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Spooks, shadows, codes, and moles

Spy wars, from inside the KGB

Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer
By Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer
Basic, 338 pp., illustrated, $26

Victor Cherkashin was one of the Soviet Union's most famous spies. As a senior KGB agent, he ran secret operations against the ''Main Adversary," first Britain and later the United States. For nearly 40 years on four continents -- from a year before Stalin's death, in 1953, until the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, he was one of the KGB's shining stars. As number-two officer in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., Cherkashin recruited and handled two of the United States' most dangerous traitors: Robert Hanssen of the FBI and Aldrich Ames of the CIA.

Cherkashin's new book, ''Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer," written with American Gregory Feifer, is a dramatic account of what life was like for the proud KGB agent -- the risks he took, the loneliness of being far from his family, the bureaucratic backbiting endemic to all big government agencies, the fear of making a mistake that would compromise or embarrass his country, and the remarkable friendships he developed over the years with several CIA adversaries. The game of trying to ''turn" each other made friends of some Cold War adversaries in the brotherhood of spies.

Most accounts of life inside the KGB have come from intelligence agents who defected to the United States or England and have scores to settle. But Cherkashin, who still lives in Moscow, where he runs a private security agency, provides the Soviet side of several high-profile cases without apology. While offering up no real bombshells, he fills in some missing pieces of the spy-war puzzle, conceding, for example, that it took him 16 years to learn the identity of Robert Hanssen, who supplied the Soviet Union with thousands of key documents that helped expose some of the National Security Agency's most technologically advanced electronic surveillance plans.

Cherkashin says his experience showed people who betrayed their country were more likely to be motivated by personal or financial needs than ideological goals. ''They simply want to solve an immediate problem," he writes. ''Money is a key motivation." Another is proving self-worth. Hanssen resented his FBI colleagues because they didn't think he was as smart as he thought he was, and he determined to get even.

Soviet general Dmitri Polyakov, the most highly placed and knowledgeable mole the US intelligence community had ever had -- ''the jewel in the crown," as former CIA director James Woolsey once described him -- also sought revenge, but for a different reason. According to Cherkashin, Polyakov became disillusioned during his second tour in New York when the youngest of his three sons fell ill. The KGB spy asked his Soviet supervisors to allow the boy to check into a New York hospital for a life-saving operation, but permission was denied, and the child died. Not long afterward, Polyakov approached an American at a diplomatic function and hinted that his services were available.

Vitaly Yurchenko, the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect to the United States, famously changed his mind, escaped from the CIA's clutches, and redefected to the USSR, also because of personal problems. Cherkashin says Yurchenko was a health nut who thought he was dying of stomach cancer and had only weeks to survive. Supposedly, the KGB operative wanted to live out his last days with a former mistress, in Montreal. But he feared for his family back in Moscow.

The CIA, which had offered its prize defector $1 million and a house in the Washington suburbs, arranged for Yurchenko to meet his lover in Canada and try to convince her to run away with him. But to the spy's astonishment, when he appeared on her doorstep, she turned him down. Then came another surprise. New medical tests showed he had no cancer. Having fingered former NSA communications specialist Ronald Pelton as a Soviet agent, Yurchenko realized he not only had years to live but might be compelled to testify in a US court, virtually guaranteeing that Soviet authorities would take action against his family in Moscow. That, writes Cherkashin, is when Yurchenko began rethinking his defection. During a quiet dinner at a popular French bistro in Georgetown in November 1985, Yurchenko asked his young CIA handler: ''What would you do if I got up and walked out? Shoot me?"

''No," the young man replied, according to Cherkashin, ''we don't treat defectors that way." With that, Yurchenko left the restaurant and marched straight up Wisconsin Avenue to the Soviet Embassy, where he buzzed himself in through the main gate.

Two days later, at a well-publicized news briefing staged by the embassy, Yurchenko shocked the Washington intelligence community by claiming that the CIA had kidnapped and drugged him. According to Cherkashin, few of Yurchenko's Soviet colleagues believed his story, but they were engaged in a high-stakes propaganda war with the United States and chose to exploit their colleague's return rather than take vengeance on him for committing what most considered to be treason.

If Cherkashin was as good a spy as observers suggest -- and there is every reason to believe he was -- it is tantalizing to imagine what secrets he doesn't reveal. Whatever the case, the KGB is said to be displeased that it didn't have an opportunity to review the memoir. The former agent has cancelled a book appearance in Washington for ''medical reasons." In the world of spooks and shadows, that is sometimes translated as ''hot water."

Ann Blackman lived in Moscow from 1987 to 1990 as a correspondent for Time. She is co-author of ''The Spy Next Door," about FBI agent and spy Robert Hanssen. Her latest book, ''Wild Rose: Civil War Spy," will be published by Random House in June.

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