Wilson Quarterly, Winter, 2000
Amy Knight, a Canadian historian specializing in Soviet intelligence,
argues that the new literature on Soviet espionage is less
revealing than it appears.
fascination in the West with spy stories seems limitless.
Tales proliferate about the Cambridge Five spy group (Kim
Philby et al.), the various New Deal subversives whose treachery
in giving away secrets to the Soviet Union went unnoticed
for years, and the efforts of the KGB to subvert Western democracies
through propaganda and terrorism. But apparently readers do
not tire of the accounts, judging from the recent sensational
response to "The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin
Archive," by Christopher Andrew, a history professor
at Cambridge University, and Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB
Sword and the Shield" is the latest example of an emerging
genre of spy histories based on materials from the KGB archives.
For almost a decade now, Western writers and current or former
Russian foreign intelligence officers have been collaborating
on books about the KGB's foreign operations during the Soviet
period. All of these volumes have a similar style and format,
with chapter headings such as "The Great Illegals,"
"Love and Loyalties" and "A Dangerous Game,"
along with lengthy appendixes listing code names of secret
agents and KGB operatives or presenting organizational charts
of the KGB. They also tend to cover much of the same ground.
Time and again the reader is told about Lenin's Cheka, the
assassination of Trotsky, and Soviet atomic espionage.
the redundancy inherent in the genre, these books have found
an eager audience in the West. To be sure, there have been
critical reviews and
complaints about inaccuracies. But for the most part, the
new KGB histories have received much favorable attention,
and some of them have reached the bestseller list. They also
have reopened debates among historians and the general public
about key aspects of the Cold War. Indeed, Andrew and Mitrokhin's
recent book, replete with new names (or code names) of Western
traitors, set off a media frenzy in Britain and fueled impassioned
political debates in several European countries about what
to do with former spies.
would argue that the release of new information on the KGB's
operations abroad is anything but a positive development.
We should welcome the possibility of finding out what was
happening on the other side of the Cold War trenches and perhaps
resolving some of the questions that have puzzled researchers
for decades. What really happened to American prisoners of
war believed to have ended up in the Soviet Union after World
War II, Korea, and Vietnam? Do we know all there is to know
about the KGB and Lee Harvey Oswald? Even in cases that are
closed (such as that of convicted American spies Julius and
Ethel Rosenberg), there is a thirst in the West for more details
from the Soviet side.
in the excitement produced by the new revelations, many of
the standards by which scholars traditionally judge historical
writings have been lowered, or discarded altogether. Historians
and general readers alike seem to have forgotten the importance
of understanding where the information in a book has come
from and who is interpreting and presenting it. "Even the
most tendentious historical views can gain credibility in
part because the sources of history can be interpreted in
different ways - or sensationalized or falsified or used dishonestly
or ignored," New York Times journalist Richard Bernstein
observed in criticizing a historian's claims that Hitler did
not know about the extermination of the Jews.
observation is particularly apt in the case of the new KGB
page turners, given that the source of the revelations is
an organization with a long history of falsification and forgery
directed against the West. Have these books deepened our historical
understanding or have they simply distorted the real picture
and caused confusion? Have people been reading facts or disinformatzia?
A look at how these spy books came about suggests that we
should, at the very least, be reading them with more caution.
earlier book, "KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations
from Lenin to Gorbachev" (1990), began the new wave of
collaborative spy history. Andrew teamed up with a high-level
defector from the KGB named Oleg Gordievsky to write an extensive
new history of the Soviet intelligence agency. Yet, while
the book used information Gordievsky reportedly gleaned from
the KGB archives, the bulk of the sources cited were secondary
(Western histories and memoirs), not KGB documents. It was
not until a year later, in 1991, that the KGB actually sanctioned
a book project based on its files. In the changed political
climate created by Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of openness,
KGB officials decided that it was time to have their story
told to the West. Facing unprecedented criticism from the
newly emboldened Soviet press, the KGB set out to improve
its image at home by publicizing its past successes. It also
saw the possibility of earning some extra cash.
