In what is being touted as one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history, top secret documents smuggled out of Russia by KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin were made public on Monday.
The classified documents reveal a treasure of secrets about the Soviet spying during the Cold War, including the details on Soviet weapons cache spread across the world, sabotage plots and how some of the agents were considered as unreliable drunkards.
Vasili Mitrokhin, a senior KGB official, worked between 1972 and 1984 and was also given the duty of a senior archivist, during which he planned his defection and started collecting secret files.
Historian Christopher Andrew, who was also a friend of Mitrokhin, said that the vast dossier, released by the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University, was considered “the most important single intelligence source ever” by British and American authorities.
Mitrokhin was a senior archivist at the KGB’s foreign intelligence headquarters — and a secret dissident. For more than a decade he secretly took files home, copied them in longhand and then typed and collated them into volumes. He hid the papers at his country cottage, or dacha, some stuffed into a milk churn and buried.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin traveled to a Baltic state — which one has never been confirmed — and took a sample of his files to the U.S. Embassy, only to be turned away. So he tried the British embassy, where a junior diplomat sat him down and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“That was the sentence that changed his life,” said Andrew.
Prof Andrew said: “He opened his ¬suitcase, revealing the ¬documents along with his dirty underpants and food he had packed for the journey and asked to speak to someone in authority.”
Smuggled out of Russia, Mitrokhin spent the rest of his life in Britain under a false name and police protection, dying in 2004 at 81.
The world did not learn of Mitrokhin until Andrew published a book based on his files in 1999. It caused a sensation by exposing the identities of KGB agents including 87-year-old Melita Norwood, the “great-granny spy,” who had passed British atomic secrets to the Soviets for years.
Mitrokhin’s files describe Norwood as a “loyal, trustworthy, disciplined agent” who was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for her service.
She was more reliable than the famous “Cambridge Spies,” the high-ranking British intelligence officials who worked secretly for the Soviets. The files describe Guy Burgess as “constantly under the influence of alcohol,” while Donald Maclean was “not very good at keeping secrets.”
The newly released papers include a list of KGB agents in America over several decades. It runs to 40 pages and about 1,000 names.
The volumes also reveal that Soviet agents stashed weapons and communications equipment in secret locations around NATO countries. Included is a map of Rome showing three caches, along with detailed instructions for finding them. It’s unclear how many such weapons dumps have been tracked down by Western authorities.
While some agents targeted the West, many more were deployed inside the Soviet bloc. The files list undercover agents sent to then-Czechoslovakia to infiltrate the dissidents behind the 1968 Prague Spring pro-democracy uprising.
Others targeted the entourage of Polish cleric Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II. The KGB noted with disapproval the future pontiff’s extremely anticommunist views.
The Churchill Archive is giving researchers access to 19 boxes containing thousands of Russian-language files, typed by Mitrokhin from his original handwritten notes. The notes themselves remain classified.