I.F. logo This is blank space


Book Review

Copyright © MM Intelligence Forum

The Mitrokhin Archive: the KGB in Europe and the West
By Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin
London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1999

Reviewed by Reg Whitaker For Intelligence Forum

Few books on espionage have made such a media and commercial splash as The Mitrokhin Archive. Perhaps only the late Peter Wright's Spycatcher has ever matched it, but Wright's success was driven by the British government's frantic but incompetent attempts to ban his memoir. In this case, The Mitrokhin Archive arrives from a cache under a Russian dacha floor, courtesy of the British intelligence community itself, and its chosen historian, Chris Andrew. The provenance of this archive is itself a matter of some controversy. But why the fuss? And does it live up to its advance billing?

The question of how the Mitrokhin 'archive' actually came into existence is itself mysterious. Andrew paints Mitrokhin as a secret dissident, sent home from a foreign posting with a black mark on his record, who nevertheless was put in charge of transferring the entire files of the foreign intelligence section to its new headquarters. In this job, he spent years laboriously copying out important documents by hand and then retyping them in his dacha, where he hid them under the floor (eventually six fat suitcases full). There are a number of seeming improbabilities in this scenario. As Amy Knight sarcastically asked in a critical review in the Times Literary Supplement (Nov. 26 1999): "Did not the KGB have some sort of time-accounting or performance reports as all bureaucracies do? The sheer volume of the materials Mitrokhin is said to have copied by hand (tens of thousands of documents) makes one wonder how he could have found the time." Also mysterious is why this 'dissident' kept hold of the files for years, then how he managed to smuggle them out to a Baltic country following the collapse of the USSR right under the watchful eyes of the KGB's successors. The final mystery is how Christopher Andrew was put in exclusive charge of this archive (presumably translated into English for his benefit) and ready for a marketing exclusive with the Rupert Murdoch press empire. These are all interesting and difficult questions, but the notion put about by Knight and some others that this may actually have all been done with the Machiavellian connivance of the KGB's successor agency, the SVR, seems a bit too clever or conspiratorial by half. The hand of British intelligence is evident, and Andrew clearly has a 'special relationship' with SIS. But what advantage the SVR could hope to reap from this publication remains obscure, especially as it describes a downward trajectory of Soviet intelligence from success long ago to increasing incompetence in latter days. Finally, taking the Archive at face value, there is no doubt that it is an extremely valuable addition to the literature on Soviet and Cold war espionage, albeit with questionable origins.

Much of the media feeding frenzy that accompanied the book can be set aside as silly, if not irrelevant. The British press and public has once again demonstrated that any revelation about spies or moles is guaranteed to rouse what can only be called prurient interest. Ever since Burgess and Maclean made their run to Moscow in 1951, the British have treated espionage as a branch of pornography. The outing of the 'Red Granny' (Melita Norwood) briefly displaced the tits and bums from their usual place of pride in the gutter press, followed by the bent copper turned into aging Romeo spy by female KGB trainers. Just as with sex scandals, the public mood then quickly turned from prurience to self-righteous moralizing, as cries went up from the Tory hanging and flogging crowd to lock the old lady up as an example - of what, was not entirely clear. After the British fever abated, it was the turn of other countries to go through spasms of their own, as names of those who had allegedly co-operated in the past with the KGB were bandied about.

It is doubtful that many readers enticed by the advance publicity will actually get very far into this voluminous tome of close to 1000 name and date filled pages. A gripping read it ain't. The good news is that for those who are serious about the study of espionage, this is actually a very useful compendium. I said: 'compendium'. The title is quite appropriate. It really is an 'archive', and should not be mistaken as more than an archive.

Occasionally, the authors (well, probably Andrew) aspire to make broad generalizations of wider academic significance. These tend to be lightweight assertions, of limited explanatory interest. There is a familiar, but contradictory, litany that [a] the West confronted and defeated the KGB forces of evil; but [b]: these forces are still alive and well, and ready for a rematch, if we don't exercise due vigilance. All well and good - and yes, Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB careerist, is now Yeltsin's successor. But attentive readers will still be left with the more interesting questions still unanswered: Why did the KGB fail in the Soviet era? (this of course is a subset of the bigger question of why the Soviet system failed); Even if its successors continue to exercise power and influence in post-Soviet Russia, how have the conditions in which they operate transformed the role and limits of intelligence agencies as power centres? The authors barely address the latter question, but their archive offers a lot of clues to the former question, even if they often seem not always to have noticed.

