Vasili Mitrokhin

KGB archivist who defected to Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Vasili Mitrokhin, intelligence officer: born Yurasovo, Soviet Union 3 March 1922; officer, KGB 1948-84, chief archivist 1972-84; married (one son); died 23 January 2004.

Like so many Soviet officials who washed their hands of the system during the Gorbachev era, Vasili Mitrokhin dated the beginning of his loss of faith from the time of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956, which exposed Stalin's abuse of power, raising for the first time the question of the regime's purpose, promising serious reform.

Many such people have averred that during the three long subsequent decades they lived dual mental lives, serving the state and advancing their careers, while also surreptitiously nourishing the seeds of the dissent that would one day burst forth as the demand for fundamental political reform.

Mitrokhin's extensive reading of KGB files, especially once he was made head of the KGB's archives in 1972, brought home with even greater clarity the criminality of the regime to which he had devoted his labour, and it led him to set about collecting and annotating his own record of the files under his control - stretching back to the time of the Bolshevik revolution and covering most major aspects of the KGB's work throughout the world - with the aim of one day bringing it to light in Russia.

He had joined the KGB in 1948. He served as an undercover agent in the Middle East and at the Olympic Games in Australia in 1956, and in the late 1950s began working in the service's archives. Posted on an archival assignment to East Berlin in the second half of the 1960s, he was close to the scene when the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia. This reinforced the disillusionment he was already feeling over the lack of political change in the Soviet Union.

From 1972 until his retirement in 1984 he was chief archivist. With the demise of the Soviet Union, he began to plan his clandestine departure for the West - clandestine because he would have in his possession an enormous haul of secret documents from the KGB archives.

In 1992, with a sample of what he had to offer, he walked into the British embassy in one of the Baltic republics (having been turned down by the Americans), and as a result was "exfiltrated" from Moscow to London, together with his wife and their son. The British Secret Service then organised the removal from his Moscow home of six aluminium trunks of notes, the largest and most comprehensive collection of Soviet secret intelligence materials ever seen in the West - as far as the public knows.

After seven years of meticulously hard labour, a big book called The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) was published. Co-authored with Professor Christopher Andrew, currently the official historian of MI5, the book is a model of the judicious use of archives and published sources.

English readers were surprised to learn that the most spectacular Soviet agent surviving in the UK was now an octogenarian grandmother. Melita Norwood had been betraying British nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years, from 1937 to the mid-1970s. The Government decided, however, that it could not prosecute her so long after the event.

Then there was the so-called "Romeo agent", John Symonds, a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, who, according to Mitrokhin, had fled Britain when faced with corruption charges and had been recruited by the KGB in Morocco. After suitable training, he was tasked with seducing female staff in foreign embassies to obtain secret information.

To discredit MI5, the KGB had planned to disrupt the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales; it also plotted to injure and disfigure the defectors Rudolf Nureyev and Natalya Makarova, in order to wreck their careers as ballet dancers. In the United States, the KGB claimed to have tapped Henry Kissinger's phone calls to President Richard Nixon, and tried to recruit Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. More information came out on a host of spies and suspects, as well as on the British agents Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby.

At the time of publication, doubts were expressed about Mitrokhin's selection of material. Such doubts were inappropriate. As chief archivist, his job was to deal with whatever files arrived on his desk for processing, or whatever documents he needed to consult to complete a case. His main responsibility was the KGB's operations abroad, but since to process such cases often entailed reference to domestic concerns - especially personal data - the "product" was much wider in scope. But it was precisely the accidental nature of this process that produced the extremely varied and multi-faceted character of his collection.

Few have doubted that Mitrokhin accomplished a Herculean task, for a period of 12 years transcribing a mountain of documents, concealing flimsy copies in his shoes and taking them home, as it were from under the nose of his boss, Yuri Andropov, and burying them inside milk churns in his kitchen garden. Following the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive, his KGB Lexicon was published in 2002, and at the time of his death he was negotiating the publication of further studies based on the still untapped materials he had brought from Moscow.

Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was born in 1922 in Yurasovo in Ryazan Oblast, the second of five children. His father was an itinerant decorator who moved his large family to wherever he could find work. At 18 Mitrokhin entered an artillery school, but with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 he moved to Kazakhstan, where he studied for a degree, graduating in law after first reading history.

Towards the end of the Second World War, he took his first job, in the military procurator's office in Kharkov, Ukraine, then entered the Higher Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, a three-year course, which ended with his recruitment in 1948 into what was soon to be become the Committee of State Security, i.e. KGB. He said in an interview that when he joined the KGB in 1948 he was "looking for the New Jerusalem, but ended up at the Wailing Wall".

Harry Shukman