Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review - The KGB Against the "Main Enemy": How the Soviet Intelligence Service Operates Against the United States by Herbert Romerstein and Stanislav Levchenko

Short Review: An account of how the Soviet the intelligence services operated from their inception through to the dying twilight of the nation they served.

Useful idiots
Then, hardened mercenaries
At last, ruthless pros

Full review: This book is a very dense review of the operations of the Soviet intelligence services throughout the history of the Soviet Union from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution through the mid-1980s (the book was published in 1989). The authors are both former members of the intelligence community - one a former analyst for various committees of the House of Representatives and USIA and the other a former KGB officer who defected to the United States. Together, they weave together the various pieces of public information on the operations of Soviet intelligence to show how the KGB (and its predecessors the OGPU, NKVD, and all the other piles of alphabetical acronyms used by the Russian intelligence services) targeted those designated as enemies of the Soviet state, especially the United States.

The book focuses heavily on those who worked for the Soviets as willing agents, from the early naive and idealistic recruits of the 1920s and 1930s who believed in the worker's paradise, to the purely mercenary operatives of the 1960s and 1970s, to the evolution of the KGB into its final evolution as a service comprised of highly professional intelligence officers. The book is still extremely relevant, because even though the Soviet Union and the KGB are gone now, the intelligence apparatus they represented still lives on in the Russian state, and appears to still be using much the same tactics and with much the same aims as they were during the heyday of the U.S.S.R.

The most interesting elements of the book feature the early Soviet intelligence service - including those who worked in the United States before the U.S. government had even recognized the U.S.S.R. It is hard now to conceive of individuals so idealistic and naive as to believe that the Soviet leaders had their best interests at heart, but it is a historical fact that people signed up to fight as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War only to be horribly betrayed by constant OGPU monitoring and purges. Many of these idealists found themselves on the wrong side of Soviet factional fighting when Trotsky split with Stalin (and Stalin developed an almost obsessive desire to eliminate Trotsky and his followers), and wound up being killed by those they had placed so much faith in. In the early days, it seems like working for the Soviet intelligence service was a good way to get killed by Soviet agents as cynical apparatchiks in Moscow killed off those they considered unreliable, those who had picked the wrong horse to back, or just those they simply disliked (anti-Semitism seems to have been a very big factor in Soviet decision-making).

The authors detail the use of Communist groups in other countries as fronts for Soviet intelligence operations, focusing especially upon the importance of the Spanish Civil War in spreading Soviet influence through the world before and during World War II. The book goes into great depth concerning the methods used by Soviet intelligence such as putting out numerous forgeries (many so clumsy as to be ludicrous, and despite this, many people seem to swallow them hook, line, and sinker), and showing how the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (and Hitler's subsequent betrayal of that pact) coupled with Stalin's purges crippled Soviet intelligence operations for a generation by disillusioning the idealistic cadre the Soviets had relied upon and forcing the Soviet intelligence service to turn to bribery and blackmail as their primary means of gaining information afterwards.

Much of the book depends on assembling information from many sources, often using wispy-thin connections as evidence. Some might say that Romerstein and Levchenko make too much of some alleged connections; on the other hand, the subject matter is intelligence operations so all of the connections are supposed to be entirely secret - even having some out in the open is evidence to a certain degree. In my estimation, the authors don't stretch their evidence beyond its value, and support their contentions reasonably well, using testimony from Congressional hearings, letters and statements made by various individuals both inside and outside the Soviet intelligence service, and the known actions of individuals. Where contradictory evidence is known to exist, the authors explain why such contradictory evidence is either reliable enough to provide doubt, or why they discount it.

The picture of Soviet intelligence depicted in this book is not a pretty one: The service seems to have been a combination of brutality and clumsiness. One wonders how truly effective the KGB has been, given their propensity to kill their own almost at random, and the almost inept ways they operate at times. That said, the vicious nature of the organization seems to have engendered a level of ruthlessness and paranoia that continues to fuel Russian thought even to this day. In a very real sense, the history of the security apparatus that underlaid the entire U.S.S.R. is the history that best informs us of how modern day Russia came to be. On the whole, the book is a chilling reminder of where Putin and many of the other leaders of modern Russia came from, and how they have been trained to view and deal with the rest of the world.

Herbert Romerstein     Stanislav Levchenko     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

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