Some habits die hard. How KGB-spies abroad got a second life

In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, a weighty question hung in the air: What would become of the KGB? The Communist Party no longer existed. It made perfect sense that the KGB — the Communist Party’s most trusted instrument for protecting the regime, both inside and outside the country — would also dissolve or at least change beyond recognition. Thus in the 1990s, under Yeltsin’s democratic government, the KGB’s foreign intelligence apparatus was doomed. Or was it?

by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

Early on a sunny October morning in 1990, a year before the collapse of the Soviet regime, the head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence, a middle-aged man with neatly combed dark hair and thin, tightly pressed lips, stepped out of his dacha. One of twenty wooden houses in the Yasenevo Forest (Yasenevo means ‘plenty of ash trees ‘) just a few miles southwest of Moscow, Leonid Shebarshin’s house was part of a dacha colony situated on the edge of a large compound occupied by the KGB’s foreign intelligence service headquarters. These houses were well looked after and furnished with servants to clear the rooms, do laundry, cook meals, and tend the garden.

Central Intelligence Service Yevgeny Primakov
Yevgeni Primakov (1929-2015). Picture Wikimedia

This morning Shebarshin took his time as he strolled through the woods on his way to work. Fifty-five years old, sardonic, aloof, and highly ambitious, he had been at his current post — head of the entire Soviet foreign intelligence operation — for just under two years.

It was a lonely, twenty-five-minute walk to his job — a daily rou­tine that gave him a chance to think. The living compound was quiet, and the manicured path through the woods felt completely deserted. The security fence encircled such a large area that, here in the woods, it was nowhere to be seen.

Shebarshin spotted an early morning runner on a side path. The man, who was wearing a blue sports suit topped by a motley knitted hat, was waving his arms, doing some kind of gymnastic exercise. Shebarshin recognized him immediately as Vladimir Kryuchkov. Once a protégé of Andropov, Kryuchkov was now the chairman of the entire KGB and Shebarshin’s boss. Kryuchkov’s office was in Lubyanka, in downtown Moscow, but he still held on to his beloved dacha in quiet Yasenevo. Shebarshin bowed and kept a respectful distance; he admired his boss.

Shebarshin also felt that he owed Kryuchkov for the meteoric rise of his own career. When Gorbachev had made Kryuchkov head of the KGB two years earlier, Kryuchkov had, in turn, tapped Shebarshin to run the KGB’s foreign intelligence.

Shebarshin was a surprising choice. He had spent most of his spy career in the East — India, Pakistan, and Iran — rather than dealing with the Main Adversary, as the United States was known in Lubyanka.

But Kryuchkov felt that Shebarshin’s experience dealing with Afghanistan in the 1980s justified his promotion to the post. As head of the foreign intelligence agency, Shebarshin oversaw roughly twelve thousand people.

Yasenevo - the Russian Langley

After a twenty-minute walk in the woods, Shebarshin approached a checkpoint. The sign by the gate read Science Research Center — the cover name adopted by the KGB’s foreign intelligence service for its forest headquarters when it relocated from Lubyanka in 1972. The guard recognized him, and the iron gates opened noiselessly. Beyond the checkpoint, Shebarshin took a path that led through a grove of maples to a stumpy seven-story concrete building.

KGB’s spies always had American counterparts on their minds

It was probably no accident that this compound in the woods reached that particular height. The old CIA headquarters at Langley was also exactly seven stories high, and the KGB’s spies always seemed to have their American counterparts on their minds. Who knows? Maybe this relationship was more emotional than commonly thought. The resemblance was strong enough that within Moscow’s CIA station, people referred to the Yasenevo compound as ‘the Russian Langley’.

The seven-story building was only one part of the forest head­quarters. Behind it, toward the west, rose a twenty-two-story office high-rise; to the east was a shorter structure with two wings, like the tail of a dove. This swooping building housed shops with dis­counted prices, a department store, and a clinic; there were two saunas, a swimming pool, several gymnasiums, and multiple tennis courts. All in all, it had the feeling of an exclusive American country club — and if an officer was short on time, a masseuse could be summoned to his office.

Glasnost vs. secrecy

This morning, like every morning on entering the giant lobby, Shebarshin passed beneath the inevitable, stern-faced, granite bust of Vladimir Lenin. It was relatively early — 9:00 a.m. — and the corridors were still empty. A private bank of elevators whisked him to the third floor. A duty officer opened the door to the waiting room of Shebarshin’s office, which was inhabited by two very noisy parrots in a birdcage — a gift from colleagues at the Cuban secret services. Their cries drowned out the ticking of a loud electronic clock — also a gift from colleagues, this time from Vietnam.

Everything looked normal and proceeded according to the usual routine. But the second-most powerful man in the KGB was anxious. He entered his office and glanced at the huge table with eight phones on it. Four portraits — Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Andropov, and Gorbachev — stared down at him from the wall. All four men played crucial roles in the fate of the Soviet secret police; Lenin and Dzerzhinsky created it, and Andropov enlarged its role. But Gorbachev’s new policy of glasnost (‘openness’) was undermining the KGB by revealing the truth about Lubyanka’s crimes.

