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Interview: Historian Says Mitrokhin Archive Shows Value Of Human Intelligence

"It's their knowledge of human psychology and their ability to recruit and run humans is something I think that was immensely important for Soviet and Russian successes."

As a senior KGB archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin meticulously collected thousands of documents for more than a decade and organized them for another eight years before defecting to the United Kingdom in 1992. The Cambridge-based Churchill Archives Center is now releasing large portions of his trove to the public for the first time.

Svetlana Lokhova, a specialist in the history of the Soviet intelligence services, says the release provides historians a groundbreaking opportunity to detail the work of the famed intelligence agency. She spoke with RFE/RL's Glenn Kates.

RFE/RL: You have worked with Cambridge professor Christopher Andrew, who for two decades was the only historian allowed to access the documents. Professor Andrew has already published two books on the archive. Should we expect to find anything new in this first public release?

Svetlana Lokhova: He of course had to condense into books from boxes and boxes of material, and of course it's impossible to cover everything. So therefore even on the subjects that he's already written about there will be a lot more content there.

One of the more amusing revelations we found when we were looking through the archives with him is that it's confirmed by the KGB that [two of the British "Cambridge 5" double agents, Guy] Burgess and [Donald] Maclean were lovers, which is something that both of them always denied.

RFE/RL: How did this come up?

Lokhova: The way that the Mitrokhin archives work is it's a combination of the material that he directly took notes on, plus his own opinions. But also his opinions would be reflected in the opinion of the KGB officers at the time. So what would that mean is he would either take direct notes from the files or he would just tell you something that sort of everyone [in Soviet intelligence circles] knew.

And so, it's not in a particular chronological order. The way it works is he would -- for example starting with the biography of Maclean -- go through what I would call "karakteristika" [eds: evaluation], which is a sort of like a job description of an individual. He will [also] talk about [where and when he was] born, recruited and [who his ] father [was] etc., etc. And then he would start giving professional and personal characteristics and it would come up then.

RFE/RL: One fascinating element that comes out of this is the difficulty KGB handlers had in managing their high-level spies and dealing with their own very human characteristics. Can you talk a bit about this?

Lokhova: They had to obviously take the intelligence from where it came. So therefore people who had access, such as the Cambridge 5 -- especially three of them -- to such a high level of intelligence because of their upbringing and their position in society, of course the KGB officers would have to take it.

Donald Maclean "would blurt out that he was a Soviet spy to his lovers and to his relatives."

Donald Maclean "would blurt out that he was a Soviet spy to his lovers and to his relatives."

However, for example, if you contrast it with Melita Norwood [eds: British civil servant who was a KGB intelligence asset from 1937-72], who was actually considered by the KGB as more important than [Kim] Philby. This is the famous grandma who came in from the cold. She was an extremely quiet secretary and for a number of years she would very quietly provide very important material on the industrial side of things, including atomic energy.

With the Cambridge Five, one of the problems was, you know, Maclean for example, would blurt out that he was a Soviet spy to his lovers and to his relatives, etc. The issue there is that, of course, it's much better to have a quiet agent who just did their job. But on the other hand you have to take the intelligence from where it comes from and that included trying to manage people who were very often unmanageable.

RFE/RL: What do these archives tell us about how we should expect Russian intelligence services to operate today?

Lokhova: Well I think the most important aspect of both what the archives show [about Russian] intelligence today is [the importance of] human intelligence. So, in a world where an amazing amount of data is being collected -- if we take the morality issue aside and the citizens-rights issues [and] if you just talk about how useful it necessarily is -- where you collect a lot of data, but for example you couldn't have predicted the Boston Marathon bombings. That was one of the examples where the Americans actually realized the shortcomings of their system.

Vasily Mitrokhin

Vasily Mitrokhin

And up to the crisis recently there was cooperation between the Russians and the Americans on Chechnya, because they realized that Russian knowledge of the situation in the region and their connections and their human agents within Chechnya will mean that if there was another such attack being planned anywhere in the world, they would get their intelligence faster.

RFE/RL Do you think with all the focus on data collection, that intelligence agencies still place enough value on the importance of human intelligence?

Lokhova: I think [the United States] got rather carried away with the data. I think the U.S. at some point just said, "data mining is enough," whereas for Russians the priority was always on human intelligence. It was always to have their agents on the ground in various places. It's their knowledge of human psychology and their ability to recruit and run humans is something I think that was immensely important for Soviet and Russian successes.

RFE/RL: Mitrokhin himself had always said he wanted these documents to one day be made public. What do you think will be the larger benefits of this release?

Lokhova: The only place in the world now that you can get access to KGB archives is actually the University of Cambridge Churchill College, not Moscow. And so, of course, you know, for myself and for many other historians this is the only way we can really get to the KGB archives. But I also think that what's very important is it will allow us a deeper study of something that is a missing dimension, which is intelligence studies. Because without understanding intelligence it would be very difficult to understand Soviet policy and Soviet thinking both in the Cold War period but way before that as well.