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Comrade J Hardcover – Bargain Price, January 24, 2008
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About the Author
Pete Earley, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of eight works of nonfiction, including the bestsellers The Hot House and Family of Spies, and the award-winning Circumstantial Evidence and Crazy. Washingtonian magazine ranks him as one of ten journalist/authors in America "who have the power to introduce new ideas and give them currency." He is also the author of three novels.
From The Washington Post
Reviewed by David Wise
The CIA and the FBI were hugely damaged by the supermoles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who ran their own private spy bazaars and peddled vast amounts of U.S. secrets to the Russians for years. No one seemed to notice when Ames drove a red Jaguar XJ6 to CIA headquarters or when the FBI's Hanssen escorted a stripper to Hong Kong.
So it is understandable that the two agencies might want the public to know that for at least a few years in the late 1990s, they had a mole sending secrets the other way. Enter Col. Sergei Tretyakov, a Russian spy who defected in New York in 2000 as the deputy rezident (station chief) there of the SVR, the successor to the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate. Some four years later, author Pete Earley found himself in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner with two FBI agents, two CIA officers, soft drinks, snacks and the defector. The meeting had been set up by an FBI agent who contacted Earley and encouraged him to write a book about the Russian. Earley, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of Family of Spies, a well-received account of the John Walker naval spy ring, and Confessions of a Spy, a perceptive book about Ames that did not receive the attention it deserved, perhaps because it came out after four other books about the case, including (full disclosure) one by this reviewer.
Tretyakov, who had been assigned to the Russian mission at the United Nations since 1995 and to Ottawa before that, gave the FBI 5,000 secret SVR cables and more than 100 Russian intelligence reports, according to one U.S. intelligence official cited by Earley. Tretyakov apparently first tried to defect around 1997 but agreed to remain as an "agent in place," passing secrets to the FBI until October 2000, when he vanished from a Russian residential compound in the Bronx with his wife, daughter and cat. Four months later, the United States acknowledged his defection, but Comrade J (the title is drawn from the KGB's code name for Tretyakov, Comrade Jean) is the first account of his espionage career. "It is one of our biggest success stories," puffed the unnamed U.S. intelligence official.
Perhaps so. But to put the case in perspective, Tretyakov spied for the United States for about three years, while Ames sold secrets to Moscow for nine years (and caused the death of 10 Soviets working for the CIA), Walker spied for 18 years, and Hanssen betrayed America on and off for 22 years. Yet, if Tretyakov was not a world-class mole, he was definitely a world-class name-dropper. And that is the difficulty with his story. All defectors tend to exaggerate their own importance, or at least the importance of their information, especially if they worry that when they run out of secrets to reveal they may be cast aside.
Tretyakov's claims about Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state under President Clinton, are a case in point. "Russian intelligence had tricked and manipulated him," Tretyakov said. "He became an extremely valuable intelligence source." Georgi Mamedov, the Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs, was "a longtime co-optee" of the SVR, who met often with Talbott and who "was reporting everything that was said or done by Mr. Talbott directly to us at the Center." Employing a familiar Nixonian technique -- ironic for a KGB man -- Tretyakov is careful to add that Talbott "was not a Russian spy." Talbott, contacted by Earley, called the defector's charges "erroneous and/or misleading." When he spoke with Mamedov, Talbott said, both officials presumed they would each report everything back to their own governments.
Similarly, Tretyakov says a friend who was the KGB man in Israel had Prime Minister Golda Meir as his "main target." But Tretyakov, Earley writes, said his friend "was elusive whenever he was asked whether or not Meir had been a KGB source." And, if one is to believe Tretyakov, the KGB "created the myth of nuclear winter" in the 1980s by hornswaggling Carl Sagan and other American and foreign scientists -- although, Earley points out, whether that is true "is impossible to discern." Tretyakov also accuses Eldar Kouliev, Azerbaijan's representative to the United Nations in the 1990s, of being "a deep-cover SVR intelligence officer." And former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Earley notes, "frequently met with Kouliev." And no doubt with Strobe Talbott.
The defector describes five Canadians he says he recruited while stationed in Ottawa and gives their code designations but not their real names. He says he also recruited Alex Kindy, a former member of the Canadian parliament. He claims that Alexander Kramar was the SVR's man inside the much-criticized U.N. Oil-for-Food program -- part of the sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime -- and helped the Russians steal half-a-billion dollars "to line the pockets of top Russian government leaders in both the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies." Also, according to Tretyakov, before the Soviet Union collapsed, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov sent up to $50 billion in Communist Party funds out of the country, although where the money went, nobody knows. That's an oft-told tale in Russia; Tretyakov provides no details to substantiate the story of the party gold.
