September 13, 1999

The Great-Grandmother Who Came in From the Cold


LONDON -- The 87-year-old suburban London woman who admitted that for decades she had furnished the Soviet Union with research documents from Britain's top-secret nuclear weapons development program is a most improbable spy.

Melita Norwood made her unrepentant confession Saturday in the well-tended garden of freesia and daisies in front of her two-story stucco home in Bexleyheath, southeast London. She was dressed in a wide-collared lavender floral print blouse and gray tweed skirt and clutched a handwritten piece of paper with slightly trembling fingers.

"I did what I did not to make money but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service," she read in a firm voice.

Explaining her motive, Mrs. Norwood said, "I thought perhaps what I had access to might be useful in helping Russia to keep abreast of Britain, America and Germany. In general," she added, "I do not agree with spying against one's country."

There were several cries of "traitor!" from the crowd in her street. As she retreated into her house, she murmured, "No, no, no," to shouted questions asking whether she regretted her actions.

Mrs. Norwood had been obliged to confront the press gathered at her gate by disclosures of her past in The Times of London. She told the newspaper that "in the same circumstances, I know that I would do the same thing again."

The newspaper will begin on Monday to serialize a book published in Britain as "The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West," by a Cambridge professor, Christopher Andrew. It is based on the six trunkloads of documents brought to the West by Vasily Mitrokhin, 77, the former chief archivist of the KGB's foreign intelligence section, who defected to Britain in 1992.

Sunday's newspapers predicted that the excerpts from Andrew's book and an accompanying BBC documentary called "The Spying Game" would unmask up to a dozen more Britons who worked for Soviet intelligence, including a former Scotland Yard officer and a person described tantalizingly by the author as "a prominent public figure who is now dead."

Home Secretary Jack Straw has asked Britain's internal Security Service, MI5, for a full report on the case, but a Home Office spokeswoman said Sunday that the government would have no comment on the other names emerging. "It is a longstanding policy not to confirm or deny the details of security service investigations," she said.

Tom King, chairman of the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee, promised an investigation by lawmakers, saying, "Questions need to be asked about who knew what when, and why there were no prosecutions."

It appeared that Britain was headed into another of the spy expose frenzies that have occurred periodically with the unmaskings of men like Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross who followed their Communist sympathies into espionage.

Where those men hid their activities behind their upper-class backgrounds, elite educations and urbanity, Mrs. Norwood disguised hers with her complete suburban unremarkableness.

She worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, the home of the Tube Alloys project. That was the anodyne name given to Britain's nuclear weapons research program that is sometimes compared with the more famous American project conducted in Los Alamos, N.M. Mrs. Norwood regularly removed files from a safe after hours, copied them and turned them over to Soviet agents in meetings in the leafy southeastern suburbs where she has lived for more than 50 years.

In the interview with The Times of London, she said that her husband, Hilary, a mathematics teacher who died in 1986, shared her Communist ideology but disapproved of her actively aiding the Russians. On nights when she was delayed getting home by her appointments with her KGB handlers, she said, she would blame it on traffic tie-ups -- an excuse he accepted though he knew it to be sham.

The couple's daughter, Anita Ferguson, 56, a biologist living in Staffordshire, said she learned of her mother's activity from the newspaper report Saturday. "When I first saw all the details, I just felt complete disbelief," she said. "It was a very big shock, I had no idea, no idea at all."

Mrs. Ferguson said she would stand by her mother "whatever she may have done" and expressed relief that she had never been told the truth before. "It's probably better I didn't know," she said. "I would not have liked to have kept such a secret."

Mrs. Norwood became a great-grandmother last year, and she told The Times of London that while she thought that people who had lived through the era would understand her motives, she worried what the youthful members of her family would make of the revelations.

In the BBC interview for broadcast next Sunday, Mrs. Norwood explains that in addition to sympathizing with the social gains that the Soviet experiment promised, she thought that in the postwar era, the Soviet Union represented the only counterbalance to capitalism and that the West should not be allowed an advantage as great as sole possession of nuclear bombs.

"I thought they should somehow be adequately defended because everyone was against them, against this experiment, and they had been through such hardship from the Germans," she told her television interviewer. "In the war the Russians were on our side, and it was unfair to them that they shouldn't be able to develop their weaponry."

She was born Melita Sirnis in 1912 near Southampton, the daughter of an English mother and a Latvian father who was a follower of Leo Tolstoy. Her father died when she was 6, but her mother remained active in leftist causes, instilling in her children strong sentiments against all war and sympathy for countries like Germany that the family viewed as victims of warfare.

She went to Southampton University for a year and in 1932, soon to become a secret member of Britain's Communist Party, she got her secretarial job at the metals association office in north London.

In the BBC interview she is vague about how she came to start working for the KGB five years later, saying only, "Somebody said that my work might be an interesting source of material." She claims failing memory as a reason for not being able to recall the names of any of the people she dealt with.

Known as "Letti" to her friends, she was identified in KGB documents by the code name "Hola." Asked if she had ever been frightened of being caught, she said, "I suppose so, but I can't remember pondering it."

On her retirement in 1972, KGB files complimented her as "a committed, reliable and disciplined agent, striving to be of the utmost assistance." When she visited Moscow with her husband in 1979, she was given an honor for her work, the Order of the Red Banner, which she accepted, and offered a financial reward, which she turned down.

People in the neighborhood said they were aware that Mrs. Norwood, locally famed for the quality of her homemade chutney, held radical views for their largely Conservative-voting area. Along with the geraniums in her windows there are anti-war and nuclear disarmament stickers, and on a cupboard shelf visible through the kitchen window is a mug with Che Guevara's bearded face on it.

Sunday afternoon she strolled in her garden at the request of photographers but refused to answer any questions. "I'm sorry to get you all out like this on a Sunday," she told the waiting journalists. "But I suppose it's all right as long as you are getting paid for it."

At Dillons Newsagents, Peter Dodd, the assistant manager, said he had been surprised years ago when he first saw her orders for Communist publications. "I thought, 'Who is this nutter?"' he said. "But she was just the normal grandmother who came in once a week to pay her bill."

Ray Simmons, 67, a retired chief technician at the University of Greenwich, who lives nearby commented: "I've known her for 20 years, and she never gave a hint of anything like that. It's quite a shock to be told that the sweet old lady round the corner has been a KGB spy."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company