The book-jacket to Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew’s The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World boasts the tome ‘is the first comprehensive account of the global reach of the world’s most powerful secret organization.’ Well, it depends how you define comprehensive.
When Yuri Andropov died in 1984, the world lost its authority on the Cold War KGB. Andropov started as KGB chief in 1967 and presided over the intelligence agency for so long that, by the time he became general secretary in 1982, he was mostly bedridden and relied on daily dialysis. He lived less than a year and a half and never wrote his memoirs.
By contrast, the KGB’s Cold War rival, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had a revolving-door directorship and went through six directors of central intelligence (DCIs) during Andropov’s career as head Soviet spy. Still in their prime at the time of retirement, America’s comparative wealth of ex-DCIs has yielded a highly informative literature on United States spy operations and foreign policy in the form of memoirs. Indeed, the book that former DCI Robert M. Gates penned, From the Shadows, is ubiquitous on Cold War reading lists—Andrew himself quotes and references Gates’s work.
Although Cold War historians will never have an insider’s perspective on the KGB, Andrew’s history is an admirable attempt to thoroughly account for KGB Cold War operations in the Third World. What distinguishes this (and Andrew’s first book, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West) from other tomes on the KGB is Andrew’s access to Vasili Mitrokhin, a long-time KGB apparatchik and archivist, and the papers he brought from Russia when he defected to the United Kingdom in 1992.
The story of Mitrokhin’s archive is the stuff of a John Le Carre novel. Mitrokhin was a senior archivist in the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate beginning in 1972. Supervising the ten-year process of transferring the entire KGB foreign intelligence archive to a building outside Moscow, he used paper scraps to jot notes about the files, smuggling them from his office during and after the move. Mitrokhin then transcribed and stashed the notes in his dacha until the Soviet order began to crumble.
As the Soviet Union dismantled itself in 1992, Mitrokhin ventured to the British embassy in Riga, Latvia, several folders of typed notes in hand. He defected later that year with his archive, by then containing tens of thousands of pages.
According to the FBI, Mitrokhin’s documents are ‘the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.’ Perhaps the most significant prize for the Western intelligence community are the documents that contain the real names and identities of thousands of foreign agents the KGB recruited and kept under deep cover abroad—a rosetta stone for the spy world. Among the exposed was Melita Norwood, a British national and the longest serving Soviet spy in Europe. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization even used the files to break up a network of local agents in Australia. Many of the documents remain classified.
Despite Mitrokhin’s impressive story it would be too charitable to say that The Mitrokhin Archive II is full of shocking insights into the operations of what was once the world’s most feared spy agency, since Western historians had already inferred many of its revelations from evidence previously gathered. This is particularly true of the section on Soviet relations with Cuba. For example, Alexandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s exemplary history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Hell of a Gamble, explores Castro’s relationship with the KGB, noting Castro’s personal ties with KGB officers and acknowledging the KGB’s role in funneling arms into revolutionary Cuba—two of the ‘revelations’ listed in the Penguin press release
accompanying The Mitrokhin Archive II.
The book does, however, deepen historical insight on the sometimes strained relations between Moscow and Havana after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Particularly interesting are KGB reports detailing the waning ‘revolutionary spirit’ in Cuba and Castro’s progressive slide into a dangerous narcissism. One report after the withdrawal of Russian missiles from the island reads, ‘One or two years of especially careful work with Castro will be required until he acquires all of the qualities of Marxist-Leninist party spirit.’
There are also a few tidbits that nicely illustrate the KGB’s reach in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. Andrew’s discussion of KGB support for Chilean President Salvador Allende is particularly revealing. Western intelligence agencies suspected Allende maintained connections to the Soviet Union even before Augusto Pinochet’s military Junta deposed him. But Mitrokhin’s documents vividly detail KGB support for Allende as presidential candidate and leader. Moscow gave Chile’s communist party $400,000 during the 1970 election and $50,000 to Allende. The CIA gave $425,000 to Allende’s opponents. After his victory, Allende, codenamed LEADER, continued to receive tens of thousands of dollars in payments. He also asked for—and received—two pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox icons. KGB propagandists even popularised a particularly brutal and heroic account of Allende’s death.
