Vasili Mitrokhin, the second of five children, was born in the village of Yurasovo, near Ryazan, in Russia, on 3rd March, 1922. His father was an itinerant decorator. In 1940 Mitrokhin entered an artillery school, but after Operation Barbarosa in 1941 he moved to Kazakhstan, where he studied for a degree, graduating in law after first reading history. (1)
Towards the end of the Second World War, he took a job in the military procurator's office at Kharkiv in the Ukraine. A member of the Soviet Communist Party he entered the Higher Diplomatic Academy in Moscow and, in 1948, was recruited into the KI (the Committee of Information). (2)
According to Christopher Andrew: "By the time Mitrokhin was sent on his first foreign posting in 1952, the Committee had disintegrated and the MGB had resumed its traditional rivalry with the GRU. His first five years in intelligence were spent in the paranoid atmosphere generated by the final phase of Stalin's dictatorship, when the intelligence agencies were ordered to conduct witch-hunts throughout the Soviet Bloc against mostly imaginary Titoist and Zionist conspiracies." (3)
The Guardian has pointed out "His first five years (of working for the MGB) were overshadowed by the paranoid, final phase of the Stalin era, when he and his colleagues were ordered to devote much of their energy to tracking down the so-called Zionist and Titoist conspirators, whose mostly non-existent plots throughout the Soviet bloc obsessed the disturbed mind of the ageing dictator." (4)
In March, 1953, after the death of Joseph Stalin, Mitrokhin was ordered to investigate the alleged connections of the Pravda correspondent in Paris, Yuri Zhukov, who had come under suspicion because of his wife's Jewish origins. Mitrokhin believed that Lavrenti Beria, was planning to implicate Zhukov in the supposed Jewish doctors' plot. However, a few weeks after Stalin's funeral, Beria suddenly announced that the plot had never existed, and exonerated the alleged conspirators. Beria was himself executed on 23rd December, 1953.
Vasili Mitrokhin joined the KGB in 1954. Over the next couple of years he carried out several assignments abroad. However, in 1956 he "apparently mishandled an operational assignment, he was moved from operational duties to the archives of the KGB's First Chief (Foreign Intelligence) Directorate, and told he would never work in the field again." (5) He worked in the archives, where his main job was answering queries from other departments.
During this period Mitrokhin became aware that secret files were being removed. For example, he discovered that Nikita Khrushchev had ordered Beria's personal archive to be destroyed so as to leave no trace of the compromising material he had collected on his former colleagues. Ivan Serov, chairman of the KGB, reported to Khrushchev that the files had contained much "provocative and libellous" material. In 1958 Serov was replaced by Aleksandr Shelepin, who began a campaign to give the KGB a new image. In 1961 he announced that "violations of socialist legality have been completely eliminated". So had many files that had recorded these crimes. Shelepin was replaced by Vladimir Semichastny who ordered the "destruction of nine volumes on the liquidation of Central Committee members, senior intelligence officers and foreign Communists living in Moscow during the Stalin era." (6)
In June 1972, the First Chief (Foreign Intelligence) Directorate left its overcrowded central Moscow offices in the KGB headquarters at the Lubyanka and moved to a new building at Yasenevo. For the next ten years working from a private office in Lubyanka, Mitrokhin was responsible for checking and sealing over 300,000 files in the FCD archive prior to their transfer to the new headquarters. Once reviewed by Mitrokhin, each batch of files was placed in sealed containers which were transported to Yasenevo.
Mitrokhin decided to take notes on the most interesting files in minuscule handwriting on scraps of paper which he crumpled up and threw into his wastepaper basket. Each evening, he retrieved his notes from the basket and smuggled them out concealed in his shoes. The security guards confined themselves to occasional inspections of bags and briefcases without attempting body searches. Each night when he returned to his Moscow flat, Mitrokhin, his hit notes beneath his mattress. At weekends he took them to his family dacha and typed up as many as possible. The dacha was built on raised foundations. The typescripts and notes were placed in aluminum cases and buried in the ground beneath the dacha. (7) "Had he been caught, he would almost certainly have been executed." (8)
Vasili Mitrokhin retired in 1984. He now spent his time typing up the rest of the notes he had smuggled out of the FCD. It was only with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the decline in security measures at the new borders of the Russian Federation at last open the way for Mitrokhin to take his archive to the West. In March 1992 he boarded an overnight train in Moscow bound for the newly independent republic of Latvia. With him he took a case full of clothes but included samples of his archive.
