Mitrokhin’s files: How important are they?

University of  Cambridge opens Mitrokhin’s KGB archive to public.


How important, in your opinion, are the Mitrokhin’s files for understanding how was KGB working during the Cold War and would you say that there is any lesson we can learn out of it regarding current tensions with Russia as some people claim that Putin follows the KGB’s playbook?

Anthony GleesProfessor, Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham

It’s important to distinguish between the published version of Mitrokhin and the papers themselves. For reasons of national security, Andrew published only those pieces of evidence produced by Mitrokhin which had already appeared in one form or another, and published some pieces of evidence that were nonsense (e.g. that Willy Brandt was a Soviet agent). However, I have no doubt at all that Mitrokhin’s material has been of considerable importance in understanding how the KGB — and how its successor intelligence organisation — operate.

It is key not to be taken in by the anecdotal and humorous aspects which Andrew likes to emphasise. Yes, agents of intelligence services include those who drink a great deal (indeed officer of intelligence services, in my experience, drink a great deal, often to excess and in párt, I suspect because of the stresses of living a double life).
But it does not follow that their work is laughable or that they are not dangerous: far from it.

What Mitrokhin showed — which is what others showed before we knew about him — was (a) that the Soviet way of collecting intelligence was to collect everything possible, irrespective of whether at the time it seemed important to the agent — in this way, a complete picture could be built up and (b) that the best agents were not just the smartest but also the most influential within the organisations for which they worked. However, if you couldn’t get the best, anyone would do.

It’s one thing to be supplied with secrets, another to be supplied with those secrets by someone who has an actual input into policy, whose professional advice is sought by those who have no idea it might be tainted.

Has Putin learned from this? Why would he, the former KGB officer, not have learned from this? He will understand that just as during the Cold War we didn’t understand that our own best and brightest might be working for the Soviets, today we will still be reluctant to see that our young graduates can be recruited. Soviet intelligence worked on the basis that every opportunity was to be exploited provided that one could rely on the agents whether the agents were after money, sex or shared a common world view. Today in the West we need to be fully aware of these lessons and by no means to be taken in by the impression that agents who work for the Russians are somehow a joke, too drunk to be useful and are intellectually week.

Robert DoverSenior Lecturer in International Relations, Loughborough University

The Mitrokhin files tell us that intelligence agencies operate in a slightly different way to common public perception. These government bodies operate mostly as agents of influence – very rarely do they directly recruit high value operatives (and Mitrokhin is scathing about the Cambridge spy ring’s actual abilities) but they mostly establish low-level relationships in which the party being used has very little understanding of their role.  If you take the UK as a snap-shot of a post-Cold War security state – the relief at the end of the nuclear confrontation has allowed foreign adversaries to hold large financial positions in London – which has, for example, undermined the Prime Minister’s ambitions to leverage sanctions against the Russian government over Ukraine – and to allow influence operations to be conducted against educational establishments, think-tanks and the like. Most European governments have focussed their security attentions away from their traditional adversaries (who have not gone away) and onto newer threats in the Middle East and neighbouring regions. But it would be a mistake to describe this only as a Russian problem, the allegations made last week in Germany show that all states with active intelligence capabilities engage in these activities.

Stephen Dorril, Senior Lecturer,  Huddersfield University

The problem with Mitrokhin is that these are not copies of the original; they are notes made from sight of the files. Therefore, we have to take on trust that these are accurate. Until we see the original files we can never be sure of their provenance.

Even so, they are often an anti-climax. One might have thought that there would be more significant finds but in general, they conform to the idea that the KGB wasn’t as good as the western intelligence agencies portrayed it during the Cold War.

Often the material is vague and there is clearly an element of officers writing the reports with a view to their acceptance, so that a great deal looks exaggerated. People are made into paid agents when the evidence suggests they were occasional contacts, who talked over lunch. Often the operations are amateurish and the propaganda efforts are clearly naive and not sophisticated.

But there is a wealth of material and anyone who wants to know how intelligence agencies operated during the Cold War has to study them. They are a valuable source but we await the release of the real files from the Russian archives.

R. Gerald Hughes, Lecturer in Military History, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University

The books shed invaluable light on KGB operations globally. Does Putin follow their methods? Not really, although they seem to have a very efficient organisation capable of great flexibility.


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