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The Limits of Intelligence

How Soviet Skulduggery Failed to Stem Moscow's Disintegrating Empire

THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin; BasicBooks: 700 pp., $32.50

October 24, 1999|TIMOTHY NAFTALI | Timothy Naftali is the co-author of "One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964" and director of the Presidential Recordings Project, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia

History is subversive of authoritarian regimes. It invites comparisons, suggests paths not taken and can inspire expectations. If they cannot tame the past, police states do what they can to destroy it. During the era of superpower detente, a dissident within the ranks of the KGB made the courageous decision to create an independent history of that organization. Between 1972 and 1982, Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was responsible for moving the KGB's institutional memory, a large archive of intelligence records dating to 1918, from its downtown building, the Lubyanka, to the service's new headquarters in Yasenovo, outside Moscow. From this perch, he secretly made notes on the most interesting files that crossed his desk. By the time he retired from the KGB in 1984, Mitrokhin had six suitcases full of furtive scribblings, all of which were retrieved by British intelligence after Mitrokhin decided to move his family to the West in 1992.

"The Sword and the Shield" is the product of a remarkable collaboration between Mitrokhin and the distinguished international historian Christopher Andrew. The book is astounding. Mitrokhin's defection set off security investigations in all major world capitals because of the priceless information he had squirreled away on thousands of Soviet agents. But to the outside world, his trove has until now been a well-kept secret. Beyond being essential reading for students of international affairs, Andrew and Mitrokhin's book belongs on the shelves of anyone who wishes to plumb the depths of intrigue and indeed evil in the modern world. If James Angleton, the CIA's legendary chief of counterintelligence, could rise from the grave to read any book, it would be "The Sword and the Shield."

Mitrokhin's notes reveal a KGB that could be as diabolical as claimed by its most extreme critics in the West. In July 1969, the KGB schemed to ruin Prince Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales by setting off a bomb near the site of the ceremony, which Welsh Nationalists (who would have been tipped off anonymously) could blame on the British authorities. In the same vein, it also plotted to stir racial hatred in the United States by hiding a delayed-action bomb in Harlem, preferably near a school, that could be pinned on Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League. There was also a plan to sabotage a major oil pipeline in southern Germany. The operation, code named ZVENKO, would have polluted the main source of drinking water along the Austrian-West German border and distracted the West from the repressions in Central Europe.

Fortunately, the KGB was not all-powerful in the Soviet Union. Marxist-Leninist philosophy may have shaped Soviet preferences; but it was real-world power considerations that usually determined whether the Kremlin endorsed these outrageous KGB schemes or not. The Politiburo delayed Operation ZVENKO several times before giving up on it. Similarly, the Politburo dithered over a plan hatched within the KGB to create dissension in NATO by setting off a bomb at a Turkish consulate that could be blamed on Greek terrorists.

The Kremlin did not keep its hands clean, however. Moscow simply preferred to have non-Russians do the killing and destruction. Mitrokhin's notes strengthen the case that in the turbulent period from 1968 to the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet bloc acted as a real-world SPECTRE, funding the globe's worst terrorists. Andrew and Mitrokhin resist the temptation to sensationalize, but the book's calm, methodical documentation of KGB assistance for the Red Brigades in Italy, the Irish Republican Army, the Sandinistas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leaves no doubt that we are indeed lucky that the Cold War is over.

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