Where their real face was known

John Lloyd

  • The KGB: The Inside Story of the Foreign Operations by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky
    Hodder, 704 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 340 48561 2
  • Inside the KGB: Myth and Reality by Vladimir Kuzichkin
    Deutsch, 406 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 233 98616 2

Most of the institutions of the Soviet state had their finest hour under Stalin. More than anyone else, Mikhail Gorbachev has made this clear: his efforts to force the Stalin period to act as a receptacle for much of the odium felt for Communist rule – with the Brezhnev ‘era of stagnation’ in support – have succeeded only in showing that effective Communism can have no dynamic outside of Stalinism. Communism is about the creation of utopia – otherwise defined as the end of history, or the full victory of the working class. If history does not know its script, it must be forced to act as if it did, dragged by the scruff of its neck towards an always glorious, but always receding climax. As W.H. Auden remarked in another context, those leaders who believe in the possibility of utopia would be shirking their civic duty if they did not terrorise their citizens into acceptance.

Stalin did not shrink from his civic duty, any more than Lenin did. He knew how much engineering utopia would require, and was willing to take on the burden of bringing it about. He fashioned Soviet State Security, already an instrument of terror under Lenin, into the largest machine of war against the citizens of the state that the world has seen. This point was made last month by the radical historian Yuri Afanasiev at a vigil outside the Lubyanka – a building in which countless murders, countless acts of torture, were perpetrated, yet which remains the KGB headquarters. Survivors of KGB terror and the sons and daughters of its victims gathered in front of the building, round the statue, still one of the most prominent in Moscow, of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Pole who first grasped that the Revolution must put fear into the hearts of all, and whose early leadership of the Cheka went a very long way towards achieving that end.

State Security was and remains an internal empire whose rulers, at the height of its powers, were released into an arena of moral nullity. The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopastnosti, Committee of Social Security, though renamed as such only after Stalin’s death, was the direct inheritor of the past and, until Gorbachev’s reformism disoriented it along with all other Soviet institutions, was the perpetuator of many of the old views and practices. The conclusion of Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s lucid and detailed history – that sooner or later the KGB ‘will be disowned by its own citizens’ – provides a necessary benchmark which Soviet reform must reach if it is to be taken seriously, most of all by Russians.

The KGB – whichever name it has gone under – has rightly been feared and hated throughout the world. Yet, as both these books show, its foreign operations, with which they are largely concerned, were continually marked by vast incompetence, despite the contributions made, mostly in the Stalin period, by agents of nerve and cunning. These included Richard Sorge, the spy who penetrated the Japanese foreign office to provide his government with the clearest possible warning of a German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941; Teodor Maly, the Hungarian-born agent who spotted Kim Philby’s talents in mid-Thirties Vienna; and the Cambridge-educated ‘Magnificent Five’ – Philby, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and the ‘fifth man’ (‘revealed’ with too much fanfare by Andrew/Gordievsky), John Cairncross. These men, and others, performed prodigies of courage and treachery, yet their work was more often than not ignored, misinterpreted or brutally cut short. Sorge’s warnings were ignored by Stalin, clinging to his belief in Hitler’s word. Maly was executed in the purges of the late Thirties along with many other KGB agents – self-blinded idealists and clear-eyed brutes alike. The Magnificent Five, who in the Forties and early Fifties provided their masters with vast quantities of material, lived to see the KGB dilute the intelligence their thousands of foreign agents pumped back with massive draughts of ideological mush; and those of them who defected to Moscow actually helped them to do it. Increasingly, the KGB Centre (or Central Committee) insisted on an analysis of world events derived from a dogmatic application of the pseudo-science of Marxism-Leninism – and then demanded intelligence material to support it.

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