Vasili Mitrokhin | Adam Fereday
In the early days of November 1992, a plane departing from Latvia arrived at a London airport carrying a special cargo. Among its passengers was a Russian spy who had contacted MI6 several months beforehand to seek British citizenship and an escape from the Russian Federation. His name was Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin, and he brought with him to London six suitcases containing twenty-five thousand pages of copied top-secret KGB files going back to the earliest days of the USSR. They were the product of thirty years of painstaking, life-endangering work and altogether one of the most extraordinary and valuable intelligence breaches of modern history.
Our protagonist was a rogue three times over. Firstly, he was a spy during the Cold War, a time and line of work which together attracted personalities of a famously duplicitous sort. Secondly, he was a turncoat, whose transition from Russian spy to British informant sets him in a different category to that of most of his colleagues on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Finally, for a Western audience obsessed to this day with stories of defectors from West to East – be they the Cambridge Five or Edward Snowden – Mitrokhin provides a rare and provocative counterexample: that of an ideological opponent of the KGB and the Soviet Union’s communist system who rebelled against both from within, and instead moved from East to West. His contribution to our understanding of the Russian school of intelligence is both unequalled and unremembered.
Contrary to the example set by members of Britain’s twentieth-century intelligence community – almost to a man the sons of well-connected families and graduates from the top universities – Mitrokhin’s early life was characterised by neither great status nor an exceptional education. Born in 1922 to an unremarkable family in Yurasov, central Russia, he attended artillery school before graduating from university in the Kazakh SSR and joining the Russian intelligence services. Surviving the Great Patriotic War and the last years of Joseph Stalin’s Second Terror, he served during the early 1950s on a variety of undercover assignments, including a brief spell accompanying the Soviet team to Melbourne during the 1956 Olympic Games. Sometime after this he was recalled to the USSR and tasked with running the KGB’s internal archive, where he would remain for the rest of his career.
It was in this latter role that Mitrokhin began what he would later refer to as his ‘personal Odyssey’ towards disillusionment with – and later total rejection of – communist ideology and the Soviet regime. From reading Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Doctor Zhivago – acclaimed abroad but still condemned under Nikita Khrushchev’s programme of ‘Destalinisation’ – he concluded that Russia’s communist nomenklatura were culturally barbarous. From listening covertly to broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America, and Russian dissidents (having to change frequency often to elude his government’s efforts to jam each), he became acutely aware of the gap between the Soviet regime’s pretensions to social justice and its actual daily human rights violations. Indeed, it was from dissident media that Mitrokhin acquired the idea of using his privileged role as the KGB’s archivist-in-chief to compile a private record of its foreign operations and excesses.
The opportunity for this secret and subversive project deep in the heart of the USSR’s governing structures came in June 1972, when Mitrokhin assisted the movement of the KGB’s Foreign Intelligence Directorate – with its yawning archive – from its old location at Lubyanka to a new HQ building at Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In the course of this project, which altogether took about a decade, Mitrokhin used his role as the sole person responsible for checking and sealing three-hundred thousand archived files to produce detailed copies which he smuggled back to and concealed under his country house, until he possessed in hard copy a depth of information about Soviet intelligence rivalled only by the memories of the KGB’s most senior officers. These were the documents he would later be spirited away to London with by MI6.
It is this role, as an auditor of the copious skeletons in the KGB’s closet, which earns Mitrokhin a place in the Rogues Gallery. Firstly, the risks he took while compiling his private collection of state secrets simply cannot be overestimated. Had he been caught taking his copies of KGB files home, or the subterranean archive under his dacha been discovered, he would almost certainly have been killed. There were many anxious moments: while constructing his archive, Mitrokhin had to regularly smuggle his papers past the Yasenevo security guards in his shoes, jacket, and trouser pockets; at home, he had to conceal them in ways that would not only ward off the state, but also burglars who might have revealed his secret by accident. In late 1972, Mitrokhin arrived at his dacha and, finding a stranger in his attic, feared the worst: the KGB’s illicit searches for dissident manuscripts were among the most widely used tools of state control in the USSR until its dissolution. Though the stranger turned out to be simply a squatter, the incident serves as a reminder of the immense personal risks Mitrokhin took in challenging the communist regime.
Mitrokhin’s courage is only further underscored by comparisons with the abject obeisance which his colleagues in Russian espionage paid to the communist system. As one historian of the USSR notes, the fearful sycophancy which characterised the standard operating procedures of Russian intelligence right up until the downfall of the communist system could be summarised as ‘sniff out, suck up, survive’. Such an atmosphere triggered calamity at the outset of the Second World War, when the unwillingness of the NKVD (the precursor organisation of the KGB) to challenge Stalin’s conspiratorial obsession with Great Britain left the Soviet Union near-fatally unprepared for the Nazi German invasion of the USSR in 1941. While chronic under Stalin, abject deference to the communist regime despite its oppression of East Europe’s peoples remained a hallmark of Russian intelligence while Mitrokhin was assembling his archive, and long after – the last-ditch 1991 coup d’état attempt intended to save the USSR from the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev were spearheaded by the then-chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov.