Shebarshin scanned the first reports of the day. One from Ber­lin contained the depressing news of what he termed the ‘reprisals’ being carried out against former employees of the Stasi — the once-powerful and feared East German secret police. In January, angry citizens had stormed the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, and Stasi leaders were jailed. Today’s report said that the newly reunited Germany had just created a new government agency to deal with the Stasi files — a first step toward making the top-secret documents available to the public. Shebarshin shook his head. He didn’t like it at all. His pack of cigarettes was almost empty, but he lit another one. Thinking of his beleaguered German colleagues, he made a mental note to remind the Kremlin of its obligations to old friends.

Leonid Shebarshin
Leonid Sherbarshin. Picture Wikimedia

At the regular afternoon conference that day, Shebarshin looked around. What he saw, sitting before him, were men in their fifties and sixties with tired, nervous faces. These KGB generals were clearly on edge. They described what they saw as failing discipline within Yasenevo — officers had started drinking in their rooms, leav­ing empty bottles everywhere. There were tensions between senior staff and personnel; a deluge of anonymous letters from agents was full of complaints about their superiors.

Shebarshin knew that the political climate in the country was changing, and he understood that the KGB was under attack. All the people in his office that day were saying the same thing in one way or another: They were not sure the Kremlin still needed them or that it would continue to protect them. That’s why people were quitting. Now he had more bad news for them: Gorbachev was supportive of the KGB but would not act for its support. ‘We need to lobby hard in parliament and the journalistic corps, and with civic organizations,’ he told his subordinates. In other words, the KGB could not count on the Kremlin anymore. It would have to find a way to protect itself.

Groundbreaking idea: protect yourself

That idea was groundbreaking. The KGB had always been a party instrument, its role to serve as the Communist Party’s advance regiment. And it had always been completely under party control: the party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. But that spring, in March of 1990, the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union had changed the Soviet Constitu­tion, removing the article pronouncing the Communist Party the leading political force in the country. The KGB was suddenly and simultaneously left without a boss, protector, and supervisor.

Shebarshin was working on a solution. He shared his idea about what his people in Yasenevo should do in new circumstances. ‘The Plan of Action should be prepared,’ he explained. To save itself, foreign intelligence should act on its own, independently from the KGB in Lubyanka. To implement this plan of action, Shebarshin chose the department called Service A.

Service A usually dealt with disinformation. One of its main tasks was to conduct ‘active measures ‘ — that is to say, to spread fake news made up by the KGB around the world. As Shebarshin described it, ‘Service A generates and formulates specific ideas, pro­duces false papers, publishes literature and media reports authored by dummy authors.’

Vintage Cold War — maximum political and moral damage on opponents

Shebarshin had come to think that Yasenevo could be saved only by deceiving the public — in other words, by applying at home the methods that the KGB’s Service A had been using abroad for decades.

Shebarshin knew and trusted Service A: ‘several dozen experienced and intelligent people’ as he put it. Service A was also led by an old friend, a man he had shared a room with while at the KGB spy school and who he trusted to this day.

Furthermore, Service A was one of the most competent and industrious units in Yasenevo.

‘The ideology of our active measures during the Cold War was simple — to inflict maximum political and moral damage on our opponents,’ Shebarshin later wrote in his memoirs. If this sounds more like the description of weapons capability than of the objective of an intelligence unit, it is for good reason: Shebarshin and others saw foreign intelligence as exactly that, a weapon. And in October 1990, Shebarshin decided to redirect this weapon and aim it at the Russian people.

All of a sudden, Service A became so precious that Shebarshin felt he personally needed to safeguard its existence. To accomplish this, he chose the usual tactics: denial and deceit. ‘There is no Disinformation Directorate within the Foreign intelligence, ‘ he assured the public that same year in an interview. ‘We completely rule out violence, brutality, and interference in the internal affairs of other countries. ‘

Shebarshin secured the approval of his colleagues and dismissed the meeting. Now he could turn to the document that was lying on his table. It was a draft titled, ‘On the active measures of the foreign intelligence service of the KGB, ‘ prepared by his old friend, the head of Section A. Shebarshin read the paper very carefully. Several ideas were forming in the back of his mind.

From KGB to SVR

Eight months later, in August 1991, KGB chairman Kryuchkov led a military coup d’état against Gorbachev, who was vacationing in Crimea. Three days of the standoff on the streets of Moscow followed. Then, on August 21, inspired by the charismatic Boris Yeltsin, the democratic crowds of Muscovites defeated the putschists. Shebarshin played his cards well during the putsch, distanc­ing himself from his boss and from Lubyanka. When Shebarshin returned to Moscow, Gorbachev made him temporary chairman of the KGB. He had the job for one day: on August 23, he was replaced by a liberal outsider. But Shebarshin held onto his position as chief of foreign intelligence for another month. Then he left — after all, this new democratic Russian government was determined to reform the KGB.

