Commentary Magazine

KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky

Conspiracy Itself

KGB: The Inside Story.
by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky.
HarperCollins. 776 pp. $29.95.

Just as people in Palermo, Sicily, shy away from discussing the Mafia, most people who live under the Soviet system tiptoe around the subject of the KGB.1 Even Boris Yeltsin, the elected president of Russia, whose first official act was to refuse KGB “protection,” will not answer questions about whether the KGB stands in the way of his plans.

But the KGB does stand in his and everybody else’s way. It has proved the most cohesive and remains the most privileged institution in the Soviet Union. It is the most solid part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s power base. Indeed, it is difficult to tell whether the KGB works for Gorbachev or Gorbachev works for it. The KGB deploys some 100,000 officers throughout the country. These people maintain files on just about everyone. They are well armed, and have richly earned their fearsome reputation. Behind them are some 300,000 KGB troops, also armed—with tanks, artillery, and airplanes. Then there are the Special Section officers who have controlled the armed forces since 1918, and whose grip is especially tight over the tough, professional Spetsnaz troops, and the other uniformed KGB troops who today have exclusive control of the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile. In addition to all this, the KGB controls the Interior Ministry and its roughly 350,000, also heavily armed, troops.

Today, the KGB is making a big effort to improve its image by, among other things, producing movies about itself, handing out free cigarette lighters, and laying wreaths at the monument to Stalin’s victims, to remind people that KGB officers also died in the purges. There has even been a “Miss KGB” contest. But only Westerners tend to forget that the KGB is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the Soviet apparat.

When Vice President George Bush, former director of the CIA, met Yuri Andropov, former director of the KGB, at Leonid Brezhnev’s funeral in November 1982, Bush tried to break the ice by remarking that both men had been “in the same business.” But the KGB is not remotely an intelligence agency like the CIA or the FBI. Nor is it a secret police on the model of the czar’s Okhrana—brutality is not what makes it unique. Much less is the KGB just another institution within the Soviet government apparatus. Least of all is the KGB what contemporary Soviet propaganda says it is: a politically neutral force for law and order. Rather, the KGB is the sine qua non of the Soviet regime, that without which the regime would have been stillborn, the indispensable ingredient in its development, and, in its old age, the main thing that keeps it upright.

The extensive literature on the KGB leaves no excuse for ignorance. Robert Conquest was able to write an accurate history of the organization during the period of Stalin’s purges strictly from newspaper accounts of who had been appointed to what job, who had been convicted of what offense, and when. In 1981, George Leggett published The Cheka, an excellent general history. John Barron used information supplied by U.S. intelligence agencies to write two informative, popular books, The KGB (1974) and The KGB Today (1983). In Chekisty (1987), John Dziak chronicled the power of the KGB within the Soviet apparat. In 1963, Alexander Orlov, who had been the KGB’s chief in Spain during the civil war there, reconstructed the intelligence course he had taught at the academy. In 1976, Aleksei Myagkhov, a KGB captain who had been assigned as a political officer to a Soviet army regiment in East Germany, published an excellent account of his job. In recent years Ilya Dzhirkvelov’s Secret Servant and Stanislav Levchenko’s On the Wrong Side have provided good inside descriptions of the KGB’s influence and activities. There is also a massive literature about how Western intelligence services have dealt with the KGB. And underlying it all are the works of Western writers like Arthur Koestler and Hannah Arendt a generation ago.

Most recently, the stream of data available about the KGB has included interviews given by former officers to Soviet newspapers. And former KGB Colonel Oleg Kalugin, who was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies solely because the KGB publicly branded him a traitor, has campaigned to open its records. This has raised hopes that we may soon have the “inside story” of the KGB—precisely the story promised in the title of the new 776-page book by the Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, once the KGB’s chief of station in London.

Unfortunately, though the book is a valuable addition to the literature, and is well worth reading, it is also a disappointment. Gordievsky, who took part in a KGB internal-history project and who spied for Britain for a decade before defecting in 1985, adds to what we know from other defectors, but does not supersede what we know. Andrew’s research is massive, but bad editing often leaves the reader lost in a mass of spy stories. Moreover, Andrew neither questions what Gordievsky has told him nor uses critical tools to probe controversial questions. Above all, he neglects the most important questions about the KGB.

After a brief chapter on the czar’s secret police, whose horrors from the time of Ivan the Terrible forward hardly matched those the KGB produced during any single year, the book settles into a pattern, discussing the work of the KGB first inside and then outside the Soviet Union. For some historical periods internal and external topics are isolated in separate chapters, while for others the chapters are quite heterogeneous. Before the middle of the book, however, the pattern breaks down and the rest of the narrative focuses almost exclusively on the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (FCD). The FCD—some 12,000 people out of close to half-a-million total KGB employees—is the only one (together with the lower-ranking signals-intelligence directorate) whose functions roughly coincide with those of the world’s intelligence services, i.e., foreign espionage.

