The Compatriots explores the tricky relationship between the Kremlin and the Russians abroad—how the political regime in Moscow got obsessed with the threat posed by political exiles and how it has been trying to use them—from espionage to assassinations, a practice that is very much alive today.
In Russia, legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who died October 27, is mostly remembered for exposing the use of psychiatry against political opponents of the Kremlin and as someone who was famously swapped for the Chilean Communist leader Louis Corvalan.
But once in the West, Bukovsky, always a man of action, launched a political exiles umbrella organization called Resistance International. Supported and funded by the Americans, it was the most spectacular attempt to target the Soviet regime from abroad—right before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yuri Andropov’s KGB had been throwing Soviet dissidents out of the country for so many years that by the beginning of the ’80s, there was a substantial community of third-generation Russian political exiles in the West. This group was very different from their predecessors. Unlike the first wave of White Russians, who understood close to nothing about the political circumstances in Soviet Russia, the third generation knew the Soviet regime inside out. They also differed from the second wave of postwar emigrants—who stayed in the West out of fear of repressions—in that they had emigrated largely because of their political convictions.
The new wave of Soviet emigrants included a lot of people who had protested the regime while they were in the Soviet Union. That was the reason they were thrown out of the country or escaped to the West (sometimes via very unorthodox methods, like the hijacking of planes). Now the most prominent among them set out to build organizations in the West with the goal of changing the political regime in their home country. Here, finally, was the generation George Kennan had long hoped to see.
No matter how brave they were, this generation of emigrants faced a formidable challenge: their underground experience in the highly restricted climate of the Soviet Union hindered rather than helped them when it came to building effective political organizations in the open society of the West.
In May 1984, journalist Masha Slonim got a phone call at her studio in Bush House, the time-honored London headquarters of the BBC. Lord Nicolas Bethell, an old friend of hers, had a tantalizing offer: Did she want to fly to Pakistan and bring back two Soviet soldiers who had recently defected from the Soviet army barracks in Afghanistan? Bethell, who had opposed the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from the very beginning, was involved with many projects providing help to Afghan mujahedeen. As a result, he knew a lot of people on the other side of the Afghan border.
Masha couldn’t resist the temptation. The idea was, above all, interesting. And it touched a personal chord: Masha was part of a remarkable family, from the highest echelons of Soviet elite-turned-dissident. Her grandfather had been Stalin’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, and her cousin Pavel Litvinov was one of the eight people who had gone to Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Masha herself had left the Soviet Union for good a few years earlier. In London, she stayed in touch with Soviet dissidents in exile who tried to organize a resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—an effort of which Lord Bethell was a part.
Masha took three days off and flew to Islamabad. She didn’t say anything about her trip to her BBC bosses. When she arrived, she spent a night at the British ambassador’s residence before her meeting with the soldiers. A fragile, delicate young woman, Masha was nervous. Bethell had explained that the soldiers were junkies, and she wasn’t quite sure how she should talk to them. The ambassador gave her a bottle of vodka, saying, “These guys haven’t seen it for months; they’ll love that!” Then she was driven to the airport where the meeting was to take place. Finally, a minibus dropped off two skinny boys whose names were Oleg Khlan and Igor Rykov.
Masha had never seen withdrawal symptoms before, but on the plane back to London she could hardly fail to recognize them. The boys moaned continuously and wandered aimlessly around the plane. A steward threatened to kick them off at a layover in Damascus. Masha gave them the ambassador's bottle of vodka; they drank it immediately, but it didn't quite do the job. When the plane landed in London, the boys could hardly stand.
In London, Bethell arranged for them to stay in a safe house, but the withdrawal symptoms got worse. Oleg and Igor demanded that they be brought back to Peshawar or to the Soviet embassy—at least there must be some vodka there. They drank all the aftershave they found in the house. Frightened, Masha called a psychiatrist. He forbade her to give them any alcohol. At dawn, Masha packed the boys in a car and brought them to a private clinic. There, every night, flying severed heads haunted Oleg in his room, and he hid from them under his bed.
