Treachery at Lubyanka

Former KGB General Filipp Bobkov was a veteran counterintelligence officer and chosen by Yuri Andropov to head the Fifth Chief Directorate (Ideological Counter-Subversion), which he led from 1969 to 1983. Bobkov recounts the twilight war of counterespionage waged between the CIA and KGB – a contest with deadly consequences. 

In the Cold War, as in any other war, there were successes and defeats – failures and miscalculations that at times led to inescapable consequences. Any intelligence service will suffer the blows of the enemy with difficulty, and the KGB also had to undergo not a few such blows. Betrayals by apparatus officers – those with whom you spend all day, whom you see in the elevator and at meetings, with whom you’re connected by constant engagement in shared matters – these were taken especially painfully.

KGB central apparatus officer Major Viktor Sheymov never had to go out on service matters, and he spent the entire working day, often stretching deep into the night, in his office, which wasn’t easy to reach. He locked himself in and didn’t open the door to just any knock, and if he went out for lunch or, say, to the brass, without fail he’d turn the levers of his encoded lock and would again jiggle the doorknob to check whether it was well-locked.

Bobkov Filipp
General of the Army Filipp Bobkov.

So it was when Sheymov worked in Poland, and he also kept such a regime during his period of work in several African countries as well as upon his return to Moscow. And there wasn’t anything surprising in that; such was his profession – a cryptographer.

One time Sheymov didn’t arrive to work, and everyone decided that he had fallen sick, since they knew him as a disciplined, effective person for whom duty was everything.

He also didn’t show up the next day, and no one answered the telephone calls to his home. Sheymov’s colleagues became worried and went to his apartment. But they didn’t uncover any signs of life there; neither could the neighbors say anything. With the help of apartment maintenance, the officers entered the apartment – nobody was there. It wasn’t that the rooms were in ideal order, but everything was seemingly in place.

They dropped by Sheymov’s parents. It turned out they didn’t know anything, either. The state security officers became even more alarmed, noting how strangely the old people were behaving. It would have seemed they’d be worried: he wasn’t at work, neither was their son at home with their beloved granddaughter and daughter-in-law. But Sheimov’s parents only shrugged their shoulders in surprise, as though they had no clue where he could have gone.

Sheymov Viktor
Soviet CIA agent and defector Viktor Sheymov.

To our great shame it was soon established: Sheymov and his family were neither in Moscow nor the country overall. They left. They themselves, of course, couldn’t do that. All three were obviously extracted with their agreement. KGB officers had almost no doubts remaining, but they could believe in betrayal only with difficulty.

A thorough investigation was undertaken, and soon another blow awaited us.

Usually when an agent of a foreign intelligence service leaves his country where he was staying and returns to the Motherland, he won’t make contact with that intelligence service for some time, even a long time, since he might be under surveillance. He only has the right to begin work after he receives a signal from his masters. This signal was given to Sheymov – he was sent a letter. Not to his name and address, of course, and it wasn’t written in open text. But there were no doubts left: Sheymov was working for the enemy, and he hadn’t begun doing so just yesterday.

This was a critical failure; after all, Sheymov was a cryptographer, and with his help our codes made it into enemy hands. That meant that everything our agents were transmitting had been intercepted and decoded by Western intelligence services. It wasn’t known how long this had gone on for.

One can imagine what we endured! Most of all it was a feeling of terrible humiliation – he had us wrapped around his finger, and also, of course, anger seethed among everyone from recognition of our own helplessness and powerlessness.

And so Sheymov was extracted along with his wife and children. In what manner? Counterintelligence couldn’t answer this question, and apparently wasn’t striving to answer it. It’s difficult to admit one’s failures!

After all, the most minor signals on the possibility of any person’s ties to foreign intelligence services were subjected to the most scrupulous vetting, and then there’s your own officer…All the investigation’s evidence in the Sheymov case were received hostilely, and all kinds of possible exculpatory versions were thought up. Even the leadership, sure of a failure by their subordinates, tried to conceal certain details, and, it stands to reason, didn’t make the necessary conclusions from what had transpired.

Many of our tragedies, as I have already written, took place due to an unwillingness to deeply analyze the reasons for various phenomena inhibiting the development of the state and leading to ruinous consequences. The state security organs also didn’t escape this vice. Who knows, if the necessary conclusions had been made from the Sheymov case, perhaps another “fighter for the liberation of the USSR,” Gordievsky, wouldn’t have been able to escape the country right in front of everyone.

Reciprocal penetration into the systems of foreign intelligence services is a natural process; we infiltrated Western intelligence services, and they did the same to ours. But the possibility of the opponent penetrating our special services was underestimated, both in intelligence and counterintelligence. Defectors do come about, we’ve had such, but for a CIA agent to work alongside you at the desk right next to you at Lubyanka is impossible for one to imagine. Running penetrations of foreign intelligence services, we didn’t even permit ourselves the thought that a Western agent could be infiltrated into our ranks. Even knowing of some details that would put us on guard, the security organs allowed for negligence. At all levels of the KGB, no one wished to seriously think that such a thing could happen.

