Politics & Policy

The Kremlin’s Killing Ways

A long tradition continues.

There is no doubt in my mind that the former KGB/FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated at Putin’s order. He was killed, I believe, because he revealed Putins crimes and the FSB’s secret training of Ayman al-Zahawiri, the number-two in al Qaeda. I know for a fact that the Kremlin has repeatedly used radioactive weapons to kill political enemies abroad. In the late 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev gave Ceausescu, via the KGB and its Romanian sister, the Securitate, a soluble radioactive thallium powder that could be put in food; the poison was to be used for killing political enemies abroad. According to the KGB, the radioactive thallium would disintegrate inside the victim’s body, generating a fatal, galloping form of cancer and leaving no trace detectable in an autopsy. The substance was described to Ceausescu as a new generation of the radioactive thallium weapon unsuccessfully used against KGB defector Nikolay Khokhlov in West Germany in 1957. (Khokhlov lost all his hair but did not die.) Its Romanian codename was “Radu” (from radioactive), and I described it in my first book, Red Horizons, published in 1987. The Polonium 210 that was used to kill Litvinenko seems to be an upgraded form of “Radu.”

Assassination as Foreign Policy

The Kremlin’s organized efforts to assassinate political enemies abroad (not solely by means of poison, of course) started a couple of months after the XXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, held in February 1956, at which Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s crimes. The following April, General Ivan Anisimovich Fadeyev, the chief of the KGB’s new 13th Department, responsible for assassinations abroad, landed in Bucharest for an “exchange of experience” with the DIE, the Romanian foreign intelligence service to which I belonged. Before that, Fadeyev had headed the huge KGB intelligence station in Karlhorst, East Berlin, and he was known throughout our intelligence community as a bloodthirsty man whose station had kidnapped hundreds of Westerners and whose troops had brutally suppressed the June 13, 1953, anti-Soviet demonstrations in East Berlin.

Fadeyev began his “exchange of experience” in Bucharest by telling us that Stalin had made one inexcusable mistake: He had aimed the cutting edge of the state security apparatus against “our own people.” When Khrushchev had delivered his “secret speech,” the only thing he had intended was to correct that aberration. “Our enemies” were not in the Soviet Union, Fadeyev explained. The bourgeoisie in America and Western Europe wanted to wipe out Communism. They were “our deadly enemies.” They were the “rabid dogs” of imperialism. We should direct our sword’s cutting edge against them, and only against them. That was what Nikita Sergeyevich had really wanted to tell us in his “secret speech.”

In fact, Fadeyev said, one of Khrushchev’s very first foreign-policy decisions had been his 1953 order to have one such “rabid dog” secretly assassinated: Georgy Okolovich, the leader of the National Labor Alliance (Natsionalnyy Trudovoy Soyuz, or NTS), one of the most aggressively anti-Communist Russian émigré organizations in Western Europe. Unfortunately, Fadeyev told us, once in place, the head of the assassination team, Nikolay Khokhlov, had defected to the CIA and publicly displayed the latest secret weapon created by the KGB: an electrically operated gun concealed inside a cigarette pack, which fired cyanide-tipped bullets. And because troubles never came alone, Fadeyev added, two other KGB officers familiar with the assassination component had defected soon after Khokhlov: Yury Rastvorov in January 1954, and Petr Deryabin in February 1954.

This setback, Fadeyev said, had led to drastic changes. First, Khrushchev had ordered his propaganda machinery to spread the rumor worldwide that he had abolished the KGB’s assassination component. Then he baptized assassinations abroad with the euphemism “neutralizations,” rechristened the 9th Section of the KGB — as the assassination component had been called up to that time — as the 13th Department, buried it under even deeper secrecy, and placed it under his own supervision. (Later, after the 13th Department became compromised, the name was once again changed.)

