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How The Stories Of These Soviet Cold War Defectors Reveal The Intelligence Abyss – Carmine Savastano

Among the most desired agents related to the ceaseless game of global historical intelligence is a defector. Every related organization from the Soviet Komitet Gosudarstevnnoi Bezopasnasti (KGB) to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sought foreign traitors who could provide damaging information concerning enemy agents, operations, and clandestine services. A defector can emerge for numerous reasons, some have opposed their government’s practices, others desire more plentiful foreign resources after living in relatively meager conditions, and rarer cases are those seeking to become important historical figures by using the intelligence field to gain power and influence.

However, a defector’s usage is limited to their prior access, knowledge, and with the passage of time classified information becomes less valuable as security measures are undertaken to prevent further damage. Defection is treason and cuts off those who undertake it from their family, homeland, and the society in which to which they were accustomed. Intelligence groups utilizing a defector often provide them with some temporary financial arrangements (a stipend or employment), housing relocation, and other potential benefits. Nevertheless, rarely do such arrangements last forever, unlike the desire for retribution many betrayed groups harbor toward defectors.

During the Cold War multiple foreign defectors attempted to increase their importance to gain influence and assure consistent resources from the governments providing them asylum. No matter the country to which they fled, establishing their “bonafides” was critical to providing defectors with credibility and ongoing support. Some would inflate their rank or importance within the former official roles and even made impossible assurances regarding their value that facts did not verify. Yet the nature of intelligence work calls upon many to create a protective social facade and adapt to survive using deception even with their new sponsors. Nevertheless, dishonesty with these recent sponsors might lead to mistrust and even small mistakes can sour prospective legitimacy. Some questionable information has even led to some being labeled false defectors, imprisoned, and left to face conditions not unlike they would have in the land they fled.

However, facts or suspicions can render a potential defector into another type of operative that infiltrates a covert group after earlier recruitment by a rival agency, a mole. These destructive agents represent perhaps the most horrifying possibility for any intelligence group and the discovery of a mole creates a paranoid fear which has in the past cast a long specter over related clandestine history. From the earliest days of Victorian spies to the confidential groups of the last century, the security of any intelligence group is paramount to its success. If a group’s most well kept secrets are violated a destructive cascading effect of betrayals may cripple and in some cases, destroy such groups. Even the suggestion that such a penetration agent exists might halt dozens of quality projects and sideline related operatives before they have an opportunity to render assets or information. To strike a balance of acquiring useful defectors, undertaking quality operations, and maintaining internal security preventing infiltration by moles is the hallmark of successful intelligence. Few covert agencies proved forever able to do so even though the assessment of defectors and discovery of moles dominated the work of many Cold War intelligence professionals. Perhaps the most contended portion of the last century of American intelligence began during the 1950s.

Pyotr Semyonovich Popov

Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie (GRU) lieutenant colonel Pyotr Semyonovich Popov was a Soviet military intelligence officer and often considered the first important Russian military defector handled by the CIA. Born in 1926 within Soviet Russia, Popov was eventually recruited and trained to serve in the GRU. He was a defector in place, or a defector that remains in their home country and reports intelligence to a new organization from areas beyond its control. According to the CIA, Popov first approached US diplomats at the beginning of 1953 because he was angered by the treatment of peasants under the Soviet regime and decided to offer his services to the Agency.

One CIA officer handling Popov’s case that officials state developed a strong relationship with the defector was George Kisevalter, a notable Agency officer that handled multiple important defectors. Popov revealed the Soviet military command structure, the organization of the GRU, and multiple Soviet deep cover intelligence agents within Europe known as “illegals”.[i] Multiple differing reports attribute his exposure was a result of a Soviet illegal Popov formerly handled discovering an FBI tail, possibly MI6 double agent George Blake, one account claims that a botched CIA letter contact feasibly led to his unmasking by Russian intelligence, and others contended a mole existed within the Agency. A likely apocryphal tale of Popov’s death being taped as he was thrust into a live furnace before witnesses to dissuade future defectors still lingers in some accounts. Despite the several claims as to the manner of his discovery, Popov was dead by 1960.[ii]   

