Perspective
Volume XVI Number 1 (October-November 2005)

Book Review:

Sympathy for the Devil

 

By Chandler Rosenberger

 

Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer by Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer.  (Basic Books, 2005).

 

In December 1961, Victor Cherkashin was a freshly-minted KGB officer working in Moscow for the Second Directorate, the division dedicated to thwarting British intelligence on Soviet soil.  Wrapping up his work before the New Yearıs celebrations were to begin, Cherkashin got a call from a subordinate reporting that the wife of a British diplomat appeared to be having clandestine meetings with a Soviet officer.  After a few cat-and-mouse chases, Cherkashin and his colleagues figured out whom they were tailing.  Oleg Penkovsky, military intelligence officer and member of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, had betrayed the motherland.

 

It took nearly a year for the Soviets to be sure, but by October 1962 the KGB felt confident enough to arrest Penkovsky.  By that time, Penkovsky already had been able to play a part in the unfolding crisis in Western-Soviet relations prompted by the building of the Berlin Wall and the revelation of Soviet missiles in Cuba.  Penkovsky had revealed that the Cubans were armed with tactical nuclear warheads that could be fired without prior authorization from Moscow.  According to former National Security Council member David Major, this information kept Kennedy from invading Cuba as soon as the missiles were exposed.  For preventing a nuclear exchange, Major and others have dubbed Penkovsky "the spy who saved the world."

 

Victor Cherkashin isnıt so sure.  Even while under arrest in Moscow, Penkovsky had managed to signal to his British and American handlers that the Soviet Union was preparing a nuclear first strike.  But in Spy Handler, his memoir of his years in Soviet intelligence, Cherkashin argues that this bit of intelligence, far from staying Kennedy's hand, would have inflamed the situation.  Fortunately, Cherkashin recalls, "Penkovsky's threat of a nuclear strike wasnıt conveyed to Kennedy, relieving him of the pressure to react."

 

Itıs a small but telling moment in Cherkashin's fascinating account of his years in Soviet intelligence.  Cherkashin praises the CIA for steering Kennedy away from information that they worried would force him to react.  To Cherkashin, the heroes of the Cuban missile crisis were not the leaders on either side but rather their intelligence officers, who chose not to pass on information that they felt their bosses were not prepared to digest.

 

Cherkashin's assessment of the role intelligence played in diffusing the Cuban missile crisis is as revealing of the mechanisms of the Cold War as anything he recounts in his tales of running Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.  As his record makes clear, Cherkashin was perhaps the greatest spy handler in the Soviet Union's history, shrewdly manipulating the informants in his care and the U.S. counter-intelligence officers determined to capture them.  But at a time when Russia is governed by a president who himself emerged from the KGB, it is Cherkashin's attitude toward Soviet history that is perhaps even more interesting.  Cherkashin was good at his job because he believed in it.  A reader doesnıt have to share those beliefs to recognize how they motivated men like Cherkashin to defend the power of the Soviet state for its own sake – even in disregard, if necessary, of that stateıs subjects and its leaders. 

 

Ironically, Cherkashin, a man gripped to his soul by Soviet ideology, proved to be an excellent spy handler precisely because he discounted the role of political beliefs in motivating traitors.  Both Aldrich Ames and Richard Hanssen were men who felt their skills hadnıt been appreciated by their superiors.  Ames was motivated by money more than Hanssen, Cherkashin concluded, but neither betrayed the United States because they believed Soviet Communism was a genuine alternative.  This, Cherkashin argues, is what convinced him of their sincerity.  Only FBI "dangles," i.e., fake traitors designed to ensnare Soviet operatives, ever lamented the evils of capitalism. 

 

Cherkashin's frank assessment of his clients makes Spy Handler an invaluable guide to the soul of a traitor.  He modestly argues that only sheer luck could have brought both Ames and Hanssen to the Soviet embassy during his tour in Washington, D.C.  But it was more than luck that got both spies on the Soviet hook and made both productive.  Cherkashin's account of his early manipulation object, Ames, for example, reveals how well the Soviet spymaster used Ames' own approach to ensnare him.  Ames, then the CIA's chief of Soviet counterintelligence, had contacted the Soviets under the pseudonym Richard Wells.  Meeting "Wells" in a suburban bar, Cherkashin quickly convinced Ames to reveal his true identity.  How can we protect you, Cherkashin argued, if we donıt know who you are? 

 

Having successfully secured Amesı name, Cherkashin then used Amesı strong instinct for self-preservation to pry loose the names of CIA moles within the KGB.  "How can we protect you," Cherkashin argued, "if we don't know who's in a position to inform the CIA about you?"