The two boys spent almost a month in the clinic. When they were discharged, only a bit better off, nobody knew what to do with them. Masha put them up at her house while they waited for their big moment. It came in late June.
On June 27, a press conference titled "Soviet defectors to the West tell their story" was organized in London. Lord Nicolas Bethell hosted the event, where the surprise guests were Rykov and Khlan. Thin and pale, both dressed in blue jeans and seersucker jackets, the two told the journalists of atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, including a mass killing of civilians in an Afghan village. Although it was no more than hearsay—neither of them had been present in the village—journalists were impressed. It was the very first time Soviet army deserters appeared in person in the West, and the press conference was reported by the world press, including the International Herald Tribune. Masha was not there. Her BBC bosses knew nothing about her role, and she wanted to keep it that way.
For Bethell, the event was deeply emotional. He was a fierce critic of the Western powers’ treatment of Soviet prisoners of war after World War II, and he wanted to help a new generation of Soviet army deserters. He was not alone in his beliefs. When hosting the press conference, Bethell identified himself as a representative of an organization called Resistance International.
The day after the press conference, an American diamond trader based in Paris picked up his copy of the Tribune. The front-page story about two Soviet defectors caught his eye. When Bert Jolis read that the conference was “arranged by Lord Bethell and Resistance International, a group that supports the Afghan insurgents,” it piqued his curiosity.
Who was behind it? He asked friends in Paris, who replied, “Oh, don’t you know? It’s Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet dissident.” Jolis smiled. He had been waiting to hear something like this for a very long time. The diamond trader knew Bukovsky by reputation and believed he was just the kind of man of action needed.
Jolis was a successful if not very scrupulous diamond dealer active in Africa (where he was trading with the Central African dictator Bokassa). But he was also a veteran of OSS—the Office of Strategic Service, the predecessor of the CIA. Jolis had learned to hate communism when, as an American officer fighting in France during World War II, he witnessed the desperation with which Soviet soldiers tried to escape forcible repatriation. After the war, Jolis stayed in touch with his former colleagues at OSS, who were now serving in the CIA. He also kept thinking of the Russian deserters he had known.
Jolis considered himself an expert in this field and remembered how in 1951, the CIA’s legendary director Allen Dulles had asked him to write a report about how to encourage Soviet bloc defections. The topic was close to Jolis's heart, and he was happy to oblige. In his opinion, the U.S. government should take a more active stance. He envisaged the defectors' program in place at the time evolving from a small-scale covert exercise in psychological warfare into a "major weapon in our hands." Jolis had carefully saved Dulles's thank-you note.
Jolis set out to meet Bukovsky. “Right now,” Jolis was told, “he is in Palo Alto, doing scientific research.” Bukovsky was on a fellowship at Stanford University finishing his master's degree in neurophysiology; in the Soviet Union, he had never had a chance to complete his education, since he was in and out of jail constantly from the age of 20. At the first opportunity, Jolis flew to the West Coast and met Bukovsky, “a pleasant, stocky man with a broad Slavic face, in his early 40s, with an air of the street-smart intellectual about him.”
Walking across the Stanford quad, in the Californian sunshine, Bukovsky told Jolie that Resistance International had started in Paris a year earlier when he and a group of former political prisoners and exiled dissidents formed L'Internationale de la Resistance. An umbrella organization, it embraced a broad spectrum of political, religious, and social movements around the world, united by a common commitment to fighting Communist oppression. Bukovsky was president, and Armando Valladares, a Cuban poet who had spent 22 years in prison, was vice president.
Bukovsky told Jolis about some of the activities they carried out—for instance, how they printed a dummy mock-up special edition of the Soviet army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), in January 1984 urging Soviet troops to “Stop the War and Go Home.” At first glance, he said, it looked like the genuine issue of Krasnaya Zvezda. Afghans posted the paper on public walls in the streets of Kabul. The new organization also cooperated with Radio Free Kabul, launched by Lord Nicolas Bethell. Among other things, they broadcast 10-minute prerecorded tapes in Russian by prominent dissidents aimed at provoking opposition among the Soviet troops.