Next, Khrushchev had introduced a new “methodology” for carrying out neutralization operations. In spite of the KGB’s penchant for bureaucratic paperwork, these cases had to be handled strictly orally and kept forever secret. They also had to be kept completely secret from the Politburo and every other governing body. “The Comrade, and only the Comrade,” Fadeyev emphasized, could now approve neutralizations abroad. (Among those in top circles throughout the bloc, the term “the Comrade” colloquially designated a given country’s leader.) Regardless of any evidence that might be produced in foreign police investigations, the KGB — along with its sister services — was never under any circumstances to acknowledge its involvement in assassinations abroad; any such evidence was to be dismissed out of hand as a ridiculous accusation. And, finally, after each operation, the KGB was surreptitiously to spread “evidence” abroad accusing the CIA or other convenient “enemies” of having done the deed, thereby, if possible, killing two birds with one stone. Then Khrushchev ordered the KGB to develop a new generation of weapons that would kill without leaving any detectable trace in the victim’s body.

Before Fadeyev left Bucharest, the DIE had established its own component for neutralization operations, which was named Group Z, because the letter Z was the final letter of the alphabet, representing the “final solution.” This new unit then proceeded to conduct the first neutralization operation in the Soviet bloc under Khrushchev’s new rules. In September 1958 Group Z, assisted by a special East German Stasi team, kidnapped Romanian anti-Communist leader Oliviu Beldeanu from West Germany. The governments of East Germany and Romania placed the onus for this crime on the CIA’s shoulders, publishing official communiqués stating that Beldeanu had been arrested in East Germany after having allegedly been secretly infiltrated there by the CIA in order to carry out sabotage and diversion operations.

Exporting a Tradition

Vladimir Putin appears to be only the latest in the long line of Russian tsars who have upheld the tradition of assassinating anyone who stood in their way. The practice goes back at least as far as the XIVth century’s Ivan the Terrible, who killed thousands of boyars and other people, including Metropolitan Philip and Prince Alexander Gorbatyl-Shuisky for having refused to swear an oath of allegiance to his eldest son, an infant at the time. Peter the Great unleashed his political police against everybody who spoke out against him, from his own wife, to drunks who told jokes about his rule; he even had the political police lure his own son and heir, the tsarevich Aleksey, back to Russia from abroad and torture him to death.

Under Communism, arbitrary assassinations became a state policy. In an August 11, 1918, handwritten order demanding that at least 100 kulaks be hanged in the town of Penza to set an example, Lenin wrote: “Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers … Do it in such a way that people for hundreds of [kilometers] around will see, tremble, know and scream out: they are choking and strangling to death these bloodsucking kulaks.” (This letter was part of an exhibit entitled “Revelations from the Russian Archives,” which was displayed at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., in 1992)

During Stalin’s purges alone, some nine million people lost their lives. Out of the seven members of Lenin’s Politburo at the time of the October Revolution, only Stalin was still alive when the massacre was over.

What I have always found even more disturbing than the brutality with which those crimes were carried out is the Soviet leaders’ deep involvement in them. Stalin personally ordered that Leon Trotsky, the co-founder of the Soviet Union, be assassinated in Mexico. And Stalin himself handed the Order of Lenin to the Spanish Communist Caridad Mercader del Rio, whose son, the Soviet intelligence officer Ramón Mercader, had killed Trotsky in August 1940 by bashing in his head with an ice axe. Similarly, Khrushchev with his own hands pinned the highest Soviet medal on the jacket of Bogdan Stashinsky, a KGB officer who in 1962 had killed two leading anti-Communist émigrés in West Germany.

My first contact with the Kremlin’s “neutralization” operations took place on November 5, 1956, when I was in training at the ministry of foreign trade for my cover position of deputy chief of the Romanian Mission in West Germany. Mihai Petri, a DIE officer acting as deputy minister, told me that the “big boss” needed me immediately. The “big boss” was undercover KGB general Mikhail Gavrilyuk, Romanianized as Mihai Gavriliuc and the head of the DIE.

