The spy who loved it: tales from a KGB life

One weekend in June 1990, a former KGB general followed the example of dozens of his colleagues over many decades and went over to the other side.

In the case of Oleg Kalugin, however, the other side was not the capitalist West. It was the democratic opposition inside the Soviet Union.


The Moscow political meeting at which Mr. Kalugin publicly eviscerated his former employer was a sensation even in the tumultuous last years of Communist rule. His candor won him swift election to a vacant parliamentary seat, and the charming, quick-tongued former spy was always available with a cynical insider's view of the Soviet political scene, delivered in articulate Russian or fluent English.

He had polished his English during many years in the United States: first, as an exchange student at Columbia University, profiled in the New York Times as "a real personality kid"; then as a Radio Moscow correspondent in New York; and subsequently as a press officer at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. In all those cover jobs, of course, his real mission with the KGB was to stir up trouble for the U.S. government and recruit Americans to supply classified material.


In time, the relish with which he played the espionage game and such strokes of luck as the appearance of John Walker with a treasure-trove of U.S. communications secrets earned Mr. Kalugin his highest post, as the KGB's chief of foreign counterintelligence from 1973 to 1980.

In "The First Directorate," written with the assistance of former Philadelphia Inquirer Moscow correspondent Fen Montaigne, Mr. Kalugin tells his engrossing story and tells it well.

A spy lives by his powers of observation and memory, and they equally serve the autobiographer. Mr. Kalugin is consistently entertaining, whether he is chuckling over the transcripts of bugged phone conversations of the preening Henry Kissinger or recalling weekend drives through the Maryland and Virginia countryside in search of drop sites for Walker's deliveries of code books.

Mr. Kalugin draws a memorable portrait of the legendary British spy Kim Philby, reduced to vodka-sodden bitterness in Moscow. He is hilarious on the KGB's uncharacteristically delicate handling of the Soviet military officer in Asia whose wife was having sex with the family dog.

None of the KGB's skulduggery should come as a surprise. But in Mr. Kalugin's matter-of-fact, detailed retelling, it can be quite breathtaking. The KGB paid for, and helped write, ads in the Times signed by prominent and unsuspecting liberals attacking U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Agents forged nasty, racist letters, purportedly from Americans, to African diplomats at the United Nations and paid people to paint swastikas on synagogues and desecrate Jewish cemeteries. Mr. Kalugin seems to have taken special delight in showing up at the site of the vandalism the next morning to compose a breathless report back to Radio Moscow about the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the United States.

Mr. Kalugin, whose perpetually raised eyebrows give him a look that is at once untrusting and untrustworthy, nicely illustrates the habit of lying spies naturally develop. He assured the British defector George Blake that none of the Western agents he had identified in the East Bloc were harmed; "I didn't have the heart to tell him that his work led directly to the deaths of dozens of agents behind the Iron Curtain." Taking the hint, the reader should probably not trust the veracity of every detail in the book, though most of it seems quite convincing.

Indeed, Mr. Kalugin is so candid about the cheerful Iagoan malice with which he did his dirty work that his occasional, self-described twinges of conscience come across as unconvincing. As his story almost unconsciously makes clear, it was not the KGB's brutality that turned him against the agency. Mr. Kalugin expresses only slight discomfiture, for instance, at accepting a fancy Browning rifle from the chief of the Bulgarian secret police as a reward for his role in supplying the poison-tipped umbrella used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

What turned him into a dissident was rather the fact that his career hit the skids because of suspicions that Mr. Kalugin might be working for the CIA.


Booted out of the elite foreign counterintelligence division, Mr. Kalugin was put out to pasture in the 1980s in Leningrad, where his job was to hunt nonexistent spies and gather gossip on Soviet citizens. It is revealing to hear Mr. Kalugin whine about the inadequate apartments offered to him upon his transfer. Such indignities, he suggests, first opened his eyes to the fact that "the system was essentially vicious."

One need not wholeheartedly admire Mr. Kalugin, however, to enjoy his story. It is a reminder that in the wake of the Soviet collapse, we have learned a good deal more about the KGB than we have learned about the CIA and its sister agencies on the other side of the Cold War.

Title: "The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West"

Author: Oleg Kalugin with Fen Montaigne

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 375 pages, $23.95


Mr. Shane, a reporter for The Sun, was Moscow corresponden (( from 1988 to 1991 and is the author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."