Yet despite the fact that the FCD has quadrupled in size since the 1960’s and that its people have risen to the top both of the KGB and of the Soviet government, it is the Second Chief directorate (in charge of domestic surveillance and control) and the Third (infiltration of the military) that set the tone for the whole KGB. These are the “organs” that bring muscle to bear on Soviet society. Indeed, when people in the Soviet Union, civilian or military, think of the KGB, they do not think of someone who might entice a journalist in Tokyo, but of the thugs who can break your teeth with impunity, compel your friends to betray you, make or ruin careers, get you thrown out of your job or your child out of school, and who enjoy the best of everything. This, not the FCD, is the organization to which, in December 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev gave the task of dispensing summary justice to those millions of Soviet citizens who divert food from the state’s distribution system—the very task that Lenin gave the Cheka in 1918. This is the KGB that is distributing Western food aid while arguing that such aid is tied to Western plots.

KGB, however, does not describe this people-control apparatus or ask what has happened to it since Gorbachev, through glasnost, declared open season on the Communist party. Instead, its best chapters are devoted to what the authors know best: the recruiting and handling of agents in England and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

Most notorious among such agents were the “magnificent five” who in the 30’s and 40’s thoroughly penetrated British intelligence—Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and John Cairncross. These young men, near the top of England’s cultural pyramid, were recruited first by their own inclinations, second by their environment, and last of all by the KGB. All five were Marxists and snobs, and three were homosexuals (one of Andrew’s most pointed expressions describes their social milieu: “Homintern”). The KGB “ran” the five dispensing with most of the security procedures standard in espionage, and the five sometimes worked together, again in violation of standard intelligence procedures. The same holds for the top KGB agents in the U.S. during the same period. Over and above the Rosenbergs and their circle—the “atom spies”—there were at least four rings of U.S. government officials who knowingly passed information to the KGB; these circles included so many people that the KGB did not try to handle them singly, but relied on a few couriers to pick up the take.

Andrew and Gordievsky reveal that John Cairncross betrayed to the Soviets Britain’s number-one wartime secret, the Ultra decryptions of German communications. True, the British government was already giving the Soviets “sanitized” versions of Ultra intercepts, but Cairncross handed over the actual intercepts, plus materials on how the Soviets could do the decoding themselves (they never succeeded). By contrast, in the U.S., when Secretary of State Edward Stettinius learned that the OSS had received a Soviet codebook from the Finns, he prevailed on President Roosevelt to return it. General William Donovan surreptitiously kept a copy, which later helped in discovering some of the atom spies, but as Andrew points out, “Had the capture of the codebook been concealed from the Russians in 1944 . . . its value to American sigint [signals intelligence] would have been immeasurably greater.”

Andrew’s general conclusion is that there was a “staggering disproportion” between what the KGB knew about American and British intelligence, and what these services knew about the KGB. There was also no comparing the amount of influence each side could exercise on the other. Gordievsky once attended a lecture where the KGB’s Ishauk Abdulovich Akhmerov described how he had managed the biggest of all “agents of influence”: Harry Hopkins, adviser to FDR.

What Hopkins did is clouded by the common misuse of the word “agent” to mean someone who has transferred his loyalty from one country to another. Andrew says that Hopkins was an “unconscious” agent. But in any case, the relevant fact is that Hopkins thought so much of Stalin, believed so fully that the interests of Stalin’s regime and of the U.S. were complementary, and felt so honored to learn that Stalin wanted his cooperation that he eagerly did all that the KGB asked of him. Thus, for example, Hopkins made sure that no one skeptical of Stalin would be allowed a hand in U.S. Soviet relations, and at Yalta he personally settled the United States position on postwar Poland.



As the authors note, the great age of the KGB’s ideological spies ended with the discovery of George Blake in 1961 (Anthony Blunt having retired by that time); nowadays its recruits are lower-class mercenaries. In the U.S. the greatest of recent Soviet agents, John A. Walker, who sold the cryptographic keys to some of the government’s most important communications equipment, was a Navy warrant officer. On the other hand, State Department officer Felix Bloch—whom the book does not mention—seems in the mold of spies of the “golden age,” and recent revelations from Germany suggest that the local KGB affiliate got recruits from all walks of life, and out of every imaginable motive. Nevertheless, Andrew has a point: because it is no longer fashionable to be a Marxist lover of the Soviet Union, and because many Soviet intelligence officers have chosen to defect, there has ceased to be a “staggering disproportion” in East-West intelligence penetrations.

