Wednesday, September 29, 2010


It is ironic that the last chairman of the KGB, a hardliner who so staunchly opposed glasnost, should have become an unwitting FBI informant. But that is exactly what happened. 

I should know. I managed him myself.

I met Vladimir Kryuchkov, who died on November 25, 2008 at the age of 83, when I was in Moscow in January 1998 to visit with Edward Lee Howard, the CIA traitor who defected to Russia thirteen years earlier.

Howard had been solicited by Kryuchkov to help him arrange publication in the West of his memoirs. Howard produced me. What both men did not know was that I was working undercover for FBI Counterintelligence.

When we met, Kryuchkov was on the wrong side of President Boris Yeltsin, having been one of the so-called “gang of eight” that tried to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev in the attempted putsch of August 1991. 

Ironically, that event triggered the disintegration of the Soviet Union, to which Kryuchkov had been so devoted during twenty-four years in the KGB, rising to chief of the First Directorate before becoming chairman. 

It also landed him in prison for eighteen months.

You would never know, looking at Kryuchkov, that he was once one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. He had the cherubic face of a kindly uncle. Yet Kryuchkov personally ordered the execution of spies given up by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames.

Kryuchkov came to my Baltschug-Kempinski hotel room on the southern bank of the Moscow River with Igor Prelin, his former PR chief at the KGB and executive director of their retired intelligence officers association. Kryuchkov was dressed like a Communist Party apparatchik in a charcoal wool suit, white shirt, navy blue tie with a white vertical stripe and a woolen sweater vest. His round, apple-cheeked face was dominated by large spectacles with heavy amber-colored frames. A wisp of gray hair atop his baldpate stood up on end, as if trying to escape. Prelin was dressed—comically, I thought—in black slacks, black silk shirt, black striped tie and burgundy shoes, with slicked-back hair. Al Capone meets Red Mafia.

I explained to both men that Kryuchkov’s memoirs, as published in Russia two years before, would need enhancement with new material for any possible edition in the West. Thus, I had arrived equipped with a big batch of questions--many of which had been devised by FBI analysts--known in spy parlance as a shopping list.

Hence, the ruse began, with me trying to fill gaps in espionage cases that continued to cause consternation back home. Kryuchkov was as dry and dull as the book he had written in Russian. Therein lay the challenge for me to draw him out.

After making the introduction, Edward Howard had left us to get on with our “book enhancement” (he had his own job as a stockbroker to tend to), so it seemed natural to begin with the Howard case. 

“Edward was of considerable operational interest to us,” Kryuchkov finally revealed, after plodding through a series of mundane comments. “He proved to be priceless, helping us solve a number of big problems. With Edward’s help, we uncovered deep-cover CIA agents in our country. We were also able to plug several information leaks, vital to the security of the USSR.” 

With these words, Kryuchkov confirmed allegations Howard had always denied.

Kryuchkov’s comments on Aldrich Ames were of equal interest. We learned, for instance, that the KGB knew Ames was in trouble long before his arrest and that the Russians had discussed exfiltrating him to safety, as the British had done with their spy Oleg Gordievsky. It had gone to the very top for approval—and Yeltsin shot it down. 


The Russian leader feared that such a tactic would jeopardize economic aid packages to Russia, which were all the rage back then. They key point, of course, was this: How did the KGB know Ames was in trouble? It added to the belief that another spy lurked in a senior position within the U.S. intelligence community.

Kryuchkov believed that Ames’s motivation was not money—the usual means by which the KGB recruited American spies, according to Kryuchkov--but ideology. 

“Ames simply did not agree with the policies of the United States that multiplied their military power,” Kryuchkov had convinced himself. “He believed in the peaceful nature of the Soviet Union’s foreign relations.”

Kryuchkov told me that William Casey was the worst CIA director--“worst for us,” he meant--and that their favorite was Stansfield Turner. He also suggested that one particular DCI inadvertently revealed to him that Oleg Kalugin, the former KGB First Directorate chief, had cooperated with the agency. Kryuchkov held Kalugin personally responsible for the death of Anatoly Shadrin, a former Russian naval commander who defected in 1959 and mysteriously disappeared in Vienna in 1975. Kryuchkov confirmed that the KGB kidnapped Shadrin, but that Kalugin, who was on site in control of the operation, had his own agenda. “The result was a fiasco,” Kryuchkov confessed to me. “Shadrin, unconscious from chloroform, was pulled a thousand yards in the snow at the Austrian-Czech border, then left to lay there for twenty minutes because a receiving car had gotten stuck. Shadrin died. Kalugin appeared satisfied by the outcome.”

Kryuchkov was less forthcoming on the case of Vitaly Yurchenko, and stuck to the party line: Yurchenko was kidnapped by the CIA in Rome. When I called him on it-- “nobody believes that,” I said--Kryuchkov’s eyes turned steely cold and he drummed his left thumb on the arm of his chair.

I filled six hours of cassette tape goading Kryuchkov into revelations. He wrote another thirty-four pages for me. All of which went straight to the FBI’s Russia experts for analysis.

Kryuchkov’s book was never published in the West.

It got even more interesting that evening over dinner, at a restaurant—his favorite—called Fairy Tale. Kryuchkov, and his sidekick Prelin, forecast that an “unknown name” would succeed Yeltsin as President and that the KGB-in-Exile would rally and return to power. 

Not long after, ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin emerged from obscurity, and has long since solidified his rule with the support of his former KGB colleagues and his current intelligence services, the FSB, SVR, and GRU.

Kryuchkov attended Putin’s inauguration, and Putin, during his first year as president, attended Kryuchkov’s birthday party.

Kryuchkov personified why the Soviet Union failed. He truly believed in Stalinist doctrine and the cumbersome apparatchik system, telling me “the happiest day in my life was in 1952, when I realized Stalin was standing thirty meters from me inside Lenin’s Mausoleum.” 

Kryuchkov blamed the disintegration of his country on Gorbachev and the CIA (one in the same, in his opinion). But, ultimately, it was Kryuchkov’s inability--as a diehard bureaucrat--to understand Russia’s potential, and the needs of its people, that compelled him to sign onto a frivolous, almost farcical attempt to oust Gorbachev from power, leading to Yeltsin’s rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I asked Kryuchkov what he wanted his epitaph to say. 

He replied, “Just my name, date of birth and date of death.” 

An unimaginative bureaucrat to the end, Kryuchkov viewed even himself as just another statistic.

I opt for this instead: Here lies a dogmatic KGB chairman who was deceived into passing secrets to his archenemy, the Americans.