The next day he arrived at the American embassy in Riga and asked if he could defect. "CIA officials at the embassy, struggling to cope with hundreds of Russian exiles trying to flee the crumbling Soviet Union, were not interested. They reasoned that Mitrokhin was not a spy, just a librarian, and the handwritten documents were probably fakes." (9) He was told to return at a later date. He now tried the British embassy and asked to speak to "someone in authority". The young woman diplomat who received him was fluent in Russian and soon became aware that he would be a valuable source of information on KGB activities in Britain. (10)
Mitrokhin agreed to return to the embassy a month later in order to meet representatives of MI6. This time he brought with him 2,000 typed pages of his archive. He also showed the officers his passport, Communist Party card and KGB pension certificate. It was arranged for him to visit London. On 11th June, 1992, Mitrokhin arrived in Riga with more material from his archive. During his time in Britain it was agreed with MI6 officials to exfiltrate himself, the family and the rest of his archive. On 13th October he was infiltrated back into Russia to make final arrangements for his departure. Mitrokhin and the rest of his archive arrived in Britain in November, 1992. Over the next few months MI6 shared details of its archive with other intelligence services. (11)
In August 1993, Ronald Kessler published his best-selling book, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, reported that the FBI had been interviewing a former KGB employee who had access to KGB files. "According to his account, the KGB had had many hundreds of Americans and possibly more than a thousand spying for them in recent years. So specific was the information that the FBI was quickly able to establish the source's credibility." (12) Other journalists followed up the story and Time Magazine reported that "sources familiar with the case" of the KGB defector had identified him as a former employee of the First Chief Directorate, but described Kessler's figures of recent Soviet spies in the United States as "highly exaggerated". (13) Kessler was indeed right about "many hundreds of Americans" spying for the Soviet Union but he was wrong to say they were "recent" as the numbers referred to those who had been spies since the 1920s.
MI6 decided that they would allow the publication of some of the Mitrokhin archive. In late 1995 Mitrokhin was introduced to Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5. As Andrew points out a "few months later, we began writing a lengthy volume, based chiefly on the material he had smuggled out of Yasenevo." (14) The Mitrokhin Archive was published in 1999.
The book revealed that Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old great-grandmother, living in Bexleyheath, had been betraying British secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years. The case caused great controversy when the government decided that it could not prosecute her so long after the event. (15) Norwood told the BBC: "I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service." (16)
Norwood was recruited to work for the NKVD in 1935. Her codename was HOLA. She was initially involved with a spy ring operating inside the Woolwich Arsenal, whose three leading members were arrested in January 1938. MI5 failed to identify Norwood and after a few months "on ice" was reactivated in May 1938. (17)
During the Second World War Norwood's work with BN-FMRA made her an important spy. In 1943 she began working for the director of BN-FMRA, G. L. Bailey, who was a member of the advisory committee of Tube Alloys, Britain's atomic bomb project. In March 1945, after BN-FMRA won a contract from Tube Alloys, Norwood gained access to documents that Moscow Centre described as being "of great interest and a valuable contribution to the development of the work in this field." It has been claimed by David Burke that "the information she supplied on the behaviour of uranium metal at high temperatures permitted the Soviet Union to test an atomic bomb four years earlier than British and American intelligence thought possible". (18)
Christopher Andrew has claimed that Norwood was "both the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain." (19) The KGB recorded that Norwood was a "committed, reliable and disciplined agent, striving to be of the utmost assistance." (20) In 1960 the KGB offered her a pension of £20 a month which she declined. The KGB archives show that she continued to work undercover and in 1967 she recruited a civil servant codenamed HUNT, who provided extensive scientific, technical, and other intelligence on British arms sales. She retired from both the BN-FMRA and the KGB in 1973. (21)
