The KGB and the Battle for the Third World

By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

Basic. 677 pp. $29.95

Yes, Virginia, there really was a KGB, nasty and brutish and also pretty dumb much of the time. So we are reminded by this second volume produced by Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge University historian, from a juicy cache of KGB documents copied and spirited out of Russia by Vasili Mitrokhin. He was a bureaucrat in the old Soviet intelligence agency who got the last laugh on his old bosses by stealing many of their best secrets. The first volume, The Sword and the Shield, used the Mitrokhin documents to show the extent of Soviet espionage in the Western world during the Cold War. It was chock-full of new information that tended to confirm the darkest Western worries about what Soviet spies were up to in the four decades after World War II. It sold tens of thousands of copies in Europe and America.

The publishers of this book are hoping for a similar commercial success and are doing their best to hype their product. "Newly Revealed Secrets," the dust jacket promises. But while the information divulged here can be fascinating, it is far from earthshaking. The book may cause a stir in India by demonstrating just how thoroughly news organizations and politics were penetrated by the KGB in the Indira Gandhi era, but there are no startling surprises or sensations disclosed here.

And frustratingly, the book adopts a KGB-centric view of Soviet foreign policy that implies that the cold warriors in Moscow had a triumphant sense that, as the title says, the world was going their way. Andrew, a serious scholar who provides extremely useful context for many of the anecdotes he recounts, falls short on the larger issue: the broad context in which the KGB and the CIA played their Cold War games in the Third World. Only at the end of his book does he acknowledge how badly things were going for the Soviets in the most important sense: Their entire system was failing, a process that began long before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and initiated the changes that, in just six years, unraveled the Soviet empire.

In the years after 1960 that are the subject of this book, the world was never really going Moscow's way, despite anxieties to the contrary in many Western countries. Soviet political leaders never behaved as though they expected the United States and its allies to lose their contest with the Soviet Union. By the early 1970s, when I spent three years in the Soviet Union as The Post's Moscow correspondent, Soviet communism was still a system but no longer a living ideology. At all levels of society, cynicism had trumped revolutionary zeal.

The Mitrokhin documents show that the KGB was more susceptible to Marxist-Leninist delusions than the Politburo, which isn't surprising. The KGB was a police organization. It was a thoroughly Soviet institution, just as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was a thoroughly American one. Also like Hoover's FBI, it was a little weird and not typical of its society's political class. Cops are a special breed; they tend to see the world darkly and aren't very good at grays. The KGB officers depicted in this book are familiar to anyone who dealt with our G-Men in the Hoover era -- and, often, laughably incompetent.

Reading about the KGB's efforts to influence events in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, one is struck again and again by how hapless they were. Foreign leaders repeatedly took Soviet arms and money but refused to toe Moscow's line or do anything truly helpful for the Soviet Union. Cuba's Fidel Castro and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser might have been the very best at this, but there were many more.

For instance, Andrew and Mitrokhin reveal that the Costa Rican social democrat Jose Figueres Ferrer took $300,000 in KGB money to help finance his political activities while remaining a staunch anticommunist. His only tangible concession was to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union after he became president in 1953; he also agreed to occasional meetings with KGB agents. The "big men" in Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere who called themselves Marxist-Leninists were well-armed and well-funded by the Soviets, but they were all failures in power who only debased the Marxist-Leninist currency on their continent.

The Mitrokhin documents confirm that the Soviets eagerly helped Nicaragua's Sandinistas and the left-leaning Salvador Allende in Chile, but they also show a total absence of optimism about either. The KGB realized that Allende was doomed long before the military coup that ousted him in 1973, and the Sandinistas' brief victory in Nicaragua came as a surprise. In the case of Allende, the documents show, Yuri Andropov, the longtime leader of the KGB, actually hid his agency's pessimistic prognosis from his comrades in the Soviet political leadership.

Andrew identifies the mid-1970s as a time when the Soviets seemed most hopeful about their prospects in the Third World. In fact, this was the moment when a doddering Politburo deluded itself into playing serious games in far-flung corners of the globe. This followed the American defeat in Vietnam, Richard M. Nixon's willingness to treat Leonid Brezhnev as an equal and a period of economic difficulties in the West -- all read in Moscow as signs of American decline. Using Cubans as their surrogates, the Soviets intervened in peripheral nations of southern Africa and, in 1979, launched the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. In 1983, Andropov, for years the keeper of the KGB flame, became the Soviet leader, but he died after just 15 months in power; his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died 13 months later. Then came Gorbachev (in 1985); and then the end.

After recounting many intriguing details about the secret struggle for influence in the Third World, Andrew devotes much of the conclusion of his book to reaffirming the obvious: The KGB was an ugly institution that tried to hurt American interests wherever it could. But did this need further proving? To my mind, it would have been more useful to draw larger conclusions from the many examples he provides of the clumsy ineffectiveness of an organization that scared us for too long.

Ultimately, The World Was Going Our Way confirms a conversation I had in the early 1970s with Raisa Orlova, a literary scholar and dissident. At the time, I asked her to explain how the KGB's pursuit of Soviet dissidents could have been so clumsy. "Why should they be better," she asked, "than the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture?" In the end, the KGB did no better at fomenting a world revolution than the Ministry of Agriculture did at feeding the Soviet people. *

Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post, is the author of "Russia: The People and the Power" and "Why Gorbachev Happened."

Fidel Castro, left, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960