In Box

Requiem for a Russian Spy

A CIA veteran remembers his Soviet counterpart.

Courtesy of Milton Bearden
Courtesy of Milton Bearden

On the second-to-last day of March, Leonid Vladimirovich Shebarshin, the former head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence arm and chairman of the KGB — for a single day in the turmoil of the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev — died in his central Moscow apartment, apparently taking his own life. According to Russian media accounts, the last entry in his diary found at the scene was: “March, 29 – 17.15, left eye failure. 19.00, went completely blind. Foreign Intelligence duty officer 4293593.” Beside his body was a service pistol presented to him upon his retirement from the KGB, and media reports said there was a suicide note. Shebarshin, my longtime adversary and, later, a helpful collaborator in chronicling the slice of history we shared, was 77.

His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.

For much of the last decade of my CIA career, Shebarshin was the closest thing I had to a main adversary in the Soviet spy apparatus. (For you John le Carré fans out there, he was my Karla.) I met him only after we had retired, when our respective organizations were still trying to sort out all the body blows of treachery and betrayal we had taken in those last desperate years of Cold War rivalry.

We first met in Moscow in 1997 at his offices in the KGB’s sports facility, Dynamo Stadium. Although the Soviet Union had ceased to exist half a dozen years earlier, Shebarshin’s office walls were covered with eerie, almost surreal murals of revolutionary scenes featuring Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the Soviet secret services. It was clear Shebarshin remained faithful to his Soviet creed, and at that first meeting we acknowledged our common threads as adversaries. We spoke frequently and at length on the phone after that encounter; I was researching a book, and Shebarshin was preparing his memoirs, drafts of which he shared with me and allowed me to incorporate into my work. Over those years, Shebarshin and I came to view each other not necessarily as friends, but perhaps as dueling conductors of one of the last symphonies of the Cold War.

Shebarshin and I were first cast as opposites in the last years of the disastrous Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, but at the time I had no inkling of the extent of his involvement there. I would only become familiar with him as a man and as an adversary when I returned to Langley in 1989, after my Afghan interlude, to take charge of the Soviet-East European Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. That same year, Shebarshin became head of KGB foreign intelligence, the FCD, where he had been among the handful of key KGB men behind the lingering mystery of the deadly compromise of the CIA’s Moscow assets, beginning in 1985 — a saga that ended, the CIA thought, with the 1994 arrest of CIA veteran Aldrich Ames on charges of spying for the KGB. Although Ames’s betrayal seemed to unscramble the riddle of the Moscow losses, some still believe that another traitor was in our midst in the 1980s and that he is still out there. It’s just another secret Shebarshin took to his grave.

It was in Afghanistan where Shebarshin and I unwittingly competed head to head. I managed the CIA’s massive covert action against the Soviet occupation, running supplies to the mujahideen from neighboring Pakistan; Shebarshin oversaw the KGB effort from Moscow or, often enough, in Afghanistan itself. Although there was always a degree of desperation during that ruthless conflict, there were lighter moments too, as we learned when we compared notes long afterward.

Late one evening in August 1988, to take one example, I received an animated phone call from a Pakistani intelligence officer advising that a Soviet ground-attack fighter, an Su-25, had been shot down in Paktia province just inside Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan. The aircraft was mostly intact, the caller said, and the Afghan militia leader who had secured the crash site would make the Su-25 a personal gift to me, should I choose to send him 10 Toyota Hilux pickup trucks — painted white, with red pinstripes — and an equal number of BM-12 rocket launchers. I agreed, but insisted the site be closed off to the usual “souvenir hunters” who would strip the aircraft of its valuable weapons systems and electronics and sell them to the highest bidder.

Almost as an afterthought, the Pakistani intelligence officer told me that the same militia group had also captured the pilot of the Su-25, a white-haired colonel.

He wondered whether I might be interested in him too; if not, the militia would “deal” with him. I was indeed interested, and I agreed to an additional two Toyotas, along with two more BM-12s, in exchange for the colonel.

The deal was set in motion.

At about that same moment, we later discovered in our talks together, Shebarshin received an urgent report in Moscow that a freebooting militia commander in Paktia, a man of constantly shifting allegiances, had notified the Soviet 40th Army in Kabul that he could secure the release of a certain white-haired colonel who had been shot down nearby. The commander’s embroidered proposal had his militia group attacking and freeing the colonel from the deadly grasp of another militia group fighting for the other side. It would be expensive, the militia leader reported, but his brave men could handle it. Shebarshin glanced at the colonel’s name but didn’t know him. He had no doubt there was but a single militia involved, that it was already holding the colonel, and that it was working both sides — Soviet and American. Nevertheless, Shebarshin set his end of the deal in motion.

As it turned out, the American side moved a little faster. The Toyotas and the rocket launchers were delivered, and the colonel was brought into Pakistan and turned over to the intelligence services. The Pakistanis, on America’s behalf, made the colonel the usual offer: a condo in Phoenix, a Ford F-150 pickup truck, a good dog, and a good life. The colonel, described by the Pakistanis as a kindly gentleman, chose instead the hero’s welcome he received when he eventually made it home to the Soviet Union. We all did OK in the end: I got my Su-25, the white-haired colonel was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, and Shebarshin and the “competent organs” got credit for arranging the “rescue.” It was a wartime transaction straight out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a complex deal run in the spirit of Lt. Milo Minderbinder — everybody got a share.