Another spy exposed by the The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) was Ursula Beurton. Posing as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany she established a Soviet spy-ring (codenamed SONYA) and by 1941 she was running a string of agents that included Klaus Fuchs. (22) According to a document in the NKVD archives, Fuchs began spying for the Soviet Union in August 1941: "Klaus Fuchs has been our source since August 1941, when he was recruited through the recommendation of Urgen Kuchinsky (an exiled German Communist resident in Great Britain). In connection with the laboratory's transfer to America, Fuchs's departure is expected, too. I should inform you that measures to organize a liaison with Fuchs in America have been taken by us, and more detailed data will be conveyed in the course of passing Fuchs to you." (23)
Ursula Beurton later recalled: "Klaus and I never spent more than half an hour together when we met. Two minutes would have been enough but, apart from the pleasure of the meeting, it would arouse less suspicion if we took a little walk together rather than parting immediately. Nobody who did not live in such isolation can guess how precious these meetings with another German comrade were." (24)
Ursula Beurton was visited by MI5 twice in 1947 and had been questioned about her links with Soviet intelligence. "According to Ursula, she had refused to discuss the matter and the officials had showed no interest in Fuchs." Fearing that she was about to be arrested she now fled to East Germany. (25) Klaus Fuchs was not arrested until 1950. He made a full confession but by this time Beurton was safely behind the Iron Curtain. Although she resigned as a Soviet agent she worked for the East German government for the next ten years. She was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1969.
Arnold Deutsch arrived in London in early 1934. According to The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) Deutsch recruited twenty agents and made contact with a total of twenty-nine. Christopher Andrew only names those agents who have been exposed from other sources. This included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Michael Straight. It is argued by Andrew that Deutsch was the ideal agent to work with these spies: "Though four of these spies graduated from Cambridge with first-class honours, Deutsch's academic career was even more brilliant than theirs, his understanding of human character more profound and his experience of life much broader." (26)
Deutsch reported to Moscow: "Given that the Communist movement in these universities is on a mass scale and that there is a constant turnover of students, it follows that individual Communists whom we pluck out of the Party will pass unnoticed, both by the Party itself and by the outside world. People forget about them. And if at some time they do remember that they were once Communists, this will be put down to a passing fancy of youth, especially as those concerned are scions of the bourgeoisie. It is up to us to give the individual recruit a new (non-Communist) political personality." (27)
Deutsch spent almost four years in London controlling British agents. During that period he served under three Soviet agents, Ignaz Reiss, Alexander Orlov and Theodore Maly. As Christopher Andrew points out: "By 1938 all three were to become victims of the Terror. Reiss and Maly were shot for imaginary crimes. Orlov defected just in time to North America, securing his survival by threatening to arrange for the revelation of all he knew about Soviet espionage should be pursued by an NKVD assassination squad." (28)
Deutsch returned to Moscow in November 1937. Unlike some of those who were recalled, Deutsch was not immediately executed. Instead he was employed by the NKVD as an expert on forgery and handwriting. According to Ben Macintyre, the author of A Spy Among Friends (2014) the fate of Deutsch has never been fully explained. "Philby would later claim he had died when a ship taking him to America, the Donbass, was torpedoed by a U-boat, this making him a victim of Hitler's agression rather than Stalin's. The KGB history reports he died en route to South America, but another KGB report claims he was heading to New York. It seems just as probable that the founder-recruiter of the Cambridge spy chain, shared Maly's fate. As a foreign-born, Jewish intellectual who had spent years abroad, he was a likely candidate for purging." (29)
Christopher Andrew admitted that Ronald Kessler was right about "many hundreds of Americans" spying for the Soviet Union but he was wrong to say they were "recent" as the numbers referred to those who had been spies since the 1920s. However, in the The Mitrokhin Archive he only published the names of those spies that had already been named in books such as Deadly Illusions (1993) and The Secret World of American Communism (1995), that had been based on access to KGB archives. This included Cedric Belfrage, Elizabeth Bentley, Earl Browder, Whittaker Chambers, Lauchlin Currie, Martha Dodd, Laurence Duggan, Jacob Golos, Theodore Hall, Alger Hiss, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Hede Massing, Boris Morros, Joszef Peter, Mary Price, Abraham George Silverman, Helen Silvermaster, Nathan Silvermaster, Alfred Stern, Julian Wadleigh, William Weisband, Harry Dexter White and Mark Zborowski.
