Vasili Mitrokhin worked as a KGB officer from 1948 until his retirement in 1984. Disillusioned by Soviet repression of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and influenced by the dissident movement in Moscow, Mitrokhin spent the last twelve years of his career secretly transcribing materials from the KGB’s foreign intelligence archives, where he worked. In 1992, he emigrated to Britain with his secret archive documenting KGB overseas espionage around the world over several decades. Christopher Andrew, a prolific writer on Soviet intelligence, collaborated with Mitrokhin to produce this massive 700-page volume.
The book is a fascinating read. Separate chapters deal with Soviet espionage in individual countries, and the book provides both new detail on known events as well as a few sensational revelations. In correcting old stories, Mitrokhin’s research shows, for example, that it was Arnold Deutsch who recruited the famous “Cambridge Five” in the 1930s, rather than Alexander Orlov. The “Odessa Partisans,” heroes in the Soviet pantheon of World War II, were supposed to have heroically fought the Nazi occupiers to the last man but turn out to have quarreled with one another in their caves and executed each other as often as the Nazis did.
Much of the Mitrokhin material introduces operations and dashing personalities heretofore unknown in the West. Joseph Grigulevich took part in the attempts to murder Leon Trotsky in 1940 and went on to run a Soviet sabotage operation in Argentina during World War II that mounted more than 150 attacks on German shipping cargoes from Latin America. Later, under a false identity, this amazing spy somehow became the Costa Rican chargé d’affaires in Rome in the 1950s, rubbing shoulders with the pope and Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi. Joseph Stalin then dispatched him to kill Josip Broz Tito, and it is likely that the report of his failure was one of the last documents on Stalin’s desk the evening of the dictator’s stroke in early 1953. His cover wearing thin, Grigulevich vanished into the Soviet Union, mystifying the Costa Rican government and the diplomatic community, who never suspected that “Teodoro Castro” had another identity. Grigulevich later earned a doctorate in Moscow and became an ethnographic researcher at the USSR Academy of Sciences and vice-president of the Soviet-Cuban and Soviet-Venezuelan Friendship Societies. Western intelligence apparently never connected Castro and Grigulevich as the same person.
The Grigulevich saga brings up important points to remember about such spy accounts. First is a lack of symmetry between East and West. The Andrew/Mitrokhin account provides evidence of the near-complete KGB penetration of Western government and business. Aside from well-known agents like Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames, the KGB was apparently able to infiltrate sensitive Western institutions and businesses, including the Manhattan Project, IBM, TRW, McDonnell Douglas, and the Argonne National Laboratories. Sometimes one gets the impression that a bumbling West was helpless before a skilled and ruthless KGB. But the trouble is, we do not have the other side of the story. We do not have an encyclopedic account from an “American Mitrokhin” detailing American penetration of the USSR or Soviet countermeasures, and without such a comparison or benchmark, we cannot really judge the efficiency of the KGB or the failures of its opponents.
The genre of spy-defector accounts raises other problems for historians. Maybe Mitrokhin really had “unprecedented and unrestricted access” (p. 1) to KGB files, but we do not, nor do we have any way to judge how he used them, what he wrote down, and what he did not. Even in today’s more open, post-Soviet climate, the foreign intelligence archive in Yasenevo is one of the most secretive and tightly controlled institutions in Russia. Mitrokhin was a self-described loner with increasingly anti-Soviet views who probably did not enjoy the confidence of his bosses. He was, after all, demoted from foreign KGB assignments to checking and sealing boxes of papers in Moscow. Maybe such a potentially dubious type (in KGB terms) really was able freely to transcribe thousands of documents, smuggle them out of KGB premises, hide them under his bed, transfer them to his country house, bury them in milk cans, make multiple visits to British embassies abroad, escape to Britain, and then return to Russia and carry the voluminous work to the West, all without detection by the KGB. Stranger tales are told in the conspiratorial intelligence world, but they do not much reassure professional historians worried about verifying sources. It may all be true. But how do we know?
By: Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin