‘The Courier’: Two Spies and a Crisis

In July 1960, Soviet military intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky approached two American tourists, Eldon Cox and Henry Cobb, in front of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. He gave them a handwritten letter and told them to take it immediately to Edward Freers, the deputy chief at the US embassy. The trial of Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the downed American U-2 spy plane, recently shot down near Sverdlovsk, Western Siberia, was to be held in four days and Khrushchev was demanding a formal apology from US President Eisenhower. Penkovsky told the two men he had secret information on the U-2 flight that would help the US.

In Penkovsky’s letter, he wrote:

My Dear Sir!
I request that you pass the following to the appropriate authorities of the United States of America. It is your good friend who is turning to you, a friend who has already become your soldier-warrior for the cause of Truth, for the ideals of a truly free world and of Democracy for Mankind. To which ideal your (and now my) President, government and people are sacrificing so much effort … At the present time I have at my disposal very important materials on many subjects of exceptionally great interest and importance to your government …

Cox dropped the letter off at the embassy and it eventually found its way to the CIA. Over the next two years, Penkovsky passed 10,000 pages of classified Soviet war plans and nuclear missile diagrams to the Americans and MI6, enabling President Kennedy to stand firm against Khrushchev and prevail during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

“There are good lies. Sometimes a lie is a gift. An act of love”    
                                                                           —Oleg Penkovsky

The Courier (2020) is a two-hour film, directed by Dominic Cooke from a script by Tom O’Connor. It tells the little-known story of Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze) and a brave British engineer and businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), recruited by MI6. Together, these two became the first behind-the-scenes backchannel that led to the prevention of a Cuban nuclear catastrophe.

The film opens with Nikita Khrushchev speaking before the Politburo praising the increasing strength of the Soviet nuclear capability compared to that of the US. He utters his famous threat, “We will bury them,” to a standing ovation.

Colonel Penkovsky sits in his office looking over schematics of what appear to be missile launchers. He returns home to his young daughter and wife, Sheila. He removes a letter from his desk and tells his wife he has to go out.

In a dark lane, Penkovsky approaches two young male American tourists and hands them the letter, instructing them to take it to the American embassy immediately and to give it to the Deputy Chief of Mission. Sceptical at first, one agrees and drops the letter off.

Four months later, at MI6 headquarters in London, CIA officer Emily Donovan meets with Dickie Franks of the SIS (British Secret Intelligence Service), and shows him Penkovsky’s letter, which warns of approaching nuclear war and of his willingness to help the US to prevent it.

Penkovsky, code-named Ironbark, runs the State Committee for Scientific Research in Moscow—a cover for his position in the GRU, the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff. As he is extremely visible in Soviet intelligence circles, Donovan suggests they recruit a nondescript businessman, able to travel to Russia without attracting attention, to be their go-between with Penkovsky.

Greville Wynne is forty-one, a British engineer and international salesman representing elite British electrical, steel and machine-making manufacturers in Europe. He is contacted by “James Dobie” (the cover name for Dickie Franks) from the “Board of Trade”, who invites him out for drinks. He is introduced to Donovan, who he is told is a consultant from the US named “Helen Talbot”.

Wynne is told that the time is right for lucrative trade opportunities in Russia. Wynne becomes a little suspicious and asks if Dobie happens to work for “a different branch of Her Majesty’s government”. Talbot assures him that, as he is an ordinary salesman with no previous connection to government, there will be no danger.

Wynne sets up an initial meeting with the Soviet State Committee for Scientific Research and Talbot gives him a distinctive tiepin, instructing him to wear it while in Russia. Wynne arrives in Moscow and is introduced to Penkovsky, who offers to show him “another side” of Russia. They attend the Bolshoi Ballet and Wynne observes Premier Khrushchev sitting in one of the upper boxes. Afterwards, while walking through the dark streets, Penkovsky tells Wynne to return to England and to invite him and his Russian delegation over on a trade mission.

Wynne returns to London on the day Castro announces victory at the Bay of Pigs. A business meeting is set up with the Russian delegation. Wynne takes them to the West End where they spend the night drinking and dancing the Twist.

Later that night, Penkovsky secretly meets with Donovan and tells her that, in his view, Khrushchev is unfit to be in command; that Khrushchev is seeking a confrontation with America and only waiting for the right time to unleash a “rain of rockets that will bury imperialism”. Penkovsky gives Donovan a folder of classified documents and asks for assurances that his family will be allowed to defect to America. He insists that the information be used not as a weapon, “but as a tool to bring peace”. He tells her that despite Khrushchev’s blustering rhetoric, the Soviets know full well that America’s nuclear arsenal is superior to theirs and that they do not yet have first-strike capability. He tells her, “You can annihilate us but we cannot annihilate you.”

