By Jill Lawless, AP
CAMBRIDGE, England–The papers spent years hidden in a milk churn beneath a Russian dacha and read like an encyclopedia of Cold War espionage.
Original documents from one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history — a who’s who of Soviet spying — were released Monday after being held in secret for two decades.
The files smuggled out of Russia in 1992 by senior KGB official Vasili Mitrokhin describe sabotage plots, booby-trapped weapons caches and armies of agents under cover in the West — the real-life inspiration for the fictional Soviet moles in “The Americans” TV series.
In reality, top-quality spies could be hard to get. The papers reveal that some were given Communist honors and pensions by a grateful USSR, but others proved loose-lipped, drunk or unreliable.
Intelligence historian Christopher Andrew said the vast dossier, released by the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University, was considered “the most important single intelligence source ever” by British and American authorities.
Mitrokhin was a senior archivist at the KGB’s foreign intelligence headquarters — and a secret dissident. For more than a decade he secretly took files home, copied them in longhand and then typed and collated them into volumes. He hid the papers at his country cottage, or dacha, some stuffed into a milk churn and buried.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin traveled to a Baltic state — which one has never been confirmed — and took a sample of his files to the U.S. Embassy, only to be turned away. So he tried the British embassy, where a junior diplomat sat him down and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“That was the sentence that changed his life,” said Andrew.
Smuggled out of Russia, Mitrokhin spent the rest of his life in Britain under a false name and police protection, dying in 2004 at 81.
The world did not learn of Mitrokhin until Andrew published a book based on his files in 1999. It caused a sensation by exposing the identities of KGB agents including 87-year-old Melita Norwood, the “great-granny spy,” who had passed British atomic secrets to the Soviets for years.