In early 1992, a low-level clerk from the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate walked into the British Embassy in Riga, Latvia, and asked to speak with someone in authority. Over tea, he passed several small folders containing typed notes that revealed the existence of a vast personal archive of KGB material he began collecting in 1972.
Eight months later, the clerk, Vasili Mitrokhin, and his family were "exfiltrated" to Great Britain with the archive, considered to be "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from one source" in the history of espionage.
Individuals such as the desk-bound Mitrokhin should come as no real surprise. For anyone who has merely thumbed through a John Le Carré novel knows, it is always the anonymous bureaucrat or the fileroom clerk passed over for promotion that is most capable of turning an intelligence agency on its axis.
No ordinary spy story
And that is exactly what Mitrokhin did, but in a manner sensational for even the pulpiest of spy novels. Every day for 12 years, he scribbled information from KGB files onto little scraps of paper, hiding them in his shoe until they could later be transcribed and typed at his Moscow flat. In doing so, he amassed tens of thousands of pages that, due to their enormous volume, finally had to be stashed in several locations.
Although Mitrokhin did not have access to Soviet military intelligence, thus leaving many of the Cold War's questions unanswered, the documents do reveal the activities of Soviet foreign and domestic intelligence from the October Revolution to the eve of the Gorbachev era, as well as the names of thousands of agents who carried out these operations. In terms of damage to the KGB, one could accurately equate Mitrokhin's information with similar blows to Western intelligence by the Rosenbergs, the Cambridge Five, Aldrich Ames and, of late, FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
Nine years after their acquisition, the documents still remain under review. In March, Australia's Security Intelligence Organization used the files for leads in piecing together a network of deep-cover KGB agents who operated there for several decades. (These operations, outside the United States and Europe, will be covered in a second volume to be released next year).
Anecdote and revelation
A portion of what is detailed in The Sword and the Shield, such as various harassment efforts against Soviet dissidents, suppression of East European democracy movements, or even the infiltration of Scotland Yard, are now mere historical anecdote. Other revelations, however, show the all-encompassing nature of Soviet penetration efforts and the position they attempted to gain from which to completely undermine the West—politically, socially and culturally.