A different notable defector of the early Cold War era was Peter Sergeyevich Deriabin, a KGB officer that defected within the capital of Austria amidst 1954. He was born in Russia during 1914 in the Imperial Russian village of Lokot that lay within the province of Altai Kray. After growing up in both Imperial and Communist Russia he subsequently would be trained in counterintelligence and eventually during the 1940s he served in multiple state sponsored clandestine groups. Deriabin, a decorated Red Army veteran and former bodyguard of dictator Joseph Stalin, reportedly later provided a wealth of intelligence to US officials from his time serving for periods as an officer in the notorious Russian intelligence groups the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the KGB.[iii] He provided an intelligence boon to the CIA from acquired undisclosed knowledge in the role of lead counterintelligence officer for the Vienna Rezidentura within the Soviet embassy. A Rezidentura was the Soviet KGB equivalent of a CIA Station and located within a Soviet Embassy that provided a base of intelligence operations for regional areas. His contributions allowed the apprehension of multiple Soviet agents within the confines of England by the Directorate of Military Intelligence’s Fifth Section (MI5) that undertook internal national security. Deriabin further presented the identity of a Soviet double agent that was serving inside Military Intelligence Section Six (MI6 aka SIS), the foreign intelligence counterpart to MI5.

Peter S. Deriabin

He would later be called multiple times for testimony regarding his service and defection before congressional committees where he detailed that “murder” was a tool often used by Soviet intelligence. Even with the successful intelligence data and reasonable testimony offered by Deriabin, he would reemerge years later to offer less credible ideas like multiple other future defectors.[iv] He would claim that Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, was used by the KGB to provoke US officials and safeguard the rule of Soviet Prime Minster Nikita Khrushchev. Unfortunately for Deriabin no evidence bolstered his claims, they were merely conjecture and possibly an attempt to reinvigorate his importance during a crisis while being employed by the CIA.[v] Deriabin was later employed by the Agency and deemed of great important to its Cold War efforts, he died at the age of 71 during 1992.

Defector Nikolai Khokhlov was a trained assassin for the Naródnyy Komissariát Vnútrennikh Del (NKVD) or The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. According to multiple sources he was trained before the age of twenty to undertake assassination missions against targets inside the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. He reportedly used his skills of deception to gather intelligence for Russian spymaster Pavel Sudoplatov, the same man who engineered the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico during 1940. Khokhlov subsequently was credited with undertaking several wartime liquidation missions targeting Russian subversives and foreign émigrés that spoke out against the Stalin regime. However, following the war he asserted that he tried to avoid “dirty missions” because they were not in service of protecting Russia. Eventually the NKVD was divided into multiple services that included the MVD and NKGB.

Nikolai Khokhlov

During the 1950s Khokhlov was assigned continuing missions for the “terror and diversion” section of the Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del (MVD) or Ministry of Internal Affairs that included his final mission to assassinate Russian political dissident Georgi Okolovich. The mission was set to occur in West Germany amid 1954 and became Khokhlov’s defection opportunity when he informed Okolovich he was dispatched to kill him by Soviet officials. Nikolai planned to quietly join the resistance and hoped to secure his family before Soviet officials could react, but despite Khokhlov’s wishes, Western officials desired a public defection to render maximum damage in the press. He would plead for the lives of his family, but the Soviets quickly arrested his wife and sentenced her to five years of hard labor. After being advised to divorce his wife to save her from assumed culpability in his defection or perhaps remove leverage against him, Khokhlov abandoned his family.

He would reveal to the CIA operational methods and past undertakings of the NKVD that included clandestine devices and methods of untraceable assassination.[vi] In 1957, he nearly died after drinking a cup of coffee laced with an unknown type of thallium during a lecture tour in Frankfurt that likely was a failed KGB attempt to eliminate the defector. By 1963, he was teaching psychology at a state university in California and had remarried to undertake a new life in the United States.[vii] However, like several defectors Khokhlov possessed some ideas not entirely supported by evidence. Among these was his later study of parapsychology, psychic events, experimental hypnosis, and several techniques of prior interest to the CIA that were largely unreliable but provided attractive hypothetical possibilities.[viii] He survived until the age of 84 living in California and passed during late 2007.      

The same year Peter Deriabin and Nikolai Khokhlov defected a public media scandal emerged regarding the KGB on the continent of Australia. The “Petrov Affair” as it came to be known involved a Russian couple employed at the Canberra Soviet embassy. Third Embassy Secretary and Consul Vladimir Petrov and his clerk wife Evdokia both revealed to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) they were KGB operatives. Mr. Petrov was a follower of the notorious KGB head Lavrentiy Beria and following Stalin’s death and Beria’s execution by new Soviet leadership he decided to defect.

Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov

However, Vladimir had set up his defection with Australian intelligence without alerting his wife and she was imprisoned at the Soviet embassy in the wake of his betrayal. The story gained media traction when two KGB agents tried to forcibly return Evdokia to the Soviet Union and were thwarted by the ASIO.[ix] [x]During the aftermath of the couple’s defection they would reveal significant intelligence to Western officials that aided in locating two members of the Cambridge Five, a longstanding Soviet spy ring within multiple British intelligence services, that fled to Moscow. The Petrov’s further allowed the ASIO to locate several KGB agents within the Australian government and local trade unions.

