Thursday, August 28, 2014


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

June 1997

Stopping once again only for room service sandwiches, coffee and tea, my session with for KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov went on till four p.m.  I filled three ninety-minute cassette tapes. 

We covered Kryuchkov's leading role in the attempted putsch to unseat Gorbachev, for which the former KGB chairman went to prison. 

"How did you feel to be so powerful one day, and in prison the next?" I asked. 

"It is like existing in another dimension," replied Kryuchkov.  "A nightmarish dream.  Except you don't wake up.  The first night, the first few days, I wasn't feeling anything.  Different emotions were fighting within me.  I felt weightless, had no physical feeling within myself.  I was not thinking personally.  I tell you, I thought very little about my family, my wife and children and grandchildren.  

"My main concern was the state problem.  I was a Komsomol member at fourteen, a Party member at eighteen, so I was brought up in an atmosphere of heroic ideas. 

"When I entered the cell, other prisoners there for other things were shocked.  It was five in the morning.  They gave me hot tea and let me go to bed.  At six when they turned on the lights, nobody woke me up, so I had a chance to sleep.  The first thing I did when I woke up was my morning exercises.  It's been a habit for sixty years now.  I exercise for one hour.  The guards, other prisoners, looked at me with shocked eyes.  I had decided to do my normal thing." 

"I hear that you are now under surveillance," I said.  "How does it feel to be subjected to the kind of treatment you once supervised yourself?" 

"I'd be offended if they were not watching me," snapped Kryuchkov. 

"I have to ask you about [Aldrich] Ames," I said. 

"Have you read what I wrote?" 

"Yep.  And I need more.  So far, five books have been written about Ames.  You, the former KGB chairman, must address it in depth for anyone in the West to take your book seriously." 

Kryuchkov obfuscated with vague generalities. 

I attempted specificity, broaching something Edward Howard had laid on me a few years earlier.  "Could the KGB have rescued Ames?" 

"This problem started when I was already out of the business," replied a terse Kryuchkov.  "This is a game, a war, without any rules." 

I was getting nowhere fast.  Another stab:  "Why did you act so quickly to arrest and execute spies identified by Ames when this would probably arouse suspicion that someone in the CIA was tipping you off?" 

Igor Prelin jumped into the fray, changing the subject. "Why only Ames?" he protested.  "Some agents were identified without his help.  We had to act, big secrets from the KGB and the Ministry of Defense were being given out.  This was a danger and threat to our people."

"Who was the worst CIA director?" I asked. "The worst for us" said Kryuchkov.  "Casey was the worst for us."

"And the best, for you?" 


"What kind of contact did you have with the CIA?"

"The first contact between representatives of Soviet and U.S. intelligence took place in December 1987, between me and Robert Gates, who was deputy director of the CIA," said Kryuchkov.  "We met in Washington, an unofficial meeting in a small restaurant.  Gates knew which brand of whiskey I drink, Chivas Regal.  We spoke in generalities about Soviet-American relations.  A couple of years later, Gates visited Moscow, and we had a meeting at a KGB guesthouse in Kolpachny Pereulok.  Gates asked me if I wish to know the CIA's view of what would happen to the Soviet Union in the year 2000.  I said yes.  In a few carefully chosen words, Gates said he doubted the Soviet Union would still exist.  He asked if I would like to see the CIA's analytical report on the future of my country.  I said I would be grateful to accept such material.  And though we later reminded Gates about his offer, we never did receive the CIA report.  I thought about Gates's tragic forecast.  And then, with some mortification, I watched it happen ten years ahead of schedule." 

"Ah," said Prelin.  "A silver bullet." 

"Let's shoot for another silver bullet," I said.  "Oleg Kalugin has written that John Cairncross is not the fifth man in Britain's Cambridge spy ring.  If not Cairncross, who was it?" 

Kryuchkov snarled at the mention of Kalugin's name.

