The World Was Going Our Way

I’m still in spyland.

This is a sequel to the excellent first volume of the Mitrokhin Archives. However, I wrote no review of that and have no plans to. (It’s a thick book, like this one, and I’d have to re-read it.)

Review: The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, 2005.9780465003136

Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who had access to some of the organization’s archives on its foreign intelligence work. From 1972 to 1984, he’d take some documents home every weekend, make notes on them or, sometimes, copy certain documents in full. He’d hide the notes under the floorboards of his dacha.

In 1992, he defected to the British government with several boxes of those notes.

Whereas the first volume of the Mitrokhin archives, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, documented KGB operations in Europe and North America and Australia, this one covers operations in the rest of the world though Japan, definitely not a Third World country, is included.

493 pages of this book are text filled with hundreds of names of agents, their codenames as well as the codenames of operations and places. The rest of the 677 pages are indexes, appendices, footnotes, and a bibliography. This book is not a light read and near the hardcore end of the spectrum for those interested in espionage as well as foreign policy and modern history.

Some high-level things jump out though.

First is how much influence the KGB had on Soviet foreign policy. There are numerous instances in this book about how Marxist revolutionaries wanted to deal with their KGB contacts rather than the Soviet Foreign ministry.

Second is the baleful influence of one KGB leader, Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as head of the Soviet Communist party, on world history. Most spectacular was his paranoid belief that, under the Reagan Administration, the United States was planning a nuclear first strike on the USSR. Under Operation RYAN, KGB officers throughout the world were instructed to gather evidence of this. It was only after KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky defected (an incident not covered in this book) that the United Kingdom and the United States realized this and moderated their rhetoric to de-escalate tensions. But Andropov was also instrumental in campaigning for the USSR to crush the Hungarian (though as an ambassador and not KGB member) and Czechoslovakian Revolutions. He was obsessed with “ideological subversion” in Russia and the Third World Marxist countries he enthusiastically supported. In particular, he was concerned about Jewish dissidents in the USSR. (Brezhnev thought his obsession with Zionism was “making us stupid”, but Andropov was allowed to persist.) Finally, it was Andropov’s optimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan that led the USSR to become involved in a nine year war there.

Third is how dysfunctional the KGB was in some ways. Until 1973, Service 1, the KGB’s analytical section for foreign intelligence, was something of a “punishment posting” and tended to tell the Party leadership what they wanted to hear. The problem of politicized intelligence persisted, to a lesser degree, until Gorbachev’s reforms. It wasn’t just in Operation RYAN that KGB officers dutifully collected what they were told to regardless of their personal misgivings as to its value. The KGB, particularly under Andropov, sycophantishly produced what the Party wanted to hear: that their efforts in the Third World were spreading the proletarian revolution in various countries. Andropov also used KGB funds to flatter Brezhnev, things like paying foreign agents to right a flattering biography of Brezhnev and then passing it off as proof of his international popularity or suggesting a revolutionary leader give a gift of an expensive foreign car to Brezhnev, a car paid for with KGB funds. The KGB also gave the population of the USSR a too rosy picture of the USSR’s popularity in the world.

Fourth is how much all this attempt to spread a revolution worldwide cost the Soviet Union. The Soviet Empire was a peculiar empire in the outflow of money from the center to the provinces of its Third World allies. More than once, in the case of Cuba and Ethiopia, the KGB allies in East Germany, the Stasi, commented on how hopelessly, even by USSR standards, these economies were managed.

Still, in 1980, “the world was going our way” according to the KGB, and America, its “main adversary”, agreed. By 1991, things were not only not going the USSR’s way. It didn’t even exist.

The book is organized by geographic areas: Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Each section constructs a general history from public documents – histories, biographies, government reports – and inserts the unique information of the Mitrokhin archive at the relevant points. We hear of KGB boobytrapped arms caches, forgeries, agent recruitment, the information supplied, embassy break-ins, and assassinations (many more planned than carried out). The legacies of some these “active measures” are still with us in the persistent rumor than Americans kidnap Latin America children for organ parts or that HIV was created in an American bacteriological warfare lab. A lot of KGB work, though, was just planting newspaper stories and paying various political parties.

