In 1999, on his way to interview Melita Norwood about Russian revolutionary emigres, David Burke was astonished to see on the front page of The Times a photograph of his 87-year-old interviewee with the caption "The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op". She had been exposed as a Soviet agent by Vasili Mitrokhin, a defector and KGB archivist. The direction of Burke's research changed and he persuaded "Letty" to speak for the first time about her 40-year career as a spy.
She had been born to an English middle-class mother and a Latvian-Russian exile father, Alexander Sirnis, who translated Tolstoy at Count Chertkov's commune near Bournemouth. The 1905 revolution in Russia converted Sirnis from anarchistic non-resistance to militant Bolshevism, and from 1915 he became the first translator of Lenin's anti-war writings into English. Sirnis' contact with Lenin had been established by Theodore Rothstein, whose British-born, Oxford-graduate son Andrew would become the key connection between the Communist Party of Great Britain and Moscow.
MI5 were already watching Andrew Rothstein, as well as Norwood's mother, her sister and her future husband Hilary Nussbaum (later Norwood), when in 1933 she was introduced to Rothstein. Norwood was working as a secretary in the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BN-FMRA) and, mindful of the possibility that she could be of assistance to the USSR, she offered her help to Rothstein, who was already monitoring scientific research at Cambridge. In 1934 she was recruited as an agent of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD.
Norwood's espionage activities were revived after a two-year hiatus prompted by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and, as a trusted employee of BN-FMRA, she provided information on the Anglo-American atomic bomb project. She recalled: "It wasn't a major part of my life. What with the washing, shopping - at the Co-op - and the kid, I had other things to worry about ... Sometimes, if I was typing something, I made an extra carbon copy. I would have photographed a bit of stuff."
By 1942, Burke confirms that Norwood's importance to Moscow was probably greater than Kim Philby's, and by 1947 she was supplying information at least as valuable as that being passed on by Klaus Fuchs. She continued spying until her retirement in 1972, and in 1979 was able to travel for the first time to the Soviet Union, where she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and given a KGB pension, which arrived regularly in cash through the post until she stopped it: "I told them I had enough to live on."
Having suspected Norwood for some 30 years, when in the early 1990s the authorities were offered proof of her espionage work via the Mitrokhin papers, they were prevented from acting by technicalities and the conflicting agendas of various agencies, which Burke skilfully unpicks. The public were told that Norwood was too old to pursue, that her crime was ancient history, and that she had not been a serious threat to national security.
As for Norwood herself, she had no regrets, despite the collapse of her beloved Soviet Union. And in Burke she found someone who could explain her actions as having been aimed at helping to correct the imbalance of post-1945 forces, thus saving the world from Mutually Assured Destruction. Whether this view can be extended to the Cambridge Five and their like is another story. According to US assumptions, Norwood's contribution accelerated Soviet research by four years.
It is ironic, Burke comments, that Norwood, "a lifelong member of CND, was instrumental in speeding up the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb". His book is a valuable addition to the expanding library of works on the history of East-West espionage.
The Spy Who Came in From the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage
By David Burke. The Boydell Press, 232pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781843834229. Published 16 October 2008.