John Costello, a successful British nonfiction writer, who
the attention of the KGB when he requested documents for a
was working on and was encouraged to come to Moscow. There
he met Oleg Tsarev, a seasoned intelligence officer who spoke
perfect English and was at the time deputy chief of the KGB
press department. Tsarev had been commissioned by his superiors
to write a book about Alexander Orlov, the Soviet spy who
defected to the United States in the late 1930s. Because the
book would be aimed at Western markets, it was essential to
have a Western co-author with connections in the publishing
world. Costello was an ideal candidate. In mid-1991, a collaboration
sanctioned at the highest levels of the KGB was formally initiated
between Tsarev and Costello, with Crown, a division of Random
House, as publisher.
end product was "Deadly Illusions," published in
1993 with a great deal of fanfare because of the book's provocative
thesis - that Orlov had never been a genuine defector but
had stayed loyal to the Soviet Union. He had, the authors
asserted, pulled the wool over the eyes of the Americans,
who thought all along that Orlov was giving them valuable
information when, in
fact, he was passing on "half truths and trivialities." The
main source for this extraordinary thesis was the so-called
Orlov file, a top-secret KGB dossier. But Costello, who did
not read a word of Russian, never actually saw the Orlov file.
Instead, he relied on Tsarev, assisted by a coterie of his
colleagues at the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (or
FIS, as it was renamed after the dissolution of the KGB in
late 1991) to make "summaries" of the relevant documents in
an afterword to the book, Costello admitted that this arrangement
was not ideal, given that the KGB had a long track record
of conspiracies against the West. But, he argued, "We had
agreed from the outset that this would not be an 'as told
to' account because at least one of the co-authors of this
book has seen all the material." Overlooking the fact that
his co-author had spent years abroad as a KGB officer, engaging
in the deception and disinformation for which the KGB was
notorious, Costello was full of praise for the Russians' "new
level of openness," which marked a sharp contrast to the secretiveness
of the CIA and the FBI. But this openness, it turns out, had
distinct limits. Although Costello assured the reader that
all substantive documentation relating to the text will be
declassified to coincide with the publication of "Deadly
Illusions," the Orlov documents, after seven years, are
Illusions" was followed in 1994 by a real blockbuster
spy book, "Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted
Witness - a Soviet Spymaster," by Pavel Sudoplatov and
Anatoli Sudoplatov with Jerrold and Leona Schecter. As American
historian Thomas Powers observed, "The book has more authors
than a Hollywood movie with script trouble." When excerpts
of "Special Tasks" were published in Time,
and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour devoted a large segment
to its revelations, it was clear that the book would take
American readers by storm. Among its sensational charges was
the claim that several leading Western scientists of the 1940s,
including Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer,
gave atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
the co-authoring arrangement and the methods of gathering
source material were highly unusual. The 87-year-old Pavel
Sudoplatov had been a leading official in the NKVD (a Stalinist
predecessor to the KGB) during the 1940s and early 1950s,
specializing in so-called wet affairs (assassinations and
the like). In 1992 his son Anatoli, himself a former KGB employee,
apparently decided that it was time to reap some profits from
his father's memory bank before it was too late. He approached
the Schecters (Jerrold was an American journalist and his
wife a literary agent) with a plan for a book, but it did
not fly. As the Schecters put it in their introduction,
first outline for the book was directed to a Russian
explained that most of the names in the outline were unfamiliar
to Western readers."
the younger Sudoplatov went back to the drawing board and
came up with some familiar names, such as Oppenheimer and
Fermi, the Schecters became excited, and a deal was made.