Two months later, as part of the same effort, foreign intelligence was split from the KGB. In December, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Yevgeny Primakov - the Soviet answer to Henry Kissinger

Foreign intelligence got a new name — the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or Foreign Intelligence Service) — and a new chief — Evgeni Primakov, an imposing, heavy-set, high-ranking Communist Party official with the looks of a respectable academician.

Primakov was an expert on the Middle East, just like Shebarshin. Cunning and cautious, Primakov was the Soviet answer to Henry Kissinger; he had spent decades shuttling between Moscow and the regimes in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Israel.

It was an uneasy time for many generals in Yasenevo. The threat of being completely disbanded still loomed large: the new demo­cratic Russian government under Yeltsin had begun investigating the KGB’s role in the failed coup d’état. Foreign intelligence, or SVR, badly needed to rebrand its public image. The goal was to do that without actually making any internal changes — which meant that Shebarshin’s plan of action still looked like a valid option.

Media policy

Primakov immediately invited Shebarshin back to Yasenevo to serve as his deputy. Shebarshin politely declined — he was too ambitious to accept a subordinate role. Undeterred, Primakov set off down the path that strikingly resembled the one Shebarshin had laid out just a few months earlier with his Service A team.

To implement the plan, Primakov first created several new organizations devised by the Service A specialists. He green-lighted Shebarshin’s initiative to set up the Association of Veterans of For­eign Intelligence, an old-boys network of former generals of the PGU (Pervoye Glavnoye Upravlenie) and KGB, as a front organization. This ‘veterans association’ formed the unofficial channel of communication for outsiders — journalists and historians — with the team at Yasenevo.

Next, a few easygoing officers were chosen to man the newly established Foreign Intelligence (SVR) press office, which occupied a blue and white mansion on quiet Kolpachny Lane in central Moscow. There, the press officers would welcome Russian and foreign journalists. After that, with the help of the veterans' associa­tion, these press officers set off to promote a remarkable four-part narrative.

The first part of the message was that, given that intelligence methods had never varied, from biblical times to the CIA to the KGB, there was no need to reform Russia’s foreign intelligence.

Second, during the Cold war, the KGB’s spies spent the bulk of their time in the West. Thus, according to the message, it was only logical that they were more open-minded than the rest of the KGB. With their broader frame of reference, Foreign Intelligence officers were also much more critical of Soviet reality than their in-country KGB counterparts.

Third, as spies based abroad, they couldn’t, and therefore didn’t, take part in the disgusting business of prosecuting dissent in the Soviet Union.

Fourth and finally — went the narrative — Soviet intelligence ceased the practice of carrying out assassination operations abroad as early as the late 1950s. In fact, claimed the press officers with bold specificity, the very last operation was the cyanide gas poisoning of the head of the military wing of a Ukrainian émigré organization on the streets of Munich in 1959

This narrative was, to say the least, fantastical. Nonetheless, the SVR used it successfully, skillfully cultivating an image of the agency as the natural embodiment of the old KGB’s most liberal elements.

SVR Yasenovo FotoVK
Headquarters SVR in Yasenevo. Picture Wikimedia

Primakov added his own touch as well: In January 1993 he made a public presentation of the first-ever ‘SVR Analytical Report.’ The report, reflecting on the global threat of the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction after the end of the Cold War,12 constituted an effort to make the SVR look like a sort of foreign policy think tank. That, of course, was the reason Primakov made the report non-classified. He also renamed officers at Yasenevo: instead of ‘operatives, ‘ they were ‘referents ‘ — consultants. The SVR even ceased, officially, to treat the United States as the Main Adversary; Primakov merged the first, North American section, which dealt with the United States, with the section that covered Latin and South America, signifying that now things were no longer political — it was just about geography.

The rebranding operation was a success. This new image of foreign intelligence was even accepted by many of Russia’s liberal journalists. The use of active measures within Russia proved effective, just as Shebarshin had imagined.

Marketing in the USA

Now it was time to try to promote this progressive, new image abroad, namely in the United States. If the new Russian intelligence could prove to the West they could be intelligence partners in areas of mutual interest – say, in fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or terrorism – that could help to lift the international pressure for reform. In that, the Russian spies largely succeeded.

The Russian foreign intelligence also wanted to keep the tactics of active measures intact, despite the pressure from the Americans. In that, they succeeded too.

In the decades to come, Russian spies kept using active measures beyond their own borders—first, to improve their own image abroad and, second, to do what they had done all through the Cold War: help the Kremlin to achieve its ends in the West.

From this time on, the Russian intelligence enjoyed a very good reputation in Russian society, selling successfully the new liberal image to Russian liberals, ending up with the former chief of the SVR press-bureau having his own show at Echo Moskvy for many years,- the embodiment of liberal voice in the country.

This long read is excerpted from
 Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad. PublicAffairs / Hachette Book Group, 2019.
More info at the website of the Hachette Book Group.

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