The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB

By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

Basic. 700 pp. $32.50

No one does spies like the Brits. There ought to be a musical comedy about all of the troubles Whitehall has had with espionage scandals over the years: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and the latest, Melita Norwood, code name Hola. Opening scene: The 87-year-old Norwood waltzes into her garden in Bexleyheath, a typical London suburb, in her lavender floral print blouse and sensible tweed skirt and tells the assembled reporters that of course she spied for the Russians. Good chaps, on our side in the war. Didn't seem fair to leave them behind, did it? Sorry to have brought you out on a Sunday. She turns and skips back inside, without answering questions.

The outing of Melita Norwood, who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets during World War II, was the story that made headlines after the publication of "The Sword and the Shield," Cambridge don Christopher Andrew's encyclopedic study of the KGB. The book is based, we are told, on thousands of documents smuggled out of headquarters by Vasili Mitrokhin, the Soviet spy agency's chief archivist, in his shoes and clothing. Dense, meticulously footnoted, written by Britain's leading intelligence historian, "The Sword and the Shield" will stand as an indispensable reference work on Soviet espionage for years to come, although it is hardly light reading.

Among the book's intriguing revelations are these: For a time, almost a year, the KGB gave way to paranoia and suspected that the Cambridge Five, including Philby, were actually British double agents; nothing in the files seen by Mitrokhin suggests that the KGB had any role in the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II; the most important objective of "Service A," the KGB's disinformation arm, was to prevent Ronald Reagan's election to a second term (a goal shared by Walter Mondale, who had no better luck); one famed Soviet "illegal," a spy operating without benefit of diplomatic cover, created his own by becoming a top Costa Rican diplomat; another illegal, Anatoly Rudenko, became the piano tuner for Nelson Rockefeller and Vladimir Horowitz, which meant he must have been a pretty good piano tuner, although he found few secrets inside the Steinways; the KGB bugged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Air Force One and Henry Kissinger; and it hatched plans "to disrupt the power supply of the entire state" of New York (which Con Edison managed to accomplish last summer without any help at all).

Mitrokhin first offered a sample of his wares to the CIA in a Baltic capital, and was (surprise) turned away by the agency as, ho hum, another defector. Thereupon he turned to the British, who, realizing what a gold mine he was, welcomed him with open arms and in 1992 whisked him to England, where he now lives under a new identity. MI6, the British secret intelligence service, is said to have slipped into Mitrokhin's apartment in Moscow and made off with six large suitcases containing the rest of his trove.

A book sponsored by an intelligence agency must be approached with caution. The "Penkovsky Papers" of the 1960s, for instance, turned out to be not a book written by Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a major Soviet spy for Britain and the United States, but a manuscript cobbled together by the CIA from his debriefings and documents. MI6 and MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service, presumably have their own agenda in making the Mitrokhin material public. An educated guess would be that their primary purpose is to rattle and embarrass the SVR, successor to the KGB's foreign intelligence arm, and to panic Russian spies still at liberty in the West into making a mistake, or even confessing. Indeed, Andrew says on the very first page of his book: "No one who spied for the Soviet Union . . . can now be confident that his or her secrets are still secure."

A truth-in-packaging issue has emerged in the controversy surrounding the book in Britain. Andrew is a careful and respected scholar but nowhere does he discuss the circumstances under which he was selected by British intelligence to write the book. There is nothing necessarily improper in the government's decision or in the author's good fortune, but Andrew owed it to his readers to explain the origins of the work. He does not. Aside from this missed obligation, it would have made an interesting part of the story.

Andrew clearly could not use those portions of the Mitrokhin files that British intelligence put off limits. He does say that for "legal reasons" certain individuals cannot be identified except by code name, or even mentioned at all. The book--perhaps this is one example?--says nothing at all about Felix Bloch, the former State Department official fired nine years ago when the FBI suspected he had passed secrets to the KGB. (Bloch, who has never been charged with a crime, claimed he only gave stamps to a man he thought was a fellow philatelist.)

In London, publication of the book has proved awkward for the British government, even though the British secret services obviously released the material to Andrew. Questions have been raised in Parliament and an investigation has been launched by a parliamentary committee into why there have been no prosecutions of persons identified as spies, and of how Andrew was tapped to write the book. British spy writers are famously jealous of each other, often publicly attacking their rivals in fierce literary catfights. Andrew is generally fair in his treatment of other writers but even he cannot resist tossing several darts at the late John Costello, author of "Mask of Treachery," a popular biography of Anthony Blunt, the Soviet spy who rose to become curator of the queen's art collection.

The book, despite its subtitle, is not based exclusively on Mitrokhin's archive, as the author notes. Andrew draws on many other published works to tell old, familiar tales. But they are told well and accurately, even if Mitrokhin's notes often add little or nothing to what is already known. In many instances, however, Mitrokhin's files provide fascinating new insights into old cases. More than two decades ago, a Pentagon task force concluded that no matter how classified, locked up and protected, there are no secrets in the world anymore. With the help of Vasili Mitrokhin and MI6, and to the undoubted dismay of the SVR, Christopher Andrew has proved the truth of that adage.