The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB

By Christopher Andrew; Vasili Mitrokhin | Go to book overview

THREE
THE GREAT ILLEGALS

On January 30, 1930 the Politburo (effectively the ruling body of both the Party and the Soviet Union) met to review INO operations and ordered it to increase intelligence collection in three target areas: Britain, France and Germany (the leading European powers); the Soviet Union's western neighbors, Poland, Romania, Finland and the Baltic states; and Japan, its main Asian rival.1 The United States, which established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union only in 1933, was not mentioned. Though the first Soviet illegal had been sent across the Atlantic as early as 1921,2 the USA's relative isolation from world affairs made American intelligence collection still a secondary priority.3

On Politburo instructions, the main expansion of INO operations was achieved through increasing the number of illegal residencies, each with up to seven (in a few cases as many as nine) illegal officers. By contrast, even in Britain and France legal residencies operating under diplomatic cover in Soviet embassies had three officers at most and sometimes only one. Their main function was to provide channels of communications with the Centre and other technical support for the more highly regarded illegals.4 During the 1920s both legal and illegal residencies had had the right to decide what agents to recruit and how to recruit them. On succeeding Trilisser as head of INO in 1930, however, Artur Artuzov, the hero of the SINDIKAT and TREST operations, complained that the existing agent network contained "undesirable elements." He decreed that future agent recruitment required the authorization of the Centre. Partly because of problems of communication, his instructions were not always carried out.5

The early and mid- 1930s were to be remembered in the history of Soviet foreign intelligence as the era of the "Great Illegals," a diverse group of remarkably talented individuals who collectively transformed OGPU agent recruitment and intelligence collection. Post-war illegals had to endure long training periods designed to establish their bogus identities, protect their cover and prepare them for operations in the West. Their pre-war predecessors were successful partly because they had greater freedom from bureaucratic routine and more opportunity to use their own initiative. But they also had to contend with far softer targets than their successors. By the standards of the Cold War, most inter-war Western security systems were primitive. The individual flair of the Great Illegals combined with the relative vulnerability of their

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