The British Big Ape Media TV company and the Moscow TV Centre are making a documentary series about Russian-British relations over four centuries. "The Lion and the Bear," to be released in 2008 will be a mix of gripping documentary history, stunning travelogue and dramatic personal accounts presented by the author and TV presenter Celia Sandys. One part is devoted to the Tehran meeting of the three leaders in 1943, when Hitler's agents planned to destroy the Big Three with one stroke. The attempt was foiled by Soviet intelligence.
That part of the film, shot in the cozy press office of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, might never have been made. The "Long Jump" operation to assassinate the "Big Three" was masterminded on Hitler's orders by his pet Otto Scorzeny, an SS thug and a daredevil saboteur, who always seemed to have luck on his side.
The first tip-off about the planned attempt came from Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetsov, aka Wermacht Oberleutnant Paul Siebert, from Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Kuznetsov, a legendary Soviet spy, got an SS man Ulrich von Ortel to spill the beans over a bottle of good brandy. Von Ortel not only told his "friend" Paul about the operation, but invited him to accompany him on a trip to Teheran to buy cheap Persian rugs.
"Light cavalry" had no mercy for the Germans
In the autumn of 1943, fate thrust 19-year-old Gevork Vartanian into the centre of the operation. Vartanian was an intelligence agent and the son of a Soviet intelligence agent who worked in Iran under the cover of a wealthy merchant. He received his first assignment and the cover name Amir from the resident back in 1940. He was to form a group of like-minded people. All seven were of about the same age - Armenians, a Lezghin and an Assyrian - and they communicated in Russian and Farsi. Their parents had been exiled or fled from the USSR to escape Stalin's GULAG. They were outcasts, refugees, but they put their lives on the line for the sake of the Motherland that had rejected them without any rewards.
They were new to the intelligence profession and people from Soviet intelligence had to teach them as they went along. The resident called the group "light cavalry" because of their agility and speed. They shadowed Germans and identified Iranian agents. Gevork Vartanian - Amir claims that the "light cavalry" had been instrumental in bringing about the arrest of several hundred people who posed a great danger to the USSR and Britain, the two allies that had moved their troops into Iran as early as the autumn of 1941.
On the eve of the Tehran Conference, the Soviet and British field stations worked under tremendous strain. And no wonder, the "Big Three" were coming to Tehran. The "light cavalry" received orders to prevent the assassination attempt at all costs. These young men handled the job. I asked Gevork Vartanian whether it was true that on the eve of the Tehran Conference the Soviet and British intelligences moved ruthlessly to detain all the suspects.
"What did you expect?" Gevork Vartanian replied without a shadow of doubt. To let the Germans take out the three leaders with one stroke? People were placed under temporary arrest on the slightest suspicion. If suspicions were not confirmed they were released after the conference. On one occasion we had to arrest an Iranian Nazi agent at a wedding party. We got a tip that he was complicit in the assassination plot. As it turned out, it was not the first terrorist attack he had been a part of.
And no "Long Jumps"
During the filming at the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service press office, Celia Sandys tried to find out from Gevork Vartanian how they had managed to foil the plot. The slender man in a well-fitting dark suit with the top Russian military decoration - the Golden Star of Hero - answered in good English and then, at Ms Sandys's request, repeated the answers in Russian.
"Six German radio operators had been dropped by parachute into the holy Muslim city of Qum and made it to Tehran. That was the start of Operation "Long Jump". The Germans established communication with Berlin. The "light cavalry" was given the mission to locate the radio station in the huge city of Tehran. Day and night, 14 - 16 hours a day we scoured the streets. Eventually we found the place where the group was hiding.
From then on the Germans were transmitting messages to Berlin that were intercepted by the Soviet and British intelligence. But the Nazi radio operators were nobody's fools. One of them managed to send a coded message "we are under surveillance". The principals in Germany realised that the operation was getting off to a disastrous start. The Nazis decided against sending the main group led by Scorenzy to certain death. The Germans failed to make their "Long Jump".
"Your grandfather," Vartanian went on, "was staying at the British Embassy, where he was provided with security guards. But the US Embassy was on the city's outskirts and staying there was too risky. In a departure from the rules of protocol Roosevelt, after much urging, stayed at the Soviet Embassy, where, of course, Stalin was also staying." Churchill's granddaughter was naturally curious to know what security precautions had been taken to guard her grandfather.
"The street between the Soviet and British Embassies, which were located close to each other, had been sealed off. They stretched a six-metre tarpaulin sheet to make something like a passage guarded by Soviet and British machine-gunners. All the participants in the Tehran Conference were able to go back and forth safely. According to some information, the Nazis planned to get into the British Embassy through a water supply channel and assassinate Churchill on his birthday, November 30. But these plans were foiled. In those days I was also there, in Tehran. I was close enough to see your grandfather, Stalin and Roosevelt. What struck me was their confidence and calmness."
"You must have had a certain amount of luck," - noticed Ms Sandys. "Yes, of course", Vartanian agreed. "Luck is important for many professions, and the more so, for that of an intelligence agent." "And what do you consider the most remarkable achievement of your life?" "That we are alive and well. And that we have contributed to the victory over Nazism. That really makes me happy." "Thank you for saving the life and personally for saving my grandfather."
Stalin's gift was stolen
After shooting the interview with Vartanian, we talked with Celia Sandys herself. "I heard that my grandfather was running a risk when he set out for Tehran in 1943. He even had his personal bodyguard with him. I am very grateful to Mr Vartanian and his friends for saving my grandfather's life. As he told me, the assassination was to take place on his birthday, November 30. So, a real gift was given to him by the Soviet and British intelligence. If it weren't for the presence of such boys as Vartanian, we would hardly be meeting with you in this building. My film will have something to tell people."
"Is this your first visit to Moscow?" "Yes and it is exciting. I came because I had the opportunity to meet Mr Vartanian. And he told me the extraordinary story. And also because I'm making films about Britain and Russia which will be finished next year.
"They say that Stalin had sent Churchill some Armenian Dvin brandy. Do you have any memories of Stalin or perhaps some Stalin memorabilia survived in your family?" "We really think that he was the Russian bear. I was too young to think too much about him, but I know that he gave my grandmother a very beautiful diamond ring. My grandmother worked for the Russian Red Cross during the war and she was very happy to have the beautiful present. But unfortunately later the ring was stolen.
As for my grandfather, he rejected communism. But the ideological differences had to be put aside for the sake of defeating the common enemy."
"How do you feel about the fact that Russian-British relations are not what they should be today?" "The relations between Great Britain and Russia have been warm and cold over the period of four centuries. I'm sure that the same thing will happen and the relations will become more friendly. And I hope that the film will show how many differences we have and how many things we have in common." "What personal traits of Sir Winston would you single out?"
"I think that the most important characteristic of his leadership was his courage, because without courage nothing else really works. Courage gives you the strength to do things you know may be unpopular. You have the courage to try new things even if you are not sure they may work. And you must have the courage to have moral integrity."
"And what was the secret of your grandfather's charm?" "He had a very good sense of humour."