“I’d like to help,” Jolis said.
“There is only one thing we need,” Bukovsky told him. “Money!”
“I’m sorry,” Jolis answered. “I’m not rich enough for that. But maybe I can help you raise some. I’m not a professional fundraiser, but one can always try. Give me a little time to think this over. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Indeed, Jolis got back to Bukovsky very quickly. A month after Bethell’s press conference, the American Foundation for Resistance International was incorporated. Vladimir Bukovsky was president, and Albert Jolis served as executive director. Bukovsky was already well connected in Reagan’s Washington; he was in touch with the senior Soviet specialist at the State Department and the director of European and Soviet affairs at the National Security Council, among others. George Kennan, however, who was now in academia, was a disappointment: “He was getting more and more pro-Kremlin, promoting the improving of relations with the Soviet Union,” Bukovsky told us.
Bukovsky wanted something else from Jolis: “I needed a treasurer,” he recalled in an interview with us. “For this sort of organization, it’s essential to have a rich treasurer, from a rich family… For any of us, it would be uncomfortable to ask for money. We are émigrés; we don’t have our own money. But Jolis was already very rich.”
Jolis was, indeed, ideal: he was well connected and turned out to be very good at raising money, eventually raising several million dollars for Resistance International from politically conservative American foundations.
The war in Afghanistan was the top topic in the world. It had already done the Soviets a good deal of political damage, not the least of which was the Western boycott of Moscow’s Olympic Games. What’s more, the Soviet army was not winning. With every year that passed, the situation in Afghanistan looked more and more like the one the Americans had gotten themselves into in Vietnam. And as had been the case with Vietnam, a military disaster in Afghanistan ran the risk of huge political consequences at home.
Bukovsky had a specific goal in mind: "We argued with the Americans that if we can make defections in masses—we thought of several hundred—it would force the Kremlin to limit the Soviet army's involvement in combat missions, leaving the fighting to the Afghan army, which was already unreliable. And that would be a big help."
Thanks to Jolis's intervention, Resistance International—seven people in a three-room apartment on the third floor of a Belle Epoque building on the fashionable Champs-Elysees in Paris—was soon thriving. At its peak, it coordinated the efforts of 49 anti-communist organizations, from Poland's Solidarnost to Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.
But how effective was it?
January’s mock-up Red Star issue turned out to be a one-time adventure. It was an odd bit of propaganda. On the front page it featured such a nasty cartoon of a Soviet soldier that no soldier would associate himself with it. It also had a language problem. Using outdated slang gave the impression that the paper had been printed during World War II. Mock-up newspapers and radio broadcasts all had a whiff of the CIA's ’50s-era tool kit. The Radio Free Kabul stunt was also useless. The station was used as a communications tool by Afghans, but it was not at all popular among Soviet troops, who preferred to use the Japanese cassette recorders they bought at Afghan markets to record and play songs by popular Russian bards. It is perhaps not surprising that Resistance International failed to become an organization with significant influence in the propaganda war in Afghanistan. It also failed Russian political emigres in the West.
Bukovsky, an inspiring figure but hardly a good manager, soon busied himself with other projects, and clashes began in the three rooms of the Belle Époque apartment on the Champs-Élysées. Like many another Russian émigré organization, this one was also falling apart.
The restricted character of Soviet society affected those opposing the regime. With the government having effectively banned any kind of independent organization, and with no room for political debate outside of people’s kitchens, Soviet dissidents simply didn’t have the experience needed to build effective political organizations. This was the curse that had haunted the second wave of the Russian emigration, and now it haunted the third.
As the summer of 1984 progressed, Oleg Khlan and Igor Rykov were growing more and more desperate in London. Lord Bethell had housed them with a Ukrainian woman (both boys were born in Ukraine) and arranged for them to apply for Canadian visas so they could join the large Ukrainian diaspora there. But they couldn’t give up narcotics. One of them sent a letter home to his mother and revealed his address in London.
