Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Profumo Scandal Wasn’t About Sex — It Was About Spying

With the recent death of Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the British Profumo affair in the 1960s, the sex and espionage scandal is back in the news.

While most of the coverage is centered on the sex, Ben Macintyre, author of many fine books on espionage, including A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat, offers a look back at the Soviet naval officer and GRU spy who was at the center of the scandal in his column in the London Times.

On June 14, 1963, nine days after John Profumo resigned in a welter of scandal over his affair with Christine Keeler, a spy deep inside the KGB sent a sensational report to his American handler.

The KGB spy, who has never been identified, reported that “the Russians had in fact received a lot of useful information from Profumo from [sic] Christine Keeler, with whom Ivanov had established contact, and in whose apartment Ivanov had even been able to lay on eavesdropping operations at appropriate times”.

The “Ivanov” in question was Yevgeni Mikhailovitch Ivanov (seen in the above photo), a Soviet intelligence officer posing as assistant naval attaché in the Soviet embassy in London, who had also had an affair with Keeler. It was the fact that a British cabinet minister had been sharing the favours of a call girl with a Soviet agent and lying about it that precipitated Profumo’s resignation.

Yet Ivanov is often treated as a bit-player in the drama. It was assumed that Keeler was simply too dim to have passed on important secrets as pillow-talk, and that British national security was never compromised. The Profumo case is treated as a moral saga rather than an espionage case.

In fact, Profumo was the target of a highly sophisticated and successful Soviet intelligence operation. He was about to be blackmailed by the Russian spy. MI5 had got wind of what was happening, but, as with more modern intelligence failures, didn’t do anything about it.

And at the centre of the Profumo saga stands the shadowy figure of Ivanov: louche, seductive and extremely dangerous.

Ivanov arrived in London in March 1960, ostensibly a low-level diplomat, but in reality an officer of the GRU, the military counterpart of the KGB. With his broken nose and fractured English, Ivanov was an unlikely lothario, but during an earlier posting in Norway he had proved himself a serial womaniser, who may have been sent to London with the avowed purpose of worming his way into the confidence, and the beds, of women in or on the fringes of high society.

You can read the rest of the column via the below link:

You can also read my previous post on Christine Keeler via the below link:

And you can read my interview with Ben Macintyre about his book, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, via the below link:


  1. Ah, the fascinating world of espionage! Ever since my days as a CT in the Navy, I've been intrigued by spies. Thanks for sharing this piece about Profumo and Keeler. Heck, based on the one photo of Keeler, I might have been tempted back in the day. Hmmm. BTW, tell me your short-list hit parade of favorite books (fiction and nonfiction) about spies and espionage. I'm tempted to begin a reading splurge in which spies figure prominently. So?

  2. RT,

    Well, for fiction, I'd go with Ian Fleming's "From Russia With Love," John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy," and Charles McCarry's "The Tears of Autumn."

    For nonfiction, Ben Macintyre's "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal," and his "Agent Zigzag," and former CIA boss Michael Sulick's "Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War," and his "American Spies: Espionage Against the United States From the Cold War to the Present."


    1. Thanks, Paul. That really rounds out my library "shopping list" for a while. Merry Christmas!

  3. RT,

    And Merry Christmas to you, ole shipmate.


  4. RT,

    Regarding espionage stories, I should have mentioned my own minor contribution to spy fiction, "Cat Street", a murder and espionage story about American sailors in Hong Kong, circa 1971 -

    As a former Kitty Hawk sailor, you might get a kick out of it.


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