In the late 1970s and early 1980s a group of British students were secretly recruited and trained to enter Soviet bloc countries and smuggle out the uncensored work of dissidents detailing what life was like under totalitarian rule. They went on to become senior figures in British politics, media and business and have rarely spoken publicly about their adventures – until now. This group of 60 young men and women, known as 'the couriers', were not drawn from the ranks of Left-wing activists but from a group of radical Conservative students who saw themselves as crusaders for liberal democracy.
By Kirsty Buchanan
Daily Telegraph Magazine – 20 March 2021
His footfall cushioned by heavy snow, Peter Young slipped silently out of his hotel on a cold December evening in 1979 and took the Moscow subway to the end of the line. Although he was not a spy, the 21-year-old had undergone extensive training on how to smuggle documents through airport security and evade detection. Young knew how to check if he was being followed on the street and how to behave during interrogation if arrested by the Soviet secret police, the KGB. He walked a memorised route through the Moscow suburbs to a building he had never visited before, climbed the steps to the fourth floor and knocked softly on the door of Soviet dissident writer Georgi Vladimov.
Still at university, Young was part of a group of young Conservative activists secretly recruited and trained by the anti-Communist National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS) organisation, headed in Britain by the charismatic campaigner George Miller-Kurakin. This band of young recruits included current Schools Minister Nick Gibb and his brother, former Number 10 director of communications Sir Robbie Gibb, among its ranks.
Known as 'the couriers', these students would enter the Soviet Union posing as tourists on package holidays, bringing with money, medicines, letters, documents and even office equipment. On their return, they would carry uncensored articles and books written by dissidents that exposed the brutal realities of life under the Communist regime. This contraband, known as samizdat, played a vital role in bringing the truth of Soviet human rights violations to light at a time of bitter conflict between East and West. In an age before mobile phones and mass communication, the couriers were to prove a lifeline to those who risked all to speak out against Communist oppression.
Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Britain's new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the newly elected US President Ronald Reagan were determined to act against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union. Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles across central and eastern Europe was being matched by US cruise missiles, due for deployment to five NATO countries, including Britain. At the same time, Parliament was debating upgrading its own strategic nuclear missiles from the ageing Polaris to the next-generation Trident. While the Left (encouraged by the Soviet propaganda machine) urged unilateral nuclear disarmament, the centre-Right feared it would leave the West at the mercy of an increasingly brutal regime.
Between 1977 and 1982, the KGB unleashed wave after wave of arrests against those in the Soviet Union campaigning for political freedom. Those brave enough to criticise the state faced action under the Soviet Criminal Code and were either exiled, jailed or sent to labour camps. Others were declared insane and sent for compulsory treatment in psychiatric hospitals.
At the time, few in the West believed the Soviet Union would ever crumble. But George Miller-Kurakin, the 20-something, Lewisham-dwelling grandson of a Russian émigré, was convinced the end was near. He likened the Soviet Union to an elephant being repeatedly bitten on the same spot by a mosquito. Each bite would seem ineffective, he argued, but one day, without warning, the animal would suddenly roll over, with its feet pointing skywards, and die. Like his Russian parents, Boris and Kira, Miller-Kurakin had started working for the NTS, which, in contrast to Marxist ideology, believed in 'the sanctity of the individual'. Venturing into politics, in 1978, he was invited to address the European Democrat Students' conference in Valencia, which was where he met Peter Young. The same year, with Young and another Young Liberal, Nigel Linacre, he established the East European Solidarity Youth organisation (EESY).
At the same time, in the early 1980s, a new breed of Conservative activist was emerging. Passionate supporters of Thatcher, these young students believed in free markets and liberal democracies and were willing to take the fight to the Left. The EESY would find common cause with the Federation of Conservative Students. From it would come the British courier operation. The couriers were agents in a war of words, working to counter Soviet propaganda against a backdrop of worsening East/West relations and the growing threat of nuclear war. As Linacre put it,
“With this push forward into Eastern Europe we would be the people in favour of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
From balloon-bombing leaflets to handing out information to Soviet sailors on shore leave (which led to Miller-Kurakin and his father being chased through the docks by the KGB), information sharing was fraught with difficulty. The secrecy surrounding the operations was such that one young recruit, Russell Walters, didn't even tell his Polish then-girlfriend he was going to Warsaw. Walters was sent to deliver letters to an Orthodox priest, typed on dust-cloths and sewn inside the lining of his tweed jacket. But the 1982 trip – on the Polish airline Lot – did not get off to an auspicious start.
“I'd never flown before,”
“I didn't know about the importance of equalising pressure on take-off and landing so for the entire trip I had the most terrible earache.”
But Walters made his exchange, handing over not only the smuggled letters but also some sweets for the priest's daughter:
“I'd gone to WH Smiths and packed this bag with Flakes, Opal Fruits, Smarties, Allsorts. I brought them to a country where boiled sweets were sold in brown paper bags. The mother laid them out on the table like they were precious jewels and told her daughter she could have one each day. [For the first time] I became aware of the colours, the different tastes, the sheer variety of those sweets, of the choices we enjoyed – and I wept.”