They started frequenting a Russian restaurant called Balalaika in Richmond, a suburb in southwest London, and there they met Boris. He said he was from a Soviet trade mission. Meanwhile, the Canadians set out conditions for issuing them visas—Oleg and Igor had to agree to surprise drug tests. The first test showed signs of LSD. Two weeks later the second test showed the same result. The Canadians refused to grant them asylum.
In November, Igor got a letter from his mother with a photo of a three-year-old girl in it, signed by his former fiancée (she had broken up with him while he was in the army). “Your daughter and I are waiting for you at home!” it read. The next day, Oleg and Igor went to the Soviet embassy.
On November 11, the two maverick Soviet soldiers, Oleg Khlan and Igor Rykov, were driven to Heathrow Airport in a Soviet embassy car. “Both soldiers could be seen smiling through the car's rear window," reported the Associated Press. Soviet officials put them on a Leningrad-bound flight. "The return of the two soldiers came a week after Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, secretly returned to Moscow from Britain after 17 years in the West," the agency added. In the Soviet Union, Alliluyeva was granted Soviet citizenship, but Oleg and Igor were at once sent to camps. They fell victim to a typical KGB ploy: they were lured back and then punished mercilessly.
Dissidents' propaganda completely failed to affect the mindset of Soviet soldiers and officers in Afghanistan. But books found their way to soldiers, and they worked.
In June 1985, Valeri Shiryaev, a military interpreter stationed on the outskirts of Kabul, headed to a local market. He wanted to buy something that was impossible to find in the Soviet Union: a Penthouse magazine. He’d heard it was even better than Playboy.
He located a shop with stacks of old magazines, picked out an issue of Penthouse, and started the long but necessary bargaining process with the tradesman. When they finally came to an agreement, the tradesman gave him something that looked like a thick pack of Marlboro cigarettes along with his dirty magazine, as a gift.
Shiryaev took it and saw it was a book, The Gulag Archipelago, printed in very small font, with no margins at all. On the first page, there was a description: "a novel." Well, so be it, thought Shiryaev, and he brought the book with him to the dormitory in the fourth district of Kabul where all the military interpreters lived. In the next few weeks, he read it under his blanket at night, thankful for his very good eyesight. He soon understood it was not a proper novel, but he read the book to the end.
The copy Shiryaev picked up by accident had traveled a long way to Afghanistan. It had originally been shipped from a warehouse in Paris, near the Opéra, from a tiny apartment filled with thousands of copies of The Gulag Archipelago and Orwell’s 1984. The warehouse was run by a couple who were both veterans of the Russian émigré organization NTS—that old enemy of the Soviet regime that the CIA had supported since the ’50s.
But the war could have lasted for another ten years if not for the arrival of a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev had taken over the top position in the Communist Party in March, two months before Shiryaev picked up his copy of The Gulag Archipelago.
Gorbachev started slowly opening Soviet borders, and the number of Soviet émigrés, especially to the United States, kept growing. And the next year, in February 1986, Gorbachev made a statement at the party congress: the Soviet Union was planning to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
Resistance International was quietly disbanded. “Our funding just stopped. Probably our American sponsors decided that there was no longer any need to undermine the Soviet Union; it undermined itself,” said Galina Ackerman, who was a member. “At the end of the day, our joint efforts helped to move 16 defectors from Afghanistan to the West,” said Bukovsky.
The country was falling apart. While Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika—a set of political and economic democratizing reforms in the Soviet Union—was gaining momentum, all kinds of disasters hit the Soviet Union, including the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. It looked like everything the Soviet government was involved in had started to collapse. And in May 1987 it became clear that this included the performance of the army and air forces: a single-engine Cessna aircraft rented by an 18-year-old amateur German pilot flew from Helsinki to Moscow and landed right on Red Square. Nobody stopped him.
