Lady Spy's Charms Were Lost on Benjamin Britten

By Cordon, Gavin | The Birmingham Post (England), January 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Lady Spy's Charms Were Lost on Benjamin Britten


Cordon, Gavin, The Birmingham Post (England)


Foreign Office documents relating to the Cold War reveal not only the scale of Soviet espionage operations in Britain but also the bungling attempts by the KGB to sully our nationals.

The tensions between the East and West are also evident with the papers, published for the first time yesterday, revealing that M15 believed the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, armed forces and the Labour Party had all been successfully penetrated by KGB agents.

The KGB made a bungled attempt to compromise British composer Benjamin Britten with a woman agent - apparently not realising he was homosexual.

The incident occurred while Britten was in the Soviet Union, together with his lover - the singer Peter Pears during a 1971 Government sponsored concert tour promoting British music.

The British Ambassador Sir Duncan Wilson described how the composer spent a reception "engaged in a sort of private duel" with his "escort" from the official Soviet concert agency Goskoncert - a Miss Sokolova.

In a cable to Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson said the lady was "cheated of her prey by reason of him (Britten) and Peter Pears staying with me at the Embassy".

He added: "This involved some nerve-storms and comedy which are better recorded elsewhere."

The papers also show how the tour almost turned into a diplomatic incident.

Britten had been due to conduct performances of his cello symphony in Leningrad and Moscow with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as the soloist.

But the performances were thrown into doubt when Rostropovich infuriated the Soviet authorities by writing a letter to Pravda criticising their treatment of Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In the event the Soviets - fearful of jeopardising a return tour of Britain by their own musicians - allowed the concert to go ahead, but not without a show of "unpleasantness" by the Culture Minister, Madame Furtseva.

"During Rostropovich's performance of the Britten cello symphony she put on a conspicuous display of boredom, conversing with her staff in the row behind hind and her neighbour on her right (an unpleasant lady spy from Goskoncert)," Wilson noted.

"At the end of the performance she left without waiting for the applause to reach its climax and took vice minister Kozyrev and his reluctant wife with her. …

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