Letter-posting was also an important part of the couriers' work: providing dissidents with facts to help counter Soviet propaganda. Nick Gibb was a young graduate of 21 in 1982 when he was sent to Leningrad, now St Petersburg, to deliver up to 100 letters, which were strapped to the inside of his legs under 'horrible baggy black cord trousers' and tucked into his boots in order to evade Soviet customs. Posing as an ordinary tourist on a £200 Thomson's package tour, the future minister checked into the Leningrad Hotel and spent the next few days walking the city streets posting letters into the blue boxes for domestic mail, a handful at a time so as not to attract attention.
“I had to learn the rudiments of the Russian alphabet so I could follow street signs,”
"It was my first foreign trip alone. I remember standing on the banks of the River Neva watching these great ice blocks flowing down river and thinking, ‘This time yesterday, I was in my flat in London and now here I am.’ It was exhilarating and, yes, it was fun.”
Like many of the recruits, Gibb had been trained by a German 'handler', known only to the young activists as Alex. They would meet in a café near Victoria Station and meticulously go over the details needed to evade detection. The grandson of a Russian émigré, Alex is now 75 and lives in Frankfurt. He still works for the NTS publishing house Possev, which printed many of the works smuggled out by couriers and which the KGB once tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb.
The work of handlers like Alex was being repeated all across Europe, with couriers recruited in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy and France.
“I doubt there was a single day when there was not at least one courier in Russia on behalf of NTS,”
“This story is not widely known but it should be - these people took risks to help the people of Russia. Our experience was that the more someone loved their own country, the more he or she could understand the suffering of another nation and want to help. We found sympathy and understanding primarily on the Conservative side, not on the Left.”
Brought in by his brother, Sir Robbie Gibb, then 21, made his first courier trip to Moscow in 1985. He still has a photo of himself standing in Red Square, looking for all the world like the tourist he was pretending to be. Smuggling in more than 100 letters strapped to the inside of his legs, Robbie borrowed a baggy pair of khaki trousers from his then-girlfriend, now wife, Liz to hide the contraband. Once at the hotel, as instructed, he went to the bathroom and ran the taps to ensure the KGB bugs planted in all bedrooms would not pick up on the sound of the letters being unpacked.
Dubbed the 'Moscow trousers', the khaki combats got a second outing the following year when Liz became one of the few women to embark on a courier trip, having been trained by an improbably named Russian handler called Steve.
“Steve had advised me to look quite dowdy so as to not attract attention,”
“So, I had the Moscow trousers on and this padded coat, the sort of cheap coat you'd get from a supermarket. I looked so bedraggled and dodgy I got searched leaving Heathrow.”
Neither remembers finding the trip daunting, even though both were still teenagers when recruited.
“This sort of direct action as a Conservative student is rare – it's usually the preserve of the Left – so I think we all felt what we were doing was both incredibly important but also, frankly, a lot of fun,”
“It's the naivety of youth I suppose, but we didn't worry about what could happen. We had chapters from the Geneva Convention that you would cite if you were caught, but we just took their word for it that if that happened, you'd just get sent back.”
Indeed, it was rare for couriers to get caught and it made national headlines when it did happen. In January 1980, Peter Young – who would go on to set up foreign-aid contractor Adam Smith International – was arrested at Warsaw airport after journals written by the democratic opposition were found strapped around his waist. Taken to a small, bare room in the airport, Young was held for six hours and strip-searched. He did, however, manage to destroy a reel of film containing photos of dissidents before the police could secure it.
The Daily Telegraph headline declared:
“Student was ‘stripped and searched’ by Poles”,
alongside a photo of the 21-year-old and an interview in which he declared the incident to be
“an interesting experience”.
Among those who called for Young's release was the prominent dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, a writer and human rights campaigner who spent 12 years in the prisons, labour camps and psychiatric prison hospitals of the Soviet Union before being expelled.
“Individuals like Mr Young,”
he wrote at the time,
“are indispensable to the democratic movements throughout Eastern Europe.”
Bizarrely, following his ordeal, Young was taken out to a restaurant by the Polish police and treated to a plate of breaded veal before being kicked out of the country. He was given a receipt by customs for the contraband goods, which he still has.
Another courier, Richard Thoburn, made headlines when he was stopped at Moscow airport while bringing warm clothes and medicine to a sick dissident writer.
“When I got intercepted and the game was up, I decided to make this speech as I was being carted off. So, there I was in the middle of Moscow airport shouting about how I was being taken away against my will. I was quoting the Helsinki Accord and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, creating quite a noise and drawing this big audience. They told me I would get between six months and seven years in jail,”
Just one day into his detention however, Thoburn was visited by a British consulate official who told him he was being sent home. He warned the official that this could also be part of the KGB's 'mind games', and that he could be pulled off the plane at the last minute.
“You'd better have my business card in case that happens,”
the consulate aide explained,
“You've really p***sed them off.”