The book does not mention the following American spies: Marion Bachrach, Joel Barr, Abraham Brothman, Karl Hermann Brunck, Louis Budenz, Frank Coe, Henry Hill Collins, Hope Hale Davis, Samuel Dickstein, Gerhart Eisler, Noel Field, Harold Glasser, Vivian Glassman, Donald Hiss, Joseph Katz, Charles Kramer, Harvey Matusow, Paul Massing, William Perl, Victor Perlo, Lee Pressman, William Remington, Alfred Sarant, William Ludwig Ullmann, Harold Ware, Nathaniel Weyl, Donald Niven Wheeler and Nathan Witt. Even so, those spies exposed are still only a fairly small proportion of those "many hundreds of Americans".
The Mitrokhin Archive also deals with information in the KGB files on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This material has to be considered with extreme caution. Christopher Andrew is on record as believing that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. We also know that any inconvient facts from the Mitrokin Archive has not been included in the book. For example, the names of spies that held high-level positions in the intelligence services.
Andrew points out that "it would have been wholly out of character had the Centre failed to interpret President Kennedy's assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on 22nd November 1963 as anything less than conspiracy. (30). He quotes from a report produced by the deputy chairman of the KGB reported to the Central Committee in December, 1963: "A reliable source (the Polish intelligence service)... has reported that... an American enterpreneur and owner of a number of firms closely connected to the petroleum circles of the South, reported in late November that the real instigators of this criminal deed were three leading oil magnates from the South of the USA - Richardson, Murchison and Hunt, all owners of major petroleum reserves in the southern states who have long been connected to pro-fascist and racist organizations in the South." (31)
Andrew then goes on to point out the flaws in the theory that Sid Richardson, Clinton Murchison and H. L. Hunt had been involved in the funding of the assassination. He correctly points out that Richardson died in 1959. He describes the Texas oil men theory as "simplistic" and argues that Hunt was an "anti-Communist buffoon" and quotes him as saying: "The Communists need not invade the United States... Pro-Bolshevik sentiment in the US is already greater than when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government and took over Russia." (32)
Another theory examined in the The Mitrokhin Archive is that Jack Ruby was involved in the Texas conspiracy. It reports that the KGB were informed by a journalist on The Baltimore Sun said that in a "private conversation in early December that on assignment from a group of Texas financiers and industrialists headed by millionaire Hunt, Jack Ruby, who is now under arrest, proposed a large sum of money to Oswald for the murder of Kennedy." (33) It seems Nikita Khrushchev was convinced by the KGB view that the aim of the right-wing conspirators behind Kennedy's assassinationensify the Cold War and "strengthen the reactionary and aggressive elements of American foreign policy". (34)
The KGB archives show that the Soviet Union helped fund the publishing the books claiming that Kennedy was killed as a result of a right-wing conspiracy. Some of this money was sent to Carl Marzani (codenamed NORD). (35) Among the books published by Marzani in 1964 was Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? by the German writer, Joachim Joesten. (36) The KGB also arranged for Mark Lane to receive $1,500 to help his research. However, the document makes it clear that Lane was not told the source of the money. The same person arranged for Lane to receive $500 to help pay for a trip in Europe in 1964. KGB agent, Genrikh Borovik, was also assigned to help Lane with his research for Rush to Judgement (1965). (37)
After the Second World War the Soviets used the way that African-Americans were treated in the United States as an attempt to gain influence in the Third World. At first they welcomed the campaigns of Martin Luther King against the Jim Crow Laws as it provided evidence of the worldwide struggle against American imperialism. However, to the dismay of the KGB. King repeatedly linked the aims of the civil rights movement to the fulfillment of the American dream and "the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence".
