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The Mitrokhin mystery

Last updated on: September 28, 2005 17:12 IST

B Raman on the Mitrokhin Archive controversy, which alleges that several Indian leaders took bribes from the KGB.

Who is Vasily Mitrokhin?

Vasili Mitrokhin was born on March 3, 1922 in Yurasovo, in central Russia.

After completing his school education, he entered an artillery school of the Soviet army. While serving in the army, he joined an university in Kazakhstan and graduated in History and Law. He rose to the rank of a major.

Towards the end of the Second World War, he was deputed to the military procurator's office at Kharkov in the Ukraine. In 1948, he joined the MGB's (as the KGB was known till 1953) foreign intelligence section. He served in a number of foreign countries till 1956. Details of his foreign postings are not available.

In 1956, the KGB reprimanded him for his unsatisfactory performance when he was attached as one of the intelligence and security officers to the Soviet team which participated in the Olympics in Australia. His job was to prevent any attempts by the Western intelligence agencies to contact Soviet athletes and persuade them to defect to the West.

After his return from the Olympics, he was downgraded, removed from the operational division of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB, graded as not fit for operational tasks and posted to the Archives of the First Chief Directorate (dealing with foreign intelligence) of the agency, where all closed files were kept in safe custody. He retired from service in 1985.

Mitrokhin Archives: Will the Government of India enlighten us?

How, when and why did he come into contact with the UK's Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as the MI-6?

In 1992, when he was 70 years old, he travelled to Riga, the capital of Latvia, with a large number of handwritten/typed notes which he claimed to have copied from the files in the KGB's archives during his posting there, purporting to give details of the KGB's operations all over the world.

He first walked into the US embassy and offered to give these documents to the Central Intelligence Agency. A CIA officer working under the cover of a diplomat and his colleagues, after consulting their headquarters in Washington DC, expressed their lack of interest in his documents. They seemed to have thought he was either a hoax or a plant by the new Russian intelligence agency to mislead them.

He then went with his notes to the British embassy and offered them to an MI-6 officer posted there as a diplomat. He claimed he had 25,000 pages of such notes hidden in his house which he offered to give if he was given political asylum in the UK and helped to publish his notes.

MI-6, which was reportedly not aware of his previous visit to the US embassy and the rejection of his offer by the CIA, accepted his offer. He was helped to go back to Russia and secretly bring out this massive lot of papers and then he, his family and his papers were flown out of Latvia to London.

Richard Tomlinson, the MI-6 officer imprisoned in 1997 for attempting to publish a book about his career, was one of those involved in retrieving the documents from empty milk cartons hidden under the floor of Mitrokhin's dacha. One does not know his version of the case and why MI-6 tried so hard to prevent him from writing his memoirs and harassed him.

Allegations in Mitrokhin Archives vague: Congress

Did he bring original documents or photocopies?

No, he did not. He brought handwritten/typed notes of the contents of the documents, which, according to him, he had an opportunity of seeing while he was posted in the archives.

According to his version, the offices of the archives were shifted from one building to another between 1972 and 1984. During this period, he was put in charge of supervising the safe transfer of the files. He had an opportunity of seeing the contents of many files relating to sensitive KGB operations all over the world.

Since he had developed a strong dislike for the Soviet system ever since the famous disclosures made by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 regarding the misdeeds of Stalin and his intelligence chief Laventin Beria, he wanted to let the world know about the real nature of the Soviet system and how its intelligence agencies worked.

Every day, he used to copy the contents of important files by hand on pieces of paper. He would then secretly take them to his house, type them at night, conceal them inside empty milk cartons and hide the cartons under the floor of his house. He had thus copied in his own hand and typed 25,000 pages of allegedly sensitive informatiion over a period of 12 years.

What was the authenticity and evidentiary value of the information brought by him?

A book, The Sword and the Shield by Mitrokhin and Professor Christopher Andrew drawing on the Archive was published in September 1999, receiving extensive media coverage.

The book covered the activities of the KGB in the West. This was the first time the public came to know about the so-called documents. The media coverage raised several questions:

  • Did MI-6 keep the political leadership informed of the papers brought by him and their contents?
  • Did it take the clearance of the political leadership before deciding to make them public through the form of a book written by Professor Christopher Andrew?
  • What were the reasons for MI-6's motive in doing so?
  • Why did it chose Professor Andrew for making them public and not a government historian?
  • Why was a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch allegedly given the exclusive right for publishing the sensational story? 

Tony Blair's government found itself constrained to order an enquiry into the matter by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which is the oversight committee for the intelligence community.

In a statement in the House of Commons on October 21,1999, Jack Straw, the present British foreign secretary, then the home secretary, said: 'The publication of the book raised questions about how the archive had been used. In the light of those questions, I announced on 13 September, with the agreement of the prime minister, that the Intelligence and Security Committee had been asked to conduct an inquiry into the policies and procedures used by the intelligence and security agencies in the handling of the Mitrokhin material.

'I am very grateful to the right Hon Member for Bridgwater (Mr King), the chairman of the committee, and his colleagues for taking on that important work. My right Hon Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I will carefully consider the committee's report and ensure that as much as possible of it is made public. It may, however, be helpful to the House if I set out today some of the essential background.