Tensions begin to rise between the Americans and the Russians. President Kennedy gives a television address to the nation and the world:

Today every inhabitant of this planet, every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of thread, capable of being cut at any moment, by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

Unknown to the British, there is a double-agent working inside MI6 who alerts the KGB that the intelligence they have been receiving lately—showing that the Soviets plan to establish nuclear missile platforms in Cuba—can only have come from a British spy in Moscow.

The KGB officer, Oleg Gribanov (left), meets with Penkovsky in Moscow, wanting to know more about his new business associate, Greville Wynne. Penkovsky assures him that he has noticed nothing unusual, but Gribanov tells him they are starting to watch Wynne more closely. In the UK, Franks wants to pull Wynne out but Donovan insists the stakes have become too high and that must they keep him in place.

Penkovsky gives Wynne camouflage profiles for different missile installations in Cuba. Although the U-2 surveillance program was suspended after Gary Powers was shot down, a new U-2 flight is scheduled over Cuba to confirm the disguised installations. Penkovsky collapses in his office due to apparent exhaustion and is rushed to hospital. The weather becomes favourable for a new U-2 flight and, after analysis of aerial photography, the nuclear missile installations are confirmed.

President Kennedy gives an address to the nation, broadcast overseas, making it clear that any launch from Cuba, or anywhere in the world, will “constitute an attack on the US and will met with a full retaliatory response”.

Penkovsky now suspects that he, too, is being investigated by the KGB and begins to prepare for defection. The crisis in Cuba has become dangerously confrontational with Kennedy standing firm but Khrushchev refusing to back down.

The CIA decides to abandon Penkovsky, as the risk of extracting him now is too great, but Wynne demands to return to Russia to help him and his family escape. Donovan agrees to travel with him under diplomatic immunity, and puts a plan in place for a boat from Finland to land in a remote coastal area to meet Penkovsky.

Returning to Moscow, Wynne and Donovan outline the escape plan to Penkovsky. Wynne prepares to return immediately to the UK and goes to the airport. Penkovsky goes home to gather his family for the rendezvous with the boat but finds Gribanov and the KGB waiting for him at his house. Gribanov tells Penkovsky that his recent collapse and hospitalisation were due to a poison, so that they could search his office and plant surveillance; Penkovsky is placed under arrest. Wynne’s plane is delayed on the runway and he is dragged off by the KGB.

During interrogation by Gribanov, Wynne admits to dropping off packages in the UK for Penkovsky, but lies, telling them that he thought they were only standard business gifts to trading partners; he never looked inside them.

After six months, Wynne’s wife is allowed into Russia to visit him in prison. She finds him severely malnourished. She tells him the Soviets have backed down in Cuba but Wynne is unaware of any of this. She also tells him there is a chance he will be released in some kind of a prisoner exchange, but not for at least a year.

Back in England, the Home Office is deciding who they can swap, arguing that they can’t send someone “valuable”, as Wynne wasn’t an officer. A year later, Wynne is exchanged for the Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale (also known as Konon Molody), who had been serving a twenty-five-year sentence.

Penkovsky is judged “guilty of treason to the Motherland”. His property is confiscated and he is executed and buried in an unmarked grave.

Benedict Cumberbatch appeared as Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist, in the film Hawking (2004). He appeared as the English mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He won the BAFTA for Best Actor in the outstanding mini-series Patrick Melrose (2018) based on the novels of Edward St Aubyn. He is also a major actor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2014, Time listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In the tradition of contemporary method actors, Cumberbatch spent three months losing weight to achieve concentration-camp gauntness for the final scenes of the film when Wynne is released after two years in Soviet confinement.

Merab Ninidze was raised in an artistic Georgian family, studying classical music for seven years under his grandmother, a music teacher, and studying acting, with his grandfather, a Shakespearean theatre director. In 1979, at the age of thirteen, he played Prince Edward in Richard III, which toured the UK three times, including a season at the Edinburgh Festival. He played a GRU agent in five episodes of the US series Homeland, and was the lead in Nowhere in Africa, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (2002).

The Courier was originally titled Ironbark when it premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2020, referring to Penkovsky’s codename in the film, but this was incorrect—Ironbark had only been the codename for the documents Penkovsky passed to the CIA. His actual American handle was Hero, and for MI6 it was Yoga.

