2001-09-30: The Sword and the Shield

The Sword and the Shield

The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (1999)

by Christopher Andrew (1941-) and Vasili Mitrokhin (1922-2004)

This is a large book, but its size is justified by its content.

Mitrokhin was born in 1922, and began his KGB (then called MGB) career in 1948. In 1956, after expressing some mild criticism,  he was removed from field work and assigned to the archives of the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence). By the early 1970s he was deeply influenced by the struggle of dissidents in the Soviet Union. Inspired by the attempts of dissidents to document the shortcomings of the Soviet Union, particularly in regards to human rights issues, he decided to create a classified variant, based on his knowledge of the KGB’s activities. In 1972, he was in charge of moving the FCD archives from the old Lubyanka headquarters to a new building. He was able to take extensive notes on any FCD files he wished, later transcribing and hiding them at his home. He did so until he retired in 1984. In 1992 he was exfiltrated to England, with six cases full of notes.

Mitrokhin apparently selected Andrew as the author to prepare a public account of his notes, presumably on the basis of his previous writing on intelligence matters in UK, the US, and the USSR.

The scope is enormous, from the early Cheka in 1917 up to Mitrokhi’s retirement. It covers the Great Terror of the 1930s, when Stalin sought to eliminate every internal and exiled opponent of his one-party state; the “Great Illegals” of the 1930s; the successes of World War II; the importance of signals intelligence; the Cold War; the impact of science and technology intelligence on Soviet progress; the challenges to Soviet hegemony in Hungary, Czecholslovakia, and Poland; and ends with Yeltsin.

The book is full of amazing revelations and insights (not to mention some sensational facts). Among them is the degree to which a determined security/intelligence organization can control the activities of the population of a large state, as well as its client states. Countering this is the degree to which a small cadre of dissidents, with public support from the international community, can undermine that control. Also amazing is the extent to which Stalin’s and Kruschev’s conspiracy theories and paranoia acted to sabotage the success of the KGB; in the end, the facts discovered by agents in the field were subverted in self-serving reports to the political leadership, which merely reinforced the preconceived ideas of the leaders. One fact that remains amazing to Andrew himself is the manner in which the contribution of intelligence to policy has been ignored by historians, and even participants. He points out that Kissinger’s and Vance’s memoirs, which cover the period 1969-1977  and 1977-1980 contain no mention of Andropov, who gradually increased his power from his appointment as head of the KGB in 1967 to become Brezhnev’s successor in 1982. Similarly, Kryuchkov (KGB chairman 1988-1991) attempted a coup against Gorbachev to prevent the collapse of the USSR. Primakov was the first head of the SVR, successor organization to the KGB’s FCD; yet “A much-praised American study of Yeltsin’s Russia, published on the eve of Primakov’s appointment as prime minister in September 1998, contained not a single reference to him.”

Most of Mitrokhin’s work consists of notes summarizing files, with selected details. However, he provided the verbatim transcript of the interrogation of the dissident Yuri Orlov, whose integrity and courage, contrasted with the inability of his interrogator to break him, clearly made an impression on Mitrokhin.

The book, though long, ought to be read by anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century.


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