Disinformation

Phillip Knightley

  • 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.

John Costello and Oleg Tsarev had already engaged to write about Alexander Orlov and reveal him as the éminence grise behind the Cambridge ring. It was proposed that I should collaborate with former Colonel Yuri Modin and do the Cambridge ring in the post-war period. I was doubtful. I pointed out to Modin that there had been many books on the Cambridge ring, and if there was anything new to say about its recruitment Costello and Tsarev would be saying it. ‘What does that leave us?’ I asked him. He looked gloomy and after a moment replied: ‘Phillip, our ship is on the rocks.’ And that was that. (Although I hear that Modin is writing his own book on his experiences as an agent-runner.)

Costello and Tsarev went ahead and this book is the result. As the authors warn early on, no new living spies are named here. Instead we are given hints on numbers – 17 recruited in Britain by one KGB officer alone – and some code names that mean nothing to the reader. Nevertheless, the book is good public relations for the KGB and its successor, the RIS: it rehabilitates Orlov in Russian eyes and suggests that his service had the better of Western counter-intelligence. Costello wisely decided to run Tsarev’s research material through his contacts in the CIA and the FBI. They didn’t say, ‘Don’t touch it,’ so there must be something in it for them as well. One benefit is that it enables them to say to the US Administration, which would like a peace dividend from its intelligence and security services as well as from the Armed Forces: ‘Look, we were right when we warned you during the Cold War about the danger from spies. Our critics said we exaggerated, but we were right. So you’ve got to believe us now when we say that new threats are just as dangerous.’ In short, the book is not just a collaboration between two authors: it is a collaboration between the intelligence agencies of the two Cold War super-powers, both intent on justifying their continued expensive existence. Of course, it isn’t billed as such. What we are promised are the astonishing secrets of the career of Alexander Orlov, the KGB general who, after playing a nasty role in Stalin’s purges in Spain, fled to the United States to escape an NKVD assassination squad and lived there until his death in 1973. The principal secret, the authors claim, is that while Orlov has previously been regarded in the West as the highest-ranking Soviet intelligence defector, he never gave the Americans any important information and remained a dedicated Communist to the end of his days.

This is hardly a secret, however: it isn’t even news. The British author Gordon Brook-Shepherd told Orlov’s story in some detail 16 years ago in The Storm Petrels. ‘Orlov remained a professional to the end of his days,’ an American official told him, ‘and only revealed what he wanted to reveal ... There were some secrets he took to the grave with him.’ Brook-Shepherd concluded that Orlov ‘never entirely ceased to be a KGB general’. This was an admirable perception coming from an author who had no access to KGB files. Costello and Tsarev also describe how the KGB sent an officer to the United States to try to persuade Orlov to return to the Soviet Union. But this, too, is told by Brook-Shepherd. What is new is an account of Orlov’s personal involvement in the assassinations of Spanish radical Marxists, including details of how he framed their leader, Andrés Nin, and was a party to his abduction and murder during the Spanish Civil War.

Deadly Illusions has several chapters on the Cambridge ring, one of the most successful Soviet intelligence operations. However much Costello and Tsarev describe Orlov as the éminenee grise behind the ring, he actually recruited none of them. That distinction goes to Edith Tudor Hart and to Arnold Deutsch, a remarkable Czech-born officer who seems to have signed up the best and brightest at Oxbridge, and might well have done the same in universities in America had he not drowned at sea when the ship taking him there was torpedoed by the Germans. The most the authors can claim for Orlov is that he ‘supervised’ and was ‘ultimately responsible’ for ‘authorising the process’ which transformed Philby from an ‘ideologically-driven young Englishman into a disciplined agent.’ There are two points to make here. First, where does the buck stop? If the credit for recruiting and motivating Philby is to be taken away from Deutsch and moved up the ranks so as to inflate Orlov’s importance, why not take it all the way to Yagoda, the then boss of the NKVD? The second has to do with the phrase ‘ideologically-driven young Englishman’, used to describe Philby. In his earlier book, Mask of Treachery, Costello wrote that the idea that Philby was ‘an ideological believer’ was simply a KGB-promoted myth: Philby, he said then, was motivated by ‘his calculating, self-contained cynicism’. Has Costello now fallen for the KGB myth or simply changed his mind?