“Is khorosho see old friend, Ivan Mikhaylovich,” I heard from the man relaxing in a comfortable chair facing Gavriliuc’s desk. It was General Aleksandr Sakharovsky, who got up out of the chair and held out his hand. He had created the DIE and, as its chief Soviet intelligence adviser, had been my de facto boss until a couple of months earlier, when Khrushchev had selected him to head the almighty PGU (Pervoye Glavnoye Upravleniye, or First Chief Directorate of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service). “Let me introduce you to Ivan Aleksandrovich,” he said, pointing to a scruffy peasant-type sporting gold-rimmed glasses. He was General Ivan Serov, the new chairman of the KGB. Both visitors were wearing flowered Ukrainian folkshirts over baggy, flapping trousers, in stark contrast to the gray and buttoned-up Stalin-style suits that had until recently been a virtual KGB uniform. (Even today it is still a mystery to me why most of the top KGB officers I knew would take such pains to imitate whatever Soviet leader happened to be in power at the moment. Was it merely an oriental inheritance from tsarist times, when Russian bureaucrats went to inordinate lengths to flatter their superiors?)

The visitors told us that the previous night Hungarian premier Imre Nagy, who had announced Hungary’s secession from the Warsaw Pact and asked the United Nations for help, had sought refuge in the Yugoslavian Embassy. Romanian ruler Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Politburo member Walter Roman (who knew Nagy from the war years when both had been working for the Comintern in Moscow) agreed to be flown to Budapest to help the KGB kidnap Nagy and bring him to Romania. Major Emanuel Zeides, the chief of the German desk, who spoke fluent Hungarian, would go with them as translator. “When Zeides Vienna you chief nemetskogo otdeleniya,” Gavriliuc told me, finally clarifying why I had been summoned. That meant I was to hold the bag as chief of the DIE’s German desk.

On November 23, 1956, the three Soviet Politburo members who had coordinated from Budapest the military intervention against Hungary sent an enciphered telegram to Khrushchev:

Comrade Walter Roman, who arrived in Budapest together with Comrade Dej yesterday, November 22, had long discussions with Nagy. … Imre Nagy and his group left the Yugoslavian Embassy and are now in our hands. Today the group will leave for Romania. Comrade Kadar and the Romanian comrades are preparing an adequate press communiqué. Malenkov, Suslov, Aristov.

A year later, Nagy and the principal members of his cabinet were hanged, after a showtrial the KGB organized in Budapest.

In February 1962 the KGB narrowly missed assassinating the shah of Iran, who had committed the unpardonable “crime” of having removed a Communist government installed in the northwestern part of Iran. The DIE’s chief razvedka (Russian for foreign intelligence) adviser never told us in so many words that the KGB had failed to kill the shah, but he asked us to order the DIE station in Tehran to destroy all its compromising documents, to suspend all its agents’ operations, and to report everything, including rumors, about an attempt on the shah’s life. A few days later he canceled the DIE plan to kill its own defector Constantin Mandache in West Germany with a bomb mounted in his car because, the adviser told us, the remote control, which had been supplied by the KGB for this operation, might malfunction. In 1990 Vladimir Kuzichkin, a KGB officer who had been directly involved in the failed attempt to kill the shah and who had afterwards defected to the West, published a book (Inside the KGB: My Life in Soviet Espionage, Pantheon Books, 1990) in which he describes the operation. According to Kuzichkin, the shah escaped alive because the remote control used to set off a large quantity of explosives in a Volkswagen car had malfunctioned.

Silencing Dissent

On Sunday, March 20, 1965, I paid my last visit to Gheorghiu-Dej’s winter residence in Predeal. As usual, I found him with his best friend, Chivu Stoica, Romania’s honorary head. Dej complained of feeling weak, dizzy, and nauseous. “I think the KGB got me,” he said, only half in jest. “They got Togliatti. That’s for sure,” Stoica squeaked ominously.

Palmiro Togliatti, the head of the Italian Communist party, had died on August 21, 1964, while on a visit to the Soviet Union. The word at the top of the bloc foreign intelligence community was that he had died from a rapid form of cancer, after having been irradiated by the KGB on Khrushchev’s order while vacationing in Yalta. His assassination had been provoked by the fact that, while in the Soviet Union, he had written a “testament” in which he had expressed profound discontent with Khrushchev’s failures. Togliatti’s frustrations expressed not only his personal view but also that of Leonid Brezhnev. According to Dej, these suspicions were confirmed by the facts that Brezhnev had attended Togliatti’s funeral in Rome; that in September 1964 Pravda had published portions of Togliatti’s “testament”; and that five weeks later Khrushchev was dethroned after being accused of harebrained schemes, hasty decisions, actions divorced from reality, braggadocio, and rule by fiat.