After King's inspirational letter from Birmingham Jail on 16th April, 1963, where he argued "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America, is freedom", it was decided by the KGB to mount a smear campaign against the leader of the civil rights movement. The task was given to Yuri Modin, deputy head of Service A (KGB's disinformation unit). Modin is an interesting character who has been largely ignored by historians. Modin was the man who in 1947 he was sent to London and became the main contact of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Modin also arranged the flight of Maclean and Burgess in 1951 and was in Beirut when Philby went missing in January 1963.
One of the great ironies in history is that while the KGB were trying to portray King as betraying African-Americans, J. Edgar Hoover was telling William C. Sullivan, the head of the Intelligence Division of the FBI, that “King was an instrument of the Communist Party” and posed “a serious threat to the security of the country.” Hoover instructed Sullivan to get evidence that “King had a relationship with the Soviet bloc”. Despite an intensive surveillance campaign, Sullivan was unable to find a clear link between King and the Communist Party of the United States. This did not stop Hoover from using his contacts in the press to write stories giving the impression that King was a communist. (38)
The KGB campaign against King was stepped up with the passing of civil rights legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Modin arranged for articles to appear in the African press which could be reprinted in American newspapers, portraying King as an "Uncle Tom" who was secretly receiving government subsidies to tame the civil rights movement and prevent it threatening the Johnson administration.
One of the most interesting documents in the KGB archive is dated August 1967 and authorizes Modin: "To organize, through the use of KGB residency resources in the US, the publication and distribution of brochures, pamphlets, leaflets and appeals denouncing the policy of the Johnson administration on the Negro question - and exposing the brutal terrorist methods being used by the government to suppress the Negro rights movement. To arrange, via available agent resources, for leading figures in the legal profession to make public statements discrediting the policy of the Johnson administration on the Negro question. To forge and distribute through illegal channels a document showing that the John Birch Society, in conjunction with the Minuteman organization, is developing a plan for the physical elimination of leading figures in the Negro movement in the US." (39)
Vasili Mitrokhin died on 23rd January, 2004. A second volume, The Mitrokhin Archive II (2005) was published posthumously.
The tale of malevolent spymasters, intricate tradecraft and cold-eyed betrayal reads like a John le Carre novel. But The Sword and the Shield (Basic Books) has the added twist of being a work of nonfiction, and last week its publication revealed secrets about the KGB's long-secret war against the West that made headlines around the world.
In Bexleyheath, south London, an 87-year-old great-grandmother, Melita Norwood, confirmed that yes, as the book charges, she stole atomic secrets for Moscow for more than 40 years. Authorities in Western Europe and the U.S. learned that the KGB had easily intercepted revealing faxes from major defense firms and buried booby-trapped caches of arms, radios and uniforms to help saboteurs. In Paris, Le Monde followed up with a story charging that the current Socialist Party leader in the Senate, Claude Estier, worked secretly for the Soviet bloc starting in 1956. Estier called it a "tissue of nonsense."
The source of the storm is Vasili Mitrokhin, 77, who in 1972 was the officer in charge of checking, sealing and moving to a new headquarters 300,000 files kept by the KGB's foreign intelligence service. Disillusioned by the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he set about copying in longhand the highly sensitive files in his care and stuffing his notes in metal cases beneath his dacha. By his retirement in 1984 he had a trove of the KGB's deepest secrets, including agent names and accounts of assassinations and covert actions. In 1992 he arranged for British intelligence to whisk him, his family and his trunks of paper to safety. Spy hunters and prosecutors got first crack at the papers, and according to Mitrokhin's co-author, Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, a dozen probes of old spies are still active. Mitrokhin wanted to publish his files to reveal to the world the paranoia, cynicism and abuse endemic in Soviet power - the ultimate dissent from a system that died because it could not accept any.
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".
Vasili Mitrokhin, who died on January 23 aged 81, was the former KGB archivist whose defection to Britain in 1992 brought a treasure trove of Soviet secrets to the West.
Mitrokhin's archive consisted of a huge volume of material culled from tens of thousands of top-secret KGB files, which he had laboriously copied down over 12 years and hidden in tins and milk crates underneath his dacha. It contained detailed records of every operation the KGB had mounted from its inception in 1917 to Mitrokhin's retirement in 1984, demonstrating the extent to which the KGB had successfully infiltrated the West and the way in which it had oppressed the Russian people.
