Eugene Ivanov, the Russian spy at the centre of the 1963 Profumo scandal, was a philandering alcoholic whose weakness for women and drink MI5 hoped to exploit to get him to defect, but who ended up toppling the Macmillan government by chance, according to newly released intelligence files.
He arrived at the Russian embassy in London as assistant naval attache in 1960 but MI5 suspected he was an intelligence officer, partly because he didn’t seem to know much about ships and also he carried an umbrella.
One file note records research suggesting “that those Russians who frequently carry umbrellas are more likely to have an intelligence function than those who do not. The following Russian is known frequently to carry an umbrella – Ivanov EM”
But he was in danger of being reported and recalled because of his antics, especially towards the wives of other diplomats, whom he seemed incapable of keeping his hands off.
His files are littered with reports of drunkenness to the point of vomiting, and once falling down and bloodying his nose. At one cocktail party he was seen “propositioning, pinching and dancing with women in his stockinged feet and deliberately treading on their toes”. At another he was “ordering treble whiskies and trying to force the ladies who had been drinking gin to drink whiskies with him”.
“He is good looking compared to the others and is conceited and evidently thinks he is a lady-killer,” said one report.
Initially he was posted as intelligence officer at a level befitting his position as assistant naval attache. However, once he became a close friend of society osteopath and artist, Stephen Ward, the Russian intelligence service granted him special authority to develop the friendship, and gave him “freedom from normal social behaviour of Soviet diplomats” to exploit Ward’s society contacts, MI5 concluded.
Ivanov’s sexual relationship with Ward’s friend, former showgirl Christine Keeler, 19 at the same time of her affair with war secretary John Profumo, led to the government’s collapse. The ensuing scandal saw Profumo resign and Ward take his own life on the eve of being convicted of living off immoral earnings.
Files released by the National Archives show the Foreign Office used the Ivanov/Ward friendship as an unofficial back channel to the Kremlin, with authorisation granted by permanent undersecretary Harold Caccia and foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home.
When MI5 learned of this, they warned the Foreign Office to “think very carefully before using Ward”, as he was “naive and indiscreet”.
Because of his behaviour an MI5 agent codenamed Cat Burglar was sent to befriend Ivanov and warn him he could be kicked out for misconduct, in the hope of blackmailing him into working for the UK. When they learned of Ivanov’s friendship with Ward, MI5 also tried to get Ward to “turn” him. But, Ward reported, Ivanov was a “dyed-in-the-wool” communist who would never defect.
Another MI5 report said: “Ivanov is something of a wide-boy and not, on the face of it, a very likely defector: ‘a coat-trailer fisher for something or other’. Politically he is a hot-gospeller of communism, following an ’Honest Joe’ [Stalin] line. ‘He is no fool.’”
Ward, a supplier of women to wealthy men, regularly invited Ivanov to Cliveden, the country home of Lord Astor, where Ward had a cottage. “Lord Astor is married to an ex-model called Bronwen Pugh, developed by Ward as one of the many young girls on whom he does a Pygmalion job before passing them on,” one source was quoted telling MI5.
A man of left-wing ideals, Ward boasted to one source he had concealed a “hammer and sickle” in the background of a sketch he drew of former foreign secretary John Selwyn Lloyd. He was also genuinely loyal and admiring of Ivanov, and hoped his Russian friend would help him sketch Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, MI5 recorded.
Of Keeler’s initial meeting with Profumo at Cliveden, Ward told a source: “The first time Christine came with me to Bill’s swimming pool she borrowed a bathing costume and dived in and it came off and she came out of the pool nude. Bill [Astor] and Jack [Profumo] chased her around the pool and just about caught her … Later, Jack said to Bill: ‘That’s a rather nice little piece. Can you organise a meeting sometime?’”
Ward claimed that on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, the Russian intelligence service used the Ivanov/Ward back channel to suggest London stage a summit to resolve the crisis. Moscow denied this, and the UK did not act on it. But an emergency telegram in the file, from Caccia to the UK ambassador in Moscow on 24 October 1962 asking for “urgent evaluation” of information Ivanov had passed on, shows this back channel was taken seriously, at least, by the Foreign Office.
While the prime minster, Harold Macmillan, believed Ward’s role as an intermediary was exaggerated, opposition leader Harold Wilson, to whom Ward wrote for help after his arrest, believed him a “tool of Russian communism”.
However, another unnamed source told MI5, Ward was “more a fool than a knave”. “It may be that he sees himself as a kind of 20th -century Messiah – the sweet-reason prince of peace – who will bring the contestants together.”
Profumo initially denied his affair with Keeler. As it became clear she was about to publish her story in the Sunday tabloids, he spoke with Sir Roger Hollis, MI5 director general. Hollis wrote he was confident that Profumo hoped “there might be security grounds for our taking action with the press, by D-notice or otherwise, to prevent publication”. But this hope was “a vain one”, added Hollis. Because MI5 had failed to get Ivanov to defect, there was no security imperative to protect him “on that score”.