Four months later, in the United States, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs called on the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), William E. Odom, to testify on the topic of Soviet emigres. That the director of the NSA, essentially an electronic intelligence agency, would be addressing the subject of Russian emigres might sound odd, but Odom was known as an intellectual who was deeply knowledgeable about Russian culture. He had made his own contribution to the Cold War effort: While serving at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the ’70s, he smuggled out a large portion of Solzhenitsyn’s archive.
Odom started his testimony by evoking the tradition that had begun with Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, Lenin and Trotsky. "A very large community of Russian intelligentsia... found it necessary to come to the West, if they were going to carry on the intellectual and political activities they desired," he said. Odom went on, describing the difference between the three generations of emigres to the United States and focused on the third wave, "which includes very sophisticated and well-educated people":
They are not victims of war and upheaval, but people who have tried to change the USSR from within, people who have begun to rethink the basic and age-old questions facing their former country: What is Russia's purpose? Whither the USSR? Can a totalitarian regime evolve toward a liberal and humane regime? They have come West not merely to survive Stalin and the fate of war, as did the second wave; they have come from relative privilege in many cases, from positions of status, with keen and energetic minds. They have come with basically different aims, hopes and purposes than did their predecessors. They are more akin to their 19th-century predecessors than to the first and second waves.
It looked like emigration had come full circle.
Among the people Odom mentioned as the most prominent voices of Russian dissent was Alexander Solzhenitsyn—“I listen to him for what he knows about the Soviet Union, not the U.S.,” he said. Books still worked.
The next year, Gorbachev granted amnesty to Soviet soldiers who had defected in Afghanistan. He also signed a decree that returned Soviet citizenship to 23 people who had been stripped of it by previous Soviet authorities.
Three years later, by December 1991, the Soviet Union would officially be no more: all Soviet republics proclaimed themselves independent of Moscow’s control. And the year after that, Boris Yeltsin’s government would invite Bukovsky to testify at the trial of the Communist Party. This trial was held in the Constitutional Court of Russia—a country born out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. To prepare for his testimony, Bukovsky requested and was granted access to the Soviet archives. He brought a small handheld scanner and a laptop computer with him to Moscow, and he managed to secretly scan many documents—including highly sensitive KGB reports to the Central Committee and transcripts of Politburo sessions. (This is how we know about the heated argument between Brezhnev and Andropov over the fate of Soviet Jews.) As Bukovsky later told us, he managed to scan these documents only because archive officials didn’t know what the scanner was. Bukovsky’s efforts resulted in his 1993 book Judgment in Moscow, which documented extensive behind-the-scenes cooperation between Western politicians and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. But this book, unlike Bukovsky’s other books, was never published in English. Bukovsky believed that he was subjected to Western censorship.
Bukovsky himself, a man of action and the most familiar name among dissidents to the Russian populace, would not return to Moscow. Many believed he could have been a strong competitor to Yeltsin in the presidential election—many, but not Bukovsky. He chose to stay in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. In fact, nobody from the resistance decided to move back after the fall of the Soviet Union. The once-legendary organizations from the first generation of Russian political emigration—the NTS, the ROVS—tried to find a foothold in the rapidly changing country. They opened offices in Russia, but they failed to win popular support.
The dream George Kennan articulated in 1948 in the National Security Council's memo, "US Objectives with Respect to Russia," was that when the time came, he hoped to get "all the exiled elements to return to Russia as rapidly as possible and to see to it, in so far as this depends on us, that they are all given roughly equal opportunity to establish their bids for power." The time had come, and the dream went unfulfilled.
The U.S. government, foreign policymakers, and the intelligence community quietly forgot about the Russian emigre community. William E. Odom was the last U.S. top-level official to address the subject of the Russian Americans. The next time Congress would address the issue would be in the mid ’90s, and then the topic would be the Russian mafia. "The Russians in the U.S. fall in the category of lessened interest," Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who served in Moscow's CIA station in the ’80s and ’90s, told us.
The time came—and passed by.
Excerpted from The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.