On the Paper Trail of Cold War Secrets

Five years ago this week, a failed coup in Moscow triggered the end of the Soviet Union and the cold war. Since then, historians have dug into Communist archives. The Monitor reveals a few of the secrets revealed about 74 years of Soviet rule.

Hot Peace

The day after Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko met President Kennedy on Oct. 18, 1962, he cabled a thumbs-up to Moscow: Kennedy didn't know about Soviet missiles in Cuba. The message - one of several recently declassified diplomatic cables sent during the Cuban missile crisis - said the situation was "completely satisfactory."

He didn't know that Kennedy had reconnaissance photos of the missiles in his desk as Gromyko sat across from him.

Gromyko, however, kept secrets of his own that wouldn't be revealed until scholars and players in the crisis got together in Havana in 1992: Gen. Alexander Gribkov, who helped plan the Soviet operation, disclosed that the Soviets had not only medium-range nuclear missiles, but also short-range tactical nuclear weapons for use against an American attack on Cuba.

But if the Americans thought 1962 was the brink of war, 1983 saw the Soviets reaching for the panic button. When NATO was conducting military exercises in Germany, "The Politburo thought the exercises were a pretense for launching a major nuclear attack," says Vladislav Zubok, a fellow at the National Security Archives in Washington. The KGB went on high worldwide alert. Memoirs tell of KGB agents anxiously counting the lights burning in the Pentagon at night and checking NATO blood reserves to gauge the Western allies' war-readiness.

Lost Spies

The United States lost dozens of aircraft and 252 crew members on spy missions over Russia's frontiers; 138 airmen are still unaccounted for.

Paul Cole, an independent American researcher, searched the archives of the Soviet military and KGB intelligence agency and found the names of "eight or nine" US airmen who died in Soviet custody.

But he estimates that upwards of a hundred disappeared into the gulag, along with up to 400 American POWs from World War II and 35 from the Korean War. "I don't think you'll ever find their names written down. I did, however, find eyewitnesses who could identify people by name," Dr. Cole says.

Nuclear Tragedy At Chelyabinsk

When Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev, living in Britain, wrote in 1976 that a tank containing 70 to 80 metric tons of radioactive waste had exploded in Russia's southern Urals in 1957, Western scientists vilified him in the press.

The explosion at Chelyabinsk-65, a secret city where nuclear material was produced for weapons, is one of the world's worst nuclear accidents, almost comparable in sheer damage to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It shot radioactive debris more than 1,000 feet into the sky and polluted 9,000 square miles. Not only did the Soviet government keep the accident secret from its people, but the United States government never revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew the details as early as 1959.

Information on the human and environmental consequences of the disaster is still out of reach, says Natalya Mironova of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk.

JFK's Assassin Was Not KGB

Many of the conspiracy theories that swirl around the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy focus suspicion on the KGB. The spy agency's files on assassin Lee Harvey Oswald came to be regarded as something of a Holy Grail within the Western research community ever since it was learned that Oswald once defected to the Soviet Union.

Now, after looking at the files, American researchers have found no link. "What has been released is not conclusive," says Harvard University researcher Mark Kramer. "It doesn't show that Oswald was anything but what the Soviets have always told us about him - that he was an unstable loser they were glad to get rid of."

The Soviets evidently shared America's shock after Kennedy's murder and initially suspected Cuban leader Fidel Castro was involved. "The first reaction was 'Wow, do you think the Cubans had anything to do with it?' " says Kramer. "But after investigating it quite thoroughly, they came to the conclusion that the Cubans weren't involved." In fact, a prominent theory in the KGB was that Kennedy's death was engineered by the spy agency's American rival, the CIA.

Reds Saw Sport As Political Act

Much of the rivalry between East and West took place in sports. Some revelations and factoids:

Some scholars say the 1968-69 Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia was prompted in part by two hockey matches between the countries. The Czech fans' unrestrained joy at their team's successive victories was taken by the Soviet envoy in Prague as a sign of political dissent, prompting a series of worried cables to Moscow warning of impending disaster, Dr. Kramer says.

*The Stasi, or East German secret police, apparently attempted to fix a 1988 gold-medal boxing match between a North Korean and an American in the Seoul Olympics in order to embarrass the South Korean regime. The head of the international amateur boxing association at the time was a Stasi agent, according to archival documents given to Jerry Dusenberry, head of USA Boxing.

*One of Stalin's henchmen once tried to prove to the world that it was the Russians who really invented baseball.

Big Spy Cases: More Clues

*Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for passing vital atomic secrets to the Soviets, were finally proved to be spies after years of speculation when in 1995 the CIA declassified more than 2,000 deciphered Soviet communiques. The documents detail reports of Julius Rosenberg's contacts with American atomic research team members.

The documents were not used as evidence in the Rosenbergs' trial because the CIA did not want to let on to the Soviets that it had broken their code - a double encryption that was cracked with extreme difficulty.