The Schecters began taping interviews with the elder and infirm
Sudoplatov, prodded on during the sessions by son Anatoli,
who must have had dollar signs in his eyes.
were some hitches, however. Although Pavel Sudoplatov had
indeed been an important NKVD official with access to many
secrets, his connection with atomic espionage (which was to
be the high point of the book) was very limited. In fact,
despite the book's claims that Sudoplatov had led the Soviet
atomic espionage effort since 1942, he was involved in this
only for a brief period during 1945-46. This was well after
the spying episodes - presented in Sudoplatov's memoir
as authoritative accounts
- occurred. As if anticipating that the discrepancy would
the Schecters said in their introduction that Sudoplatov had
helpful documents from the FIS and that "in relaxed meetings
KGB officers who had obtained atomic secrets, he filled in
of memory." All well and good, except for the fact that many
book's allegations about the traitorous activity of Western
not stand up to the scrutiny of those who knew about the subject.
book was riddled with contradictions and errors. (To cite
one of many examples,
the authors say that Oppenheimer recruited Klaus Fuchs, a
the Soviets, to Los Alamos to work on the bomb, when Oppenheimer
whatsoever to do with the decision.)
Schecters remained undaunted in the face of a barrage of criticism
from historians and members of the scientific community, doggedly
defending the veracity of "Special Tasks" by telling
people to look at the documentation at the back of the book.
This documentation, impressive at first glance, turned out
to have been published in the Russian press long before, and
it did nothing to confirm Sudoplatov's allegations about Western
scientists. As a last resort, the Schecters, like John Costello,
offered the feeble promise that we would see archival documents
to back up the book's claims: "Documents proving Sudoplatov's
oral history are in Moscow archives and eventually will emerge."
We are still waiting.
the archives of the former KGB have remained tightly closed,
Western scholars have unearthed a mine of materials in the
Communist Party archives, opened to researchers after the
collapse of the Soviet Union. Many documents (particularly
those less than 30 years old and files relating to top party
leaders) are still classified, but historians have found enough
new information to justify reassessment of several key episodes
in Soviet history. Thanks to the release of transcripts of
Communist Party Central Committee plenums, for example, we
have a new understanding of struggles within the party leadership
over issues such as the crisis in East Germany in June 1953
and Khrushchev's efforts at rapprochement with Yugoslavia.
The research process is entirely different from that involving
KGB materials. With few exceptions, no one is hand-fed pre-selected
documents. In the party archives (where knowledge of Russian
is essential), one has to fend for oneself, spending hours
going through lists of what is available, filling out forms,
and waiting for requested materials to be delivered, which
sometimes never happens. Making copies of documents is expensive
and tedious, while the physical challenges - lack of
heat and a bare minimum of lighting - can be daunting.
Such inconveniences might make ordinary scholars envy the
privileged few who get KGB materials with no hassle, but at
least research in the party archives offers some freedom of
choice, an essential prerequisite for historical objectivity.
And the playing field, for the most part, is level. Everybody
comes up against the same obstacles in hunting down sources.
the FIS has preferred to do things a different way is understandable.
Like all intelligence services, including the CIA, the FIS
has many secrets and could hardly be expected to permit researchers
to rummage in its archives. At the same time, however, the
FIS wants to influence historical writing, earn some money,
and give the impression of openness. The solution has been
to handpick the documents and the authors. It is presumably
more convenient if the Western co-author does not read Russian
and or know a great deal about Soviet history. Otherwise,
there might be awkward questions about missing files and documents
or requests for materials that could not be released.
case in point is "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage
in America - the Stalin Era," by Allen Weinstein and
Alexander Vassiliev, published in early 1999 by Random House
to rave reviews. In The New York Times Book Review,
historian Joseph Persico compared the book's significance
to that of Ultra (the British project that broke German codes
during World War II), and said that the authors provided "proof
of the guilt of certain Americans whose spying for the Soviet
Union has been the subject of debate for over half a century."
In addition to documenting the allegedly traitorous activity
of Americans such as Martha Dodd, daughter of a former U.S.
ambassador to Germany, Michael Straight, an official in the
Roosevelt administration, and former New York Congressman
Samuel Dickstein, the authors claim to verify the guilt of
Alger Hiss and former State Department official Laurence Duggan.