More than the strength of his moral example, however, the role of Mitrokhin’s archive in helping the West to understand and undermine the Russian school of intelligence makes him a figure of great historical importance. Through it, we have received fresh insight into who among the USSR’s foreign assets mattered most: not only bright Cambridge graduates with steamy private lives and dazzling intellects, it transpires, but also a quietly spoken secretary by the name of Melita Norwood (née Sirnis). Mitrokhin’s archive revealed that the latter was not only the most important British female agent in KGB history but had – at four decades – a service career passing state secrets to the USSR (for example, concerning Operation Tube Alloys, our top-secret nuclear programme) that long outlasted that of any of the Cambridge Five. Beyond the UK, numerous security services have used leads produced by Mitrokhin’s archive to both resolve ‘cold cases’, and to neutralise ongoing Russian intelligence operations involving assets carried over from the KGB. More prominent have been the convictions: in 1997, a former American KGB asset in the National Security Agency, Robert Lipka, was brought to trial by a Philadelphia court and sentenced to eighteen years in prison following a tearful confession, after archival documents rendered his case untenable.
Likewise, revelations from Mitrokhin’s archive have compromised the aura of invincibility which continues to surround discussions of Russian intelligence operations, both in the Russian Federation and in the West. Like many secretive and disciplined organisations through time, those associated with Russian espionage since the start of the twentieth century have often become known to us through the eyes of their targets, who themselves only see them when their operations go according to plan. This bias of perspective has only been reinforced by the tendency of Russian intelligence towards hagiography; indeed, the KGB’s successor organisation, the SVR, has a known habit of manipulating the publication of internal documents for histories of past operations to present Soviet intelligence as dedicated, highly professional, and always several steps ahead of its Western counterparts.
Mitrokhin’s archive reveals that, in fact, the record of twentieth-century Russian intelligence is as much one of cockups as it is conspiracies. To take just one example, throughout its life the KGB developed an imprudent obsession with efforts to turnkey Western statesman – including Harold Wilson, Cyrus Vance and Zbignew Brzezinski – into Soviet assets, all of which failed. Much as the CIA came to hold an inflated view of its capabilities in the wake of its successful coups in Guatemala and Iran, the NKVD’s success in assembling expansive networks of spies among the disaffected scions of elite families in inter-war Britain and America clouded the operational judgement of its successor organisation for the length of the Cold War. Moreover, Mitrokhin’s archive shows that the KGB and its successors have struggled even more their Western equivalents to reconcile effective intelligence analysis with the need to please their higher-ups: to the end, all Soviet leaders preferred to act as their own intelligence analysts and made it clear to subordinates what they wanted to see in the evidence they were given. The results of this approach are encapsulated in Stalin’s aforementioned blundering on the eve of the Great Patriotic War.
For all this, Vasili Nikitich has been widely forgotten. Neither in 1992, when his archive was first brought to the UK, nor in 1998, when the Home Office was first told by SIS that that it contained evidence that could lead to the conviction of ‘an eighty-six-year-old who spied for the KGB’, did the British government attempt to bring Melita Norwood to trial. She went to her grave in 2005 having claimed she ‘would do everything again’. Mitrokhin, for his part, had died the previous year after a quiet retirement, much of which he had spent exploring his new home using his senior railcard. More recently, the poisonings of British nationals in Salisbury and Amesbury perpetrated in 2018 by Russian military intelligence have renewed popular anxieties in the UK and wider West about the capabilities of the Russian school of intelligence; evidence that its institutions and agents have been, and remain, as limited and blunder prone as their Western counterparts are a cold comfort to say the least.
And yet, nevertheless, Mitrokhin’s life warrants re-telling, and the man himself demands remembering. He shows us that, for all the glitz and glamour associated with the intelligence services, they are inseparable from the political institutions and cultures to which they are attached, and subject to their stultifying rhythms as much as any other branch of government. He shows us, furthermore, that even the most polished intelligence services make mistakes, and are indeed often the most culpable of laundering their reputations in the eyes of foreign and domestic audiences. Finally, he shows us that history can still be shaped by the actions of the individual, and that those with courage and strong convictions can overcome even the most monolithic and oppressive structures. Perhaps this latter reason more than any other earns him a place in the Rogues Gallery.