First, we might note what this archive is not. It does not tell a lot about the period between the Revolution and the Stalinist terror of the 1930s that we did not know already. It contains nothing about postwar operations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. What it does contain is a great deal of information about Soviet intelligence since the late 1930s in Britain, from World war II for much of Western Europe and North America, and within the Soviet Bloc itself in the postwar era. While the book recovers much ground traversed by other sources (Andrew supplements Mitrokhin constantly from existing secondary sources, which is useful for setting context), there is indeed much new material here, as well as the addition of greater detail and texture to elucidate stories that have, until now, remained conjectural. There is no question that Mitrokhin adds enormously to our picture of postwar Soviet intelligence operations in the areas covered by the archive.

Despite the McCarthyite spin the media have put on the book, the actual text is remarkably restrained and reasonable in its handling of Westerners targeted by the KGB as agents or sources. The individuals outed by Mitrokhin appear to be what he says they were, but great care is generally taken to identify those who were unwitting dupes or, in many instances, uncooperative targets. There is always the danger of inflation in the spy trade, casual contacts becoming 'sources', and unwitting sources becoming 'assets'. Just because X appears in the KGB files as a cooperator does not necessarily mean that X was actively or consciously cooperating. Everyone knows how ludicrously overestimated socialist production quotas were, perhaps so too with socialist espionage quotas. Even in Western intelligence this phenomenon has not been unknown.

Some Western KGB targets are bizarre. If Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were down at various times in the KGB files as targets, as Mitrokhin's notes indicate, it is hardly surprising that luckless leftist politicians and journalists should find themselves fingered unjustly as traitors. There is mercifully little of this in the Archive, even if certain unreconstructed Cold Warriors have tried to misuse it for neo-McCarthyite purposes.

There is also a sense of reasonable proportion placed on estimates of damages attributed to actual espionage agents. Some did a great deal of damage, but these we already knew about, for the most part. Others we did not know about until now were not in the same class. Despite hysterical British cries about the 'spy of the century', the now-celebrated Ms. Norwood was never remotely in a position to pass nuclear secrets comparable to those passed by Klaus Fuchs or Ted Hall. She was not a scientist, did not work at a secret nuclear facility, and in any event lost her positive vetting status in the early 1950s due to the egregious sin of being married to an open Communist party member (from whom, ironically, she kept her spying career secret, fearing disapproval!). She may have been the longest serving female agent in Britain, and may have been honoured by Moscow Centre for her dogged fidelity, but that does not make her into the mother of the Russian Bomb. Nor does the Archive suggest as much.

The Red Granny's paleolithic persistence, from Stalinism through Brezhnevism past glasnost, actually describes an exception that proves the rule - the rule being that ideological spies became an extinct species in the early Cold War era, to be replaced by those recruited by greed or blackmail. This trend, already widely documented, is given further proof in these pages. It is also clear that the myth of the 'Magnificent Five' - the fabled Cambridge ring - continued to haunt, and taunt, the KGB for decades. After the Five, the human resources available to the KGB tended to the sorry and the unreliable. With regard to operations against the 'Main Adversary' (the US), the contrast between the era of the 1930s and the war, on the one hand, and the Cold War era, is shocking. The Soviets had penetrated the US government with considerable success in the late 1930s and early 1940s - more than most observers had credited until recently. Detail arising out of the Venona decrypts and from selective access to the actual KGB archives [see the recent books by Haynes & Klehr (Venona) and Weinstein & Vassiliev (The Haunted Wood) have filled in this picture admirably] have shown how this huge espionage success was blown away by defectors (Gouzenko and Bentley) and by the codebreakers. It is ironic, as Mitrokhin again confirms, that just when America went on a Red Scare mania in the McCarthy era, the whole Soviet espionage operation in America, once so impressive, now lay in ruins.

The archive makes it clear that that Moscow kept trying to recapture the glories of the past by recreating the methods and structures that had once worked so well. Attempts were made to recreate the golden age of the great illegals, but they all more or less failed. Above all, recruitment proved a chancy business indeed in the post-ideological era. Political intelligence on the West was a bit of a black hole for Moscow. At no time did this become more obvious, and more dangerous, than during the war hysteria surrounding 'Operation Ryan' when the Kremlin convinced itself in the early 1980s that the West was planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike. We already knew much about this brittle period from Oleg Gordievsky; Mitrokhin confirms Gordievsky's scary picture. Neither source offers any credit to the intelligence of Soviet political intelligence. Mitrokhin does make clear that Soviet espionage did much better with science and technology, mainly because so much of this was located outside the now relatively vigilant and security-conscious public sector.


Return to Book Reviews
Back to Top



|  Home  |  Text Version  |  Join  |  Advisors  |  News & Notes  |  Resources  |  Archives  |
|  Policies & Procedures  |  "Stuff"  |  Search IntelForum  |
|  Contact IntelForum  |


DISCLAIMER — Links are provided as a service.  Intelligence Forum does not endorse the content or reliability of any other web site.  Please report all broken links to IntelForum

Copyright © MMI Intelligence Forum