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.

This, the great disability of the KGB (for which we should be grateful), was built into it from the beginning. At the creation of the Party, its ‘sword and shield’ (in a more sensitive age, it has dropped the ‘sword’), it shared the Party’s idiocies as well as its predilection for large-scale murder. The Cheka regarded its foiling of the bungling if high-spirited attempt of a few Western diplomats, led by the British Consul and agent Bruce Lockhart, to stimulate an anti-Soviet rising as ‘equivalent to victory in a major military battle’. It was then and remains today part of both dogma and folklore that Western capitalism was bound to attack the new socialist republic with limitless ferocity. Stalin tied up the foreign intelligence department in hunts for Trotskyists, and in the ultimately successful attempt to murder Trotsky in Mexico, even though it was obvious that Trotskyism held little appeal for the West, while the domestic arm of the OGPU stamped out even the suggestion of support for Trotsky at home. Zionism – that is, Jews – became a major enemy in the latter years of Stalin’s reign, and a KGB purged of its Jewish members (the prohibition remains to this day) was sent out to detect ‘the Jew squatting beneath the lot’. It was a mission which spelled the end of faithful Stalinists like Rajk in Hungary and Slansky in Czechoslovakia – both sentenced to death in trials rigged by the NKVD.

Khrushchev, one of whose first acts was to arrange the removal of the Stalinist courtier Lavrenti Beria from his post as head of the KGB and who was himself removed with its invaluable aid, sent his new KGB chairman, General Ivan Serov, to Hungary in 1956 to deliver the judgment that ‘the fascists and the imperialists are bringing their shock troops out into the streets of Budapest’ – a fantasy which he may have believed and which legitimated the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Under Brezhnev, the KGB was partly sidelined, partly corrupted. He and his entourage, Kuzichkin writes, hated and feared the KGB because that was where ‘their real face was known’. The KGB knew both the part they had played in getting rid of their competitors in the purges of the mid-to-late Thirties, when their own careers began, and, later, the depth of their corruption. In an extraordinary passage in which he attempts to excuse the long years he spent in its service, Kuzichkin maintains that the KGB remained the only uncorrupted institution in Soviet society – condemned to watch the ‘fish rotting from the head’. ‘What is now called glasnost,’ he writes, ‘began in the KGB in the mid-Seventies ... We were not afraid in the KGB, not because we were at the summit of power, but because we knew far more about all that dirt at the top than anyone else.’

The position at the top naturally allowed rising officers like Kuzichkin to plug into the hottest gossip circuits. A member of Brezhnev’s KGB guard told him that Brezhnev

had women all over the Soviet Union ... perhaps he would keep turning his attention to a woman in the crowd who had come to meet him. She would later be approached by a bodyguard who would invite her very politely to meet the ‘highly-placed guest’. If she agreed, she and her family would be showered with favours after the encounter. If the woman refused, which very rarely occurred, nothing would happen to her. She would only be asked to sign a document of non-disclosure. We knew many well-known Moscow actresses had intimate relations with the Secretary-General, after which their careers took off.

Beria had been less circumspect: his entourage snatched women, often schoolgirls, off the streets at night and took them to the Lubyanka to be raped by their boss. In both cases, the assumption is that the citizenry are the chattels of the Party leadership: but it was clearly safer to be a Brezhnev chattel than a Stalin one.

Andrew and Gordievsky do not rehearse the view that the KGB – its morality affronted, its honesty outraged – suffered deeply at the hands of Brezhnev, which is Kuzichkin’s implausible argument. Instead, they cite with approval the historian Geoffrey Hosking, who takes the view that the Brezhnev leadership did secure dominance over the KGB, but ‘at the cost of absorbing much of its outlook on the world’. That outlook was set by the amalgam of dogma and insularity which has been, and still is, such a downward drag on the fecundity and strength of the Russian spirit. Though under Andropov, its longest-serving chief, the KGB probably did preserve some discipline and was relatively realistic about many things – including, initially, the outcome of the Afghan invasion – it had no means of defending itself against being made a tool of the conspiracy theorists and megalomaniacs in the Politburo and the Central Committee, if only because the KGB’s own leaders agreed with each other that they were surrounded by people who wished to get rid of them – as indeed they were. But they were above all their own people.

Brezhnev in his last years and, after him, Andropov were both convinced that America was preparing for nuclear war. Many in the KGB Centre were sceptical, but nevertheless had to direct all their foreign residencies to find proof that a nuclear war was about to be launched: a classic case, Andrew and Gordievsky argue, of the conclusion dictating the evidence. The section in which these efforts are described constitutes a vivid and racy interlude in what is too often a bald recitation of successes and failures, advances and retreats. Gordievsky knows the work of the British Residency well, since he was stationed there himself and in 1985 became its head – all the while acting as an agent for the British secret service. He is thus able to provide a sharp picture of the methods adopted by his predecessor, Arkadi Guk (portrayed as an irascible drunkard), in carrying out the Centre’s orders:

The directive sent to Guk contained unintentional passages of deep black comedy which revealed terrifying gaps in the Centre’s understanding of Western society in general and Britain in particular. Guk was told that an ‘important sign’ of British preparations for nuclear war would probably be ‘increased purchases of blood and the prices paid for it’ at blood donor centres ... The Directorate had failed to grasp that British blood donors are unpaid ... The Centre’s bizarre conspiratorialist image of the clerical and capitalist elements which it believed dominated British society also led it to instruct Guk to explore the possibility of obtaining advance warning of a holocaust from Church leaders and major bankers ... The workload ... was staggering. The London Residency, probably like others in Western Europe and North America, was instructed to carry out a regular census of the number of cars and lighted windows both in and out of normal working hours at all government buildings and military installations involved in preparations for nuclear warfare ... All of this was too much for Guk. While paying lip service to the Centre’s unrealistic demands, Guk delegated the tiresome detailed observations required from the Residency to the junior officer who ran the registry. The officer concerned did not even have the use of a car. Even had he done so, he would not have been able to travel outside of London without Foreign Office permission – an important detail which the Centre had overlooked. Under Guk’s sometimes alcoholic direction, there were moments when the British end of the operation more closely resembled the Marx Brothers than Dr Strangelove.

Much of the interest for a British readership of Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s book will focus on the Magnificent Five. Though their stories are already well known, thanks both to themselves and to others, they continue to fascinate and to repel; Andrew and Gordievsky do not stray too far into speculation as to their motives but give prominence again to their privileged backgrounds. Cairncross, the putative ‘Fifth Man’ (who appeared on BBC’s News-night after the book’s publication to talk down his importance), was different: a bright Clyde-sider from a ‘modest’ family, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party and was recruited by Anthony Blunt; once he accepted that his duty as a Communist was to pass secrets to the NKVD, he left the Party and joined the Foreign Office – not a difficult transition apparently (all five found penetration fairly straightforward), and one no doubt made easier by his brilliance in the FO exams. According to Gordievsky’s former comrades, Cairncross provided ‘literally tons of documents’ to his NKVD controllers. He was also, thanks to his employment as Private Secretary to Lord Hankey, a wartime minister and chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee, a ‘probable’ source of the first warning to Stalin that the British and Americans were building an atomic bomb. He was not, of course, the only source: Klaus Fuchs, the German-born scientist who fled to England and was ultimately posted to the heartland of nuclear physics at Los Alamos, provided most of the technical detail, though it is also possible that the potent warning to Stalin came from a young Soviet physicist, G.N. Flyorov, who managed to get hold of US and British scientific journals while serving at the front, noticed that the usual authors of articles on nuclear fission were no longer publishing and managed to convince the Supreme Leader of the likelihood of their all having been hauled into a concerted effort to make the bomb.

The Magnificent Five were a busted flush by the early Fifties. Burgess and Maclean defected days before an intended MI5 interrogation in 1951. Cairncross partially confessed in the same year, resigned from the Treasury where he was then a Principal and moved to the United Nations; with Blunt (publicly unmasked in 1979), he made a full (secret) confession in 1964. Philby was named as a spy by Marcus Lipton MP in the Commons in 1955, flamboyantly denied the charges at a press conference, then spent nine years as a journalist for the Observer and the Economist in Beirut until he confessed to a former colleague – and defected to Moscow. Gordievsky, who talked at length to their old case officers at the Centre, says that they were all extremely highly regarded: Yuri Modin, case officer for several of them, told him that it had been ‘an honour to run Blunt’. Each of them performed prodigies of work: photographing documents by night and holding down high-level jobs by day. They were paid little: indeed, they had to be forced to take any money at all, but NKVD/KGB rules laid down that payment was essential to tie the agents to their controller. They were believers, and probably remained so. None recanted: Philby appeared on television in Estonia at the beginning of the independence movement there in 1987, the year before his death, gravely discussing with an Estonian KGB general the ‘established fact’ that the nationalist movement had been brought into being by Western intelligence. Since they – or at least some of them – had been responsible for the deaths of many, many Western agents, they had strong motivation for clinging to the belief that their part in engineering the future would be vindicated.

This was not, however, a belief to which either Gordievsky or Kusichkin, the men on the inside, could hold. Kuzichkin, the heart of whose book is mainly devoted to a dramatic telling of his period as a KGB officer in Tehran during and after the fall of the Shah, is at pains to dispel the ‘myth’ that the KGB is all-powerful: he uses every opportunity to stress that the Party, not the Centre, controls. He presents his old employers as demoralised and cynical, but relatively honest: powerful because they know so much, but for the same reason hated by the Party and the Army; vulnerable to being disbanded as yet another sop to the population on the part of an establishment desperate to preserve itself, yet incapable of mounting a coup because the Army would prevent it.

The KGB is more deprived of rights than it has ever been before. It does what it is ordered to do. Now it is ordered to take the blame for all the past sins of the regime, and it takes the blame. But the fact is that the proper place to carve the names of all of these tens of millions of murdered people is not on the walls of the Lubyanka, but every inch of the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on Staraya Square.

This is hard to swallow. At least since the mid-Fifties, it has been possible to leave the KGB and suffer nothing more than a diminution of living standards (which Kuzichkin claims were anyway not that high until you reached the very top). Few did. And very few defected. The monstrous edifice which was put in place to sustain utopia has only begun to crumble. We still know very little about the greatest repression of the 20th century: behind these books lies a vast hinterland of horrors.