Dorian Lynskey

Russia’s long history of smears, sabotage and barefaced lies

Mark Hollingsworth describes how the KGB became the world’s most industrious conspiracy-theory factory, with its agents of influence dedicated to sowing maximum confusion

The British Labour MP Bob Edwards, revealed to have been recruited by the KGB’s agents of influence. [Getty Images]

Russian politicians often refer to something called the Dulles Plan. This document purports to capture the future CIA chief Allen Dulles explaining, in 1948, the US strategy to destroy the moral foundations of the USSR and bring about ‘the death of the most intractable people on Earth… the definitive, irreversible dying out of its self-consciousness’. If this sounds like a fictional villain’s expository monologue then that’s because it is. The text was taken from an antagonist’s speech in a 1971 novel, Eternal Call, which itself recalled a much earlier Russian forgery, the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The ‘plan’ was written and disseminated in 1993 in an attempt to explain the collapse of the communist system, but its debunking has not prevented it being invoked to justify such ‘defensive’ measures as the invasion of Ukraine.

The Moscow-born Victor Louis thrived as a journalist on ‘scoops’ provided by Soviet intelligence

The dissemination of fantastical plots in phoney documents is a legacy of the KGB. Though the agency was dissolved in 1991 its methods endure under Vladimir Putin, who served it for 16 years. Phrases such as ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ may feel new, but, as Mark Hollingsworth explains, the KGB was dedicated to creating ‘a climate of chaos, fear and pervasive uncertainty in which nobody could be trusted’.

Hollingsworth’s subjects are not John le Carré spies, with missions and handlers, but ‘agents of influence’ who operated in a more informal, deniable fashion to shape policy and spread disinformation: what the KGB designated ‘active measures’. A 1964 Foreign Office report argued that such an agent ‘may be even more dangerous than a spy who is selling military secrets’. The thrillerish shadow world of spooks and honeytraps sometimes distracts Hollingsworth from his own premise (a couple of chapters are nothing more than Cold War yarns), but when he’s on track he spices familiar tales with new tidbits from government archives and interviews in order to emphasise the continuity between the KGB and Putin’s FSB.

In one form or another, the Russian secret police is as old as the tsars, from Ivan the Terrible’s murderous, black-clad Oprichniki through to the Okhrana under Nicholas II.

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