- Deadly Illusions: The First Book from the KGB Archives by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev
Century, 538 pp, £18.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 7126 5500 X
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the KGB began to make approaches to the Western media, offering its collaboration on various spy stories. The most ambitious was a television documentary series on the history of the KGB. The bait was tempting: within its archives the KGB claimed to have film of some of its operations dating back to the Twenties and, for later periods, voluminous video recordings that included surveillance of suspects, interrogations and confessions. Thirteen one-hour programmes on the lines of the famous World at War series did not seem too ambitious. In 1990 I had a telephone call from a London producer who said he was about to fly to Moscow to sign with the KGB. Would I consider being a consultant? I urged caution but he assured me that in his contract he would insist on complete editorial control. He announced his deal in the Western press a few weeks later. Soon afterwards, an Italian documentary company revealed that it, too, had signed to make a TV series based on the KGB files. This was followed by a Japanese company and then, finally, Hollywood. All believed that they had exclusive rights.
A small London company, Walberry Productions, which specialises in natural history films, had actually made two documentaries with the help of the KGB. The first, Comrade Philby, went out in May 1990. The second, Strange Neighbours, about the American spy couple, Peter and Helen Kroger, who acted as a communications link between London and Moscow for Gordon Lonsdale and the Portland spy-ring, went out in November 1991. Both were co-productions, in the sense that the Russians provided their end of the material – they did the interview with the Krogers in their Moscow retirement home, for example – and Walberry the Western interviews, the editing and the distribution. The revenue was shared, a clue perhaps to the confusion over the other TV deals: the KGB was looking for the best possible cut of the action – which, after all, is what capitalism is about. At the same time, another section of the service was trying to set up book co-productions. I had met the Russian side of the Kroger producers in London and late in 1990 one of its members, Colonel Igor Prelin, then still with the KGB, came to see me and asked if I would be interested in coming to Moscow to discuss writing a book about ‘the Oxford spy ring’ – as distinct from the Cambridge one (Philby, etc). I said that I was.
Other matters intervened and I did not get to Moscow until November the following year. It quickly became apparent that behind all this media activity was more than the new philosophy of freedom of information, as described by Costello in his afterword: ‘The Russian Intelligence Service has therefore set a new level of openness and has advanced the boundaries of intelligence and counter-intelligence history writing.’ The KGB was also going to solve the pension problems of its older officers in a period of high inflation by allowing them to market for hard currency ‘historically important cases no longer considered operationally significant’. In other words, the RIS, ‘in line with the practice of the FBI and the CIA not to disclose hitherto unsuspected agents, has decided it would be inappropriate to identify them for this book.’ All that was on offer in Moscow was some dotting of the i’s in cases where the agents had been exposed, that were already well-known, and had probably already been written about. The material was also going to be sliced wafer thin.
Vol. 15 No. 15 · 5 August 1993
It is understandable that Phillip Knightley (LRB, 8 July) should be resentful of Deadly Illusions because the documentation from the KGB archive on which it is based sweeps away the previous works on the Cambridge Five, his included. But it is irresponsible and unhistorical to dismiss this first declassification of Soviet intelligence records as ‘disinformation’. Especially galling to Mr Knightley, no doubt, is that he failed to take into account the adage that old men forget when he interviewed Kim Philby in 1988. What the KGB Philby file in Moscow reveals is that the vast sums paid for Mr Knightley’s interview and subsequent biography promoted geriatric confusions and even personal deception.
Significantly, Mr Knightley does not dispute the veracity of the material that Oleg Tsarev and I used to write our book. Our disagreement over the role of Arnold Deutsch is a matter of interpretation. This turns on Deutsch’s history of the London residentura, in which he specifically credits Orlov with the idea of getting Philby to recruit his friends Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. What cannot be disputed is that Orlov’s contemporary reports to Moscow in the KGB archives refer not only to his very personal involvement with Philby, but also to his direction of Maclean and his decision to recruit Burgess, whose flagrant homosexuality offended the more fastidious chiefs in Moscow.
Not surprisingly, Mr Knightley’s self-serveing digression into his heroic efforts to avoid falling into a KGB trap neglects certain crucial facts. If the truth be told he must concede that he repeatedly tried to get access to the mother-lode of Soviet intelligence files through consultancy agreements with a number of Western publishers who signed up memoirs from former members of the KGB and their associates. But as they and Mr Knightley soon discovered, Messrs Prelin, Kalugin, Modin and Borovik could not obtain any of the still-classified archives which were inherited intact by the Russian Intelligence Service. That I had been able to obtain documentation from the KGB files was serendipitous and unusual, but what aspect of the last three years of Russian history is not? Also in contrast to a journalist such as your reviewer who would have tried to keep his access exclusive, a historian has a large obligation. It is a matter of public record that I assisted the Russian Intelligence Service to establish a partnership with a major American publishing house that has brought other scholars into a project which will draw on the KGB archives to write the intelligence history of the Cold War.
However uncomfortable for Mr Knightley, the truth is that he tried to get exclusive access to former First Chief Directorate records. Now that he has failed, he is retaliating by attempting to disparage the first book based on KGB archival files. While authors must anticipate some of this childish fury from their competitors, Mr Knightley takes his to the extreme by directing his spleen at the US Government. His aside that the CIA is co-sponsoring this research is worse than absurd: it is stupid. What possible public-relations benefit could the CIA obtain from the story of a man who deceived the US investigative services for nearly twenty years? The American intelligence veterans, whom I consulted, were fascinated by the Orlov case. But there was no escaping that its revelations were also painful to them.
Mr Knightley carps about typographical and editorial errors, but he omits to state that they appeared in an uncorrected manuscript which he was shown by a Sunday newspaper for whom he acts as an adviser on intelligence matters. A more diligent reviewer ought to have taken the trouble to read the published edition of Deadly Illusions, where we did note (page 467) the death of Lona Cohen (Helen Kroger) on 29 December 1992.
Phillip Knightley writes: I did not dismiss Mr Costello’s book as ‘disinformation’. The heading was put on the piece by the LRB and there is more than one way of thinking about its meaning. I did, however, say that there had to be something in this publishing venture for the KGB. Mr Costello himself is well aware of this because he says that his former CIA contacts warned him ‘that the KGB never acted without having an operational objective.’ I reflected on what the objective might be in this case. For example, Mr Costello used to believe that any suggestion that Philby was an ideological convert was a KGB-promoted myth. Mr Costello’s access to the KGB files has changed his mind and Philby is now ‘the ideologically-driven young Englishman’. Could achieving this public about-face by a well-known Western historian have been one of the KGB’s objectives? In short, if Mr Costello believes that the KGB’s motive for opening some of its files is purely altruistic, then he will believe anything.
The meaning of Mr Costello’s sentence about ‘vast sums paid for Mr Knightley’s interview’ with Philby is unclear. If he thinks that I paid Philby for my interview in 1988 then I can only repeat what I have said many times: Philby did not ask for any money and I paid him not a penny. Not do I have a consultancy agreement with any publisher. I wrote an introduction to George Blake’s autobiography. I helped Oleg Kalugin write an outline for his proposed autobiography. I may write an introduction to a new biography of Philby.
I did not try to get exclusive access to the former First Chief Directorate records. My dealings with the KGB have been as I set out in my review. I did not approach it. It contacted me.
I was not shown an uncorrected manuscript of Mr Costello’s book. The Los Angeles Times sent me a bound proof copy, the LRB provided the British published edition. Mr Costello is correct about the death Lona Cohen – a late insertion in the source notes, but not the main text, of his book. The other errors, repetitions and infelicities I noted in my review are all to be found in the published edition of the book.