Dmitry Polyakov GRU KGB counterintelligence case

Washington’s GRU General

GRU Maj. Gen. Dmitry Polyakov (1921-1988) was a decorated veteran of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and an old-line Stalinist. Yet beginning in 1959, when on assignment under diplomatic cover at the UN Mission in New York, he was also a US intelligence asset after he volunteered his services to the FBI. Until his arrest in 1986, Polyakov shared the GRU’s most guarded secrets on its international agent networks with Washington, making him the highest-ranking and most damaging mole in the history of Soviet intelligence. Polyakov was finally brought to heel in 1986, when the KGB tracked him down thanks to leads from their own moles – CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI special agent Robert Hanssen. The KGB’s Third Chief Directorate, military counterintelligence, swung in to action.

From the last decade of the Soviet Union presented in the FSB Museum’s “Spy Gallery,” it especially follows to turn our attention to a photograph of an elderly man sitting in the dock of the accused in the proceedings hall of the Supreme Court’s Military Collegium.

He knew his punishment beforehand and wasn’t hoping for leniency. Almost 25 years of work for the FBI and CIA could not be atoned for by his candid admissions. On the conscience of former General Dmitry Feodorovich Polyakov was the blood of Soviet secret intelligence officers, the shattered fates of his colleagues in intelligence, and the most important state secrets betrayed to the adversary. 

FSB Museum
Entryway to the FSB Museum at Lubyanka, Moscow.

Polyakov crossed his Rubicon when he was working in New York. He himself offered US intelligence his services. Later, explaining his acts in Lefortovo Prison, he was clearly dissembling:

The basis of my treachery was my aspiration to openly state my views and doubts somewhere, as well as the constant drive to work beyond the edge of risk. And the greater the danger, the more interesting my life became.

Over a quarter century of work for the Americans, his pseudonyms were changed several times. Among them – Top Hat, Bourbon, and Donald F. Former CIA chief James Woolsey spoke of the unmasked general:

Of all the US secret agents recruited in the years of the Cold War, Polyakov was the jewel in the crown.

Polyakov betrayed 19 illegals, more than 150 agents among foreign citizens, and exposed 1,500 officers’ membership in Soviet military intelligence. From New York the trail of treachery to the new places of his service – Burma, India, the General Staff central apparatus, and the Soviet Army’s Military-Diplomatic Academy.

Polyakov in India
Polyakov, then holding the rank of colonel, at a diplomatic reception.

“During one of the interrogations,” recalls counterintelligence officer Y.I. Kolesnikov, who had a direct relation to the Polyakov case, “Investigator Aleksandr Dukhanin and I asked the former general a question: ‘Dmitry Fedorovich, did you not feel bad for the people you betrayed, our illegals that you yourself trained for this complex work abroad? So much effort and time was contributed. And primarily their fate. After all, after this only one thing awaited them, and you understood perfectly well what that was. These were illegals who for the sake of their Motherland went out for the highest cause. No one ever envied them. People bowed their heads before them. They evoked a sense of the highest respect and pride. Did you understand all that when you were betraying them?'”

“That was my job” Polyakov answered with his characteristic cynicism. “May I have a cup of coffee?”

“I recall these words for all my life. I had seen a whole galaxy of traitor-spies, but Polyakov, in spite of all the repulsiveness of his nature, stayed in my memory for a long time. It’s worth only looking more attentively at his photograph with his saccharine smile on his face, to look into his eyes, and everything will be clear.”

The fruits borne by the traitor to the Motherland were not sweet. “From practically the very beginning of working with the CIA, I understood that I had committed a fateful mistake, a most grave crime.” Polyakov gave such an evaluation to his activity during one of the interrogations. “Endless torments of the soul that lasted this whole period harried me so much that several times I was ready to turn myself in. And only the thought of what would happen to my wife, children, and grandchildren, as well as fear of shame, stopped me, and I continued my criminal ties and to stay silent in order to only somehow delay the hour of reckoning.”

“That is all crap and the pathological lies of a traitor and betrayer,” Kolesnikov thinks. “There was no fateful mistake, and Polyakov knew this well. He was a professional intelligence officer and realized his actions. No one compromised him, and no one set him up in any honey traps. He himself went to the Americans and already then understood that in the course of working with them he’d be selling human lives. He had no other ‘goods.’ He also understood that the information he handed over, which he searched out with some kind of diabolical perseverance, would wreak colossal harm to his country. Not the fear of shame, but the destructive fear of exposure, prevailed over him all those years.”

Why did Polyakov act with impunity for such a long time? He was a cold-blooded, cynical, and intelligent professional who had perfectly mastered the lessons of our Fatherland’s school of intelligence and counterintelligence, which he used in operations to communicate with the CIA, rejecting out of hand instructions in this area from the Americans. So it was from the very beginning of his espionage career, and so it would continue along its entire length. He refused large sums of money, for example, understanding perfectly well that extra cash would inevitably attract the attention of those around him and counterintelligence, of which he was wary for his entire life of treachery.

Polyakov Sketches
KGB counterintelligence sketches of where Polyakov communicated with the CIA in Moscow – leaving a chalk mark at Gorky Park to signal his handlers, and sending burst transmissions from a bus stop across from the US Embassy.

Polyakov knew well how one should work in Moscow’s conditions, and he categorically ignored communications by dead drop, fearing their vulnerability, and therefore chose an impersonal means of communication with the Americans, using special radio devices after becoming sure of their reliability. Getting on a trolley by the US embassy, with a transmitter he’d “shoot out” into the CIA station’s windows and receive an answer. There were also apartment buildings where station officers lived. Building No. 45, for example, on Leninsky Prospect. Walking across the street, he’d “shoot” a coded message on the go into the window of an intelligence officer’s apartment. In such a manner just a few seconds were spent on the whole session of communications. Sophisticated, is it not? Sophisticated but for one thing…

Counterintelligence was constantly on Polyakov’s trail, and there were moments when the general sensed them breathing down his neck. But somewhere good luck accompanied him, and somewhere there were reasons, both of an objective and subjective character, by which he was able to remain undiscovered. At a certain moment he even destroyed all of his espionage instructions, expecting his coming arrest. Yet at that time the storm clouds also passed him by.

Long before his final exposure, military counterintelligence officers reported to the leadership on the necessity of vetting Polyakov. However, one of the KGB’s deputy chairmen, upon whom sanction for a deeper check depended, declared: “An intelligence general cannot be a traitor.”

And nonetheless counterintelligence managed to track down Polyakov. US intelligence’s system of communications proved capable of ensuring the security of its especially valued source only from time to time…

Work Translated: Lubyanka 2: Iz Zhizni Otechestvennoi Kontrrazvedki. Mosgorarkhiv, 1999. Moscow.

Translated by Mark Hackard

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