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Oleg Penkovsky, a Double Agent of the Cold War Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2021

Introduction

This paper is about Oleg Penkovsky and his profound contributions to the UK and US military intelligence. He is considered one of the most valuable double agents during the Cold War because the information he provided was critical to the United States throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis1. The political race of the Soviet Union and the United States began after the end of the Second World War. It was a confrontation between the two states in economic and military spheres. The Cold War lasted until 1989, and observing countries chose allies based on their interests. The culmination of these hostile relations occurred in the 60s. During the Caribbean Crisis, the whole world was on the verge of the start of the Third World War. Self-preservation driven by the principle of mutually assured destruction helped the sides to avoid nuclear confrontation.

The USSR and the USA tried to gain leadership on the world stage, and at that time, it was not without espionage. The task of spies was to obtain secret intelligence about the enemy, particularly data on military research and experiments. Penkovsky offered his service to the UK through a British businessman named Greville Wynne. 2 He then, between the spring of 1961 and the autumn of 1962, passed a substantial number of photographs of classified documents to the British intelligence before being captured and executed by the Soviet government.3

Summary

Oleg Penkovsky was born in the Caucasus region in 1919. 4 His father died during the hostilities of the civil war, and his mother had to raise him alone. After high school, Penkovsky enrolled in a military school in Kyiv. He participated in the Second World War, and by the age of 30, Penkovsky already became a colonel. In 1953, Penkovsky began working in GRU and was sent to work in Turkey as a senior assistant of the diplomatic representative at the Soviet Embassy. 5 His first alleged attempts to make contacts with foreign intelligence agencies took place in Turkey.

In 1960, Penkovsky started working as a deputy director in the foreign affairs department of the Office of International Relations.6 Officially, the purpose of the organization was the promotion of cooperation with other countries in all sectors. Special attention was paid to attracting foreign scientists to scientific research, but in fact, the spies traveled abroad to acquire intelligence on the latest technologies and developments. Penkovsky began working for British intelligence in 1960. He was paid well, but his account was registered in a foreign bank, and the spy needed to emigrate to be able to use his financial resources. Penkovsky was arrested and executed after the discovery of his connections with an uncovered MI6 agent Janet Chisholm.7

Recruitment

On May 1, 1960, during a traditional military parade in Moscow, an American aircraft was shot down in the sky over Sverdlovsk.8 Pilot Francis Powers survived but was captured by the Soviet forces. This provided the Soviets with undeniable evidence of persistent US espionage activities against their country. A month later, through a group of American students in Moscow, a letter was relayed to the US embassy. In the communication, details of Power’s capture and imprisonment were contained which have not been publicly disclosed by Soviet authorities. The letter presented an offer of cooperation and espionage against the Soviets. When US officials received Penkovsky’s message, it was determined that he was not a basic operative but had potential access to valuable classified information.9

Towards the end of 1960, Penkovsky was contacted by British intelligence to discuss cooperation. Greville Wynn, a prominent English businessman in the USSR with ties to British intelligence acted as the middleman for the MI6. As part of a Soviet delegation to London in April of 1961, Penkovsky had the first meeting with CIA and MI6 officers.10 The Soviet colonel discussed terms of the mutual partnership with American and British agents. It is then that he was provided with tools such as a camera, tape recorder, notebooks with encrypted information, encryption keys for transmitting data, and the contact information for Western agents in Moscow. Penkovsky was initially given the codename “Alex”, and a year later, “Hero”.11

It is not thoroughly known what motivated Penkovsky to betray his country, but according to his own words at the trials, he loved easy life, money, and women. He also wanted to feel himself an important person by sending classified information to foreign intelligence agencies. During the trials, Penkovsky confessed that he was promised a rank of colonel from both American and British military forces.

Discovery

Until 1959, the KGB believed that Western intelligence meets with their agents only outside the borders, and within the USSR, they limit themselves to communications through mailboxes.12 In October 1959, however, Colonel Pyotr Popov, who was recruited six years before by the CIA in Vienna, was arrested for espionage.13 It was discovered that Popov occasionally met with his foreign agent in Moscow personally. Then in 1960, the head of KGB subdivision General Oleg Gribanov decided to monitor the US and British embassies periodically.14 These large-scale operations were carried out twice a year for two weeks, with observations being made both on the embassy staff and the family members of the diplomats, as well as correspondents and businesspeople living in Moscow.

During one of these operations in early 1962, KGB started watching Janet Chisholm, the wife of an SIS agent, just at the moment when she left the embassy to get another batch of microfilms from Penkovsky.15 An observer witnessed one-touch contact between Chisholm and an unknown Russian. From that moment on, KGB knew that SIS had an agent in Moscow, but they did not know who that was. However, it remains unclear to this day how Penkovsky was compromised, and both his experience and caution do not suggest that errors in tradecraft were involved. A Soviet double agent George Blake is suspected of turning over information regarding Penkovsky’s activities.

