Michael Weiss

Director for Special Investigations, Free Russia Foundation

Jan 21, 2020
How the KGB Compensated for Perestroika

By Andrei Soldatov

In the third year of Perestroika, in 1988, the intelligence branch of the KGB was deep in a crisis – the headquarters in Yasenevo woods a few miles southwest of Moscow found the officers at KGB rezidenturas in Western countries increasingly reluctant to approach foreigners. They effectively turned off the aggressive recruiting mode the Soviet intelligence was once so famous.

In the United States, Soviet intelligence scored some spectacular successes in penetration, namely Aldrich Ames at CIA and Robert Hannssen at FBI, but the recruited Americans were the walk-ins – i.e. they themselves initiated the contact with Soviet spies, they were not approached by the Russians.

The Soviet Union was losing the Cold War and that certainly contributed to the confusion in KGB intelligence stations all over the world, but most importantly, the officers themselves didn’t want to risk their postings in the West. Being kicked out of a Western country if caught red-handed was not a particularly attractive idea at time when all kinds of shortages back home were already palpable.

Finally, the big shots at Yasenevo came up with a solution. It was a bold and witty idea, and the translated Analytical overview was part of it. Yasenevo suggested to exploit the natural advantages the KGB still enjoyed back home.

In addition to its espionage abroad, the KGB was always busy collecting “intelligence from the territory,” a euphemism for recruiting foreign nationals in the Soviet Union, with an eye to subsequently running them as agents in their home countries. This system worked because the Soviet Union, as a police state, had an opportunity to watch literally every foreign national in the country. Each regional KGB department had what was called a First Section in charge of recruiting foreigners.

This activity was coordinated by the Directorate RT (Razvedka s Territorii: intelligence from territory) of the First Chief Directorate in Yasenevo.

The problem was that no so many foreigners wanted to come the Soviet Union. Now that was changing, thanks to Gorbachev, who was busy opening up the country.

But the Soviet Union was still a totalitarian state, meaning that there was no media, a trade union, or a nascent private enterprise (not to mention a government agency) in position to say no to the KGB if approached and asked to plant a spy in the organization under disguise.

These spies planted by the KGB were known as DR officers, Destvuyushego Rezerva: of the active reserve. The term had a long history; it was used since the 1920s.

The KGB’s “Tradecraft in Intelligence Work from Cover Organizations on Soviet Territory,” an analytical overview presented here for the first time in both its original Russian and in English translation, suggested boosting the activities of the Directorate RT as a way to compensate the passivity of hibernated intelligence stations abroad.

Tradecraft in Intelligence Work on Soviet Territory from Cover Organizations (ENG)

Конспирация в разведывательной работе (RUS)

The beauty of the report was that it suggested combining two things, already at KGB disposal – the capabilities of planting KGB spies in almost any Soviet organization; and the activities of the Directorate RT in approaching foreigners now coming in big numbers to the Soviet Union.

The Directorate RT was thus encouraged to plant more spies in Soviet organizations with an eye to recruiting foreigners in the Soviet Union.

The report even suggested to send officers of the Directorate RT abroad to run its assets, and not to handle them to the intelligence stations in respective countries, probably acknowledging the reluctance of the intelligence stations to taking risks.

The Soviet regime was facing its collapse, but the KGB intelligence branch once again proved its resourcefulness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Andrei Soldatov, The coathor of “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad”

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