'Vasili Mitrokhin worked for almost 30 years in the foreign intelligence archive of the KGB where, at great risk to himself, he made notes of the contents of the highly secret files that passed through his hands. Over many years, he thus assembled a huge collection of material, some in manuscript and some typed. 'In 1992, after Mr Mitrokhin had approached the UK for help, our Secret Intelligence Service made arrangements to bring Mr Mitrokhin and his family to this country, together with his archive. As there were no original KGB documents or copies of original documents, the material itself was of no direct evidential value, but it was of huge value for intelligence and investigative purposes.'

'Thousands of leads from Mr Mitrokhin's material have been followed up world wide. As a result, our intelligence and security agencies, in cooperation with allied governments, have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; and some names and reputations have been cleared. Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr Mitrokhin's material world wide as immense.'

Straw also admitted that MI6 had taken the then foreign secretary's approval in 1996 for making the archives available to Professor Andrew for writing a book.

CPI's Dange, Rajeshwar named in KGB files

In a review of the book for the Intelligence Forum, a web site specialising in intelligence matters, Reg Whitaker, who is believed to have an intelligence background, wrote: 'The question of how the Mitrokhin 'archive' actually came into existence is itself mysterious. Andrew paints Mitrokhin as a secret dissident, sent home from a foreign posting with a black mark on his record, who nevertheless was put in charge of transferring the entire files of the foreign intelligence section to its new headquarters. In this job, he spent years laboriously copying out important documents by hand and then retyping them in his dacha, where he hid them under the floor (eventually six fat suitcases full).

'There are a number of seeming improbabilities in this scenario. As Amy Knight sarcastically asked in a critical review in The Times Literary Supplement (November 26, 1999): 'Did not the KGB have some sort of time-accounting or performance reports as all bureaucracies do? The sheer volume of the materials Mitrokhin is said to have copied by hand (tens of thousands of documents) makes one wonder how he could have found the time.'

'Also mysterious is why this 'dissident' kept hold of the files for years, then how he managed to smuggle them out to a Baltic country following the collapse of the USSR right under the watchful eyes of the KGB's successors. The final mystery is how Christopher Andrew was put in exclusive charge of this archive (presumably translated into English for his benefit) and ready for a marketing exclusive with the Rupert Murdoch press empire.

'These are all interesting and difficult questions, but the notion put about by Knight and some others that this may actually have all been done with the Machiavellian connivance of the KGB's successor agency, the SVR, seems a bit too clever or conspiratorial by half.

'The hand of British intelligence is evident, and Andrew clearly has a 'special relationship' with SIS. But what advantage the SVR could hope to reap from this publication remains obscure, especially as it describes a downward trajectory of Soviet intelligence from success long ago to increasing incompetence in latter days.

'Finally, taking the Archive at face value, there is no doubt that it is an extremely valuable addition to the literature on Soviet and Cold War espionage, albeit with questionable origins. Much of the media frenzy that accompanied the book can be set aside as silly, if not irrelevant.

'The British press and public has once again demonstrated that any revelation about spies or moles is guaranteed to rouse what can only be called prurient interest. Ever since Burgess and Maclean made their run to Moscow in 1951, the British have treated espionage as a branch of pornography.'

Mitrokhin, on the basis of his notes, allegedly named a large number of political leaders and others of the UK, France, Germany and other Western countries as working for the KGB.

Among those against whom he leveled allegations were Melita Norwood, a British civil servant, Tom Driberg, a former Labour Party member of Parliament, Raymond Fletcher, another former Labour member of Parliament, Robert Lipka, former clerk at the US National Security Agency, Claude Estier, former leader of the French Socialist Party and a confidant of former President François Mitterrand, Neil Kinnock, former leader of the British Labour Party etc.

He also accused the Committee on Nuclear Disarmament, in which 133 Labour MPs were members one time or the other of being in receipt of funds from the KGB.

Why did the author write the latest second volume which levels allegations against India and other Third World countries?

On September 20, Perseus Books, the publishers of the second volume of the Archives titled The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World in which India figures, circulated the text of an interview with Christopher Andrew on the significance of this volume, in the writing of which he did not have much assistance from Mitrokhin, who passed away in January last year.

Significant quotes from his replies are given below:

'How can we possibly understand Russia today without remembering that Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer? Before he became President he was the last of Boris Yeltsin's prime ministers. And his two predecessors as prime minister were both former intelligence chiefs. And Putin today is surrounded by more advisers who are past or present intelligence officers than any other world leader. If we're going to truly understand them, we need to understand the whole of their past activities. People don't realize how good the KGB was at what they did and, simultaneously, how bad they were.

'Let's take India as an example. Both the Russians and the Americans planted articles in newspapers there from time to time as part of their active measures. According to KGB files, by 1973 it had ten Indian newspapers on its payroll as well as a press agency under its control. During 1972 alone, the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in newspapers there.

'There's no question the Soviets outmatched the Americans in this regard. And these types of active measures were an important and very effective component of the KGB's efforts to persuade credulous Third World leaders that the CIA was plotting against them.

'Another less sinister example of the continuities from that era to this is the appointment last year of Vyacheslav Trubnikov as the new Russian ambassador to India. How did he make his reputation? Less than a generation ago he was the KGB head of political intelligence in Russia. So the guy who used to run KGB intelligence during the Soviet era is now Putin's ambassador in New Delhi. Every continent in the world, or at least some part of every continent, still bears the imprint of the Cold War rivalry between the two superpowers.'

Next: Who should we believe?

B Raman