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“There’s no such thing as retirement, really,” John le Carre’s secret pilgrim muses in the 1991 spy novel of that name. A few old spies in Britain and the United States have been sharply reminded of the truth of that aphorism this month following sensational revelations that the Cold War espionage web was much bigger than previously thought.

According to the headlines, both countries — indeed, the entire postwar Anglo-U.S. alliance — were as riddled with communist agents as a Swiss cheese is with holes. That is hardly news to aficionados of the stories of the Five Men, the two Rosenbergs, et al. But now there are more names, a lot more. “The Mitrokhin Archive,” a new book based on six trunk loads of documents smuggled out of Russia by a former KGB archivist in 1992, reveals hundreds of them. That’s news.

Although the KGB’s main target was always the U.S., Mr. Mitrokhin’s revelations have made an especially big splash in Britain. Perhaps this is because the old spies “outed” there include some whom even Mr. le Carre might have had trouble dreaming up. The Sixth Man, for example, turns out to be a woman, 87-year-old Mrs. Melita Norwood a.k.a. “Agent Hola” or, to quote the newspapers, “The Bolshevik from Bexleyheath,” a former secretary who passed scientific secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years. Several other doddery retirees from the cloak-and-dagger game, the brilliantly named Agents “Dan,” “Scot,” “Ace” and “Armin,” have also shot to fame. Scot, a former Scotland Yard detective, has won particular notoriety since being, er, exposed as the KGB’s first British “Romeo” spy (assignment: seduction duties). No wonder Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe condemned the whole affair this week as a farce.

The British public, of course, loves it for precisely that reason. Hola is the star, even though she rates just three pages out of 700-plus in “The Mitrokhin Archive.” Who could resist the tweed-skirted, suburban great-grandmother sipping tea from a Che Guevara mug and taking delivery of her communist daily while hard-nosed reporters goggled? But there has been no shortage of good copy. People lapped up reports of KGB plots against celebrities from Rudolf Nureyev to the pope or its efforts to recruit as spies former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. And they must have been entertained just trying to imagine what East Germany learned from its spies at the provincial British universities of Hull and Loughborough. …

The appeal goes beyond comedy, however, to nostalgia. The Mitrokhin bombshell has ignited memories, both real and imagined, of the days when spying and skulduggery were routine on both sides of the Iron Curtain. “We had good men in bad countries who risked their lives for us,” as the secret pilgrim puts it; obviously, there were bad men in good countries as well. Either way, we miss the grit and glamour of that extraordinary period, as we know it from novels and movies and memoirs, and cannot help savoring its brief revival.

But there is one more stratum in the layered popular response to this story, below the nostalgia and well below the hilarity. It is anger. Everything that happened is history now, in the brave new world of post-Cold War, East-West amity. But history has dark corners, which need lighting. As Mr. Mitrokhin’s coauthor, Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, points out, the Russian archivist risked capture or worse for 12 years “to ensure that the truth was not forgotten, that posterity might someday come to know” what transpired in his country during the long decades of repression. Some people get angry thinking about outsiders who may have assisted in that repression.

Take Hola. She is a cute old granny. But she is also an unreconstructed Stalinist who took money to betray her country for 40 years. She has declared that she did it “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.” Fares? In the ’30s, when Hola began her philanthropic activities, that 20-year-old “new system” was also giving ordinary people the Great Terror. In the ’70s, when Armin was busy betraying East German dissidents to the Stasi, innocent people were regularly being shot trying to flee East Berlin. Now, Hola says, “in general I do not agree with spying against one’s country.” Oh. So tell us again when it is all right.

Think back to the scene at the end of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” where Smiley sees the arch traitor Haydon “visibly shrinking to something quite small and mean.” Once the media have departed in search of a new star, that will be the ultimate, richly deserved fate of Hola and her colleagues.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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