*The jury is still out on Alger Hiss, a former Roosevelt adviser who was accused of spying for the Soviets and faced trial twice but served time only for perjury. He continues to claim his innocence. This year, US intelligence officials revealed Soviet documents that show an American official code-named "Ales" spied for the Soviets at least through the 1945 conference at Yalta. The officials claim Ales is "probably Alger Hiss."

Aid to Terrorists

Hundreds of documents detailing Soviet military training and weapons sent to terrorists in the Mideast, Latin America, and Africa, are available in Soviet Communist Party archives. One example: In 1974, the terrorist group People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine received weapons from a Soviet Navy ship at night in the Gulf of Aden. Requests for such aid were so numerous that the KGB had standardized order forms - all KGB staff needed to do was to fill in the blanks.

KGB Spies In Church Revealed

KGB files opened in the early 1990s reveal code-named KGB agents among the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church from the 1920s through the late 1980s. The KGB exerted a strong influence over career paths and assignments in church ranks.

Freelance Russian journalist Alexander Nyezhny, who combed the files, claims Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the church, was the very active "Agent Drozdov" of the KGB files. The church's response to such allegations is that it was no more cooperative or corrupted by the KGB than any other institution in the Soviet Union. One prominent church leader, Archbishop Khrisostom of Vilnius, Lithuania, confessed to cooperation with the KGB.

Politburo Hid That KAL 007 Was Not Spying

In September 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 over the North Pacific. While President Ronald Reagan denounced the killing of the 269 people on board as a "terrorist act," Soviet leader Yuri Andropov insinuated that KAL flight 007 was on a spy mission in Soviet airspace.

For years, speculation abounded as to why the airliner was 360 miles off course. Not until 1991 did the truth begin to trickle out, when Russian journalist Andrei Illesh published a series of stories highlighting discrepancies in official reports about the incident.

In October 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin allowed classified documents to be published that proved that after the crash Soviet officials quickly discovered the airliner was not spying and tried to cover up their mistakes.

And why was KAL 007 crossing Soviet airspace in the first place? The record shows it was due to human error. The fatigued captain of the plane made a series of navigational errors.

Stalin and the Atomic Bomb

When President Truman first mentioned to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1945 that he was preparing to use a weapon of "unusual destructive force" against Japan, Stalin casually wished him luck. Was Stalin bluffing? Or was he really unaware of the potential political fallout from the atomic bomb? The question tormented Kremlin-watchers for years, but recent research from the Soviet archives reveals an answer.

While Stalin had good intelligence on the Manhattan Project, he did not consider it a priority to develop a similar weapon. Documents show that Igor Kurchatov, one of the leading scientists working on the Soviet bomb effort, had to practically beg Stalin to crack the whip in order to move the project at a faster pace.

That all changed after the nearly instantaneous destruction of Hiroshima by an American uranium bomb in on Aug. 6, 1945. Then Stalin decided that the work on a Soviet A-bomb should take place "on a Russian scale." He ordered homes and cars to be given to top Soviet bombmakers as an incentive.

Soviets Killed Thousands of Poland's Elite

When the Red Army occupied parts of eastern Poland in March 1940, the Soviet secret police - or NKVD - massacred nearly 26,000 Poles in an apparent attempt by Stalin to wipe out Poland's military and civilian elite. Three years later, Nazi forces uncovered mass graves in the Katyn forest near the Russian city of Smolensk. The Germans blamed the Soviets for the atrocity, while Moscow accused the Nazis of committing the mass murders.

For almost 50 years, Moscow denied blame for the massacre, though many historians presumed Soviet responsibility. Not until 1990 did President Mikhail Gorbachev finally accept NKVD blame. In 1992, President Yeltsin handed over copies of documents from top-secret archives to Polish President Lech Walesa. The papers ordering the massacre were signed by Stalin and his top aides, proving it was not an independent action of the NKVD.

Kremlin Balked At the Building Of Berlin Wall

One of President Reagan's more famous taunts directed at Moscow was a 1987 speech he gave in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, challenging the Soviets to "tear down this wall." But recent exhumations of the East German archives seem to show that it was the East German regime, not the Soviet one, that wanted the Wall put up in the first place.

When the numbers of East Germans fleeing the country in the late 1950s grew to alarming levels, East Germany demanded that then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev allow it to take "extreme" measures to stanch the flow of refugees.

According to Hope Harrison, a professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., who has been researching the Moscow archives, the Soviet leadership actually cautioned East Germany to use "more humane measures" to solve the crisis. Khruschev finally allowed the Wall to be built in 1961 as something of a compromise to placate East Germany.

China - which had its own refugee problem with Taiwan - joined forces with East Germany to push Khruschev to act decisively.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to On the Paper Trail of Cold War Secrets
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today