Sat, 04 Feb 2023

Konon Molody was an ordinary Soviet intelligence agent posted to Britain. Unexpectedly for the KGB and himself, he became one of the richest people in the United Kingdom.

This man had it all: a luxury villa, a collection of luxury cars, a fortune of several million pounds and even a commendation from Queen Elizabeth II. Astonishingly, he wasn't some British aristocrat, but a perfectly real Soviet intelligence agent.

On secret service against Her Majesty

Konon Molody was sent to Britain in 1954 under the name of Canadian national Gordon Lonsdale. By that time, the 32-year-old Soviet intelligence officer with an unusual name had already fought in World War II, the end of which he saw as a lieutenant in Berlin, studied at a law faculty in his native Moscow and, of course, undergone special training at spy school.

Konon Molody.

Konon Molody.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

What helped Molody to blend in with the other students at London University, where he enrolled, were six years spent in the U.S. Following the early death of his father, the then 10-year-old Konon had been taken in by an aunt in San Francisco for a while. The youngster returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 with an excellent command of the English language, which he later honed to perfection. In addition, the intelligence agent also had a superb command of German, French and even Chinese, which he studied at university.

"He is a man without special features. Everything about him is average, as it were: his height, physique, degree of corpulence, nose, eyes... His appearance is devoid of any conspicuous national characteristics. He can easily be taken for an Englishman or a Scandinavian, as well as for a German, Slav or even Frenchman," is how journalist Leonid Kolosov, a friend of Molody-Lonsdale, described him.

Lonsdale with friends in 1961.

Lonsdale with friends in 1961.

Syndication / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

The task of the sociable Lonsdale, who knew how to put people at their ease in his company, was to infiltrate British military circles in order to obtain information on the development of bacteriological weapons in Britain and on the state of Britain's navy. Konon Trofimovich, codename 'Ben', maintained contact with 'Center' (his superiors in Moscow) through "illegal" agents Morris and Lona Cohen, who posed as a husband-and-wife team of antiquarian booksellers by the name of Kroger.

The millionaire intelligence agent

To secure his legal status in the United KIngdom after graduating from university, the "Canadian" Lonsdale decided to go into business and bought several vending machines. "My vending machines sold notebooks, water, wine, felt-tip pens, sandwiches, aspirin - whatever fitted into their voracious bellies," the agent recalled.

Syndication/ Mirrorpix / Getty Images

Initially, the KGB had to constantly cover the losses of the hapless entrepreneur, but, over time, things improved. Konon Trofimovich even became co-owner of the very firm from which he had bought his vending machines.

A real turning point in the career of the businessman spy occurred in 1959. An employee of his company asked him to evaluate an invention of his father's - a car alarm with a locking device, described as a "vehicle sentinel". The device caught Molody's fancy and he immediately found investors and set up production.

Konon Molody.

Konon Molody.

Sunday People / Syndication/ Mirrorpix / Getty Images

The money began to roll in and, in 1960, at an international exhibition in Brussels, the "sentinel" even won a Grand Gold Medal. This event did not pass unnoticed by the UK authorities. For his contribution to the development of technology in Britain and for having "glorified the country at a major international exhibition", Elizabeth II honored Gordon Lonsdale with a commendation.

Molody became seriously wealthy. He already owned four companies for the sales of automated machines and eight cars of different makes, while he also owned a villa in a London suburb and several rooms in the city's best hotels, which he rented "on a permanent basis". "The millionaire's mask would seem to have given me the right to lead a life of luxury, but I exercised this right discreetly and in moderation insomuch as to avoid being an odd man out among millionaires... Cool-headedness, steadfastness and self-control are the three pillars we lean on," Konon Trofimovich asserted.

The unmasking

The wealth that dropped on him from the sky did not, however, prevent the spy from carrying out his primary professional duties. Via recruited civilian employees working for the Royal Navy base in Portland, the site of the secret Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, he obtained highly important information for Moscow.

 Greville Wynne.

Greville Wynne.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

In all, Harry Frederick Houghton and his mistress, Ethel Gee, supplied Lonsdale with more than 17,000 pages of secret materials, providing a full picture of the state of British naval forces and plans for their development. In the USSR, the data thus obtained was sent to institutes and design bureaus and actively applied in practice. For instance, a whole series of Soviet sonars for studying the topography of the seafloor was developed on the basis of British designs.

But, it was because of Houghton and Gee that Konon Molody's cover was eventually blown. MI5, the British counterintelligence service, was alerted to them by a turncoat Polish agent in Europe. Subsequently, Lonsdale himself came under surveillance from the special services. On January 7, 1961, he was arrested as he was meeting his informants. Soon, his signal operators, the Cohens, were arrested, too.

Molody in the Soviet Union.

Molody in the Soviet Union.

Legion Media

Molody flatly refused to cooperate and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Three years later, he was exchanged for British spy Greville Wynne, who had been seized by the KGB. In April 1964, Konon returned to Moscow, where his wife and children were waiting for him. His family, whom the spy had visited just several times a year on secret visits to the USSR, had been convinced that he had been working at the trade mission in China. They were only told the truth after Lonsdale's unmasking.

At home, Konon Trofimovich worked to train new intelligence agents and he also took part in the making of the Soviet cult movie 'Dead Season' (1968), which was partly based on his biography. Nevertheless, he never stopped dreaming of a return to covert work and even wanted to have plastic surgery carried out for this purpose.

These plans were not destined to be realized, however. Molody died on October 11, 1970 as a result of a massive heart attack aged just 48.

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