With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Interview with Christopher Andrew About His New Book, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World

Q: Why did you choose The World Was Going Our Way as the title of this book?

A: Because that is precisely what Moscow and in particular the KGB thought was happening a generation ago. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen apart, we all take for granted the inevitability of that collapse. It’s very difficult remembering how different things seemed thirty years ago. The U.S. had suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam which left it feeling more uncertain of its role in world affairs than at any other time since the end of World War II. And its own intelligence agency was being pilloried in Congress, in the media, and in the court of worldwide public opinion thanks to the Church Committee hearings on CIA misdeeds. This was a period when the great majority of the American people believed the CIA had killed an American president—JFK—so imagine how easy it was for the KGB to go up to leaders in the third world and say, “Even the Americans realize the CIA killed their president, do you suppose they’d hesitate to kill you.” That sort of argument had quite an impact on quite a number of third world leaders.  

Q: Why did you write it now?

A: The reason I wrote the book now is that I’ve had access to the largest intelligence source ever to escape from any major intelligence service anywhere in the world at any time in world history. That is a huge claim. But it happens to be completely true. And it’s not simply my judgment; it’s the official judgment of both the FBI and the CIA. It’s the kind of opportunity, in other words, that nobody interested in intelligence anywhere in the U.S. or Britain would have turned down and I was not so foolish as to do so. It’s one of the most extraordinary episodes in KGB history. What happened is simply that the man responsible for the foreign intelligence archive of the world’s biggest foreign intelligence agency spent ten years smuggling information out of that agency. When he defected to the west in 1992, he brought with him the secrets of KGB operations all over the world. It is that information that allowed me to write the most complete history of the KGB to date: Volume I, The Sword And The Shield, which covered KGB operations in the west, and now Volume 2, The World Was Going Our Way, which covers KGB operations in the third world.

The point I think it’s necessary to make is that what happened in the third world was of central importance not just to the third world itself but also to the United States. During the Kennedy administration, the KGB concluded that that’s where it could win the Cold War. In hindsight that looks like wishful thinking, but it’s worth remembering that during the course of the 1960s the third world turned against the U.S. and the west in the United Nations. Within that decade the west’s built in majority in the general assembly shifted over to the Soviet Union.

Q: Why is it important that we understand KGB operations in the third world?

A: The notion that one can understand the present without understanding the past is a piece of early 21 st century foolishness which no previous generation would have fallen for. Winston Churchill got it right when he said, “Before looking forward, it is first necessary to look a long way back.” Now suppose we had taken his advice before 9/11. What would we have realized? We would have realized that the dominant trend in terrorism has always been holy terror. Unlike secular late 20 th century terrorist groups, who tried to drive people to the bargaining table, this older form of terrorism involves fanatics, usually but not always religious fanatics, whose goal is to destroy the opponent. And that’s who we’re dealing with today. So my view is that the things we understand least well about international relations, about our own history, about other countries, we misunderstand because we’ve forgotten the roots of the present. How can we possibly understand Russia today without remembering that Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer? Before he became president he was the last of Boris Yeltsin's prime ministers. And his two predecessors as prime minister were both former intelligence chiefs. And Putin today is surrounded by more advisers who are past or present intelligence officers than any other world leader. If we’re going to truly understand them, we need to understand the whole of their past activities.


Q: What’s the biggest misconception people have about KGB operations in the third world?

A: People don’t realize how good the KGB was at what they did and, simultaneously, how bad they were. Let’s take India as an example. Both the Russians and the Americans planted articles in newspapers there from time to time as part of their active measures. According to KGB files, by 1973 it had ten Indian newspapers on its payroll as well as a press agency under its control. During 1972 alone, the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in newspapers there. There’s no question the Soviets outmatched the Americans in this regard. And these types of active measures were an important and very effective component of the KGB’s efforts to persuade credulous third world leaders that the CIA was plotting against them.

On the other side of the coin they put a vast amount of effort into the most ridiculous active measures you could possibly imagine. For example, it was a really big deal to prevent Russian cosmonauts being photographed anywhere near a bottle of coca cola if they traveled to other countries. KGB headquarters ordered residencies in many African capitals to send people out to count the number of posters of Mao Zedong appearing on public display. They also produced specially defaced posters of Mao and ordered them put up in Kinshasa, Brazzaville, and other remote African locations. My favorite example has to do with the spectacularly tedious congresses of the Soviet communist party. People who find politics boring in the west have no concept of how mind numbingly monotonous and dreary these affairs were. But it was the KGB’s job to demonstrate to Soviet leaders that they were met with global applause. So one of the tasks of residencies all around the world—in Delhi, Kinshasa, Luanda, and so on—was to concoct messages saying how excited the population was by the latest speech of Leonid Brezhnev at the latest party congress.

Q: Of all the incidents, anecdotes, events and operations you describe, which stands out most in your mind?

