KGB Foreign Counterintelligence

Directorate K (Kontrrazvedka: Counterintelligence) of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (FCD – Foreign Intelligence) was responsible for protecting the FCD from infiltration as well as penetrating hostile intelligence services. A decorated veteran of “Line KR,” KGB Colonel Viktor Ivanovich Cherkashin, shares his insights and experience in this interview.


1985 was christened Year of the Spy, when as a result of of the treachery of a number of officers, Soviet intelligence suffered significant losses among its agent networks, but simultaneously it was able to recruit high-level American intelligence officers overseas. Reserve Colonel from the KGB First Chief Directorate’s (FCD) Directorate K (Foreign Counterintelligence) Viktor Cherkashin tells us about this and a number of other major spy scandals.

Viktor Ivanovich, as a witness to the work of the Soviet and US intelligence services of that time, how do you evaluate the situation in 1985? 

What was happening in our country at that time was taken by many, first of all the United States, as the beginning of the weakening of Soviet power. Although no one, including Ronald Reagan, assumed that in only six years a great power would disintegrate. Overall, this year turned out unsuccessful for the KGB First Chief Directorate. The FBI arrested several valued sources of information in various US intelligence agencies at once – the Walker cryptography family and Ronald Pelton from the NSA. CIA officer Edward Lee Howard was exposed. Senior FCD officer Vitaly Yurchenko crossed over to the side of US intelligence. The KGB’s intelligence, however, rather quickly gained the opportunity to not only analyze the reason for our agents’ arrest, but also reveal the guilty in our midst, moreover: uncover agent penetrations of various units of the KGB, the GRU and Foreign Ministry.

Vitaly Yurchenko
KGB FCD Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko decides to re-defect, leaving the CIA looking sheepish.

All of this information was received from the chief of the CIA’s Soviet Counterintelligence Division Aldrich Ames and the high-ranking FBI agent Robert Hanssen

Yes, for a long time this hasn’t been a secret. Thanks to Aldrich Ames we managed to expose over twenty CIA agents in various Soviet state structures. In 1985 our counterintelligence officers also arrested seven American agents – Valery Martynov, Sergei Motorin, Gennady Smetanin, and later Dmitry Polyakov and others. People who worked in USSR state institutions became easy prey for enemy intelligence services due not only to mercenary motives, but also from the loss of patriotic convictions and faith in one’s country.

In such a case what were Aldrich Ames’ and Robert Hanssen’s motivations for betrayal? They were good analysts and saw that the USSR was beginning to lose its position in the world. 

Aside from purely financial interests, Ames was pushed to cooperation by his qualification of the US leadership’s drive to present a weakened Soviet Union as the source of a threat, which he treated as a betrayal of American national interests. He viewed this as an attempt to obtain additional funds for the Defense Department and intelligence agencies, but not as actions dictated by the true vital interests of his country. Believe me, Ames was no fool. He analyzed policy and understood well where America was headed.

What do you think of Edward Lee Howard? Many consider him a loser, an alcoholic and drug addict who was fired over this from the CIA’s East European Division. 

I can only judge Howard by my period of work in the United States. His case is indeed not completely normal. As a CIA officer he was preparing for work in the Soviet Union. Moreover, he had already come to the Soviet Embassy with a request to provide him a visa for entry into our country, where he was to work under diplomatic cover. The arrival didn’t take place. The FBI detected his use of narcotic substances, and then there came information that he stole some woman’s wallet in an airplane. In my view, if he was possibly in a state of euphoria he wanted to demonstrate his readiness to work as a spy. Such things happen even with people with a stable psyche. Nonetheless, Howard’s journey to the USSR was cancelled.

He was being trained for work with Adolph Tolkachev

Yes. Tolkachev was part of a closed bureau of a scientific research institute for radar and possessed information on friend-foe identification devices meant for Soviet air force planes. The information was very important, top secret, so to say.

