The Farewell Files

What caused the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union?

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching on November 9, it is a debate that might have been expected to produce clear answers by now. Instead, the list of reasons seems to grow.

Was it the accumulated economic social rot in the Soviet state and its Warsaw Pact satellites? The military overstretch of the nuclear arms race, exacerbated by the grand hoax that was the Reagan Administration's 'star wars' missile defence program? The humiliating and bloody quagmire of Afghanistan? The pressures of non-violent protest in Eastern Europe?

The fascinating two-part documentary The Farewell Files springs from the shadows with yet another reason: the treachery of KGB officer Vladimir Vetrov, codenamed Farewell, who leaked a trove of Soviet secrets to the West in the early 1980s. 

The thousands of documents Vetrov handed to the French - and, via Paris, to the United States -  not only proved the undoing of a huge KGB effort to steal the scientific information essential to the Soviet war machine. This intelligence coup also proved that the USSR was falling chronically behind the West in developing military technology.

Indeed, it may even have formed a basis for Reagan's strategy to cripple the Soviet Union economically through an ever more high-tech military buildup. Or so the argument goes.

It is a compelling story. And even if we accept that Vetrov's material was just one more ingredient in the recipe for the Eastern bloc's implosion, this still affirms that espionage really can make a strategic, not merely tactical, difference in world affairs.

Which raises some tricky questions for the present and the future. Intelligence, at least in Western democracies, is no longer entirely the covert game of Cold War renown.
Since the errors and embarrassments surrounding the 2003 Iraq War, the intelligence business has experienced new levels of scrutiny and mistrust, both from within government and the wider public.

Never mind that it was political leaders and policymakers - rather than the intelligence community - who did most of the damage, using uncorroborated intelligence shorn of analytical caveats to cry wolf over alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. 

The point is that the bar has now been raised very high indeed for a Western government to allow any single source of intelligence to make a profound difference to its decisions on the world stage. 

After all, the most notorious 'intelligence' source in the Iraq fiasco, an Iraqi defector codenamed Curveball, has since reportedly been described by his German handlers variously as mentally unstable, a liar and a possible alcoholic.

And yet, in Vetrov, the single source who perhaps really did do massive damage to the Soviet edifice, we had all those deeply unreliable traits and more.

It was not just that he was a traitor to his country. Given the inhumanity of that state and its political system, such treachery could of course be seen as patriotic. But he also betrayed in turn his wife, his mistress, and his colleagues; attempted one murder and committed another; and emerges, in the end, as confused, vodka-soaked, self-deluding, erratic, angry and above all spiteful. 

The net effect of his deeds may have been to better the human condition, but, other than his general disinterest in money, the motives could barely have been less pure.

Vetrov was as unstable as his intelligence was valuable: would you buy a used secret from this man?

These days, given the caution of Western agencies chastened by the Iraq experience and media scrutiny, you have to wonder what they would do if another genuine Vetrov came along, whether from Iran, North Korea, China, Russia or elsewhere. Chances are he would be ignored, and an opportunity lost.

Postscript: The Farewell Files is not the only recent rendering of this previously neglected chapter of the Cold War. A French feature film has just been released. But my understanding is that it needlessly airbrushes history, sanitizing Vetrov of his nastier acts and edges. If so, it does history, and the inescapable reality of the spying game, a disservice.

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About this Blog

Rory Medcalf explores the idiosyncrasies of KGB officer and western informer, Vladimir Vetrov, finding him, in the end, "confused, vodka-soaked, self-deluding, erratic, angry and above all spiteful."