(First published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, September 20, 2005)
The end of the Cold War almost killed spy fiction. John LeCarre turned his attention to pharma multinationals and dug up Smiley’s old cases, other spy writers were forced into the parallel world of technogeek conspiracies.
I have to thank Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin for returning me to the illicit pleasure of that genre of books, where the CIA and the KGB faced off in intricate tangos and where codenames like NEVEROVA or RADAR were employed in deadly earnest.
When the first part of The Mitrokhin Archive came out in 1999, it was hard for those in intelligence to comprehend the range and depth of the information that Vasili Mitrokhin offered. Mitrokhin had worked for the KGB for 30 years in the foreign intelligence division. In 1992, he walked into the British Embassy in a Baltic country and offered to share his secret and very detailed notes. The first part of the Archives was hammered into shape by him and Christopher Andrew, the Oxford don and a leading expert on intelligence. Serialized in The Times in 1999, Part One covered the KGB’s activities in Europe and the West.
Christopher Andrew writes, “For a quarter of the century, the KGB, unlike the CIA, believed that the Third World was the arena in which it could win the Cold War.” Mitrokhin, who retained a taste for home-made cabbage soup and the habit of doing push-ups in the middle of meetings well into old age, died in January 2004. By that time, he and Andrew had shaped the second part of The Mitrokhin Archive; it covers the KGB’s activities in the Third World.
Two chapters of The Mitrokhin Archives: II are devoted to India. In Nehru’s time, “The Indian embassy in Moscow was being penetrated by the KGB, using its usual varieties of the honey trap. The Indian diplomat PROKHOR was recruited…with the help of a female swallow, codenamed NEVEROVA…” By the 1960s, the KGB had become, according to the authors, the main conduit for “both money and secret communications from Moscow” to the CPI.
During Indira Gandhi’s first visit to the Soviet Union in 1953, the KGB “surrounded her with handsome, attentive male admirers”. By 1969, the Indo-Soviet “special relationship” had grown; “encouraged by Moscow, the CPI swung its support behind Mrs Gandhi”. The situation in the 1970s sounds like a bizarre free market for intelligence: “It seemed like the entire country was for sale; the KGB—and the CIA—had deeply penetrated the Indian government. After a while neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realizing their enemy would know all about it the next day.” Andrew says the KGB was better at exploiting “the corruption that became endemic” under Indira Gandhi’s regime, in an era when “suitcases full of banknotes” routinely found their way to her residence. (The suitcases themselves were not returned.)
The CPI had no cause for complaint: “By 1972, the import-export business founded by the CPI a decade earlier to trade with the Soviet Union had contributed more than 10 million rupees to Party funds.” Nor was the media left out: according to KGB files, there were “ten Indian newspapers on its payroll” by 1972.
These are some of the revelations that have drawn such vigorous reactions—denial, counter-accusations and stout defenses of the dead—from our politicians. But the India chapters form only part of The Mitrokhin Archive; Andrew is equally illuminating about the KGB’s role in Cuba, in Africa, their machinations with Allende, and the high cost that the special relationship with India extracted in terms of their ability to handle Pakistan. Most of Mitrokhin’s information in Part One was accurate; there’s little reason to speculate, as some have, that Part Two of the archives is either inaccurate or part of a darkly twisted plot by the CIA to discredit the shining legacy of two of India’s most prominent political parties.
Ignore the hysteria; read the Archives as a window into the Cold War. As Andrew says, perhaps the most important aspect of this book is that it redresses the way in which we’ve seen the Cold War, where the CIA’s role has always been the focus of attention. It turns out that the KGB’s footsoldiers, spies, honeytrap specialists and bankers were equally busy. Until John LeCarre writes his next book, this is as close as you’re going to get to cloak-and-dagger spy stories.