Andrew has similarly fascinating accounts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which the KGB planned and pressed on an aging Soviet Politburo. In the central Asian nation, the KGB was brutal, unleashing an Afghan secret police akin to Stalin’s NKVD. In India, meanwhile, the KGB infiltrated and provided monetary support to Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party, pouring millions of rupees into propaganda and dirty tricks to discredit her opponents.
The best passages in the book, though, describe more arcane KGB operations in the Third World. The chapters on KGB spy work in Africa include KGB plots containing almost as much Cold War kitsch as a James Bond film. During the Algerian Revolution, the KGB planted a story in the Italian press claiming the CIA sponsored a French military putsch to stall De Gaulle’s peace talks. The story even made its way into the pages of Le Monde. In operations codenamed DEFEKTOR 3 and DEFEKTOR 4, the KGB disinformation machine used fabricated documents to convince the dictators of Guinea and Mali that CIA agents had plotted their overthrow. During the American Civil Rights Movement, KGB agents in New York sent racist letters purporting to be from American white supremacists to African UN delegates.
Not that any of the KGB’s expensive misadventures paid off for the Soviet Union in the long run. By the time Andropov became general secretary, KGB operations in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Syria, Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria and other Third World countries committed an economically ailing Soviet state to expensive and remote boondoggles. Morale was so bad in Africa that KGB officers stationed there were often too debilitated by alcoholism to be of real use.
Beyond Andrew’s narrative lies a broader claim—that a thorough account of Cold War history must consider the role of the KGB in Soviet foreign relations. This is not just an intellectual exercise for the Cambridge historian. Stressing the role of intelligence services in the Cold War also advances Andrew’s niche subfield—intelligence studies.
Andrew convincingly shows the KGB facilitated the creation of Soviet ties in the Third World and effectively pushed foreign policies in the Politburo. Consider the evidence he marshals—lists of undercover spies all over the world, details of arms sales to rebels in Nicaragua and Angola, strategy memos on encouraging the Afghanistan invasion in Moscow. At the least, Mitrokhin’s documents prove the KGB acted independent of Politburo control and contributed to the character of the Cold War in the Third World.
It is true that historians reference the CIA’s role in Cold War history more often than that of the KGB’s. Andrew’s book may raise the profile of Soviet spy work. That said, Andrew sometimes makes his agenda too obvious. Lines such as, ‘It was often the KGB, rather than the Foreign Ministry, which took the lead role in Latin America,’ appear too often. And if you are looking for a basic history of the Cold War in the Third World, this may not be the book for you. A volume or two on the Politburo or on Soviet foreign relations in general will provide a wider take on the events.
Where the book really lacks, though, is the essential personal touch that the CIA’s ex-DCIs gave their memoirs. Gates’s memoir, for example, is filled with anecdotes and personal reflection, which gives the reader confidence that the account is the story behind the documents. In the world of Cold War intelligence, the most valuable discoveries were often never written down. Imagine trying to understand American actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis without the Kennedy tapes.
Andrew’s reliance on Mitrokhin’s papers and established KGB scholarship makes the book as accurate as any KGB history can get without channeling Andropov or one of his lieutenants. He can only be as confident as the information contained on the scraps of paper Mitrokhin smuggled out of the USSR allow him to be.
Given the KGB’s penchant for spin in even the most inconsequential of memos, there is real chance that Mitrokhin’s archive is filled with distortions of KGB policies and operations. Take, for example, a KGB request to the Politburo for extra funding for Chilean operations even after Allende’s party failed to win a majority in the Chilean parliament. It makes no mention of the disappointing results of the Soviet-funded election campaign but instead focuses on Allende’s ‘willingness to send his own trusted people to Latin American countries, where they would be able to establish contacts with his friends and political supporters, and obtain useful information from them.’ Allende’s regime did not last long enough to provide that service to the KGB. The KGB’s use of selective omission to promote foreign intervention undoubtedly sounds eerily familiar.
Reading The Mitrokhin Archive II is akin to reading a report based on a friend’s livejournal posts. You never know if what you are reading is really what he would say off the record. But at least you know what he has been up to.
Stephen W. Stromberg is an American MPhil student in
International Relations at Balliol College. His interests
include Cold War history and Soviet international relations.