In a bizarre postscript, a year to the day after his arrest, the British press again reported Thoburn's detention as if it had just happened.
“I was front page news. I was actually in Venice at the time, visiting a friend, but hadn't told my parents I was going. My flatmate rang them to reassure them but they didn't believe him and were really worried.”
For two more years, the Soviets marked the anniversary by putting out the same report again. Thoburn was never sure whether this was a glitch in the Soviet propaganda machine or a deliberate ploy, but the 63-year-old PR agency owner can see the value of a good story:
“There's some Soviet news agency that got a lot of mileage out of this ‘Western imperialist agent posing as a tourist’ story,”
Sometimes, couriers just got lucky. In a bold move, Steve Stanbury was tasked with taking in a fax machine for a journalist whose reports, filed over the phone to a national newspaper in Britain, were monitored by the KGB and heavily censored. Stanbury, who went on to become a director of UKIP before rejoining the Conservatives, flew to Moscow posing as an architecture student. He explained to baffled customs officers that the fax machine he was carrying was needed to send design work back to Britain. This unlikely cover story may not have held but for a kerfuffle that broke out in another line. As officials rushed off to help, the lucky courier was given the nod through.
Sometimes getting caught by the KGB was actually part of the plan. New Forest East MP Julian Lewis is now chairman of the powerful Commons Intelligence and Security Committee. As a young Conservative he worked closely with Miller-Kurakin to highlight the risks of nuclear blackmail by the Soviet superpower.
The two men knew that a protest in Russia against Soviet nuclear weapons would never be tolerated in the way anti-nuclear protesters were in Britain.
“George came up with this idea of sending a couple of young activists to Moscow to mount an anti-nuclear demo, in order to show they would be given short shrift,”
“He was confident the worst that would happen to them would be to be arrested and kicked out.”
Hundreds of miniature leaflets, written in Russian and English, were to be smuggled in and openly distributed.
The future journalist and Conservative councillor Harry Phibbs and the military historian Peter Caddick-Adams also volunteered. Just 16 at the time, Phibbs was caught before he could stage his Red Square demonstration. He was interrogated for 24 hours without food or water then expelled from the country. In contrast, Caddick- Adams managed to hand out his leaflets on the Moscow underground undisturbed.
“Under the circumstances that was not quite what we had wanted but as Harry had been caught and came back in a blaze of publicity, it still worked out well,”
By the mid-1980s the political winds of change were blowing through the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, believed significant reform was necessary. He pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, held summits with President Ronald Reagan to limit nuclear weapons and end the Cold War, and committed to greater freedoms of speech at home with his policy of 'glasnost' or openness. The new freedoms signalled the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. On 25 December 1991, the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin for the last time and a new era for Russia and its republics began. Hopeful of playing a part in that change, Miller-Kurakin and his father left Britain for Russia to help to build a new democratic nation under President Boris Yeltsin. However, political disagreements soured Miller-Kurakin's relationship with his father and the campaigner grew disillusioned with the rise of reactionary forces in the new Russia. Married with two children, he returned to Britain and took up a new cause, championing environmental technologies. His health faded and he died in October 2009. He was just 54.
Julian Lewis remembers Miller-Kurakin as
“compassionate and courageous. He was mystical, spiritual, selfless and humane. A hero of our times.”
There seems little about modern Russia under Vladimir Putin's rule that would have gladdened Miller-Kurakin's heart. What, if anything, do the couriers think they achieved?
“Without the couriers there would have been no samizdat published in the West and then brought back into Russia,”
“Without the couriers all that work by dissidents would have just languished in a drawer somewhere.”
None of the couriers believe their actions were either particularly risky or brave, but they all believe their trips were worthwhile.
“It was the noblest thing I have ever done and I am very proud of it,”
says Russell Walters.
“As an individual I did not change anything but as part of a collective endeavour we helped draw the West's attention to what was really going on in the Soviet Union.”
Nick Gibb agrees:
“I absolutely think it was the right thing to do and I don't regret it. It was our small contribution to help some very brave people in the Soviet Union who were fighting from within.”
In all, the couriers in Britain and across Europe smuggled out 30,000 individual pieces of samizdat. Many of the originals are now on display in museums in America and have been exhibited in Russia. They stand as a tribute to the courage of dissidents in both the Soviet Union and across the Eastern bloc and to the support they received from fellow thinkers in the West. And they serve as a symbol of what liberal democracies guarantee all their citizens – the right to free speech. For many of the couriers this is not an argument confined to a few transformative years in modern history but part of an ongoing battle.
“In 1991 we all thought, ‘That's it, job done,’”
says Nigel Linacre.
“But what we see now, particularly in China, is the same thing – this focus on subverting the truth, whatever it needs to be, in order to accomplish other ends.”
Robbie Gibb agrees :
“In an age of social media, the mass sharing of disinformation breeds division within society. The Soviet dissidents knew the value of truth and the prize of living in a liberal democracy. We should never lose sight of what they fought so hard to achieve.”
[NOTE: For Julian's 2009 Obituary of George in The Independent, click here.]