Commentary Magazine

Chekisty: A History of the KGB, by John J. Dziak; On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB, by Stanislav Levchenko; Secret Servant:


Chekisty: A History of the KGB.
by John J. Dziak.
Lexington Books. 169 pp. $17.95.

On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB.
by Stanislav Levchenko.
Pergamon-Brassey. 244 pp. $18.75.

Secret Servant: My Life With the KGB and the Soviet Elite.
by Ilya Dzhirkvelov.
Harper & Row. 386 pp. $22.50.

For many years, books about the KGB were relatively rare. Now all of a sudden we are waist-deep in them, and many are quite good. The three under review here, one a scholarly work and the other two memoirs of former KGB officers, offer a representative sampling.

In Chekisty, a fascinating and important book, John J. Dziak, a full-time employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency who also teaches at both Georgetown and George Washington University, looks at the USSR through the window of the KGB, or Cheka, MVD, NKVD, GPU, or OGPU (to use some of the other names by which this agency and its various components have been known over the past seventy-one years). Dziak contends, indeed, that we can best understand the Soviet Union itself as a “counter-intelligence state,” by which he means that, since the first days of the revolution, Lenin and his sucessors have devoted their maximum efforts to deceiving, neutralizing, and destroying (physically or politically) their opponents, whether within the Soviet empire or elsewhere.

Dziak argues his case convincingly, citing a series of specific examples—some known, others new, at least outside the classified literature—that illuminate the history and current practice of the USSR and its surrogates (Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Vietnam). In Dziak’s approach, the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasantry during the first great wave of Red Terror after Lenin’s seizure of power is seen as a model for Mengistu’s Ethiopia today—and for the Red Army’s strategy against the Afghan resistance.

Dziak shows how Soviet campaigns against external opponents are almost always accompanied and paralleled by waves of internal repression. Except for brief periods when Soviet dictators created special agencies for such purposes, this internal repression has been carried out by the “organs of state security.” As with so many features of the Soviet system, the history and eventual fate of these “organs” are intimately connected with Joseph Stalin. For it was Stalin who removed the KGB from its classical position as the cutting edge of the Communist party, and turned it into an instrument of his personal power. As such, however, it became a two-edged sword; in the end, Dziak argues persuasively, this was the same instrument that was used by Lavrenty Beria to challenge Stalin’s control and advance his own cause. Under Beria, indeed, the KGB was to reach its maximum prestige, although this too was a relatively short-lived phenomenon; in but a few years Khrushchev out-maneuvered Beria and initiated one of those spasms of “reform” that seem to occur two or three times a century in Russia.

The Khrushchev period of “de-Stalinization” was a bad one for the KGB, but after Khrushchev’s removal the agency soon recovered, and then some. Today, as Dziak reminds us, despite Gorbachev’s promises of reform, the KGB is politically more powerful than ever before. In 1961, the “organs of state security” (KGB plus MVD) sent twelve delegates to the 22nd Soviet Communist party congress; in 1986, under the banner of glasnost, there were 35 representatives of the KGB and MVD at the 27th congress of the CPSU. For anyone interested in the question of whether and to what extent Gorbachev is producing real change in the Soviet system, here is one useful yardstick.



Virtually without exception, defectors from the KGB who seek asylum in the United States are astonished to discover the modest income and middling style of life among top officials of the American intelligence community. Many are psychologically unprepared for their sudden passage from high status to anonymity, and equally unprepared for the idea that they will have to work for a living in a free-market economy. This helps to explain why so many defectors pass through a period of profound crisis, in which they ponder the possibility of returning to the USSR even though it is likely they would be met there with a death sentence.

Stanislav Levchenko, however, is an exception. Perhaps because he spent many years working for the KGB in Japan, he has taken easily and naturally to life in the U.S.

In On the Wrong Side, Levchenko underlines the methods and the issues that drive today’s KGB: disinformation, the use of the media as both a cover and a source of valuable intelligence, and the heavy concentration on scientific and technological information to help keep the failed Soviet system afloat. On the personal side, he also reminds us that the KGB does take vengeance against the families of defectors. Levchenko himself, for example, thought that his wife and son would not be singled out for punishment after his departure, but in fact they were; his son was made a pariah, and eventually developed severe digestive problems, while his wife was so ostracized that she came to feel like “a grain of sand,” subject to any passing wind, tide—or foot. In sharing such moments with the reader, Levchenko goes far to confirm the sober analytical portrait of the KGB advanced in John Dziak’s Chekisty.



If Stanislav Levchenko regards himself as being at war with the KGB, Ilya Dzhirkvelov is a different case entirely, one who seemingly cannot even bring himself to dislike his old institution. Indeed, on many occasions in Secret Servant Dzhirkvelov takes pains to shift the blame for egregious Soviet actions away from the KGB entirely, for example by attributing the management of disinformation to the Communist party.

Dzhirkvelov also defends the Soviet Union itself from its critics, though sometimes the exercise leads him into all but incredible rationalizations. Thus, on a single page he first tells us that every morning Leonid Zamyatin (head of the Communist party’s International Information Department) instructs the editors of the various Soviet newspapers and magazines (as well as the TASS and Novosti press agencies) what they are to report, “and which events they were not to report if they revealed the Soviet government in a bad light,” and then further down on the same page claims that “this was not censorship, but political and ideological guidance. Articles and news items dealing with events abroad are not subject to any censorship. But if there are any doubts about the facts and their interpretation the matter is cleared up in consultation. . . .”

Unlike Levchenko, who had a yearning for freedom, Dzhirkvelov defected purely and simply because his career had been placed in jeopardy by bad relations with a superior. This, indeed, may have something to do with his apparent readiness to slant things in favor of his former comrades, to the point where one sometimes wonders how clean a break he has made. Certainly his expose is a limited one, and unlikely to incur the ire of the current masters of the KGB—a circumstance that suggests how, even after leaving the KGB, one can remain a creature of the “counterintelligence state.”

Of the three books, Dzhirkvelov’s is probably the most representative of the rank-and-file KGB officer, who, although perhaps concerned about the morality of some of the actions of the “organs of state security,” is not troubled by the system he defends. Dzhirkvelov’s arrival in the West was a personal affair, not a political choice. Levchenko’s autobiographical reflections are quite a different matter, for Levchenko made a fundamental decision to leave the Soviet bloc and join forces with the West. The differences between the two can be seen in their behavior on this side of the Iron Curtain: Dzhirkvelov lives quietly in England, while Levchenko works actively with the United States government to understand—and thwart—his former comrades in the KGB. In their different ways, however, both Levchenko and Dzhirkvelov confirm and enrich John J. Dziak’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a counterintelligence state, an analysis that is particularly relevant now that so many people seem to believe that the Communist era has already passed into history, and that the only remaining question is how long we need wait for the Soviet Union’s full democratization.



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