Prelin got excited.  "Why not ask for the sixth and seventh?  There were lots of agents in Britain.  Somebody invented this five." 

"Okay, who were the sixth and seventh?" I asked.

"Aha!" said Prelin. 

"Okay, how about this:  Why wasn't the KGB able to prevent Gorbachev from giving up Eastern Europe?"  (Another question from the Bureau's shopping list.)

"We have instilled a feeling among KGB officers that they should respect the laws," said Kryuchkov.  "We were very upset with Gorbachev's actions already, but it was not of an organized character.  I don't write this in my book, but I am telling you now:  I was offered to take all the power into my hands as the KGB chairman.  I refused this, though it was possible, because it would have been a real coup." 

"What do you want your epitaph to say?" I asked.

"Just my name, date of birth, date of death." 

This was the essence of Kryuchkov:  Except to students of Sovietology and espionage, his conversation and ideas were as tedious as his pen. 

As forecasted by Howard, Kryuchkov invited me to be his guest for dinner.   Prelin, Orlova, and the former KGB chairman discussed logistics. 

Prelin turned my way.  "I come here for you at six."  He winked.  "The KGB will take care of you."  

At six on the dot I found Prelin in the lobby.  He relieved me of a bottle of Ridge Geyserville, California zinfandel I had brought as a gift for Kryuchkov. 

"I give him for you," said Prelin.   

Prelin drove a BMW.  He told me he was born in Siberia, came to Moscow in 1966 for Intelligence School.  He worked five years in Counterintelligence before joining the KGB's First Directorate, serving tours in Angola, Mozambique, and Senegal. (On my return to Washington, my report to the FBI included Prelin's comment about running a CIA officer for eight years, allegedly one of eight CIA officers who died in the Beirut embassy bombing.  I suggested they determine whom amongst the deceased CIA officers had previously served in Angola, Mozambique, or Senegal, and where precisely they had been in 1977.) 

Prelin prattled on with pompous self-importance until we arrived at Edward Howard's apartment, though this arrangement was without logic, for Lena Orlova drove with Howard in his car and I got stuck with Prelin for company, at his insistence. 

When we reached Kryuchkov's apartment building, Prelin instructed me to join Howard in his car.  He went up to fetch the boss. 

Five minutes later, a chauffeur-driven Zhiguili pulled out with Kryuchkov and Prelin in the backseat.  We would not be dining in Uncle Vlad's apartment, as Howard had thought. 

"Kryuchkov has a car and driver again," Howard commented.  "The Duma Committee on Security, run by the Communists, made Kryuchkov a consultant, and that qualifies him for a driver." 

"Prelin's a piece of work," I said. 

Howard cursed under his breath.  "These First Directorate colonels all think they're hot shit.  They all drive BMWs." 

We followed the Zhiguili to Taganka, a Moscow suburb; parked in the lot of a restaurant called Fairy Tale. Inside, the owners greeted Kryuchkov with great warmth.  They had closed the larger room of their restaurant to all but our party. 

"This is K's favorite restaurant," Howard whispered to me. 

Inside a dark dining room, a long table was spread banquet-style with three kinds of smoked Baltic fish and other appetizers. 

Howard acted very blasé about the whole affair.  He could have cared less being present; had joined us only at Kryuchkov's insistence.  (An irony of post-usefulness syndrome, common to defectors once fully debriefed:  Now that Howard had become a hot-shot stock analyst, surfing the wave of new Russian capitalism, he appeared to have no further use for them.) 

Although Howard did not seek the company of these old-guard KGB officers, he remained charmed by Kryuchkov's obvious affection toward him.

Kryuchkov gifted me with the two-volume hardcover of his autobiography, as published in Russia. 

He autographed it with this handwritten message in Cyrillic:  "To Robert, Good luck with your creative pursuits." (!) 

My new soundrel of friends and I ate by candlelight, and drank "Stalin's favorite wine" (said Kryuchkov), a Georgian rouge called Kindzmarauli.

