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Vasili Mitrokhin, 81; Copied KGB Spy Files

February 03, 2004|From the Washington Post

Vasili Mitrokhin, the KGB archivist who for 12 years secretly made notes from the Russian spy agency files until he defected to Britain in 1992, has died. He was 81.

Mitrokhin died of pneumonia Jan. 23, the British government announced.

His handwritten notes were hidden in his shoes, buried in milk containers under the floorboards of his dacha or under his back garden, and were smuggled out of Russia by British agents in six trunks. The notes contained multiple revelations about the much-feared KGB's activities for more than 70 years in the Soviet Union, Europe, Afghanistan and the United States.

Living undercover and under an assumed name in England, he collaborated with Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew on "The Mitrokhin Archives," published in the United States as "The Cross and the Shield." His defection was kept secret until 1999, when the book was published and then serialized on the front page of the Times of London.

The disclosures were "unique in the breadth and quantity of materials," said Christian Ostermann, director of the Cold War International Historical Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who edited and published some of Mitrokhin's work. "Mitrokhin felt very strongly that the material should be made available to a broader public, and in particular to the Russian public."

Although the Russian government downplayed the significance of Mitrokhin's revelations, governments around the world, including the United States, successfully prosecuted several people named in the files, in some cases many years after the espionage had taken place.

Among the disclosures in his files were assassinations, covert operations and a plot to break the legs of ballet star Rudolph Nureyev, who had defected. The KBG files on Afghanistan described violent guerrilla deception campaigns, assassinations, sabotage and bribery.

The KGB also was reported to have supplied weapons to Palestinian terrorists and the Irish Republican Army, spread rumors about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., planted a listening device in a Capitol hearing room used by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and infiltrated U.S. military contractors.

Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was born in Yurasov in the Ryazan province. He was an enthusiastic member of the secret agency, he told interviewers after his defection, until after he was transferred from operational activities to the department responsible for the KGB's archives in 1956.

Disillusioned by Premier Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the Communist congress, in which he denounced Josef Stalin, Mitrokhin began copying, in longhand, everything to which he had access.

He was in a unique position to do so: When the KGB archives were moved from downtown Moscow to a suburban location in 1972, Mitrokhin was in charge of the transfer.

Why take the risk of making notes on the most secret files in the Soviet Union?

"I wanted to show the tremendous efforts of this machine of evil, and I wanted to demonstrate what happens when the foundations of conscience are trampled on and when moral principles are forgotten. I regarded this as my duty as a Russian patriot," Mitrokhin said in a 1999 interview with the BBC.

After he retired in 1984, Mitrokhin spent eight years transcribing his tiny scribbles into a fuller account of the records he had seen. He told no one, not even his wife, what he had done and was doing. And as the Soviet Union began to collapse, he began to consider the possibility that his notes would someday go public.

In March 1992, he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia, and asked whether he could defect.

The CIA was not interested. Hundreds of Russian exiles were trying to flee the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin's documents clearly were not originals and the inconspicuous older man acknowledged that he was just a librarian, not a spy.

So, he tried the British Embassy, pulling his notes from beneath a bag of sausage and bread. There, sipping his first cup of "proper English tea," according to the Secret Intelligence Service, he was accepted as an MI6 agent, whisked back to Britain with a new identity, a safe house and a pension. The British secret service sent in an agent unknown to the Russians, who dug up and shipped the files that Mitrokhin had buried.

Described as a small, gentle old man whose eyes were intense, Mitrokhin was a man of simple tastes, preferring his own vegetable soup.

He was devastated when his wife, Nina, a physician, died in 1999 of motor neuron disease. They had a son, who survives.

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