In general the story itself is unprecedented – how Tolkachev tried to establish contact with the Americans. At first he threw a note with information on how he was a Russian patriot and could facilitate the destruction of the Soviet Communist Party, since it was supposedly leading our country to ruin, into a US Embassy car with diplomatic plates. That option didn’t work. Again Tolkachev made an attempt at contact when he walked up to a CIA employee’s car at a gas station and proposed cooperation. The latter simply ran off.

Why didn’t they make contact with a potential agent? 

At that time on USSR territory, not the best environment had developed for CIA work. The KGB had just uncovered agent Trigon, recruited in Columbia – Foreign Ministry employee Aleksandr Ogorodnik, who committed suicide during his arrest. CIA officer Martha Peterson was captured at that time during a dead-drop operation. It’s understandable that everyone was afraid of provocations. Nonetheless, the CIA station chief in Moscow, a decisive and quite brave man, risked making contact with Tolkachev.

Tolkachev Document Photography
Tolkachev photographs secret documents for the CIA. The painting, by Kathy Frantz Fieramosca, is displayed at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.

Who, thanks to Edward Lee Howard, was arrested in 1985… Viktor Ivanovich, did you meet with Howard personally?

Yes, in 1986, when I returned from my tour in the United States. Howard, despite all that had happened to him, was a very smart person and a well-versed operative. When US intelligence received information on him from Vitaly Yurchenko in 1985, the FBI placed surveillance on him. Noticing this, Howard and his wife, also quite an experienced intelligence officer, drove away from their house, and at an intersection Howard jumped out of the car while his wife put a mannequin in the front seat. The surveillance team didn’t suspect anything, and Howard managed to cross the US border with Mexico, travel from there to Europe, and then to the USSR.

How closely were you acquainted with Oleg Kalugin, who was one of the first to speak openly of the omnipotence of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate? 

I knew Oleg Danilovich very well; we studied together at the KGB Institute for Foreign Languages in Leningrad. From the point of view of erudition, he was an extraordinary person. A very active and successful operations officer, upon whose fate acted two circumstances: his relationship with the leadership of the KGB FCD, most of all Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kryuchkov, and the era of so-called democratization of the Soviet system, when on the grounds of personal enmity toward the KGB leadership, Kalugin crossed over into politics and began to denounce the work of the entire structure of the special services, betraying professional secrets.

How right was Kalugin when he said that the work of counterintelligence officers was easy and amounted to arresting and detaining both intelligence officers from various countries and USSR citizens? Or is the search for the enemy nonetheless difficult business?

Before moving over into intelligence, I worked seven years in the KGB Second Chief Directorate, in a department engaged in counteracting British intelligence on the territory of our country. I was well-informed on the methods used for exposing foreign agent networks. And I know well how hard it is to uncover a person working for a foreign intelligence service, all the more among my fellow-officers. Over a few decades KGB counterintelligence had discovered just one agent on the basis of failures in organizing espionage activity – GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. The wife of an employee of the British Embassy’s consular department was meeting with Penkovsky in some kinds of stores and other crowded places during the daytime. For intelligence work, that’s primitive. Overall the scenes where an officer crosses paths with an agent and passes him a suitcase with money, and the latter slips an envelope with secret information into the other’s pocket is from movies. As a rule, there is no personal contact – the materials are placed into a dead drop, the place of which is selected so that no third person could detect the package. And its removal occurs in just as thorough a fashion. I’m already not speaking of electronic means of communication, with which there’s no necessity for the intelligence officer to meet with his agent. Exposure is a long, complex, and painstaking matter. As a rule, an agent is only exposed by another agent.

Viktor Cherkashin
KGB Colonel Viktor Cherkashin.

What happened after getting information that such-and-such a USSR citizen was a CIA agent?

Information provided to us by, let’s say Ames, didn’t contain any kind of intelligence; he just reported that the person was an agent of the CIA. To bring person to justice for betrayal of the Motherland, we were required to obtain data confirming it. And that already relates to the category of “hellish labor.”

How did it occur that GRU General Dmitry Polyakov could work for the US CIA more than 15 years, moreover even after retirement, when he began teaching in intelligence school?

