DURHAM, N.C., (U-Wire) — Vasili Mitrokhin was an agent of the Soviet Union’s brutally efficient spy agency, the KGB. Recently he smuggled information out of the KGB’s archives that details the U.S.S.R.’s espionage operations. Melita Norwood is a retired assistant to the director of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. This great-grandmother was identified by Mitrokhin’s information as the most important female spy ever recruited by the U.S.S.R.
How they feel about their actions over the past 60 years not only also sheds light on the Cold War, but raises questions still unanswered in the conflict’s aftermath.
Mitrokhin joined the KGB in 1948, a young idealist who readily believed Soviet propaganda. But over the years, from his privileged position he was able to see that the Soviet Union was flawed: “It was no sudden conversion. I saw the discrepancies between what they said and real life … It was all built on lies.” So he decided to expose the evils of the U.S.S.R. For years, he smuggled documents out of the archives until, in 1992, he was able to defect to Great Britain, where the revelations are now being made public.
Norwood secretly joined the British Communist Party in the 1930s. She was recruited by the KGB in 1937 and spied for 40 years. Her aim, she said, was to “be useful in helping Russia keep abreast of Britain, America and Germany.” And, by dint of her job, she was able in the 1940s to pass along significant materials on Britain’s development of the atomic bomb. She helped the Soviets create their first bomb far before the West had expected.
Now, Mitrokhin fears for his life. The KGB has hardly gone into the dustbin of history: “They are still there. It is the same people, the same organizations, the same aims.” Nonetheless, he feels fully justified in his actions to expose the falsehoods of the old Soviet Union.
The funny thing is, Norwood feels fully justified in what she did, too.
She made a public statement in the suburb where she has lived for decades, unsuspected by anyone. She said simply, “I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service.”
She did not discuss the systematic lies and oppression that were the other side of the Soviet social contract — what Mitrokhin had in mind when he acted to expose her secret past. Instead, she highlighted the positive achievements of the U.S.S.R., sounding like nothing less than a Soviet idealist — in fact, like the young Mitrokhin.
These are the two sides of Cold War, ironically inverted: The middle-class British lady defends Soviet Communism while the KGB apparatchik attacks that system’s fatal flaws.
And they raise at least three concerns for our time. Because while it is now “over,” the Cold War leaves us with echoes of that superpower conflict, with issues yet unsettled.
For one: What of America’s Cold War records?
As the KGB’s archives are opened, the lack of forthrightness from the CIA is notable. And while we don’t want innocent people — or our national security — harmed by information illegally “liberated” from American secret archives, those who have tried to use the Freedom of Information Act have been repeatedly stymied by the agencies affected.
And for another: In what ways does the West — and the United States in particular — share the failings of the U.S.S.R., while failing to measure up to Soviet successes?
The lies of politicians and of unethical businesses can, and sometimes do, rise to the level of Soviet distortions and lies: Think of President Nixon’s extra-constitutional abuses of power or of Union Carbide’s neglect in the Bhopal explosion. We too can find ourselves believing as truth those lies we never think to question.
And finally, for many of us, general prices, education and health care are far from ideal. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s own numbers, nearly one in five children in this country lives in poverty; despite the myth of trickle-down economics, wealth continues to be concentrated in a few hands. Public schools across the nation are literally crumbling. And nearly one-fifth of America’s population lacks any insurance for that most expensive luxury, health care.
We have far to go before this nation can be called a “worker’s paradise.” The conflicts of aging Cold Warriors can help us to remember what issues we must address, before we call any society just, or any people free.
Edward Benson’s column originally appeared in Friday’s Duke University paper, The Chronicle.