Among other revelations, the papers disclosed that more than half of Soviet weapons were based on designs stolen from America; that the KGB had tapped the telephones of American officials such as Henry Kissinger and had spies in almost all the country's big defence contractors. In France, at least 35 senior politicians were shown to have worked for the KGB during the Cold War. In Germany, the KGB was shown to have infiltrated all the major political parties, the judiciary and the police.
Also fascinating was the insight given into the absurd lengths to which the Russians were prepared to go to discredit those they regarded as ideological enemies. There was a plan to break the legs of Rudolf Nureyev, the ballet dancer, after he defected in the West in 1961. On one occasion a team of 18 KGB operatives was dispatched to the Philippines with instructions to ensure that the Soviet world chess champion, Anatoly Karpov, was not defeated by the defector Victor Korchnoi in the World Chess Championship. The methods employed including stationing a hypnotist in the front row of the audience, who stared intently at Korchnoi throughout the matches.
On September 11 1999 the archive suddenly became front page news when serialisation of The Mitrokhin Archive, the book written by Mitrokhin with the historian Christopher Andrew, began in The Times. The revelations that captured media attention were not so much the disclosures about KGB operations against Nato and the suppression of dissent within the Soviet Union, but human interest stories about Soviet spies in Britain. These included Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old great-grandmother from Bexleyheath - the "spy who came in from the Co-op" - who was exposed as having been the KGB's longest-serving agent in Britain.
The acquisition of the Mitrokhin archive was a huge coup for British intelligence, which had recognised the value of the material after it had been turned down by the Americans.
But the revelations proved an embarrassment to the authorities when it emerged that the identity of the spies had been known to the security services since 1992 when the Mitrokhin archive was handed over to the British authorities, but no action had been taken.
Mitrokhin's motives were the subject of much speculation. He did not defect for the money and was not being blackmailed; nor did he seem to enjoy his new life in the West. Some suggested that he had become embittered after being transferred from operational duties for the KGB to archives. But it is equally possible that his own explanation was the genuine one. He simply decided that Soviet Communism was evil and should be opposed.
In handing over his archive, the only condition he imposed was that his work should be made public as a record for the Russian people and as a warning to future generations.
The son of a decorator, Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was born on March 3 1922 in Yurasovo, in the rural Rayazan province of Soviet Russia. After leaving school, he entered artillery school, then attended university in Khazakhstan, graduating in History and Law. Towards the end of the Second World War, he took a job in the military procurator's office at Kharkov in the Ukraine.
Then an idealistic Communist, Mitrokhin entered the Higher Diplomatic Academy in Moscow and, in 1948, was recruited into the KI (the Committee of Information), the Soviet external service which was absorbed into the newly formed KGB in 1954.
During the 1950s he served on various undercover assignments overseas. In 1956, for example, he accompanied the Soviet team to the Olympic games in Australia. But later that year, after he had apparently mishandled an operational assignment, he was moved from operational duties to the archives of the KGB's First Chief (Foreign Intelligence) Directorate, and told he would never work in the field again.
Mitrokhin sometimes dated the beginnings of his disillusionment to Khrushchev's famous speech to the Communist Party congress denouncing Stalin, though it seems he may have been harbouring doubts for some time before that. For years he had listened to broadcasts on the BBC and Voice of America, noting the gulf between their reports and party propaganda.
Yet when he began looking into the archives, he claimed to have been shocked by what he discovered about the KGB's systematic repression of the Russian people. "I could not believe such evil," he recalled. "It was all planned, prepared, thought out in advance. It was a terrible shock when I read things."
When, in 1972, the archives were moved from the Lubyanka in Moscow to a new repository on the outskirts of the city, Mitrokhin seized his chance. Given the responsibility of checking and sealing about 300,000 files, he began making notes on the documents, which he smuggled out of the building in his shoes, trousers or coat. At weekends, he took the bundles of notes to his dacha and, after copying them out in longhand, buried them in tins and milk churns beneath the floor. Had he been caught, he would almost certainly have been executed.