In his book The Man from Moscow (1981), Greville Wynne wrote of his first visit to Russia:

Armed guards stood in the reception hall, and there was a general bustle of messengers and secretaries, at least half of whom were girls. Not pretty girls. The Western business wolf would be disappointed in Moscow. The office girls wear white coats, unironed, and thick low-heeled shoes. Buxom healthy girls, but with bad complexions and no makeup. Brassieres and deodorant are unknown to them.

Penkovsky’s initial meeting with Wynne, in London in April 1961, occurred one week after Yuri Gagarin became the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth. Penkovsky alerted British agents to the possibility of a Cuban missile stand-off eighteen months before it happened.

Fidel Castro had recently been victorious in humiliating the US in the CIA’s failed attempt to depose him in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba was only 140 kilometres from the coast of Florida but Castro had asked Khrushchev to put offensive nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on the island. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was probably the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear war.

Most accounts of the crisis, as in Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days, posthumously published in 1969, which served as the basis of a 1974 docudrama, The Missiles of October, put the emphasis, and eventual resolution, on the diplomacy between the Attorney-General and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Kennedy had met secretly, beginning in 1961, with Soviet GRU intelligence agent Georgi Bolshavov thirty-five times.

But Kennedy’s account and the later Hollywood film Thirteen Days (2000), directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Kevin Costner, which was based, not on Robert Kennedy’s book, but on another novel, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest May and Philip Zeilow, both failed to emphasis the crucial roles that Wynne and Penkovsky played, and their self-sacrificing heroism, in the months leading up to the crisis.

A turning point in the Donaldson film is when the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, confronts the aggressive Soviet UN representative, Valerian Zorin, at a UN Security Council emergency session, with a presentation involving charts, blow-up photographs and precise specifications of the missiles, in U-2 imagery, being installed in Cuba. None of this would have been possible without the technical details and intelligence Penkovsky had supplied.

Much in the manner of John le Carré’s plain grey spies, the real Greville Wynne is described, in the definitive historical account, The Spy Who Saved the World, by Jerrod L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin, as “short and well-groomed, his black hair and moustache neatly trimmed”—not the lanky charismatic character portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Schecter and Deriabin said:

While in London, Wynne arranged for a prostitute named Zeph to visit Penkovsky and he gave him a box of condoms. She charged him $42 and he said she was good. All the Americans interviewing him wanted her phone number and laughed.

In his own memoir, The Man from Odessa, Wynne, known to exaggerate, claimed he had spent time in the Second World War working under cover for MI5, but this was later revealed as a lie.

There are some divergences between actual events and the film version of the story. Wynne was not the first person Penkovsky approached. He had attempted for months to solicit visiting businessmen from Canada and the US but they all turned him down. Most were afraid they would be put in a compromising position by KGB surveillance and blackmailed.

The MI6 agent Dickie Franks was a real person but he had nothing to do with the recruitment of Greville Wynne. The American CIA officer George Kisevalter, and MI6, handled the clandestine liaisons between Wynne and Penkovsky for two years. Kisevalter had been the main agent in charge of Pyotr Popov, codenamed Attic, who was the first GRU officer to spy for the CIA, between 1953 and 1958. The complete British and American team that dealt with Penkovsky included Michael Stokes, Harold Shergold, Joseph Bulik and Kisevalter. Sir Dick White, the head of MI6, known as “C”, also met with him.

The CIA operative Emily Donovan was a composite character who, according to Cooke, represented “several real-life people including Janet Chisholm—the wife of a Moscow-based British visa officer who also served as a conduit for information passed to the West by Penkovsky”.
The KGB did not take Wynne off a flight leaving Moscow but off a transit flight in Hungary and put him in a Hungarian prison. He was later moved to KGB headquarters, and prison, in Moscow.

Penkovsky was described as an ex-soldier and military professional “without an ounce of fat on him” and was required to sign a recruitment contract with the CIA and MI6 which he eagerly agreed to:

I, Oleg Vladimirovich PENKOVSKY, Colonel in the Soviet Army, do hereby on this 21st day of April in the year 1961, offer my services totally and unreservedly to the Governments of the United States of American and Great Britain. I undertake to serve these Governments loyally and faithfully and to carry out to the best of my ability the orders transmitted to me by the representatives of these Governments.