With the help of a camera with remote control, which was installed in the flower box on Penkovsky’s neighbors’ window, the security officers managed to photograph how he carefully tuned the radio to a specific wave, listened, and then made some notes. In July 1962, when English businessman Wynn arrived in Moscow, Penkovsky held a meeting in Wynn’s hotel room in Hotel Ukraine.16 To silence the conversation, Penkovsky turned the radio on and opened the faucets in the bathroom. But KGB still managed to decipher the fragments of the conversation, and this was the first evidence that Penkovsky was engaged in espionage. After secretly installing a camera in his apartment, the KGB witnessed him engaging with spyware and equipment but did not arrest him immediately, in the hope that Penkovsky would lead them to a larger spy group.17

Just at the moment when the Caribbean crisis reached its critical point, a miniature camera, which was hidden in the ceiling of Penkovsky’s apartment, allowed KGB to see how he was observing a fake passport. Fearing that Penkovsky was preparing to leave the territory of the USSR, Gribanov ordered his immediate arrest. In October 1962, KGB arrested Penkovsky on his way to work. 18

Conclusion

Oleg Penkovsky spied for the UK and the US during a crucial period of the Cold War. Known as one of the most prominent spies of the 20th century, his role in the Cuban missile crisis has been described as of great importance. Other specialists have questioned this statement, while some think that apart from working for the West, Penkovsky was a tool of Soviet strategic deception.19 Official documents on US and British intelligence in the Cold War have highlighted the significance of Penkovsky’s espionage and the accomplishments of Western intelligence agencies in aiding his role. Others have doubted Penkovsky’s credibility, stating he may have worked against the west.20 Numerous arguments and counterarguments about the benefit of Penkovsky’s spying have been given, especially concerning the Cuban missile crisis.

Penkovsky’s real-time impact is not apparent, but he indirectly played a vital role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The information that came from him may have shaped Kennedy’s rhetoric on Carribean Crisis. Eventually, what gave him away was the practice of one-touch contacts. The same method uncovered Popov, so intelligence bureaus had to develop better ways of passing classified information between their agents. Some, however, claim that it was a Soviet agent in the U.S. who uncovered Penkovsky.21

Penkovsky is an example of vigorous self-acclamation because there is an impression that financial benefits were not the ultimate motivating factor, and that he may have had psychological problems. There is no single cause that may force a person to deceive and abandon his cultural values.22 Penkovsky was ready to leave his family, never to return. There are also numerous conspiracy theories claiming the whole story around Penkovsky was a KGB operation.23 Facts state the opposite, however, that Penkovsky was put on trial, and by the court’s decision was sentenced to death.

Bibliography

Duns, Jeremy. Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation. London: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Garthoff, Raymond L. “Documenting the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (2000): 297-303.

A Journey Through the Cold War: A Memoir of Containment and Coexistence. Harrisonburg: Brookings Institution Press, 2004.

George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2004.

Hitz, Frederick P. “The Myths and Current Reality of Espionage.” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 18, no. 4 (2005): 730-733.

Trenear-Harvey, Glenmore S. Historical Dictionary of Atomic Espionage. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011.

Scott, Len. “The Spy Who Wanted to Save the World.” Intelligence and National Security 8, no. 4 (1993): 138-146.

“Espionage and the Cold War: Oleg Penkovsky and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Intelligence and National Security 14, no. 3 (1999): 23-47.

“Oleg Penkovsky, British Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” In Learning from the Secret Past: Cases in British Intelligence History, edited by Robert Dover and Michael S. Goodman, 344-374. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2011.

“The CIA and Oleg Penkovsky, 1961-63.” In Exploring Intelligence Archives, edited by R. Gerald Hughes, 141-172. London: Routledge, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Len Scott, “The CIA and Oleg Penkovsky, 1961-63,” In Exploring Intelligence Archives, ed. R. Gerald Hughes (London: Routledge, 2008), 142-145.
  2. Len Scott, “Espionage and the Cold War: Oleg Penkovsky and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Intelligence and National Security 14, no. 3 (1999): 24-27.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jeremy Duns, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation (London: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 32
  5. Ibid., 18
  6. Ibid., 20
  7. Ibid., 56
  8. George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2004), XXI.
  9. Jeremy Duns, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation (London: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 18
  10. Garthoff, Raymond L. A Journey Through the Cold War: A Memoir of Containment and Coexistence (Harrisonburg: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 100-119.
  11. Ibid
  12. Garthoff, Raymond L. A Journey Through the Cold War: A Memoir of Containment and Coexistence (Harrisonburg: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 100-119.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Jeremy Duns, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation (London: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 17.
  15. Glenmore S. Trenear-Harvey, Historical Dictionary of Atomic Espionage (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011), 164-165.
  16. Jeremy Duns, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation (London: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 26.
  17. Jeremy Duns, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation (London: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 14.
  18. Ibid., 12.
  19. Len Scott, “The Spy Who Wanted to Save the World.” Intelligence and National Security 8, no. 4 (1993): 138-146.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Len Scott, “Oleg Penkovsky, British Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” In Learning from the Secret Past: Cases in British Intelligence History, ed. Robert Dover and Michael S. Goodman (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 344-374.
  22. Frederick P. Hitz, “The Myths and Current Reality of Espionage.” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 18, no. 4 (2005): 730-733.
  23. Raymond L. Garthoff, “Documenting the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (2000): 297-303.
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