Mitrokhin continued his clandestine activities for 12 years until his official retirement in 1984, when his boss, Vladimir Kryuchkov, congratulated him for his success in transferring the archives and his "irreproachable service to the state security authorities".
In retirement, Mitrokhin watched and waited, little expecting that he would ever have the opportunity to bring his archive to light. His opportunity came when the Soviet Union began to fall apart. In 1992, he obtained permission to take a holiday in Latvia. Taking samples of his archive with him, he walked into the American embassy in Riga and asked if he could defect. CIA officials at the embassy, struggling to cope with hundreds of Russian exiles trying to flee the crumbling Soviet Union, were not interested. They reasoned that Mitrokhin was not a spy, just a librarian, and the handwritten documents were probably fakes.
Mitrokhin then tried the nearby British embassy, which immediately recognised his importance and began to make arrangements to spirit him out of the country. These were initially hampered by the need to retrieve the rest of the archive, still buried under Mitrokhin's dacha. A plan was hatched involving six MI6 officers dressed as workmen, who unearthed six trunks of material and loaded them into a van. On September 7 1992, Mitrokhin, his family and his archive, arrived in Britain.
So successful was the MI6 operation that, for some time, it seems the Russian authorities were unaware that he had gone. Subsequently, they made a clumsy attempt to discredit the archive, by sending two apparent "defectors" to Western intelligence agencies who claimed that the KGB's successor, the SVR, had decided on a massive clear-out of superannuated agents and had chosen Mitrokhin to transmit their details to the West. By that time, though, it had become clear that Mitrokhin's material was far too valuable for the SVR to have handed it over willingly, and the "defectors" were soon exposed as Russian plants.
The publication of The Mitrokhin Archive in 1999 was followed by other publications, including, in 2002, Mitrokhin's KGB Lexicon.
But life in exile was difficult for Mitrokhin, who lived in fear that he might be stalked by vengeful former comrades. He spoke little English, had few friends and was devastated when his wife, Nina, died in 1999. Interviewers noticed a sadness hanging over him.
The Mitrokhin archive led to resignations, arrests and a few prosecutions around the world, though there are believed to be about 300 Soviet sources still living in Britain and America who have not yet been publicly identified.
Mitrokhin is survived by his son.
The former senior KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, who has died from pneumonia aged 81, will be best remembered for his extraordinary achievement in noting down the contents of top-secret Soviet foreign intelligence files and, at great personal risk, smuggling them out of the secret police headquarters on almost every working day for 12 years.
The files ranged in time from the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution to the eve of the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s, and contained details of KGB operations in most countries of the world. Mitrokhin had access even to the holy of holies in the foreign intelligence archives - the files that revealed the real identities of the elite corps of KGB "illegals" living under deep cover abroad, disguised as foreign nationals.
When this private archive reached the west in 1992, it was described by the FBI as "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source".
Mitrokhin was born in Yurasovo, in Ryazan province, south of Moscow. As a child - and, indeed, later as a KGB officer - he was never happier than when he was in the Russian countryside, tending his vegetable patch, fishing and hunting. Throughout his life, his tastes remained simple; he preferred his own home-made vegetable soup to the menus of expensive western restaurants.
After graduating in law during the second world war, and spending three years at the Higher Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, Mitrokhin was recruited as a Soviet foreign intelligence officer in 1948. His first five years were overshadowed by the paranoid, final phase of the Stalin era, when he and his colleagues were ordered to devote much of their energy to tracking down the so-called Zionist and Titoist conspirators, whose mostly non-existent plots throughout the Soviet bloc obsessed the disturbed mind of the ageing dictator.
The first official repudiation of Stalinism came in Nikita Khrushchev's now celebrated speech to a closed session of the 1956 Communist party congress. Though considered too shocking for the mass of the Soviet population, the contents of the speech were debated for two days by the KGB party branch to which Mitrokhin belonged. No one present dared to ask the question he was convinced was in all their minds: "Where was Khrushchev while all Stalin's crimes were being committed?"
In the aftermath of the speech, Mitrokhin became too outspoken for his own good. Though his criticisms of the KGB's unreformed bureaucracy were mild by western standards, they led to his transfer, late in 1956, from operations to the relative backwater of the archives, where he served for the remainder of his career.