Some things are new, however, and fascinating. Many have suspected that Melinda Maclean knew more of Donald’s work for the KGB than she ever admitted. Tsarev and Costello go further. Quoting from Maclean’s KGB dossier, they say that Maclean told Melinda – then Melinda Marling – in Paris in 1939 or early 1940, before they were married, that he was a Communist and ‘about his link with us in the spy business’. According to Maclean, he did it for the most romantic of reasons:

When we first met each other, she had no reason to think that I was anything more important than an ordinary official of the British diplomatic service. After some time she came to the conclusion that my way of life as a diplomat made our relations impossible and she left. I told her about the reason why I led such a life. Then she came back and we have been together ever since.

This is Maclean’s version, via the KGB. It is a damaging one for Melinda Maclean, and unlikely to endear her to the FBI. What is her version? She is alive and well and living in the United States but if the authors – as fairness demands – put it to her that she knew and kept quiet about her husband’s spying activities for 11 years before he was exposed, they say nothing about it here.

Although a quarter of the book is devoted to the Cambridge ring, and although it tells much that is new on what Philby, Burgess and Maclean actually told Moscow, opportunities are missed. In 1939 Burgess reported to Moscow that British government policy was to work with Germany wherever possible and ultimately against the Soviet Union. Britain felt that it could easily win a war against Hitler and therefore had no need to conclude a defensive pact with the Soviet Union, even though it was conducting negotiations with Moscow: ‘the opinion is that we have never intended to conclude a serious military pact’ with the Russians. If Burgess’s report is accurate, it gives a new dimension to the subsequent Nazi-Soviet Pact. Yet the authors devote less than a page to the subject.

Instead we have seemingly endless, boring pages about German political groups in the mid-Thirties, a Who Was Who among the Fascists, anti-Fascists, Social Democrats, trade-unionists, underground groups, Communists, and Soviet espionage rings. Or am I prejudiced? Judge for yourself:

It was through the Harnacks that Schultze-Boysen established contact with the author and playwright Adam Kuckhoff. His wife Greta had been another German student at Wisconsin University and Kuckhoff was the leader of another anti-Fascist circle identifying itself as ‘Creative Intelligentsia’. Through Harnack’s cousin they also established links with the Social Democrat secret opposition to Hitler led by Karl Goerdeler, the former Mayor of Leipzig who was to be executed for his part in the July 1944 plot against Hitler. Another member of Kuckhoff’s circle was Adolf Grimme, a leading Social Democrat and associate of the trade-unionist named Wilhelm Leischner, whose own underground opposition group included Berlin’s Polizei-Präsident Graf Wolf von Helldorf, who had assembled a damaging dossier on the Nazi leadership ... [Goering] was a guest of honour at Lieutenant Schultze-Boysen’s 1936 wedding, when he married Libertas, the grand-daughter of Count Oldenburg und Hertfeld, who had been a close friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

When it comes to the present day, however, and two former spies in the care of the RIS, and therefore right in front of Tsarev’s nose, the authors get it wrong. They say that the American atom spies, Morris and Lona Cohen (Peter and Helen Kroger), ‘live in quiet retirement’ in Moscow: Peter does, but Helen Kroger died last year.

The book has been poorly edited. We are told that Orlov went to the United States in 1932 to get a genuine American passport but then have to wait a further 22 pages to learn how he did it. Three times on the one page we are told the volume of Maclean’s espionage material threatened to overwhelm/ swamp/ overload his controller’s small team and then, for good measure, twenty pages later the amount of material is mentioned again. The well-known foreign news editor of the Times, Ralph Deakin, mentioned in Philby’s own book, My Silent War and several others in the authors’ bibliography, and therefore easy to check, is given as Ralph Dickens. More seriously, the book is riddled with the clichés of espionage writing. ‘Hard-nosed’ FBI investigators ‘beat an official path’ to Orlov. They put aside ‘the kid gloves’ and subject him to ‘relentless questioning’ like ‘bulls at a gate’. Orlov yields information ‘with the painful slowness of extracting deeply-rooted teeth’. This has the FBI ‘frothing with frustration’, and makes Orlov, ‘a master of deception’, feel ‘deeply resentful’ – twice in the one paragraph. He thus became a passive accomplice to the mechanisms of the Cold War espionage ‘into whose works he might have cast a very large spanner’. It is not only that this is poor writing (we all slip sometimes): it is evidence of a stereotyped approach to a subject that, with an end to the propaganda pressures of the Cold War, could do with less hype and cooler, more open treatment. In the proof copy of the book Costello has added to some of the sources little notes to his co-author. One of these reads: ‘OT is this appropriate cover?’ Far from laying bare the secrets of the KGB archives, the authors, it seems, are trying to keep a few things from their readers. What a sad end to an enterprise that promised so much.