Andrew does not tell us, however, what the balance is. He is well aware, for example, that relying on false defectors is far worse than having no sources at all. In the 1920’s, in the KGB’s prototypical deception operation, known as The Trust, a Soviet agent presented himself to Russian émigrés and Western intelligence operations as the envoy of a vast anti-Communist conspiracy inside the USSR. He and his associates proceeded to gather information and money, lure people to their deaths, and generally disinform and disrupt Western intelligence.

Obviously, whether a given defector is “for real” is a crucial question. Depending on how one decides the cases of Yuri Nosenko (1964) and Vitaly Yurchenko (1985), for example, one can conclude that the U.S. is doing rather well against the KGB, or abysmally. It would have been nice if Gordievsky had been able to confirm or deny key parts of these two defectors’ stories. At least, Andrew should have tried to shed light on the controversies surrounding them; but he does not even let the reader know the controversies exist.

KGB is at its worst when it tries to put the Soviet spymasters on the psychoanalyst’s couch. The principal point here is that, until now, the KGB and its bosses have been people with a pathological tendency to see mortal enemies everywhere. This “conspiracy-theory” mentality, according to Andrew, is what was responsible for the KGB’s mass murders in days gone by and, in 1982-83, for the mad search for (nonexistent) evidence that the U.S. was about to unleash a nuclear war. At one point Andrew concludes: “They were intellectually as well as physically powerless: trapped by their ideology inside a conspiratorial universe from which, without renouncing Leninism, there was no escape.”

But Andrew does not analyze Leninism, much less trace the thread that leads logically from Marx to Lenin’s founding of the Cheka for “the revolutionary settling of accounts with counterrevolutionaries.” On the contrary, Andrew tells us that Lenin was an idealist who thought that after the Revolution the proletariat would spontaneously do whatever little crushing of the bourgeoisie was necessary, and who was then genuinely surprised to find himself alone, surrounded by enemies. This led him almost perforce to call forth the Cheka, “a special system of organized violence.” But not until the civil war got under way in the summer of 1918 did Lenin use the Cheka on a mass scale, executing “well over” 250,000 people in some two years.

Andrew believes that the logic of revolution overcame what he refers to throughout the book as the “original idealism of the Bolshevik revolutionary dream.” This logic pushed aside old revolutionaries who supposedly cared for music and art—gentle souls, who would kill only bourgeois, not comrades—and pushed to the fore men who were ever more in the grip of “conspiracy theory”—an illness that Andrew is at pains to point out afflicts anti-Communists, too.

Andrew’s psychologizing approach is a hindrance to seeing the evils of the Soviet regime. If, as he says, the mass violence was not “intended” to happen, then one cannot blame Leninism, much less Marxism. Other Marxist and even Leninist experiments might turn out differently. Nor can Andrew call by their proper name the vile, despicable acts that he describes because, he says, the men who performed them were “confused” about the boundary between real and fictitious enemies. So the actions of the KGB, the kind of persons it brought to the fore in the Soviet Union, cannot be the logical, indispensable corollary of the Soviet regime. But they are. What the KGB has done is not a manifestation of “conspiracy theory.” It is conspiracy itself.



And this raises a serious question. Since the function of the KGB within the Soviet regime has been to inspire terror, and since that regime has lived by terror, can it survive except through terror? Andrew tells us that after Gorbachev took power in 1985 he elevated the FCD’s Vladimir Kryuchkov to the KGB’s directorship, and that both men are not conspiracy theorists but realists. So they may be—the KGB has not been killing people lately. But they have also identified themselves with the Communist enterprise begun by Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, and their “men in black leather jerkins.” That too is reality, as is the fact that the enterprise itself is widely hated. What are Gorbachev and Kryuchkov willing to do about this reality? Are they willing to kill to stay in power, or are they going to face the possibility of being killed after they leave it? In short, how different is their thinking from that of their predecessors? How differently can they afford to think?

KGB: The Inside Story concludes with its own bit of realism: the KGB is unreformable. And then the authors write: “Like every major modern state, Russia needs both a domestic security service and a foreign intelligence agency. For it to possess an intelligence community worthy of its citizens’ respect, however, it will have to close down the KGB and start fresh” (emphasis added). Alas, to become capable of closing down the KGB, Russia would have to stop being the Soviet Union. But the organ that turned Russia into the Soviet Union in the first place is the KGB, and it is still there.


1 The term KGB denotes here the Soviet organization instituted at Lenin’s orders on December 20, 1917, and called the Cheka. It underwent eight changes in name (while exercising essentially the same functions) before adopting in 1954 the name it bears today. For 73 years, “Chekists” have received their pay on the 20th of the month.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.