Opinion and Editorial

Enduring Mystery of KGB Sleuths

Philip Knightley (One Man’s View)
Filed on June 24, 2009

After the collapse of the Soviet Union everyone wondered what was going to happen to the KGB and its files.

All sorts of rumours circulated —the KGB was going to open its archives and publish everything; there was going to be limited disclosure to protect those people in the West who had worked for the KGB; the archives would be sold to the highest bidder and the receipts would go the KGB pension fund. In the event, negotiations began between the KGB and Crown Publishers, a subsidiary of Random House, the giant American publishers. Details were scarce but it appeared that Crown would pay the KGB several million dollars —the exact figure remains vague. In return the KGB would make some of its archives available to two authors. One of them would be a Russian, the other an American.

The authors would write five books. After paying the costs of the project, the profits would go to Association of Retired Intelligence Officers, a case of the KGB looking after its old spies. But this deal concerned only the KGB. The GRU, the military wing of Russian intelligence refused to have anything to do with the deal, calling it traitorous. Everyone interested in espionage sat back and waited anxiously for the first work to appear. Then in 1995 the project appeared to have fallen apart. Crown, in financial distress, ended its agreement. The KGB began to have second thoughts after making some of its files available. Scholars were able to read all that the KGB or its predecessors knew about the famous British spy of the twenties, Sidney Reilly, but nothing about who had been spying for the Soviet Union in recent years.

But after several false starts the first book was already underway and was published in 1999. Called “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era”, it appeared under the names of Allen Weinstein, an American historian, and Alexander Vassiliev, a Russian TV reporter who had KGB connections. It told how the defection at the end of the Second World War of just one agent, depressed by the death of her lover, the Soviet station chief, provoked the virtually complete shutdown of Moscow’s intelligence operations in the United States —ironically years before the FBI and congressional investigations began their pursuit of “reds under the bed”.

The system the authors had devised for working together was that they would decide what KGB story they would pursue and pass their request for the relevant files to the KGB. Vassiliev would then go into the KGB headquarters and inspect the files. Since he was not allowed to take them away he was reduced to make page after page of handwritten notes — 1,115 ages in all.When he “moved’ to London he had to leave these notes behind but after he was settled he managed —there are no details explaining how —to get these pages out to the West.

Enter two American academics, John Earl Haynes, a historian, and Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history. They picked up the pieces of the project in 2005 and have recently published the results —Spies:

The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” (Yale University Press £25, 650pp) The publishers describe it as “the most complete look at Soviet espionage . . . until the likely far off day when Russian authorities open the KGB’s archives for independent research.”

What does it tell us? The authors claim that it closes the file on the Alger Hiss, named by Whittaker Chambers to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, by saying that he was undoubtedly an agent of the KGB. Julius Rosenberg, the atom spy executed for treason, was guilty as charged.

The famous journalist I.F. Stone was a KGB agent. So were many other journalists. Ernest Hemingway “toyed” with Soviet intelligence. The authors’ controversial conclusion: given the extent of the KGB intelligence attack on America, Senator McCarthy was not wrong in seeing everywhere “reds hiding under the beds”. This smacks to me of an attempt to rehabitate Senator McCarthy. Let’s see how this plays in the United States.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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