 

At those words, Cherkashin recalls, Ames took out a pad of paper and wrote down a list of names – "a catalogue of virtually every asset within the Soviet Union."  Ames' impulsive revelation revealed more about CIA operations than any single previous communication, but such was the logic of betrayal that Cherkashin so skillfully manipulated.  "Just make sure these people don't find out anything about me," Ames said as he handed Cherkashin the list. 

 

They didn't, of course.  Dead men don't talk. 

 

Because Cherkashin's career took him from Australia to India to Lebanon to the States, Lubyanka and back, Spy Handler is a genuine tale of international intrigue, one full of dead-drops, microphones, "honey traps," double and triple agents and, of course, executions – at least on the Soviet side.  Cherkashin and his co-author Gregory Feifer weave in these elements not as ostentatious color but rather as props and scenery of a far more interesting drama, one that reveals the nature of betrayal in a manner that would have done Graham Greene proud. 

 

In revealing Cherkashin's own motivations, Spy Handler is also, if unintentionally, a disturbing account of a mind so secure in its knowledge of others that it need not reflect on its own failings. 

 

Even the reader casually acquainted with Soviet history will find Cherkashin's historical backdrop to be grotesquely distorted.  As a young man, Cherkashin showed little curiosity about his father's work in the NKVD beyond a comforting sense that "he was a decent person in all respects and that whatever he did was honorable."  As a young intelligence officer during Khrushchev's thaw, Cherkashin was assigned to destroy files documenting the 1930s purges, lest some reform-minded Party official do to the NKVD what Khrushchev's secret speech had done to Stalin.  Cherkashin recalls coming across evidence that peasants were wrongly accused of treason and unjustly shot, but quickly puts this disturbing inside knowledge in perspective.  "Although I found many of the mistakes of the 1930s deplorable," Cherkashin remembers, "I also felt that they were unavoidable in building the foundation of the Soviet state." 

 

At every historical turn, Cherkashin finds reason to put the power of the Soviet state ahead of the interests of citizens of other nations, ahead of Soviet citizens – even, remarkably, ahead of the Soviet Union's own leaders.  The brutal crushing of the Prague Spring was, Cherkashin writes, a necessary fight against "Western attempts to turn socialist countries against Moscow."  The fall of Soviet Bloc governments in 1989 prompts only dismay in Mikhail Gorbachevıs undoing of the Brezhnev Doctrine.  "I watched," Cherkashin recalls, "as decades of hard work and sacrifice by dedicated Eastern European communists were cast aside like dirty laundry." 

 

Some might have thought Gorbachev's campaign against alcohol production and consumption was a decent attempt to improve Soviet life, but Cherkashin saw only the loss of revenue and thus harm done to the Soviet state.  When word of the 1991 coup spread, Cherkashin recalls, "a wave of joy washed over me.  Finally something was being done to stop Gorbachevıs destruction."  When the coup failed and citizens rallied to pull down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet police state, Cherkashin saw only a "senseless act – no better than the destruction of churches after the 1917 revolution." 

 

Cherkashin's compelling accounts of recruiting and manipulating spies appear, on the surface, to depend on a certain moral relativism.  Great spies were not motivated by ideology, Cherkashin convincingly argues.  In treating some of his opposite numbers in the CIA with respect, Cherkashin sometimes appears to be a mere engineer of human souls, interested in the mechanisms of power rather than the political order at stake.  But Cherkashin's sincere laments at the loss of Soviet power, unblemished by a single reflection on what that power was used to achieve, reveal a true believer behind the engineerıs calculations.  The Soviet machine should have been preserved, Cherkashin argues, regardless of the purposes for which that machine had been used. 

 

Cherkashin's faith in the power of the Soviet apparatus gives his assessment of post-cold war politics a chillingly totalitarian flavor.  The United States' "laughable liberation of Iraq," Cherkashin argues, had been ginned up by corrupted intelligence agencies.  The time has come, he concludes, for states to "somehow ensure that their intelligence services direct their activities toward achieving properly defined strategic goals instead of following their leaders' political intentions." 

 

At first glance, this statement might win some nods in the West.  Who wouldnıt prefer that intelligence agencies make non-partisan assessments?  But that, of course, is not what Cherkashin is saying.  He argues, instead, that the intelligence services should be setting the agenda regardless of what democratically elected leaders might wish to pursue.  Writing fourteen years after the failed 1991 coup, Cherkashin apparently has not reconciled himself to a world in which the secret police are not in control of their fellow citizens' lives. 

 

Spy Handler is an extraordinary account of Cold War espionage in part because it shows that traitors were not motivated by ideology.  It is also extraordinary, if disturbing, in the extent to which it shows the obverse is true as well.  True believers in Soviet Communism would not, it seems, betray their country.  They would, Cherkashin inadvertently reveals, betray their humanity instead.

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Copyright ISCIP 2005
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
for Perspective.

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