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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reading List: The Sword and the Shield

Andrew, Christopher and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield. New York: Basic Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-465-00312-9.
Vasili Mitrokhin joined the Soviet intelligence service as a foreign intelligence officer in 1948, at a time when the MGB (later to become the KGB) and the GRU were unified into a single service called the Committee of Information. By the time he was sent to his first posting abroad in 1952, the two services had split and Mitrokhin stayed with the MGB. Mitrokhin's career began in the paranoia of the final days of Stalin's regime, when foreign intelligence officers were sent on wild goose chases hunting down imagined Trotskyist and Zionist conspirators plotting against the regime. He later survived the turbulence after the death of Stalin and the execution of MGB head Lavrenti Beria, and the consolidation of power under his successors.

During the Khrushchev years, Mitrokhin became disenchanted with the regime, considering Khrushchev an uncultured barbarian whose banning of avant garde writers betrayed the tradition of Russian literature. He began to entertain dissident thoughts, not hoping for an overthrow of the Soviet regime but rather its reform by a new generation of leaders untainted by the legacy of Stalin. These thoughts were reinforced by the crushing of the reform-minded regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his own observation of how his service, now called the KGB, manipulated the Soviet justice system to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. He began to covertly listen to Western broadcasts and read samizdat publications by Soviet dissidents.

In 1972, the First Chief Directorate (FCD: foreign intelligence) moved from the cramped KGB headquarters in the Lubyanka in central Moscow to a new building near the ring road. Mitrokhin had sole responsibility for checking, inventorying, and transferring the entire archives, around 300,000 documents, of the FCD for transfer to the new building. These files documented the operations of the KGB and its predecessors dating back to 1918, and included the most secret records, those of Directorate S, which ran “illegals”: secret agents operating abroad under false identities. Probably no other individual ever read as many of the KGB's most secret archives as Mitrokhin. Appalled by much of the material he reviewed, he covertly began to make his own notes of the details. He started by committing key items to memory and then transcribing them every evening at home, but later made covert notes on scraps of paper which he smuggled out of KGB offices in his shoes. Each week-end he would take the notes to his dacha outside Moscow, type them up, and hide them in a series of locations which became increasingly elaborate as their volume grew.

Mitrokhin would continue to review, make notes, and add them to his hidden archive for the next twelve years until his retirement from the KGB in 1984. After Mikhail Gorbachev became party leader in 1985 and called for more openness (glasnost), Mitrokhin, shaken by what he had seen in the files regarding Soviet actions in Afghanistan, began to think of ways he might spirit his files out of the Soviet Union and publish them in the West.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin tested the new freedom of movement by visiting the capital of one of the now-independent Baltic states, carrying a sample of the material from his archive concealed in his luggage. He crossed the border with no problems and walked in to the British embassy to make a deal. After several more trips, interviews with British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers, and providing more sample material, the British agreed to arrange the exfiltration of Mitrokhin, his entire family, and the entire archive—six cases of notes. He was debriefed at a series of safe houses in Britain and began several years of work typing handwritten notes, arranging the documents, and answering questions from the SIS, all in complete secrecy. In 1995, he arranged a meeting with Christopher Andrew, co-author of the present book, to prepare a history of KGB foreign intelligence as documented in the archive.

Mitrokhin's exfiltration (I'm not sure one can call it a “defection”, since the country whose information he disclosed ceased to exist before he contacted the British) and delivery of the archive is one of the most stunning intelligence coups of all time, and the material he delivered will be an essential primary source for historians of the twentieth century. This is not just a whistle-blower disclosing operations of limited scope over a short period of time, but an authoritative summary of the entire history of the foreign intelligence and covert operations of the Soviet Union from its inception until the time it began to unravel in the mid-1980s. Mitrokhin's documents name names; identify agents, both Soviet and recruits in other countries, by codename; describe secret operations, including assassinations, subversion, “influence operations” planting propaganda in adversary media and corrupting journalists and politicians, providing weapons to insurgents, hiding caches of weapons and demolition materials in Western countries to support special forces in case of war; and trace the internal politics and conflicts within the KGB and its predecessors and with the Party and rivals, particularly military intelligence (the GRU).