Talk of Joseph Stalin brought cheer to the former KGB chairman.  He recalled a special moment, in 1953, when he realized he stood only one hundred feet from the tyrannical dictator.  "It was the happiest day of my life," said Kryuchkov, a tear welling behind thick glasses. 

It pleased him to report to us that a Stalin revival going on in Moscow.  Whenever Stalin's name was invoked at the ballet or the theater, said Kryuchkov, people broke into applause. 

In contrast to his adoration for Stalin, Kryuchkov said he despised Nikita Khrushchev.  But, he added, "Khrushchev, to his credit, never would have tolerated Gorbachev.  When I go out, I have no bodyguards.  I walk the streets alone.  If people come up to me, they are kind and sympathetic.  But Gorbachev dares not step one foot out of his home without five bodyguards.  The people taunt him.  They throw tomatoes at him." 

We agreed on a title for Kryuchkov's memoir.  Spy Lord:  Secrets of the KGB Chairman. 

"What will Washington think," Prelin said to me, "when the Soviet Union re-emerges?" 

"Is this something you expect to achieve militarily?" I asked. 

"No," Kryuchkov answered.  "It's what the people want."

"So you're going to re-unite through public referendum?" I said. 

"Yes," Prelin and Kryuchkov replied in unison.

"Everyone seems to be in favor of big nation-states," I said, "like a unified Europe.  But just the same, I don't think I'd use the word Soviet if I were you.  Nor Union for that matter."  My tongue was planted firmly in cheek.  "Maybe you should call yourselves the Democratic States of Eurasia?" 

Prelin concurred, while I struggled to keep a straight face. 

"The problem," said Kryuchkov, "is that your country interferes with the popular vote." 

"Ah," I said. 

"It's not right for your country to do this," added Prelin.

"Okay, here's what you do," I said.  "We have secession groups in Texas and California.  Alaska has a whole political party devoted to breaking from the federal union.  You should retaliate and give these groups your support." 

"Ah yes!" Prelin lurched forward.  "We tell Vladimir Alexandrovitch (Kryuchkov) to do this [when he was KGB chairman]!  But he does not listen!" 

And I'm sitting there thinking, What am I doing in this asylum? 

Kryuchkov launched another complaint against the United States.  "You have too many laws," he said.  "So you're not free.  We did not repress people with laws.  So we had real freedom." 

This was more surreal than a Salvador Dali painting.  I'd come through the looking glass and that's where I'd landed, at the mad KGB chairman's dinner party, as painted by Dali. 

Then Prelin jumped into his greatest gripe of all:  The American IRS was now teaching the Russian government how to collect taxes. 

Prelin complained that he had to pay "104 percent tax" on one of his projects.   

I said I did not understand how this could be possible.  "You'd lose money." 

"Yaa."  Prelin shrugged to make his point.  "But I make special arrangements, so it turns out okay."

Thankfully, the conversation reverted to books.   

I explained that the spy genre was not doing well.

"Nobody cares," I said.  "Everybody in the States says the Cold War is over." 

Prelin shook his head sadly.  “Yaa, that's what they say here, too." 

Te main course, small dumplings with meat (of what origin, I dared not ask), was served as we chatted.  Then dinner ended abruptly without offer of dessert or coffee.

Prelin had still not given Kryuchkov my gift, the bottle of wine.  I asked him about it. 

"I take care of it," he replied.  "KGB honor." 

Which meant, I suppose, Kryuchkov never got his bottle. 

I mentioned this to Howard on the drive back to my hotel. 

Howard shook his head; it was obvious he had no time for Prelin. 

"He's like a student council president," said Howard.  "Plays his role as head of the former KGB officers association to the hilt.  He crashed my last birthday party." 

Birthdays in Moscow had always been a bone of contention with Howard. 

"It's traditional that all your Russian friends drop by," he told me.  "You're supposed to give them food and vodka." 

With his tightwad character, this wasn't exactly Howard's idea of a good time.   

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