It’s a complicated matter with Polyakov. A general, intelligence resident in India… The first information on him appeared in the 1970s, when Edward Epstein’s book Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald came out, and in which were mentioned the codenames of CIA agents in Soviet intelligence services – TOPHAT (Polyakov) and FEDORA (officer of the KGB FCD New York residency Aleksei Kulak). James Angleton, who at that time was directing the work of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Division, considered anyone who freely wanted to cooperate with intelligence a “dangle.” For him both FEDORA and TOPHAT were provocateurs, and he therefore gave information on them to Epstein. Even deputy chief of the First Department of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate Major Yuri Nosenko, who escaped from Switzerland to the United States in 1964, was held by Angleton in solitary confinement, where he was subjected to strict and intensive interrogations. For several years Angleton didn’t believe that Nosenko was genuine and not a KGB dangle.

Do you agree with the opinion of your colleague Viktor Ivanovich Andrianov with regarding that in the 1970’s and 1980’s Directorate K and the entire KGB FCD residency in New York simply physically couldn’t keep 24-hour control over the entire Soviet colony there? 

Yes, such total control was impossible and simply pointless. Just take the USSR Embassy in Washington, D.C. Construction of the living quarters for Soviet diplomatic employees was completed only in 1979. Before that nearly a hundred official employees of the embassy along with their families were scattered around various areas of this large city. To put surveillance on every one of them was an unthinkable business.

The Soviet colony was controlled by the Fifth Department of the Foreign Counterintelligence Directorate. The security officer tracked irregular behavior of employees – if someone among them, for example, came to work drunk, fought with his wife, or went out into the city with unknown objectives.

How correct was Gennady Shevchenko, the son of Soviet diplomat and defector Arkady Shevchenko, when he stated that if his father had arrived in Moscow in 1978 to receive a reprimand for abusing alcohol, then KGB FCD resident in New York Yuri Drozdov wouldn’t have had any proof of his treachery? 

Drozdov didn’t have any documentary evidence at that time since we could obtain proof of the recruitment of UN Deputy Secretary-General Arkady Shevchenko by US intelligence only from the FBI. The remaining operation bore an operational character.

All of time staying in the United States, Shevchenko was very visible. His certain types of passions and prejudices were known to our officers. Soviet intelligence personnel in New York also knew of US intelligence’s interest in him. Of course, about the fact of his recruitment and meetings with representatives of American intelligence in safe houses, when he passed them information, no one knew until a precise moment.

KGB 70 Year Anniversary
The KGB celebrates its 70th Anniversary in 1987. Standing in back are soldiers of the KGB’s elite Kremlin Regiment.

Viktor Ivanovich, please clarify, how could Shevchenko’s meetings with his FBI handlers happen?

The meetings at safe houses were set up so that as few third parties knew about them as possible. But Soviet intelligence officers had information that there was something not right with Arkady Shevchenko, and that US intelligence was possibly actively working around him. KGB FCD resident in New York Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov also possessed that information.

To analyze everything happening around Shevchenko, a special officer of the KGB arrived in the United States from Moscow. Clearly his arrival proved to be not wholly successfully organized, and it could have put on guard not so much Arkady Shevchenko as the FBI agents who gave him the command to leave.

Only in 1985 did the KGB First Chief Directorate have the opportunity to receive reliable documented information regarding how Arkady Shevchenko voluntarily began cooperating with US intelligence. As much as I remember, Aldrich Ames was working with Shevchenko from the CIA.

How would you comment on Gennady Shevchenko’s words that because of Ames, 12 Soviet citizens were shot, while not one person suffered because of his father, neither in the US, nor in the USSR?

The consequences of betrayal of one’s country by individual persons can vary. And the punishment for betrayal of the Motherland can also vary, depending on the gravity of these consequences. But the essence of what was committed doesn’t change over that: activity to damage the interests of one’s country is treason.


Original Interview

Translated by Mark Hackard

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