Any doubts about the degree of penetration of Western governments by Soviet intelligence agents are laid to rest by the exhaustive documentation here. During the 1930s and throughout World War II, the Soviet Union had highly-placed agents throughout the British and American governments, military, diplomatic and intelligence communities, and science and technology projects. At the same time, these supposed allies had essentially zero visibility into the Soviet Union: neither the American OSS nor the British SIS had a single agent in Moscow.

And yet, despite success in infiltrating other countries and recruiting agents within them (particularly prior to the end of World War II, when many agents, such as the “Magnificent Five” [Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt] in Britain, were motivated by idealistic admiration for the Soviet project, as opposed to later, when sources tended to be in it for the money), exploitation of this vast trove of purloined secret information was uneven and often ineffective. Although it reached its apogee during the Stalin years, paranoia and intrigue are as Russian as borscht, and compromised the interpretation and use of intelligence throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Despite having loyal spies in high places in governments around the world, whenever an agent provided information which seemed “too good” or conflicted with the preconceived notions of KGB senior officials or Party leaders, it was likely to be dismissed as disinformation, often suspected to have been planted by British counterintelligence, to which the Soviets attributed almost supernatural powers, or that their agents had been turned and were feeding false information to the Centre. This was particularly evident during the period prior to the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. KGB archives record more than a hundred warnings of preparations for the attack having been forwarded to Stalin between January and June 1941, all of which were dismissed as disinformation or erroneous due to Stalin's idée fixe that Germany would not attack because it was too dependent on raw materials supplied by the Soviet Union and would not risk a two front war while Britain remained undefeated.

Further, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, the KGB was hesitant to report intelligence which contradicted the beliefs of its masters in the Politburo or documented the failures of their policies and initiatives. In 1985, shortly after coming to power, Gorbachev lectured KGB leaders “on the impermissibility of distortions of the factual state of affairs in messages and informational reports sent to the Central Committee of the CPSU and other ruling bodies.”

Another manifestation of paranoia was deep suspicion of those who had spent time in the West. This meant that often the most effective agents who had worked undercover in the West for many years found their reports ignored due to fears that they had “gone native” or been doubled by Western counterintelligence. Spending too much time on assignment in the West was not conducive to advancement within the KGB, which resulted in the service's senior leadership having little direct experience with the West and being prone to fantastic misconceptions about the institutions and personalities of the adversary. This led to delusional schemes such as the idea of recruiting stalwart anticommunist senior figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski as KGB agents.

This is a massive compilation of data: 736 pages in the paperback edition, including almost 100 pages of detailed end notes and source citations. I would be less than candid if I gave the impression that this reads like a spy thriller: it is nothing of the sort. Although such information would have been of immense value during the Cold War, long lists of the handlers who worked with undercover agents in the West, recitations of codenames for individuals, and exhaustive descriptions of now largely forgotten episodes such as the KGB's campaign against “Eurocommunism” in the 1970s and 1980s, which it was feared would thwart Moscow's control over communist parties in Western Europe, make for heavy going for the reader.

The KGB's operations in the West were far from flawless. For decades, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) received substantial subsidies from the KGB despite consistently promising great breakthroughs and delivering nothing. Between the 1950s and 1975, KGB money was funneled to the CPUSA through two undercover agents, brothers named Morris and Jack Childs, delivering cash often exceeding a million dollars a year. Both brothers were awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1975 for their work, with Morris receiving his from Leonid Brezhnev in person. Unbeknownst to the KGB, both of the Childs brothers had been working for, and receiving salaries from, the FBI since the early 1950s, and reporting where the money came from and went—well, not the five percent they embezzled before passing it on. In the 1980s, the KGB increased the CPUSA's subsidy to two million dollars a year, despite the party's never having more than 15,000 members (some of whom, no doubt, were FBI agents).

A second doorstop of a book (736 pages) based upon the Mitrokhin archive, The World Was Going our Way, published in 2005, details the KGB's operations in the Third World during the Cold War. U.S. diplomats who regarded the globe and saw communist subversion almost everywhere were accurately reporting the situation on the ground, as the KGB's own files reveal.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at December 29, 2019 16:07