I mentioned yesterday that I spent much of my Outer Banks vacation reading The World Was Going Our Way, an amazing and never-before-told history of the KGB’s activities in the Third World, as documented by a senior KGB archivist named Vasili Mitrokhin who defected to the UK in 1992. Why’d I read it? Because I wanted to see how the KGB’s dirty tricks, institutional history and relationship to Soviet foreign policy was reminiscent of the CIA’s place in Cold War America. After I read Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, a similarly excellent history of the CIA, I wrote in The Nation that the CIA’s failures for the past 50 years are largely ineradicable features of an era of magical American thinking:

The CIA is what it is–an unaccountable, dysfunctional and occasionally amoral entity–because America is what it is. If the CIA can’t understand foreign cultures, it’s because America does not educate its citizens to understand foreign cultures. If the CIA can’t see the future, it’s because America, despite its imperial pretenses, isn’t omniscient. If the CIA can’t control the course of foreign events, it’s because America is ambivalent about its status as a superpower. To be shrill about it, the CIA is both a symptom and an accelerant of American imperialism. … What’s worse is the inconvenient truth that as long as imperial America remains, to dismember or destroy the CIA will only strengthen the fortunes of right-wing militarists within American politics. 

We can debate whether my judgment is correct. But did the same analysis hold true about the KGB? Was the KGB what it was because the Soviet Union was what it was?

Sort of. The KGB achieved a mastery over Soviet foreign policy that the CIA never enjoyed. The Mitrokhin archive is replete with accounts Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian and African leaders refusing to deal with the Soviet foreign ministry, since only the KGB had the power, authority and finances to bankroll sundry revolutionary activities. By contrast, relatively few American proxies in the Third World were sustained by CIA sponsorship, before or after taking power, since the military and the White House were the more reliable channels for long-term financing. (The Reagan administration’s infatuation with the Contras, the Afghan mujahideen and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, delivered through CIA, represents the exception here. A wag might say Reagan represented the KGB-ification of American intelligence policy.) Savvy Soviet proxies or would-be proxies used the KGB as a primary channel for communication. Fidel Castro treated the KGB far better than he treated the Soviet ambassadors, always allowing the KGB section chief personal access. Yasir Arafat, by contrast, suffered a frosty relationship with the Soviet Union for his entire career after the KGB concluded by the late 60s that he was a grandstanding and ineffectual figure who had little ability to advance Soviet interests. (The KGB favored the terrorist Wadi Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and according to Mitrokhin, ran him as an agent.)

I’m nowhere near enough of a Sovietologist to draw conclusions about whether the KGB was representative of the sclerotic character of the Soviet Union. But what’s striking is how the KGB possessed an institutional paranoia about the CIA. Castro is a good case study. His revolutionary statements were not socialist ones. But the KGB figured that unless it actively courted — and financed — Castro’s nascent government, the CIA inevitably would. Ironically, that kind of zero-sum reasoning (if we don’t reach out to this guy, the enemy will) neglected how deeply tied American corporations were to the Batista regime that Castro removed, which is the kind of deterministic intellectual cornerstone that’s supposed to guide Marxist analysis. But the paranoia created its own truth: Castro found himself to be quite the energetic socialist after it became clear through the KGB that Soviet sponsorship could enrich him. None of this is to say that Castro is an entirely cynical figure or that his socialism reduces to Soviet bribery. But it’s an example of how the KGB’s hypersensitivity to its CIA rivals succeeded at enlarging the Soviet sphere of influence.

And there I would venture, gingerly, that the Soviet Union got the kind of intelligence service its national character represented. The United States has always had an ambivalent relationship with being a global empire, as evidenced by the fact that it stirs people’s passions to describe American foreign policy as imperialist. But the Soviet Union never harbored any such ambivalence. Its protestations of ‘Socialism In One Country’ notwithstanding, it never stopped exporting revolution to the Third World, and believed as a bedrock principle that it was the Third World that could check the spread of international capitalism and American power. It was the KGB’s job, essentially, to seek out revolutionary talent and negotiate the price. Unlike in the U.S., where politicians and policymakers pushed the CIA to intervene in given peripheral nations, the KGB pushed a more-cautious Soviet leadership. Uncoincidentally, as the Marxists might say, its greatest intelligence failure became with the greatest failure of Soviet foreign policy: the misforecast belief that a Soviet invasion could foster a stable, socialist Afghanistan. There’s a wonderful series of chapters about how Yuri Andropov, the longserving KGB director who became Soviet premier, and two colleagues drove the invasion — and the acrimony that resulted after Andropov’s death left the Afghanistan skeptics in more commanding positions within the Party. In that sense, the KGB truly was to the Soviet Union as the CIA is to the United States.

A side note: the book was written by the British intelligence historian Christopher Andrews, and as a result there’s some appropriately baroque score-settling with left-wing British journalists who were taken in by this or that KGB-authored forgery. If Mitrokhin worked with an American, you can be sure that there would be an energetic reckoning with liberal American journos. Still, it would be a mistake to read The World Was Going Our Way through an ideological prism or view it as a conservative book. It’s a vital piece of Cold War history and ought to be read on those terms.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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