Special Mission to Peru

Before he was the KGB’s top analyst, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Sergeevich Leonov was a field officer of the First Chief Directorate specializing in Latin America. With experience in Mexico and ties to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Leonov was a key player in the USSR’s strategy of prying Latin America from Washington’s grip. In 1968 a left-leaning military junta came to power in Peru – shortly thereafter, Leonov was sent to Lima on a fact-finding mission under journalistic cover.


I returned to Moscow at the very end of 1968, and I had just turned 40. My time in the service seemed to be going without any problems. Soon I was appointed the deputy chief of the Latin American Department. Such a promotion was unprecedented – I had immediately jumped through two positions. But at that time, I apparently ascribed to the maxim later formulated by future First Chief Directorate head Leonid Shebarshin: “Don’t ask for anything, and don’t refuse anything.” I still wholeheartedly believed that “the leadership saw things the clearest,” and consequently, it would know what to do.

My family obligations had developed in such a way that it was impossible to travel on tours of duty for long periods. I was limited to temporary trips abroad for concrete one-time assignments. I fell into that option, by the way, because new responsibilities of an organizational and management nature came crashing down upon me.

Soon the time came to try a new form of work. In the autumn of 1968 in Peru, nationalist-oriented officers under General Juan Velasco Alvarado acted to form a new government more open to contacts with all countries. The previous regime had taken an extremely right-wing course in foreign policy. The USSR had never had diplomatic relations with Peru, and for us it was a denied area, a “blank spot” on the map. Now the environment allowed us to undertake a serious acquaintance with the depth and breadth of the revolutionary process on site. The leadership of intelligence decided to send me under the cover of a correspondent of the press agency Novosti, all the more so that they already knew me at Novosti and were wholly satisfied with how I carried out my responsibilities undercover in Mexico City.

Leonov confers with Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba.
Lt. Gen. Leonov confers with Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba.

I was going to an absolutely “clean” place. We didn’t have an embassy or any other diplomatic representations in the country, and I would turn out to be the one Soviet there. I didn’t have any connection with the Center besides regular mail. My living quarters were to be in the Hotel Crillon, where everyone’s belongings – I knew this – were daily rifled through by security service informants among the local employees. You couldn’t seek protection anywhere, and there was no one to whom you could complain.

The assignment, which I had myself formulated in the Center, was to acquire as large a circle of contacts as possible in Peru’s government and political circles, turn these contacts into stable communications, collect information on the condition of the country and the prospects of the military regime, and compose evaluations of leading figures in the state. This was necessary to render Peru support against growing pressure against the United States. To pass information that interested the Center, I could go to Chile, where there was an embassy, and, naturally, a channel for encrypted communications. Jumping a bit forward, I can say that one time I did indeed fly to Chile to “unload” accumulated information.

The appearance of a Soviet journalist in Peru was its own type of sensation. Wherever I happened to be, I was looked at liked an extraterrestrial, with mixed feelings of fear and curiosity. The years-long propaganda processing conducted in the country made people see in a Soviet first and foremost an adversary, mysterious, incomprehensible, remote, and very alien. Happily, man is called Homo Sapiens not in vain, and a pair of meetings and conversations were usually enough to break the ice that had been frozen in people’s souls by hacks and scribblers.

The first thing I did was go to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Department, where I informed its chief, Lt. Col. Oscar Harama, of my arrival and immediately expressed my desire to interview Peru’s president and a number of top ministers. Matters that had earlier been prepared were brought to his desk: I had, after all, earlier practiced journalism legally. I was promised assistance. Then I told him in general terms about the scale of my interest in studying the country’s state of affairs and the connections I intended to strike up. I felt like convincing the lieutenant colonel that I wasn’t planning on engaging in any clandestine intelligence operations. This was necessary, as the Americans could announce their doubts in relation to my “clean” journalism. My fears, unfortunately, were justified.

In the first days of my time in Peru, there was enormous psychological pressure applied against me with the goal of causing my departure. Somehow on the telephone a voice rang out, announcing in Russian with the use of high-caliber abuse: “We know you very well… (son of a such-and-such!). If you don’t get out of here, then we’ll smash your head open! Remember that, (there followed further swearing).” What was there to do? Act according to the plan that had previously been thought out for such a case? It was completely normal to assume such a turn of events, and psychological preparation is equal to being forearmed. To cower and submit would mean to be lost in the eyes of your friends and comrades, your own, and those of your enemy, as well. Common sense suggested that if someone was indeed thinking of smashing your head, they’d do it without a warning over the phone. It doesn’t take much valor or guts to kill an unarmed, defenseless person who hasn’t compromised himself in any way. No, my enemies wouldn’t resort to a “wet job!”

General Juan Velasco Alvarado (C), with Chilean President Salvador Allende (L) and Chilean socialist leader Clodomiro Almeyda.
Peru’s General Juan Velasco Alvarado (C), with Chilean President Salvador Allende (L) and Chilean socialist leader Clodomiro Almeyda.

