Most readers have a vague idea of what the KGB is. Jonathan Haslam, a professor at Princeton University, provides new insights into the history of the Soviet intelligence services in Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence. He seeks to offer a comprehensive understanding of Soviet intelligence from the Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but to understand Haslam readers must understand the KGB. No nation, not even Nazi Germany, had a security service on par with the KGB, except East Germany with the Stasi. Even Harry Rositzke, a former CIA officer, considered the KGB the best intelligence service in the world, as he indicates in The KGB: The Eyes of Russia. The KGB, the successor to the NKVD, embodied not only foreign intelligence but also internal security, border guards, and the local gendarmes, and was omnipresent within the Soviet Union. No activity deemed a threat to the party or the state went unnoticed. Haslam’s account focuses primarily on human intelligence, initially drawn from available ideological recruits. During the heyday of Soviet intelligence, the NKVD had many high-profile recruits, including Klaus Fuchs, Alger Hiss, George Blake, and Kim Philby. Later, Khrushchev made the decision to bribe or blackmail intelligence assets such as John Walker and his family, Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen. For instance, Victor Cherkashin, a former Soviet operative, recounts how he managed to recruit both Hanssen and Ames in Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer. But to understand the Russian intelligence services, particularly their history and achievements, readers need to examine Haslam’s book.
It is worth noting that the FBI made considerable strides in discovering these and other moles in its ranks. The Walker case alone is detailed in Robert W. Hunter’s Spy Hunter: Inside the FBI Investigation of the Walker Espionage Case; Scott W. Carmichael’s True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy; and Ronald J. Olive’s Capturing Jonathan Pollard: How One of the Most Notorious Spies in American History Was Brought to Justice. Conversely, in his memoir No Other Choice, George Blake justifies his actions, while his 1961 escape from prison and journey to Moscow are recounted in Sean Bourke’s The Springing of George Blake.
Before spy satellites, the Soviet Union was closed to American intelligence. To acquire intelligence on the Soviet military, the US relied on what was then the Gehlen Organization, a former Wehrmacht intelligence section that covered the Eastern Front during WW II. In 1946, Washington funded Reinhard Gehlen and his former operatives to provide that information by deploying them in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Gehlen recounts that early period in his memoir The Service. The Gehlen Organization later became the Federal Intelligence Service of West Germany, though its missions ultimately failed. Unbeknownst to the CIA, Kim Philby, a Soviet mole in the depths of British intelligence, betrayed Gehlen operatives to his Soviet control. Soon, Americans assumed that the KGB was all-powerful; the truth became known only later. Another method of gaining information about the Soviet military came from recruiting KGB and GRU officers to betray the Kremlin. John Limond Hart, another former CIA officer, examines the recruitment of some Russian operatives in The CIA’s Russians, reviewing the cases of four Russian defectors and their fates—two were captured and executed by the Soviets—as well as what motivated them to betray the Kremlin
The first mole the CIA recruited was Pyotr Popov, a GRU officer, who first approached American officials in the divided city of Vienna in 1952. Popov was a “walk-in,” according to the CIA, considered incredibly valuable at a time when the US did not have access to either the U-2 spy plane or satellite intelligence. William Hood, another former CIA officer, wrote about the Popov case in Mole (1982) long after Popov’s execution. Probably the most significant asset ever employed by the CIA was another GRU officer, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a spy most Americans will never encounter in their history books. Jerrold Schecter, a former Moscow bureau chief for Time, and Peter S. Deriabin, a former KGB officer who defected to the Americans in 1954, recount Penkovsky’s role in The Spy Who Saved the World. Penkovsky provided intelligence—particularly on the footprint of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles—that was crucial in betraying the Soviet missiles deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Like Popov, Penkovsky was compromised and executed by the Soviets.
To collect information on Soviet ground forces in Germany and Austria, the CIA and MI6 tunneled first into the Soviet Military’s telephone communication system in Vienna, then into the Soviet communication network in Berlin, tapping into the phone lines linking the Kremlin to Soviet military headquarters in Germany. The CIA saw this as a gold mine in intelligence collection, providing information on the order of battle for the Soviet Army, including biographies of Soviet general officers and their subordinates. David Murphy, a retired CIA officer familiar with the tunnels; George Bailey, a former director of Radio Liberty; and Sergei Kondrashev, a retired KGB colonel, chronicle this operation and the failure to foresee the building of the Berlin Wall in Battleground Berlin. Steve Vogel reexamines the Berlin tunnel in his 2019 book Betrayal in Berlin. Both sources note that, like earlier Anglo-American efforts to penetrate the Soviet Union, they were betrayed by a Soviet mole at the heart of British intelligence: George Blake.
Despite the emphasis on spy satellites and signal intercepts, the CIA and MI6 still recruited Soviet operatives. It took years to cultivate those agents, as detailed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille in Circle of Treason, and by Ben Macintyre in The Spy and the Traitor about GRU General Dmitriy Fedorovich Polyakov and KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky. Both agents provided valuable intelligence to the Anglo-Americans for years, until they were betrayed by Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence officer who betrayed at least eleven other spies within the Kremlin who were serving the US. After years under British control, Macintyre writes, Gordievsky reached the pinnacle of his profession when he became the KGB rezident in London, feeding MI6 valuable material about Soviet intentions, some of it reaching Margaret Thatcher, who shared it with Ronald Reagan. Gordievsky’s lasting achievement was warning MI6 of Operation RYAN, the Soviet plan for nuclear war after they misinterpreted Reagan’s bombastic rhetoric, and predicting the future rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. Upon being discovered by the Soviets, Gordievsky managed to escape by an elaborate MI6 exfiltration operation, codenamed Pimlico, while Polyakov was arrested, tried, and executed. Later, Gordievsky and Vasili Mitrokhin, another defector who was in charge of the KGB’s foreign intelligence archives before his 1992 defection, coauthored histories of Soviet intelligence with Christopher Andrew, expanding the understanding of its reach and scope, including The World Was Going Our Way by Andrew and Mitrokhin, and KGB: The Inside Story, by Andrew and Gordievsky.
In 1978 the election of Pope John Paul II and subsequent rise of the Polish labor movement, Solidarity, offered the CIA an opportunity to weaken the Soviet hold in Eastern Europe. As mentioned earlier, the CIA had recruited several assets in the Soviet Union, many of whom were compromised by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. In 1972, high-ranking Polish officer Ryszard Kuklinski contacted the American Embassy in Bonn during a visit. Over the next seven years, Kuklinski was assigned to the Polish Defense Ministry, even serving as a liaison to the Soviet Defense Ministry. Kuklinski’s account is chronicled in Benjamin Weiser’s A Secret Life. According to Weiser, Kuklinski warned the CIA in 1980 that the Russians were planning to invade Poland and later warned Washington that the Polish regime was planning to crush Solidarity. Seth Jones takes Kuklinski’s story further in A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland, relating how the CIA funneled funds and assistance to Solidarity in QRHELPFUL, a clandestine operation supporting the Polish political opposition, by running newspaper advertisements, and designed radio programs to undermine the regime of Wojciech Jaruzelski. Helping the American efforts, of course, was the Polish pope, John Paul II, who served as a back channel on affairs in Poland and Eastern Europe to Ronald Reagan, who loathed atomic weapons and viscerally disliked the Soviet Union.