The real value of Sergei Tretyakov's saga lies less in his scattershot claims and innuendoes than in his sharp eye and gossipy insider's view of the KGB/SVR's training, methods, foibles and tricks. The CIA resettles defectors and pays well the ones it likes. It certainly must like Tretyakov because, Earley reports, his pay package topped a record $2 million. He lives now in a secret location under a new name. His wife, Helen, drives a Porsche, and Sergei has a Lexus SUV.
Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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Also recommended: The Cold War: A New History – by John Lewis Gaddis
Tretyakov explains to the reader that under the Soviet Union the KGB and its members enjoyed great power and privileges. The "Center" -- the headquarters of the portion of the KGB that was responsible for spying on foreign countries, seemed like a palace to Tretyakov when he first reported there for duty. The premises were immaculate, and foreign consumer goods were available to KGB members at low prices -- something that the average Russian could only dream of. Discipline was rigid, harsh and arbitrary. KGB Generals lived like princes. This was Tretyakov's world and it was a world that he accepted and approved of and sought to rise within. When the Soviet Union fell, the KGB fell on hard times. It was split by Yeltsin into multiple security services much like the US model, with one service, the SVR, responsible for foreign intelligence much like the CIA is in the USA, while a different service performs internal security in a manner analogous to the FBI's functions in America. Tretyakov and his wife and daughter saw the prestige and power of the now-SVR fall on hard times. When he reported back to Russia shortly after Gorbachev's fall, the Center was no longer a palace. Like almost all institutions in Russia, the SVR was in a tremendous state of flux. For the first time it was underfunded such that the building became decrepit, (the restrooms lacked toilet paper and "resembled a latrine in a Russian railway station") and discipline at the Center disintegrated. KGB agents were resigning to try to make their fortunes in the private sector by seizing control of former State assets in gangster fashion. It is obvious that Tretyakov watched this upheaval with horror, and it was this, combined with the long years that he, his wife, and daughter had spent in the US and Canada, that ultimately caused him to decide to defect. Tretyakov cut a deal with the US intelligence services whereby he spied for America for a time in exchange for a promise, which America kept, to allow him and his family to eventually become Americans and be set up with financial security.
I have read a number of stories about former KGB agents and Tretyakov's story in "Comrade J" has many common elements with these other memoirs. "Comrade J" is unique, however, because the events that led to Tretyakov's defection, i.e. the fall of Communism and the rise of Yeltsin and Putin, are recent, and Tretyakov witnessed the fall of the KGB and its rebirth as the SVR. Tretyakov's message is that the SVR is just as determined as was the KGB to wage aggressive and hostile espionage against the USA and other powers. He explains that the modern Russian Federation still views America as the "Main Target" (under the Soviet Union the term defining the USA was the "Main Enemy") with NATO and China also marked as prime targets of Russian hostility and espionage.
One thing in this book eluded me to some extent, and that was the actual reason for Tretyakov's decision to change sides. One suspects that a large part of it was that his wife and daughter, who were allowed to travel with him and live in the US and Canada while he spied for the KGB, became Westernized. Certainly this was part of it. Tretyakov explains that his wife in particular was horrified at the gangsterism that rose as Communism fell, with former KGB and Soviet officials grabbing huge chunks of the Soviet economy, sometimes literally at gunpoint. The decay of the Center, and the decline of KGB power and discipline, which Tretyakov observed first-hand when he returned to Russia after the Soviet Union was dissolved, obviously jarred and horrified him. One suspects that if the old Soviet Union had somehow managed to survive in its Brezhnev form, with the KGB near the top of the Russian heirarchy, that Tretyakov would have remained a Russian patriot and not defected. Or did his family become sufficiently Americanized so that even then defection would have been a compelling option, as it has been for others? Perhaps even Tretyakov does not know for certain.
This is a well-written and fascinating look at the decline of the Soviet Union as seen from the vantage point of the KGB, one of the USSR's primary institutions of power. Tretyakov's warning about the nature of the modern Russian government and its intentions are well worth considering. Highly recommended. RJB.
There is enough tittle tattle about trade craft and intrigue here for a good winter night's reading. Still the author has not told us what questions he asked of J or what he refused to answer. But "Comrade J" is not merely a spy book. It stands, even more importantly, as a metaphor for the USSR's collapse. Even the best rewarded like Sergei Tretyakov could not tolerate "The System" that made him what he was. Amazon purchase. 4 stars. S/ David J Kenney.