Contrary to the general impression of reviewers, however,
the authors did not cull their documentation from the FIS
archives. Neither Weinstein, the author of a book about the
Alger Hiss case, nor Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, ever
gained access to the FIS's treasure-trove at its Lasenevo
headquarters. Vassiliev simply made summaries of documents
that were handed over to him at an office in Moscow by FIS
officials and then translated them for Weinstein.
arrangement was part of a lucrative book deal (involving advances
to the Russians of several hundred thousand dollars) made
between Random House and the Association of Retired Intelligence
Officers, a Russian organization that serves as a middleman
for the FIS. Iurii Kobaladze, head of FIS public relations,
was the moving force behind the deal, just as he had been
with "Deadly Illusions." Kobaladze said, "We are
not opening up the archives, and we are not selling any documents.
What we are doing and what we are guaranteeing to the authors
of these books is that we shall supply them with materials
which will allow them to write these books on the basis of
documents." All very well for the FIS, which can determine
what information the authors write about, and in the process
reap substantial profits (none of which reach the Russian
taxpayer), but what about the curious reader of these spy
tomes, who would like to check the sources?
the authors of "The Haunted Wood" substantiate some
of the references to KGB files with information from the so-called
Venona cables (Soviet transmissions intercepted and decoded
by the Americans during World War II), the majority of source
notes refer only to KGB file numbers that no one can check.
As with the earlier books, if we accept that the grave claims
made against Americans are true, in the end we are relying
on the word of the former KGB.
Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB
Archives," another work coauthored by Oleg Tsarev, this
time with British historian Nigel West (Costello died in 1996),
is more of the same. Published in 1999 by Yale University
Press, the book purports to offer much new information about
well-known British spies (the Cambridge Five, in particular),
as well as names of hitherto unknown traitors. As usual, the
reader comes away dazzled by the Soviets' phenomenal success
at recruiting spies and wondering how the government of the
victim country, in this case Britain, could be so stupid.
Yet while it is more smoothly written than some of the other
spy books, "The Crown Jewels" (titled after the
KGB's name for its top-secret files on Britain) does not offer
any precious gems. The dust jacket promises, for example,
that the book "explores a previously unknown spy ring in Oxford."
In fact, all that the authors do is make vague references
to a so-called Oxford Group without giving any names (except
the code name, "SCOTT," of the alleged leader),
or specifics about what the group did. For the most part,
"The Crown Jewels" merely adds details to already
known spy episodes, covering only the period through the 1950s
- safe ground from the FIS's standpoint. Since the Russians
themselves have already published a number of documents about
Cold War espionage for this earlier period, the information
cannot be viewed as earth-shaking.
least, however, the authors do not make a pretense of having
conducted research in the KGB archives. They received the
documents through the FIS press bureau, where Tsarev still
worked under the tutelage of Kobaladze, by this time a familiar
(and probably wealthy) figure in the world of spy history
year's "Sword and the Shield," by contrast, is billed
as something different. Co-author Christopher Andrew tells
us that the sources were gathered by a defector, Vasili Mitrokhin,
not a representative of the FIS, which means that they are
more trustworthy. This in itself is a questionable premise,
but even more problematic is the story of Mitrokhin's defection,
which strains credulity. Mitrokhin, Andrew tells us, was a
secret dissident who strongly disapproved of the KGB even
though he worked for its foreign intelligence branch for 35
years. In 1972, for some inexplicable reason, Mitrokhin, who
never achieved a rank above major in his entire KGB career,
was given the sensitive job of overseeing the transfer of
the KGB's entire foreign intelligence archive to its new headquarters
outside Moscow. According to Andrew, Mitrokhin had two private
offices and unlimited access to the KGB's darkest secrets.
