KGB notebooks yield clues to Cold War spies

EMORY (US)—New evidence gleaned from hand-written notes straight from the KGB vaults tells a story stranger than fiction. The result is a detailed account of Soviet espionage in the United States that answers many Cold War-era questions.

Emory University political scientist and historian Harvey Klehr uncovers many answers in his book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. His decades of research on American communism and Soviet-run espionage has been “like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History. “Some sections are complete and filled in, while others still have pieces and chunks missing. The notebooks have allowed us to just about fill in all of the pieces to complete the picture.”

Klehr and coauthor John Earl Haynes draw their research in Spies from a series of notebooks produced by former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev, also a coauthor of the book. In the early 1990s, Vassiliev was permitted access to Stalin-era records of Soviet intelligence operations against the United States.

The notebooks, which include more than 1,100 pages of copious notes, have been translated and are available online through the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“One thing that gave us confidence that the notebooks are genuine is the way it fits in with what we already know,” says Klehr, who was the first American scholar to get access to KGB files (now closed) after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

The research has led to revelations, including definitive evidence that J. Robert Oppenheimer was not a Soviet spy and confirmation that journalist and activist I.F. Stone did indeed do some work for the KGB in the 1930s, Klehr says.

Klehr and Haynes, a Library of Congress historian, also were able to identify a number of people who were spies, many of them completely unknown. One spy who was previously unknown, at least by name, was Russell McNutt. A recruit of Julius Rosenberg (who was executed with his wife, Ethel, in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage), McNutt later became a wealthy oil company executive.

Klehr and Haynes tracked him down, finding him living as a retiree in a golf community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. “As an atomic spy, McNutt is a fascinating character. His name floats around, but there had been no strong hint before that he was a spy,” Klehr. McNutt is among many compelling human interest stories unveiled in the notebooks, he adds.

“By and large, these people didn’t do it for the money,” Klehr notes. “They were complex, complicated people, and so many of them got away with it. Some suffered public shame, while others went on to have very successful lives and careers when their spying days were over.”

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