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.

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