Nearly a decade later, when we met in Moscow, Shebarshin and I could finally hear the rest of the story of the valiant “rescue” operation we had run from opposite sides. The white-haired colonel turned out to be Aleksandr Rutskoi, who, much to my astonishment at the time, had gone on to become Boris Yeltsin’s flamboyant vice president and leader of the team that raced to the Crimea in August 1991 to free Gorbachev from his arrest by old-guard coup plotters. Rutskoi would eventually lead a failed coup against Yeltsin himself in 1993. (History is fickle, Shebarshin told me over drinks one evening in Moscow long after these events, accepting the Rutskoi affair with the same Russian fatalism that was his prism for viewing life.)

SPY-NOVEL INTRIGUE ASIDE, Shebarshin’s Afghan years convinced him of the futility of any occupation of that unruly, martial land and revealed the depth of the cooked intelligence that launched the Red Army’s intervention and doggedly supported the failed military adventure for nine long years.

At one high-level briefing following a major Soviet offensive into the Panjshir Valley in 1984, Shebarshin told me, he and the defense minister, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, the World War II Hero of the Soviet Union who was in charge of troops during the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, were given a crisp account of a “major victory” against the Afghan rebels. “Of the 3,000 bandits drawn into the engagement,” the 40th Army briefer reported, “1,700 were killed. The others withdrew, taking with them their dead and their weapons.”

Shebarshin interjected: “Comrade Colonel, how can 1,300 rebels carry off 1,700 of their dead — and their weapons?” His question was ignored by all but the wise old Sokolov, who took note with a frown. The episode illustrated the relentlessly rose-colored nature of battlefield “intelligence” in Afghanistan, a reality that has been a constant since Alexander the Great’s foray there more than two millennia ago.

Shebarshin was done with Afghanistan in February 1989, when the last of the “limited contingent” marched across Friendship Bridge and into the Soviet Union. Back in Moscow a few months later, he became head of the FCD just as the Iron Curtain was beginning to crumble from within. When the old guard mounted the August 1991 coup attempt led by KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov, Shebarshin’s cool head earned him his place in modern Russian history.

On Sunday, Aug. 18, the plotters made their move, placing Gorbachev under house arrest at his Crimean vacation dacha. By Monday, when the coup leaders were issuing emergency orders, Shebarshin had decided that the entire affair was nothing more than a fuzzy-headed attempt to roll back the clock. He followed Kryuchkov’s orders to set his FCD resources to spying on Moscow and sent the FCD’s crack paramilitary unit to the KGB Club in central Moscow. But he told the unit’s leader not to accept orders from anyone but himself. He had decided that the coup would fail and that the costs of that failure would be high.

By Wednesday, Shebarshin knew he had made the right calculation. Had the coup plotters moved resolutely and ruthlessly at the outset, he told me, he would have followed Kryuchkov’s orders to deploy the paramilitary team against the holdouts in the White House. But the plot’s slapstick execution was apparent by Wednesday, and Shebarshin ordered his elite force to stand down. At that point, Shebarshin and a number of other KGB senior officers simply stopped returning the plotters’ calls. Shebarshin had called the shot accurately — not because he was morally or philosophically against the attempt to oust Gorbachev, but because he read the balance of power correctly.

By Thursday, it was all over. Shebarshin thought himself lucky, he later told me, but then reminded himself of what he called Pascal’s dictum: Don’t call a man lucky while he’s still alive; in the best of cases, things are just going his way.

Early that morning, he received a call summoning him to the Kremlin’s Walnut Room to meet with Gorbachev. The meeting was brief. Gorbachev appointed him acting chairman of the KGB and ordered him to assemble his deputies to investigate who knew what and when. Shebarshin told me later that he had felt uncomfortable — that he had somehow suppressed his personal extreme distaste for Gorbachev when he found himself in the man’s presence, instead succumbing to the thought that he, Leonid Shebarshin, son of a shoemaker, had become head of the KGB. People are weak, he would say. It’s all about vanity.

The only work done at the KGB’s headquarters on the day Shebarshin was in control was to secure the old prison against the mobs clamoring in front of it in Moscow’s Dzerzhinsky Square, as the impact of the failed coup spilled over into an increasingly belligerent Moscow population. By the end of the night, the KGB facade had been defaced, and the bronze statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky had been hauled down — an unthinkable challenge to the state. By the next afternoon, Vadim Bakatin had been appointed chairman of the KGB. Shebarshin was told he would continue as vice chairman and head of the FCD, but he submitted his resignation from the KGB less than a month later. There had been no pressure to resign; vanity simply had its limits, he told me.

Shebarshin later told me in a letter that while emptying out his personal safe during the coup attempt — after he had destroyed all even remotely incriminating papers — he had cleaned and oiled his service pistol, a Makarov 9 mm semiautomatic. He described the gun as a “simple, dependable item whose mass fits nicely into the palm of one’s hand.”

“The lead content of a single round of ammunition,” he wrote, “was the equivalent of a person’s life, any life, whether worthy or pitiful.”

I have no idea whether the Makarov he described to me so poignantly was the same weapon with which he ended his life, though I suspect it was.

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