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Obituary: Janet Chisholm

Obituary: Janet Chisholm
Janet Chisholm never spoke publicly of her time in Moscow
To all appearances, she was nothing more remarkable than the mother of three young children and the wife of a British "visa officer" living in Moscow.

But it was the height of the Cold War and Janet Chisholm was destined to become one of MI6's most surprising secret agents.

The wife of a fellow spy, she became the conduit for information passed to the West by Soviet Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in military intelligence.

The papers included details of the Soviet capacity for nuclear war, and numbered more than 5,000 documents in 18 months.

After Penkovsky's treachery was discovered and punished by the KGB, the Chisholms had to leave Moscow in a hurry.

But Janet Chisholm possessed a lifelong capacity for keeping secrets.

She later refused all offers to write or talk about her memories of MI6 and Moscow and took her secrets to the grave when she died on 23 July, 2004, aged 75.


Born in India but educated in Berkshire, Janet Anne Deane studied Russian at school and French at university.

She worked briefly in London before joining the Allied Control Commission in West Germany.

There she met her husband Ruari and found her vocation.

The Chisholms soon moved to Moscow, so that Ruari could take up his new post of "visa officer".

The Chisholms were in Moscow at the height of the Cold War

He actually headed the MI6 station in the city and Janet settled into her role of embassy wife, organising dinners and taking her children to the local park.

But it was at the time of the deepest freeze in East-West relations, and espionage in Moscow was big business.

When Oleg Penkovsky made it clear his military secrets were available, MI6 decided to see just what he had to offer.

Janet Chisholm was chosen as the go-between and her park visits became rendezvous points for her and the Russian.

Any onlookers would have noticed only a friendly gentleman stopping to admire a young baby but the boxes of "sweets" he slipped into the pram would actually contain details of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.


Intelligence experts have since cast doubt on the value of Penkovsky's secrets but at the time his recruitment was seen as a major British coup.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, another British agent, George Blake, went over to the other side and informed on a huge number of his fellow spies, blowing the Chisholms' covers and, with them Penkovsky's.

The Russians were swift to deal with the traitor in their midst and Penkovsky was tried, found guilty and shot.

Diplomatic immunity allowed the British couple to leave Moscow without incident and maintain their innocence in the debacle.

When the press later met the Chisholms back at home in Sussex, Janet Chisholm asked them, "Do I look like a spy?"


MI6 later rejected the theory that it had put the Russian in danger by continuing to use him after George Blake's confessions came to light.

Agency chiefs said Penkovsky himself remained determined to do his work.

The Chisholms went on to hold posts in Singapore and South Africa, until Ruari took early retirement.

He had planned to become an author when the family returned to Britain but died after contracting malaria in Tanzania on the way home.

Janet Chisholm continued to make expeditions to far-flung places, backpacking and trekking across the world into her 70s.

Until the end of her life, however, she remained tight-lipped on the time she spent in Moscow and how, at the height of an international diplomacy crisis, as a young British mother she became MI6's unlikeliest agent.