I saw Dej give a shiver. He had also been critical of Khrushchev’s foreign policy. Moreover, a year earlier he had expelled all KGB advisers from Romania, and the previous September he had expressed to Khrushchev his concern about Togliatti’s “strange death.” During the March 12, 1965, elections for Romania’s Grand National Assembly, Gheorghiu-Dej still looked vigorous. A week later, however, he died of a galloping form of cancer. “Assassinated by Moscow” is what the new Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, whispered to me a few months after that. “Irradiated by the KGB,” he murmured in an even lower voice, claiming, “That was firmly established by the autopsy.” The subject had come up because Ceausescu had ordered me immediately to obtain Western radiation detection devices (Geiger-Müller counters) and have them secretly installed throughout his offices and residences.

Soon after the Soviet-led invasion of Prague, Ceausescu switched over from Stalinism to Maoism, and in June 1971 he visited Red China. There he learned that the KGB had organized a plot to kill Mao Zedong with the help of Lin Biao, the head of the Chinese army, who had been educated in Moscow. The plot failed, and Lin Biao unsuccessfully tried to fly out of China in a military plane. His execution was announced only in 1972. During the same year I learned details about that Soviet plot from Hua Guofeng, the minister of public security — who in 1977 would become China’s supreme leader.

“Ten,” Ceausescu remarked to me. “Ten international leaders the Kremlin killed or tried to kill,” he explained, counting them off on his fingers. Laszlo Rajk and Imre Nagy of Hungary; Lucretiu Patrascanu and Gheorghiu-Dej in Romania; Rudolf Slansky, the head of Czechoslovakia, and Jan Masaryk, that country’s chief diplomat; the shah of Iran; Palmiro Togliatti of Italy; American President John F. Kennedy; and Mao Zedong. (Among the leaders of Moscow’s satellite intelligence services there was unanimous agreement that the KGB had been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.)

On the spot, Ceausescu ordered me to create a super-secret counterintelligence unit for operations in socialist countries (i.e., the Soviet bloc). “You have one thousand personnel slots for this.” His added caveat was that the new unit should be “nonexistent.” No name, no title, no plate on the door. The new unit received only the generic designation U.M. 0920/A, and its head was given the rank of chief of a DIE directorate.

Ordered to Kill

On the unforgettable day of July 22, 1978, Ceausescu and I were hiding inside a pelican blind in a remote corner of the Danube Delta, where not even a passing bird could overhear us. As a man of discipline and a former general, he had long been fascinated by the structured society of the white pelicans. The very old birds — the grandparents — always lay up on the front part of the beach, close to the water and food supply. Their respectful children lined up behind them in orderly rows, while the grandchildren spent their time horsing around in the background. I had often heard my boss say he wished Romania had the same rigid social structure.

“I want you to give ‘Radu’ to Noel Bernard,” Ceausescu whispered into my ear. Noel Bernard was at that time the director of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian program, and for years he had been infuriating Ceausescu with his commentaries. “You don’t need to report back to me on the results,” he added. “I’ll learn them from Western newspapers and …” The end of Ceausescu’s sentence was masked by the methodical rat-a-tat of his submachine gun. He aimed with ritual precision, first at the front line of pelicans, then at the middle distance, and finally at the grandchildren in the back.

For 27 years I had been living with the nightmare that, sooner or later, such orders to have someone killed would land on my plate. Up until that order from Ceausescu, I had been safe, as it was the DIE chief who was in charge of neutralization operations. But in March 1978 I had been appointed acting chief of the DIE, and there was no way for me now to avoid involvement in political assassinations, which had grown into a main instrument of foreign policy throughout the Soviet bloc.

