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The Mitrokhin Archive (Vols. I and II) by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

30 August 2007

I have more than a few previously written reviews, so I’m going to attempt to post at least one a day or every other day until I clear out my backlog and can start adding my current reading matter. If you’ve followed my reviews before elsewhere, please be patient — I’ll get to new material soon enough!

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Britain and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

The story of Vasili Mitrokhin is so extraordinary that it is rather difficult to accept at face value. It is a truly stunning intelligence coup of Cold War history, even though it took place in that murky time at the end of the Cold War — a time when the various espionage networks in Europe were just coming to terms with the fact that the world was changing out of all recognition.

Simply put, Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who worked in the intelligence service’s archives, holding one of the less glamourous but no less important posts in the espionage hierarchy. He had held that position for many years, and in his time countless documents and files on the inner workings of the KGB had passed through his hands. But Mitrokhin had become disillusioned over the years with the Soviet system, having seen firsthand how the KGB manipulated the Soviet justice system and worked to stifle any and all attempt to truly reform society and improve the living standards of the ordinary Soviet people. And so, at great risk to himself, he began to smuggle different documents out of the archives and copy them by hand, returning the originals and hiding the copies in various locations around his home. He carried on this secret copying for nearly twelve years until his retirement in 1984, and though he often considered possible ways to escape from the Soviet Union and get his precious documents to the West, he remained patient. In March of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin packed up sample of his documents, drove them across the newly-opened border into the new Baltic republic of Latvia, and visited the Western intelligence services to present his papers to those who might find them of interest. And once SIS got its hands on the papers and discovered the extent of Mitrokhin’s note-taking….

Both volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive are a fascinating attempt to make sense of all the documents that Mitrokhin copied. Some of the secrets in the files were utterly shocking revelations at the time — one example being the case of Melita Norwood, a British woman who had been one of the longest-lasting spies in KGB history, and who had passed low-level secrets on nuclear research to the KGB ever since the Second World War. Other documents reveal Soviet involvement in other Western European countries, particularly in connection with the French and Italian Communist parties. Still other documents shed light on Soviet counterintelligence during events like the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the clampdown on the ‘Prague spring’ in 1968, including information on how Soviet agents posed as sympathetic Westerners to infiltrate dissident groups throughout Eastern Europe.

The Mitrokhin Archive II focuses on the rest of the world, most specifically on the ‘Third World’ nations that the Soviet Union regarded as likely locations in which to build socialist or communist states. The book is divided into sections on Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with chapters focusing on either a specific country or time period for the KGB’s activities. For instance, Mitrokhin and Andrew devote two chapters to India, one of the premier targets for KGB activity, pointing out the extent to which the KGB promoted Indira Gandhi’s paranoia that the CIA and various other Western intelligence services were plotting to depose or murder her. The Soviet war of attrition in Afghanistan also gets two chapters of coverage, attempting to untangle the complicated connections between various factions and rival groups in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Other countries and regions also receive a careful study, with some intriguing revelations:

  • Soviet espionage in China after the Sino-Soviet split was made all but impossible by the fact that the Chinese secret police knew all the identities of the KGB’s agents in the PRC and proceeded to kill them all off — a lesson on why it’s not always good to share everything with your allies
  • Attempts to spy on China by way of Japan ran into problems when the Japanese Communist Party chose to ally itself ideologically with Beijing
  • KGB involvement in starting and spreading the urban legend about Latin American children being kidnapped and killed to provide donated organs for rich Americans

(I’m not entirely certain if it’s a reflection on the fact that I’m not as ‘genned up’ on Third World Cold War history as I thought I was, but I found the second volume to be a little less readable than the first. It may simply be that I’m not as familiar with the names and events mentioned and discussed, in which case a little outside reading might be in order to see if the research makes more sense to me then. Just a bit of qualification that might explain why I preferred the first volume to the second.)

Vasili Mitrokhin died in 2004, shortly after the publication of the first volume of The Mitrokhin Archive. Christopher Andrew completed this second volume on his own, working with Mitrokhin’s original notes. There has been some controversy over the archive, particularly from scholars who question Mitrokhin’s credibility. How, they ask, could someone who never managed to rise above a middling rank in the KGB manage to evade the strict security surrounding the archives and spend the better part of his career making notes on extremely sensitive case files? When I think about some of the real-life spy stories that have shown up in the press since the late 1980s, I’m a little more inclined to take Mitrokhin’s archive at face value. Even if it’s exposed as a fraud at some point in the future, the Mitrokhin Archive would still be a great set of books to show just how engrossing a fraud can be.

Regardless, anyone with any interest in espionage and intelligence history will want to read these books. They are thorough and painstakingly detailed, remarkably comprehensive and written in a crisply academic style that suits the subject matter well. Mitrokhin’s vast collection of papers sheds light on Soviet intelligence activities around the world, from the early days of the October Revolution to the events leading up to the coup that all but toppled Gorbachev. Some of the real stories told in the archives would put any writer of spy fiction to shame.

2 comments

  1. “How, they ask, could someone who never managed to rise above a middling rank in the KGB manage to evade the strict security surrounding the archives and spend the better part of his career making notes on extremely sensitive case files?”

    That has been explained, Major Mitrokhin was the senior KGB archivist in charge of transferring and classifying the top secret KGB files from the Lubyanka headquarters to their new building at Yasenevo.


    • Indeed. I should mention for the record that I have no problem accepting the Mitrokhin files as bona fide — the fact that they have been criticised merely interested me.



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