Yet, similar to other defectors Vladimir Petrov would cause later public issues for his sponsors in the ASIO when he embarked on a drunken escapade within Australia. Petrov had convinced Australian intelligence to relocate him and his wife because the KGB’s 13th Department, the group responsible for assassinations, likely sought to murder him for his betrayal. Following the desired relocation to a safe house in an eastern Australian suburb the Russian couple had a major fight and Vladimir stormed out. After managing to slip by two ASIO handlers, Petrov went to a local bar and witnesses relayed to officials he became excessively drunk. He later wandered into a local upstairs apartment from which music was emanating and Petrov according to some accounts mistakenly believed a party was ongoing. However, the drunken man had wandered into the home of a local military sergeant and following his refusal to leave Petrov entered a struggle with the homeowner and eventually two of his neighbors. The men restrained Petrov and the police arrived to find “a portly man, agitated, wearing just his underpants and shirt.”

A leading ASIO official reportedly jumped into action once the event went public and decried the Petrovs as being insane to the Australian Prime Minister. Vladimir’s inebriated episode caused to the ASIO to threaten him and his wife by stating all sponsorship would be cut off if he could not retain control of his public behavior. This led to the Petrov being moved to a new safe house without further incident.[xi]

However, the claims within the “Petrov papers” eventually caused a split within the Australian Labor party the same year they defected. Due to related accusations that political staffers for the Labor party’s leader H.V. Evatt were Soviet sources[xii], the party later split and it generated theories the defection was planned for political designs. These episodes subsequently damaged the credibility of the Petrovs and disrupted future usage because the information Petrov had provided similar to all defector’s eventually was deemed of little further use. Yet the damage was done.

Just reviewing this handful of defectors and the possibility of a mole leading to the doom of at least one of them, we can observe the long-term benefits and dangers they present. Pyotr Popov offered useful intelligence and his betrayal spurred related ideas of a mole within American intelligence but he was gone just years after his defection. Peter Deriabin too presented beneficial operation material but later he would proffer unreliable ideas which created theories of Soviet involvement in the death of an American President still offered by some officials today. Nikolai Khokhlov revealed the secret assassination techniques of Soviet officials and like former defectors rendered useful intelligence. Additionally, he attempted to legitimize highly questionable mental techniques and sought to reinvigorate his use for intelligence operations based on prior disproven ideas. The Petrovs in similar manner would offer some clandestine material that benefited their Australian sponsors but simultaneously their claims helped disrupt the government they had petitioned for refuge. Each defector had proven of some use to the government’s they entreated for aid, yet multiple had rendered similar damage as well. Perhaps the most enduring part of these varying stories in the minds of related officials was distinguishing who were false defectors and the insinuation of some officials that mole was yet to be discovered.  


C.A.A. Savastano

[i] A Look Back…CIA Asset Pyotr Popov Arrested, 2011, News and Information, Featured Story Archive, Central Intelligence Agency, cia.gov

[ii] David Wise, October 2014, A Private Tour of the CIA’s Incredible Museum, Smithsonian Magazine, smithsonianmag.com

[iii] United States Senate Internal Subcommittee, Executive Session transcript of Petr S. Deriabin and David Martin, March 26, 1965, pp. 3-8

[iv] Ibid. P. 9

[v] Cleveland C. Cram, May 1992, A Review of Counterintelligence Literature 1975-1992, Central Intelligence Agency File, maryferrell.org, National Archives and Records Administration Number 104-10431-10126

[vi] A Picture in time: Evdokia Petrov in the hands of Soviet ‘couriers’ at Sydney airport, April 19, 2022, The Guardian, theguardian.com

[vii] Harry Blutstien, February 28, 2018, Drunk and Disorderly: Vladimir Petrov’s Queensland Escape, The Wilson Center, wilsoncenter.org

[viii] Ross Wynne Jones, July 21, 2007, I LED KGB HIT SQUAD, The Mirror, mirror.co.uk

[ix] CIA, February 28, 1964, Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping and Soviet Press Reaction to Assassination of President Kennedy, Russ Holmes Work File, p.10, NARA ID:104-10423-10223

[x] Andy Wright, January 13, 2017, The Russian Spy Who Convinced America to Take ESP Seriously, Atlas Obscura, atlasobscura.com 

[xi] Central Intelligence Agency, November 27, 1963, Oswald 201 File, Volume 58, Memo Re Peter Deryabin Comments on JFK Assassination, p. 3, National Archives and Records Administration Number: 1993.

[xii] Robert Manne, July 27, 2002, Petrov Affair, National Museum of Australia, nma.gov.au