Polischchuk Leonid Instructions
CIA instructions to agent Leonid Polishchuk, a KGB major, for a meet or dead drop in Moscow. Image: NTV

When our officer remained in the West, the case was of course thoroughly investigated, with those guilty of the omission punished. Perhaps precisely fear of such punishment fettered the actions of officers, who weren’t looking to uncover and expose agents infiltrated into our ranks. It’s true – there were a few of them.

The exposure of several KGB officers working for the opponent – men such as Polishchuk, Motorin, Varenik, and Yuzhin – was perceived as an incredible emergency situation. But that was in intelligence. Counterintelligence matters were going along calmly. And suddenly, like thunder amidst a clear sky: our major is a CIA agent! Deputy section chief of the Moscow Directorate Vorontsov was caught red-handed passing secret information to a CIA officer who was working under US embassy cover in Moscow. With the permission of the investigator, as one of the KGB leadership I spoke with Vorontsov after his arrest.

He told the story of his downfall. In his words, no one recruited him, and until a certain moment he didn’t have any connections with the CIA. He himself decided to cross over to the enemy. An experienced intelligence officer, he knew how to avoid surveillance and establish contact. Vorontsov threw into a US embassy employee’s vehicle a letter in which he offered his services. No answer followed. This didn’t trouble Vorontsov, since he knew from his own practice that not just anyone would take the bait he was tossing them. Sometime later he put a second letter into an embassy car. The Americans established contact with him after the third attempt. They were convinced that this person could be useful, as he wasn’t coming to them, of course, with his hands empty. They agreed to accept his services for $30,000 – 30 pieces of silver!

We knew well all the officers of the CIA station in Moscow, as well as the “clean” diplomats who weren’t of interest to us. We followed the actions of the station chiefs attentively, about which they doubtless knew well. Not one contact, nor one route, could get by us, and we didn’t even require constant surveillance or special observation – we knew our “colleagues” by their faces. Neither switching cars, nor changing taxis for buses or the metro, could change anything. As a rule, American agents are high-class professionals. Without a doubt they sensed our “tutelage,” as they simply couldn’t allow the thought that it wasn’t there. And this time they thought up an amusing stunt.

“Clean” diplomat John was indistinguishable by height and build from Brown, the station chief. Brown put on an artfully made rubber mask that imitated John’s face, and then serenely went where he needed to go. He was sure that John didn’t interest us, and that no one would be following him. Recognizing this mask was impossible even at a close distance, and if the person was in a car, even slowing exiting the embassy gates, then the CIA officers had nothing to worry about.

However, we rather quickly were able to unravel the “illusion.” It helped keep namely those agents who could wreak the most damage within our field of vision. The American intelligence officers, meanwhile, proud of their ingenuity, continued to think they were fooling us.

Arrest Detainment Counterintelligence
Vorontsov’s CIA handler Michael Sellers is detained by a KGB counterintelligence snatch team, likely from spetsnaz Group Alpha.

This method was described in the KGB counterintelligence Information Bulletin, devoted to the practical techniques, methods, and tactics for fighting Western intelligence services. Vorontsov passed the Bulletin to the Americans. The CIA officer who was detained during the meet with Vorontsov wasn’t in a mask, but rather was wearing a wig and adhesive mustache.

Vorontsov gave the enemy important secret information and betrayed his comrades at work and people cooperating with the state security organs. He also revealed the operational methods of our counterintelligence tracking CIA officers in Moscow.

I was struck by the frankness with which Vorontsov told of his treachery. There was the sense that this man wasn’t tormented by his conscience. But he also didn’t resemble a dedicated opponent; he just wanted to earn more money, and kept whining how he, the poor devil, had been wronged by the brass. It’s true – as a matter of fact, he was hurt by the brass when it was discovered he was wasting official funds on personal needs.

The sums were minor, and he was shamed and lowered in rank. So then he got revenge, entering into the Americans’ service.

Vorontsov’s fellow officers saw much – how he wasn’t living according to his means, luxuriating, and readily giving loans, although until recently before then he himself couldn’t get out of debt.

Vorontsov caused a feeling of disgust; in every way he would suck up and try to evoke sympathy. It was difficult to look at a young man who had been ruined by a desire for profit.

Yes, these were our defeats that signified losses in the Cold War. We didn’t resolve to speak of our failures to the people, and in such a way we lost the right to speak on others’ mistakes. However, the very fact that spies were exposed did honor to our Foreign Counterintelligence [First Chief Directorate], at the helm of which stood honorable and highly professional specialists such as Anatoly Kireev and Leonid Nikitenko.

One must also give due to the chief of Foreign Intelligence [First Chief Directorate], Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was not afraid to blemish the prestige of his unit. He didn’t conceal the presence of agents who were working for Western intelligence services among us, and he subjected all cases of their exposure to thorough analysis.

Work Translated: Bobkov, Filip D. КГБ и власть.  Eksmo, 2003.  Moscow.

Translated by Mark Hackard. 

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