Vympel, the KGB’s spetsnaz group for overseas action, was a unit forged, in the words of its initiator KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov, “without equal.” The following text outlines Vympel’s founding, the unit’s training process, and its general operational history.
The idea for founding a commando unit for the KGB belongs to the chief of Directorate S (Illegals) Yuri Drozdov, one of the men who directed the storm of Afghan President Hafizullah Amin’s palace. Returning from Moscow, he went to KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov and presented him with a plan to create a special-purpose group for carrying out operations during the “special period” – in short, a commando unit.
Continue reading Vympel: The KGB’s Sword Abroad
KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov is known as a “living legend” of Soviet intelligence. Having himself operated under German identities, Drozdov worked as the KGB resident in China and the United States before eventually becoming the head of Directorate S, the famed Illegals, where he also founded the special commando unit Vympel. The following interview was conducted in September of 2010 on the occasion of his 85th birthday.
Yuri Ivanovich, first of all, thank you for sending your new book Operation President: From Cold War to Reset. I came to congratulate you on your 85th birthday, and as before, you’re at work.
My wife is still trying to convince me: “Enough, quit.” And I constantly answer the truth: if I leave, I’ll die. As previously I’m directing the independent consulting and marketing agency Namakon. And I write books.
Serious ones, concerning history, politics, Russia’s strategic development. But nonetheless I’d like to speak with you…
About intelligence I’ve told everything that’s allowed. Or almost everything.
Continue reading Interview with a Soviet Spymaster
KGB Lt. Gen. Leonid Vladimirovich Shebarshin (1935-2012) was an experienced specialist on South Asia and Iran and would become the last chief of the Soviet KGB’s First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) in 1989. In his memoirs, Shebarshin recalls his time training at the KGB’s 101st Intelligence School in 1962.
101 – That was the name of the intelligence school subsequently transformed into the KGB’s Yuri Andropov Red Banner Institute.
For the first time in my life I was quartered in a dormitory. In the two-story wooden house of pre-war construction, the walls were starting to become dilapidated, in places the floors would bend, but it was warm and cozy in the winter, and in the spring lilac branches would brush against the windows.
Continue reading Inside The KGB’s Intelligence School
In the twilight arena of international espionage, one name more than any other evokes an image of patient, masterful treachery, the insidious presence of the enemy in one’s own inner sanctum. No matter the country they serve, generations of intelligence and counterintelligence trainees have been expected to know this name well: Philby. For half a century now, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby (1912-1988) remains both in espionage history and popular literature the quintessential mole, the deep-penetration agent who buried his way to the top of British intelligence to provide Soviet Russia with the Crown’s most guarded secrets. The shock of Philby’s treason reverberated throughout the British establishment, while in retrospective the affair tells us more about the social, cultural, and spiritual depravity of an entire ruling elite than just the sordid exploits of a spy.
Continue reading Philby and the Betrayal of the West
The tragic and untimely death of Russian poet, playwright and diplomat Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboyedov (1795-1828) in Tehran was just one episode in a geopolitical duel, the Great Game, as Russia and Great Britain maneuvered for position in Central Asia throughout the 19th century. This official account from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), authored by A.N. Itskov, tells a story of diplomacy, espionage, and murder in Persia. Translated by Mark Hackard.
For the first third of the 19th century, Russia was engaged in bloody wars with Persia (1804-1813 and 1826-1828). Consequently Russia emerged victorious, and Persia was forced to recognize Russia’s annexation of Georgia, Dagestan, Northern Azerbaijan, and also the Yerevan and Nakhichevan khanates. In elaboration of the conditions of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which legally formalized the results of the two wars and became the basis of relations between the two lands up to October of 1917, a most active participant was the diplomatic counsel under the Commander of the Russian Army of the Caucasus Ivan Paskevich, Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboyedov. Griboyedov had already worked in the Russian embassy in Persia between the two wars and had learned well the situation in the country. And when he journeyed to the camp of Abbas Mirza, the son of the Shah and commander of the Persian Army, to resolve political questions, at the same time he studied the state of the army and detected its low morale. Griboyedov also “probed” Abbas Mirza’s adjutant, Haji Mahmud Aga, regarding the latter’s possible future use as an agent, and was practically able to receive his consent on cooperating[i].
Continue reading The Tsar’s Man in Tehran
The newest film in the 007 series will be titled SPECTRE, a fitting reference to the real cabals and cartels that rule the world. Indeed, SPECTRE is presented early on in From Russia with Love with this very feature – they are international, as opposed to SMERSH being Russian, and play nation states off against one another. Transitioning from the Soviet-affiliated SMERSH in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, SMERSH transforms into SPECTRE, a formidable “terrorist” organization from the ambiguous East.
It is also telling that back in the 50s and 60s, Ian Fleming was already predicting the transition from the communist threat to the international terrorist threat – something that gave me the indication that Fleming novels are worth a deeper look. Even current media hysteria seems the product of a shrewd psychological operation: Sony claims to have been hacked by North Korea, with the SPECTRE script leaked, as well as Pyongyang supposedly threatening 9/11 style attacks on theaters that play Franco and Rogen’s The Interview. Such headlines might as well be ripped from the pages of Fleming’s books, since they’re truer to life than we might think.
Continue reading 007 Secrets: SPECTRE
The following is a chapter from Russian author Eduard Makarevich’s book on espionage and subversion, Sekretnaya Agentura. Translation by Mark Hackard.
The great Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky couldn’t avoid the temptation of revolution. He was already famous as the author of the short story “Poor Folk” when he had a meeting with a certain Mikhail Petrashevsky. The liberal views of the bureaucrat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an impression on the young Dostoevsky. He was only 26 years old at the time – an age of great hopes and desires for changing the world. It was with such intentions that the writer began to visit Petrashevsky’s secret club. Various people gathered there: intellectuals of non-noble birth, representatives of officialdom with liberal views, officers carried away with socialist ideas, etc.
Continue reading Dostoevsky & the Third Section
The FBI’s recent arrest of several alleged deep-cover Russian intelligence officers, also known as “illegals”, has provoked astonishment in the media. As if U.S. intelligence agencies would ever dream of carrying out covert work in Russia! Since the memory span of reporters and pundits rarely extends beyond a few weeks, perhaps this is understandable. But it should come as no surprise that spying remains an important tool of statecraft. As exemplified by the illegals, the Russians are top players in the game of human intelligence.
Continue reading The Illegals: Russia’s Elite Spies