had handed over the money to assorted young communists in the 1980s. But it seemed equally likely that on being handed a bunch of twenties by a mad old commie, the average 20-year-old subversive would just pocket it, then report complete success: ‘Yeah, I gave all the money to CND, Reuben. Every penny.’
There’s no way to prove the story beyond reasonable doubt either way — but I was unsure enough that I never pressed Kent for his £100 prize. What I think I can say is I’m almost sure the KGB tried to fund CND, but to the best of my knowledge, they, like me, never succeeded.