Therefore, having listened through it all, I informed him in the same type of language over the phone: “I’m engaged in normal journalistic activity, and I won’t allow anyone to scare me… And today I’m planning on going to the movie theater, and I’m going to go by way of such-and-such street.” The last words I pronounced with a spark of temper, and probably an unnecessary challenge. But the train, as they say, had already left the station. That evening I went to the theater; I already had to fulfill my promise. I can’t say that it was a pleasure watching the movie that time, but when I returned to my hotel and nothing had happened to me, I cackled with joy that I had achieved another small victory.

There were also “tricks” later on. Once while I was dining in a restaurant with an acquaintance, a “wandering” photographer suddenly burst in and began snapping pictures with a powerful flash effect right in our faces. Or a car full of half-naked girls would begin pursuing me on the street, or something else.

On my next visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Department, over a cup of coffee with Lt. Colonel Harama, I referred to the local security service’s extremely low level of professionalism. He exploded, “That’s not us, that’s the Americans!” “For Americans such provincialism would be a total humiliation,” I noted. After that conversation the tension lessened significantly. Only when sending correspondence at the post office was I insistently requested not to seal the flaps of envelopes with sticky tape (I knew that it was very difficult to open such envelopes and not leave any traces of inspection).

Work without weekends, at 14-15 hours a day, was my vacation. Every day included three to four business meetings that opened new strata of information and brought me together with interesting people. I had to compose a plan to master the Peruvian “blank spot.” At first these were meetings with ministers or their deputies, and in extreme cases with senior officials. When that was finished, there came the turn of political parties and social-political movements. Then followed universities and student organizations. Separately there were centers of industrial production and modern enterprises for refining agricultural production. The people who attracted me the most were those who possessed information that had already been accumulated and soundly processed: academics (economists, sociologists, professors) as well as journalists.

Peru at that time was experiencing a period of radical transformations. The military government nationalized American oil-refining facilities and endured the pressure of US threats and blackmail that were usual in such cases. Aside from that, the issue of agrarian reform was being decided, in which the traditional Latin American landowning system had to be replaced by a modern one opening the way to capitalist development of agriculture. The driver of this process was the Peruvian military, which took upon itself responsibility for the modernization of the country. Leading ministerial posts were occupied by generals, of whom there was a surplus, as in any weakly developed country. The government’s patriotic course was supported by the majority of the population except for a part of constantly revolting students. In the open opposition were only proponents of Aprismo, a social-democratic-type party.

The Peruvian military was counting on the support of other Latin American countries first and foremost, not hoping for more. Their action in Peru was a reflection of the general behavior of army leaderships in Latin America at that time. Also in 1968, General Torrijos came to power in Panama, and he’d later cause quite a few headaches for the United States. As previously mentioned, in 1965 the US only managed with difficulty to repress a military revolution in the Dominican Republic. The military’s behavior was a reaction to the bankruptcy of traditional political parties, who had been mired in corruption and acted as lackeys to foreign interests. In many cases the temporary presence of these militaries in power rendered a cathartic influence on the social and political life of their countries and prepared the ground for the inculcation of healthier democratic roots.

Nikolai Leonov today. Photo: gvardiya.ru
Nikolai Leonov today. Photo: gvardiya.ru

Latin American militaries had a dualistic approach to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, their attitude was defined by a traditionally hostile guardedness toward socialist ideology. One-dimensional thought was characteristic not just of communism. On the other hand, it was impossible to reject the temptation of turning to the help and support of the Soviet Union when necessary. Our enormous country, painted on the map at that time in a poisonous red, lay far away from Latin America. We hadn’t fought with anyone on that continent, hadn’t managed to offend anyone, and little was known about us (and poorly at that). But we always stood in opposition to the United States, the main enemy of Latin America. Therefore the USSR naturally was seen as a potential ally in any difficult situation. “The enemy of the United States is our friend” was practically the credo of many political figures. And so relations between so-called progressive military regimes and the Soviet Union were often built on such a shaky basis.

Honestly speaking, Soviet intelligence didn’t have a clearly set mission in Latin America that was determined by state interests. We ourselves developed our program of action, orienting our approach toward national requirements. Although (and what’s the point of hiding it now) sometimes, we also wanted to attract attention to ourselves and present our work as highly significant. This would save our Latin American line from growing sickly and dying away. We generally succeeded in convincing the KGB leadership that Latin America represented a politically attractive platform where anti-American sentiments were strong, while traditional anti-Soviet attitudes were artificially supported by the US constantly pumping the media with propaganda yet didn’t have real roots. We were able to prove that through Latin America’s communications channels with the United States, developed countries of the West, and Japan, we could achieve serious results in scientific-technical intelligence. In a word, we ourselves searched out our frontline and developed the instruments necessary to reach set objectives.


Work Translated: Леонов, Н.С. Лихолетье: Записки главного аналитика Лубянки. М: Эксмо, 2005.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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