I undertake to serve the Governments of the United States of America and of Great Britain by working on their behalf in the USSR until such time as my services there lose their value. At that time I request the Governments of the Untied States of America and of Great Britain to grant me and members of my family political asylum and citizenship of one of these countries and a status in the country of my choice in accordance with my rank and the services I have rendered.

Odie Henderson of wrote:

The Courier makes the connection that Wynne’s [sales] job of “making the clients happy” has the same thespian qualities of being a spy: He is playing a role, one that requires him to hide his true feelings and present a specific, carefully calibrated, unflappable front.

Brian Lowry of CNN said:

Anyone with a taste for Cold War dramas will find an intriguing addition to their cinematic library with The Courier …

It’s the kind of historical tale that, after the closing crawl, will likely send more than a few viewers running to Google to read more …

The movie’s heart, however, resides in the bond forged between the two central characters, whose loyalty to and compassion toward each other eclipses international boundaries and tensions …

After a four-day trial in Moscow, Greville Wynne was sentenced to three years in Lubyanka prison and a further five years in a hard labour camp. The BBC reported at the time:

Spectators in the crowded courtroom applauded and some shouted: “Not enough, not enough.” His co-accused, 43-year-old Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky, was … stripped of his rank of colonel and all his medals … [and] given the death sentence. There were loud cheers when his sentence was read out … Penkovsky was executed by firing squad one week after the trial … on his release, Wynne was in a poor state of health. He had lost a lot of weight and doctors said his time in prison had left him “emotionally and mentally exhausted”. He spent 12 days in hospital before returning to his Chelsea home to be with his wife and son.

Wynne wrote that he suffered two years of malnutrition and severe beatings by the KGB. He was traded for the Soviet spy Konon Molody, whom the Russians valued highly, at the Iron Curtain’s famous Bridge of Spies in Berlin.

Although struggling with alcoholism and depression, Wynne went on to become a successful property developer. But his first marriage didn’t survive. His wife, Sheila, who had stood by him during his imprisonment and at his Soviet show-trial, divorced him soon after his release. In 1970, Wynne married his secretary and interpreter, Herma van Buren, who spoke eight languages, but they separated shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1990 at the age of seventy-one.

Penkovsky’s family also suffered tragedy. Schecter and Deriabin recount:

Vera Dimitrievna Penkovsky [his widow] was still living in Moscow in 1990 where she had been an editor at a publishing house before her retirement in 1989. She declined to be interviewed; her memories of her husband were too painful. She said in a phone call that her two daughters had changed their names and “are living a good life. The elder is married. We were not purged and we are not afraid but we do not want to return to the past.”

Le Carré reflected: “The information which Penkovsky provided and Wynne purveyed led, there is little doubt, to the greatest moral defeat suffered by either side in the Cold War: Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw his rockets from Cuba.” If anyone is in any doubt about how close we came to an unstoppable nuclear holocaust, just reflect on these two paragraphs from The Spy Who Saved the World:

Penkovsky told his British and US handlers there were 50,000 key figures who needed to be eliminated in the event of war including the KGB, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the staff of the Ministry of Defence. He added another 100,000 from twenty military districts bringing the total to 150,000 who had to be destroyed …

Under the policy of massive retaliation, the US would mount an all-out response to an attack that would destroy the Soviet Union and China’s industrial and population centres. Nuclear bombs were to be delivered by the Strategic Air Command, led by General Curtis LeMay. From 1951 to 1955, the SAC Emergency War Plan, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for 114 nuclear bombs to be dropped on the Soviet Union six days after the start of hostilities. The estimate however was that even with such devastating bombing, the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity would be destroyed by only 30 to 40 per cent. The USSR would still have sufficient troop mobility to invade select areas of Western Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

These are sobering thoughts, particularly at the moment with talk about potential conflict with China. President Kennedy had been told that a nuclear war would kill a third of humanity. Khrushchev had been aware of these monstrous projections as well. Unleashing 114 Nagasakis and Hiroshimas on another country might sound brutally unthinkable in these times of relative peace, but imagine if a Russian or Chinese nuclear missile destroyed a single major Australian or American city, such as Sydney or New York. People would demand and, most likely, condone this kind of extreme retaliation. It also helps put into perspective why there was no popular protest after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during the Second World War.

Not only was Colonel Oleg Penkovsky instrumental in preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into an invasion of Cuba and an almost inevitable Third World War, he also provided the US and Britain with names and photographs of 300 Eastern Bloc intelligence agents and is considered the most valuable Soviet source ever recruited by the West.

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