He continued to hope that the Soviet system might somehow reform itself. But when "socialism with a human face" emerged in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, Soviet tanks moved in to restore the neo-Stalinist, one-party state. Henceforth, like many other dissidents, both open and undeclared, Mitrokhin concluded that the system was unreformable and would have to be replaced.
Over the next few years, his views were deeply influenced by the dissident struggle, which he was able to follow in both KGB reports and western broadcasts. "I was a loner," he later recalled, "but I now knew that I was not alone."
Though Mitrokhin never had any thought of aligning himself openly with the human rights movement, the example of the Chronicle Of Current Events, and other samizdat productions, helped to inspire him with the idea of producing a classified variant of the dissidents' attempts to document the iniquities of the Soviet system. Gradually, the project began to form in his mind of compiling his own private record of the KGB's foreign operations.
His opportunity came in 1972, when the foreign intelligence directorate left its overcrowded offices in the KGB headquarters near Red Square, and moved to a new, Finnish-designed building at Yasenevo, half a mile beyond the Moscow ring-road. For the next 10 years, he was to be in charge of moving the entire foreign intelligence archive, file by file, to Yasenevo.
While supervising the move, Mitrokhin was able to note whatever top-secret files he wanted. Initially, he smuggled out his daily notes on small scraps of paper hidden in his shoes. After a few months, however, he realised that the security guards at the new headquarters confined themselves to occasional inspections of bags and briefcases, without ever attempting body-searches. Henceforth, he made his notes on office paper, which he then took out of Yasenevo in his jacket pockets.
Every weekend, Mitrokhin buried the notes beneath the family dacha in the countryside near Moscow. The enormous risks involved in compiling his secret archive, which might well have ended with his discov ery, a secret trial and a bullet in the back of the head in an execution cellar, leave no reasonable doubt about the strength of his convictions.
After his retirement in 1984, he devised various schemes to smuggle his archive to the west. None proved practicable until the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 left the Russian Federation with, initially, relatively weak frontier controls between it and the newly inde- pendent Baltic republics. In March 1992, after unsuccessfully trying to contact the CIA, Mitrokhin took samples of his archive to the British embassy in Riga, which put him in touch with MI6.
Later that year, on the 75th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, MI6 brought his family - and his archive - to Britain, in an extraordinary operation whose details have yet to be revealed.
Late in 1995, I met Mitrokhin over tea in a conference room at MI6 headquarters, on the Thames at Vauxhall Cross. A few months later, we began writing a lengthy volume, based chiefly on the material he had smuggled out of Yasenevo, which was published in 1999 as The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB In Europe And The West, and later widely translated. Only with the publication of this book did the existence of the archive, and Mitrokhin's escape to Britain, become public knowledge.
The sections of the book which attracted most media attention were, predictably, the human interest stories, such as the identification of Melita Norwood (quickly dubbed the "great-granny spy") as Britain's longest-serving Soviet agent. Understandably, Mitrokhin himself attached more importance to the chapters on the KGB offensive against the west, and its obsessional attempts to root out all forms of dissent within the Soviet bloc.
A second volume of The Mitrokhin Archive, dealing mainly with KGB operations in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, is due for publication next year. Mitrokhin himself also published The KGB Lexicon (2002), which provides a fascinating insight into the KGB mindset, as well as its tradecraft and bureaucratic jargon. His study on Afghanistan, put on the internet by the Washington Cold War Inter national History Project, was the first of several works based on KGB files that he was preparing before his death.
Efforts by the media to track Mitrokhin down after the publication of our first volume were, happily, unsuccessful; he was too private a person, and had arrived in Britain too late in life - and with too little experience of the west - to have coped with the glare of publicity. He had, however, perfected the art of being inconspicuous, and travelled unnoticed the length and breadth of the United Kingdom on his senior citizen's railcard. After the tragic death of his wife Nina, a Russian doctor, from motorneurone disease in 1999, he flew around the world on his British passport.
While in Britain, scarcely a week passed without Mitrokhin re-reading his papers. Despite declining health, he continued preparing parts of his archive for publication until only a few weeks before his death.