A: The thing that sticks out most in my mind is the big picture. Thanks to the Mitrokhin Archive we now understand for the first time how it is the KGB thought it could win the Cold War. They knew it wasn’t going to happen by nuclear confrontation with the U.S. or Britain or any of America’s other allies. They knew it wasn’t going to happen by coming to power in any of the NATO countries. Instead, they thought if the rest of the world did go their way it would leave the west isolated in the same way the U.S. was isolated in the third world at the end of the Vietnam War. It’s a great illusion. For 25 years the KGB was moving around the world living an extraordinary fantasy. Namely, that all these third world revolutionaries were inspired by the Bolshevik revolution which, for the first time, was going to help ordinary people make a better life for themselves. What it did instead was produce a nasty one-party state But the illusion was extraordinarily powerful. We’re seeing the same illusion today. Islamist terrorists believe they’re building a new society—a Muslim caliphate across the world; a religious one-party state. It’s dangerous nonsense but it is influential dangerous nonsense. 9/11 and 7/7 in Britain are its consequences.

Q: Today a lot of the turmoil, chaos and uncertainty that generate daily headlines in the global war on terrorism comes from the same countries that lie at the heart of this book. Can you give me an example of how KGB operations then continue to impact events today?

A: There is absolutely no question that it was the KGB pushing for the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and that the single most influential person doing so was KGB leader Yuri Andropov, who subsequently became the minister of defense and the head of the Soviet Union. The consequences of that KGB-inspired conflict are simply enormous. Since the Soviet invasion and the war that followed, nobody has succeeded in putting Afghanistan back together again. And it will probably take another generation before that happens. The Afghan opposition to that war did not merely radicalize a generation of religious fighters in Afghanistan, it also radicalized an entire generation of Islamist fighters from the Arab world. (The name Osama bin Laden comes to mind.)

Another less sinister example of the continuities from that era to this is the appointment last year of Vyacheslav Trubnikov as the new Russian ambassador to India. How did he make his reputation? Less than a generation ago he was the KGB head of political intelligence in Russia. So the guy who used to run KGB intelligence during the Soviet era is now Putin’s ambassador in New Delhi. Every continent in the world, or at least some part of every continent, still bears the imprint of the Cold War rivalry between the two superpowers.

Q: What was the greatest difference between the U.S. and Soviet intelligence services?


A: Regardless of what the CIA did, it never had the lead role. Even when looking at the Agency’s worst actions—such as the plots to kill Castro and cause various kinds of mayhem in Cuba—it was carrying out the wishes of the White House. It was the exact opposite for the Soviets. Their first forward policy in the third world was all KGB. The Russian foreign ministry was barely interested. They wanted the lead role in dealing with the U.S. and NATO. Other than that they were basically hands off. In other words, unlike the CIA, the KGB was not simply engaging in secret operations but actually making policy. And who’s the guy doing more to make policy in Russia right now than anyone else? Surprise, surprise, it’s a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin.

Q: The KGB often took credit for things that happened without their involvement or over dramatized the impact of what they were doing in their reports back to headquarters. How effective were they in reality?

A: They were effective for a period of time but their successes turned out to be short-term successes. In the long run no intelligence agency can be any more successful than the system from which it springs. And the Soviet system was not a successful one. And yet there are still people today in the former Soviet Union who say if the Soviet system hadn’t fallen apart they would have whipped the U.S. in the Third World. They believed they were wining.

Q: What surprised you most as you researched and wrote this book?

A: What most surprised me, and what I think will surprise readers as well, is that at the very height of U.S. global popularity—the time of Kennedy and Camelot—the KGB thought they had discovered—in the Third World—the secret to winning the Cold War against the United States.

Q: Has the current Russian intelligence service come to terms with its own past?

A: It plainly hasn’t. What is true of individuals is also true of organizations and countries. People in denial about their past are not people we’re comfortable dealing with. The same applies to all kinds of institutions including intelligence agencies. A lot of people in Soviet intelligence were extremely capable. Being a foreign intelligence officer was one of the most sought after things you could be in the Soviet Union. It’s difficult for these people to now accept that they spent their whole lives working for a rotten regime; a regime that didn’t achieve anything positive or do anything to make the world a better place. That’s an awful thing to have to come to terms with. They have no difficulty in arguing that the most famous of the Cambridge spies, Kim Philby, betrayed his country and his fellow agents in British intelligence for ideological reasons. They have no difficulty in saying the same thing about the Americans who gave the Soviets the secrets of the first atomic bomb. But they still cannot bring themselves to accept that Vasili Mitrokhin, or Oleg Gordievsky, or anyone else could have done what they did—spied for the west—for anything other than the most ignoble of motives. In the end one has to feel slightly sorry for these people. They’re not wicked, most of them, but they’re stuck in this absolutely incurable state of denial.

Q: Do you think they’ll ever come to terms with the past?

A: We simply have to look forward to another generation. This is nearly always the case when people have adopted wildly sectarian or distorted points of view. It’s very difficult for old intelligence officers to change their spots. The 20- and 30-year-olds within the Russian intelligence community are the ones who will be able to take a balanced view of their past in a way the veterans of the Cold War have never been able to do. It’s the new generation that has grown up since the Cold War that no longer feels humiliated by the things that happened before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

A: I hope that by understanding at long last how it was that the other superpower thought it was going to win the Cold War, they’ll have a better understanding of the history of their lifetime and the lifetime of their parents. The Soviets knew they weren’t going to win by dropping the bomb or through military action. They thought they were going to win by turning the rest of the world against the United States. They truly believed the world was going their way. And it probably does take people by surprise now to think that this regime—which we now see was completely doomed to failure—could have thought a generation ago that it was winning.