With the goal of getting back at his employers by telling
the West about the KGB's foreign operations, Mitrokhin spent
12 years scribbling thousands upon thousands of notes from
the files he saw. Incredibly, given the rigorous security
rules in all Soviet archives, no one noticed what Mitrokhin
was doing all day or checked him when he was going home at
story gets even more mysterious. Despite all his hard work,
Mitrokhin made no attempt to do anything with the notes he
took (except to retype them) after his retirement in 1984.
His private "archive" would apparently never have seen the
light of day if it had not been for the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991. Emboldened to take action, Mitrokhin traveled
an unnamed Baltic country in 1992 and knocked on the door
of a British embassy.
After a few more trips back and forth to Russia, he eventually
"exfiltrated" by the British with all his documents (six suitcases'
and his family. All this happened under the very noses of
the members of the Russian security services, who apparently
did not notice that one of their former colleagues who had
had access to top-secret files was going back and forth to
one of the now-independent Baltic states (where the Russians
were spying up a storm).
the strange circumstances surrounding the Mitrokhin story,
which suggest that he had some help from his former employers
in assembling his notes, Andrew considers his book to be more
reliable than the other collaborative spy histories: "Their
main weakness, for which the authors cannot be blamed, is
that the choice of KGB documents on which they are based has
been made not by them but by the SVR [the Russian acronym
for the FIS]." Yet even if we accept that Mitrokhin was a
genuine defector who did copy all the notes by himself, Andrew's
effort to distinguish his book from the others falls a bit
flat. In this case, too, someone other than the author selected
the materials, and that someone used to work for the KGB.
"The Sword and the Shield" contains new information,
including the revelation that a British woman named Melita
Norwood, now in her eighties, spied for the Soviets several
decades ago, none of it has much significance for broader
interpretations of the Cold War. The main message the reader
comes away with after plowing through almost a thousand pages
is the same one gleaned from the earlier books: the Soviets
were incredibly successful, albeit evil, spymasters, and none
of the Western services could come close to matching their
expertise. Bravo the KGB.
is disappointing, but not surprising, about all these books
is their failure to shed light on some of the really pivotal
cases of Cold War history. After all the rehashing of the
Alger Hiss case, none of these books offer new
evidence of his guilt, except for a single cable from the
Venona transcripts that makes reference to an American agent
codenamed "ALES" and speculates that it is probably
Hiss. And the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the celebrated Swedish
diplomat who was kidnapped by the Soviets in Budapest in 1945,
remains unknown. "Special Tasks" is the only book
to touch on that case, and all it adds are Pavel Sudoplatov's
foggy speculations about what happened to Wallenberg. It is
clear, however, from an obscure reference made by Sudoplatov
in a footnote to the "Wallenberg family file in the KGB archives"
that FIS officials have been lying when they say they have
no information about the Wallenberg case. For a variety of
political reasons, not the least of which is the embarrassment
to Russia if a cover-up were acknowledged, the FIS has chosen
to keep Wallenberg's story a secret.
disappointing these spy histories might be for those who are
looking for documented facts and objective analyses, they
should not be rejected out of hand, because they are all we
have (unless one wants to wade through the self-serving and
arid Russian-language memoirs of former KGB officials such
as Vladimir Kriuchkov). There is no point in waiting for the
Russians to open up their foreign intelligence archives to
public access so that scholars can actually do their own research.
Unless there is a drastic change
in the way Russia's security and intelligence services operate,
FIS will continue to dole out its archival secrets for profit,
those documents that uphold its version of history. But this
stop us from reading what they have to say now. Probably the
best approach is to treat these books with the same kind of
skepticism we applied to Soviet publications - from which
the discerning reader could glean a great deal.
In other words, read between the lines, and always consider
2000 by Amy Knight.
KNIGHT, a former Wilson Center Fellow, recently published
her fourth book
on Soviet and Russian affairs, "Who Killed Kirov? The
Kremlin's Greatest Mystery." She is a guest lecturer
in political science at Carleton College in Ottawa. This piece
originally appeared in the Wilson Quarterly and is reproduced
with the permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction
or distribution is prohibited without permission.