Mitrokhin didn’t have access to all the KGB’s archives and sometimes his notes left out some information, and these instances are noted.

In Latin America, what most surprises is that how much Fidel Castro annoyed the Soviets at times, particularly in his interference in African politics and egomaniacal desire to be seen as a leader of communist world revolution. Signifying how much the Castro regime was propped up by the Soviets is Castro’s lament at how disastrous the end of the USSR was for Cuba.

In the Middle East, Yasser Arafat was also not regarded as an asset, but we do hear about the KGB’s involvement in Middle Eastern terrorism. The Asad regime in Syria and Sadaam Hussein were not the most reliable of allies. Saddam Hussein, despite his admiration for Joseph Stalin, which the KGB cultivated, made it hard for the KGB to operate in Iraq and suppressed Iraqi communists. Syria and Iraq wanted Soviet money and arms but didn’t always take direction from Moscow. The Iranian revolution caught the KGB by surprise.

In Asia, things seemed to be going well until Mao split with the Soviet Union. Then China and thwarting Maoist thought worldwide became a major KGB goal with China being deemed the next adversary after America. China, after the split, became a “denied area” to the KGB, very hard to operate in – especially since, under the earlier alliance, the KGB had turned over a list of its agents in China to Mao’s government. Incidentally, Mao’s head of intelligence, Kang Sheng, was a student in Russia during the Red Terror. He took notes and launched his own version in China. His enthusiasm for terror would be replicated under the Marxist governments of Ethiopia and Afghanistan. (A common phrase throughout the book is revolutionary leaders, after coming to power, launching terrors to root out plots, “real or imagined” against them.)

KGB operations in Afghanistan get two chapters, one before the invasion and one during the Afghan war. Mitrokhin, in fact, wrote a whole paper about the subject for the Cold War International History Project.

The corrupt political systems of India, Pakistan, and Japan resulted in several KGB assets in those countries. Some were agents, taking direct orders from the KGB. Others were “confidential contacts” who covertly supplied information to the KGB but didn’t directly take orders from them. Japan proved a very lucrative source of technological and scientific information, particularly on American weapons since some of their parts were manufactured in Japan. However, the great deficiencies of the Soviet economy prevented the data from being used in much of meaningful way. If there was area of KGB operations in the Third World that could have justified the expense, it was Japan.

KGB efforts against Muslims in the Soviet Union gets its own chapter. What strikes one is the massive corruption of KGB and Muslim party officials in the future “stans” of Asia. This corruption was known and largely tolerated. Again Andropov played a key role in this.

As to Africa … well, Africa with Soviet aid was as pathetic as Africa with Western aid. The numerous revolutions the KGB was involved with end in bloodshed, corruption, and tribal and ideological disputes among party members. (There is an interesting, revealing snippet, of a KGB officer meeting with Somalians and wondering why one persists in wearing a military jacket with one sleeve ten inches longer than the other.) One interesting revelation is the collusion of the USSR with apartheid South Africa in maintaining their virtual duopoly on diamonds, gold, and platinum all the while the KGB waged a propaganda campaign against the regime and aided the African National Congress.

Since this book is from 2005, Andrews (Mitrokhin died in 2004) had the typical sanguinity about South Africa’s future. However, it seems on its way to sanguinity of a different sort as the disaster unfashionably predicted by some seems occurring if at a slower rate.

Revealing anecdotes of exasperated KGB officers show up every now and then, usually with KGB officers charged with carrying out some order they knew to be pointless or stupid from the KGB Center. One has a KGB officer tasked with asking a British ambassador how a KGB defector exfiltrated from Iran with a British passport. As if the ambassador would tell him.

Highly recommended for those interested in espionage and also as a look at Third World history in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

More reviews of works on espionage history are indexed on the espionage page.

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