The Selling of the KGB

By Knight, Amy | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Selling of the KGB


Knight, Amy, The Wilson Quarterly


The post-Cold War world is awash in tantalizing tales from the KGB archives. But the new literature on Soviet espionage may be much less revealing than it appears.

The fascination in the West with spy stories seems limitless. Tales proliferate about the Cambridge Five spy group (Kim Philby et al.), the various New Deal subversives whose treachery in giving away secrets to the Soviet Union went unnoticed for years, and the efforts of the KGB to subvert Western democracies through propaganda and terrorism. But apparently readers do not tire of the accounts, judging from the recent sensational response to The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive, by Christopher Andrew, a history professor at Cambridge University, and Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB officer.

The Sword and the Shield is the latest example of an emerging genre of spy histories based on materials from the KGB archives. For almost a decade now, Western writers and current or former Russian foreign intelligence officers have been collaborating on books about the KGB's foreign operations during the Soviet period. All of these volumes have a similar style and format, with chapter headings such as "The Great Illegals," "Love and Loyalties," and "A Dangerous Game," along with lengthy appendixes listing code names of secret agents and KGB operatives or presenting organizational charts of the KGB. They also tend to cover much of the same ground. Time and again the reader is told about Lenin's Cheka, the assassination of Trotsky, and Soviet atomic espionage.

Despite the redundancy inherent in the genre, these books have found an eager audience in the West. To be sure, there have been critical reviews and complaints about inaccuracies. But for the most part, the new KGB histories have received much favorable attention, and some of them have reached the bestseller list. They also have reopened debates among historians and the general public about key aspects of the Cold War. Indeed, Andrew and Mitrokhin's recent book, replete with new names (or code names) of Western traitors, set off a media frenzy in Britain and fueled impassioned political debates in several European countries about what to do with former spies.

Few would argue that the release of new information on the KGB's operations abroad is anything but a positive development. We should welcome the possibility of finding out what was happening on the other side of the Cold War trenches and perhaps resolving some of the questions that have puzzled researchers for decades. What really happened to American prisoners of war believed to have ended up in the Soviet Union after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam? Do we know all there is to know about the KGB and Lee Harvey Oswald? Even in cases that are closed (such as that of convicted American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), there is a thirst in the West for more details from the Soviet side.

But in the excitement produced by the new revelations, many of the standards by which scholars traditionally judge historical writings have been lowered, or discarded altogether. Historians and general readers alike seem to have forgotten the importance of understanding where the information in a book has come from and who is interpreting and presenting it. "Even the most tendentious historical views can gain credibility in part because the sources of history can he interpreted in different ways--or sensationalized or falsified or used dishonestly or ignored," New York Times journalist Richard Bernstein observed in criticizing a historian's claims that Hitler did not know about the extermination of the Jews.

Bernstein's observation is particularly apt in the case of the new KGB page-turners, given that the source of the revelations is an organization with a long history of falsification and forgery directed against the West. Have these books deepened our historical understanding or have they simply distorted the real picture and caused confusion? …

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