Two days later Ceausescu sent me to Bonn to deliver a secret message to Chancellor Helmut Schimdt, and there I requested political asylum in the U.S.

The Killings Continue

Noel Bernard continued to inform the Romanians about Ceausescu’s crimes, and on December 21, 1981, he died of a galloping form of cancer. On January 1, 1988, his successor, Vlad Georgescu, started serializing my book Red Horizons on RFE. A couple of months later, when the serialization ended, Georgescu informed his listeners that the Securitate had repeatedly warned him that he would die if he broadcast Red Horizons. “If they kill me for serializing Pacepa’s book, I’ll die with the clear conscience that I did my duty as a journalist,” Georgescu stated publicly. A few months later, he died of a galloping form of cancer.

The Kremlin also continued secretly killing its political opponents. In 1979, Brezhnev’s KGB infiltrated Mikhail Talebov into the court of the pro-American Afghan premier Hafizullah Amin as a cook. Talebov’s task was to poison the prime minister. After several failed attempts, Brezhnev ordered the KGB to use armed force. On December 27, 1979, fifty KGB officers from the elite “Alpha” unit, headed by Colonel Grigory Boyarnov, occupied Amin’s palace and killed everybody inside to eliminate all witnesses. The next day Brezhnev’s KGB brought to Kabul Bebrak Kemal, an Afghan Communist who had sought refuge in Moscow, and installed him as prime minister. That KGB neutralization operation played a role in generating today’s international terrorism.

On May 13, 1981, the same KGB organized, with help from Bulgaria, an attempt to kill Pope John Paul II, who had started a crusade against Communism. Mehmet Ali Aqca, who shot the pope, admitted that he had been recruited by the Bulgarians, and he identified his liaison officers in Italy: Sergey Antonov, deputy chief of the Balkanair office in Rome, who was arrested; and major Zhelvu Vasilief, from the military attaché office, who could not be arrested because of his diplomatic status and was recalled to Sofia. Aqca also admitted that, after the assassination, he was to be secretly taken out of Italy in a TIR truck (in the Soviet bloc the TIR trucks were used by the intelligence services for operational activities). In May 1991 the Italian government reopened its investigation into the assassination attempt, and on March 2, 2006, it concluded that the Kremlin had indeed been behind it.

On Christmas Day of 1989, Ceausescu was executed at the end of a trial in which the accusations came almost word for word out of Red Horizons. I recently learned from Nestor Ratesh, a former director of RFE’s Romanian program, who has spent two years researching Securitate archives, that he has obtained enough evidence to prove that both Noel Bernard and Vlad Georgescu were killed by the Securitate at Ceausescu’s order. The result of his research will be the subject of a book to be published by RFE.

Strong Arms and Stability

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians had a unique chance to cast off their old Byzantine form of police state, which has for centuries isolated the country and has left it ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. Unfortunately, the Russian have not been up to that task. Since the fall of Communism they have been faced with an indigenous form of capitalism run by old Communist bureaucrats, speculators, and ruthless mafiosi that has widened social inequities. Therefore, after a period of upheaval, the Russians have gradually — and perhaps thankfully — slipped back into their historical form of government, the traditional Russian samoderzhaviye, a form of autocracy traceable to the 14th century’s Ivan the Terrible, in which a feudal lord ruled the country with the help of his personal political police. Good or bad, the old political police may appear to most Russians as their only defense against the rapacity of the new capitalists at home.

It will not be easy to break a five-century-old tradition. That does not mean that Russia cannot change. But for that to happen, the U.S. must help. We should stop pretending that Russia’s government is democratic, and assess it for what it really is: a band of over 6,000 former officers of the KGB — one of the most criminal organizations in history — who grabbed the most important positions in the federal and local governments, and who are perpetuating Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s, and Brezhnev’s practice of secretly assassinating people who stand in their way. Killing always comes with a price, and the Kremlin should be forced to pay it until it will stop the killings.

Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa is the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to have defected from the former Soviet bloc. His book Red Horizons has been republished in 27 countries.


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