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My Secret Past: The KGB File

In early August 1991 a man who introduced himself as Andrei Stanislavovich Pshezhedomsky telephoned, saying he was assistant to Chairman Ivanenko of the Russian Republic KGB. His chief, he said, wanted to meet with me. Out of old dissident habit, I replied that I didn’t pay calls on the KGB and if they wanted to see me they should send an official warrant. The man quickly assured me that I had misunderstood, that “they” had great respect for me and simply wanted to meet me. At the time the independent KGB of the Russian Federal Republic was in its infancy. I had no idea what it would become, but expected nothing good. Still, I was curious.

I said, “If you really want to get acquainted, come to see me.”

A few days later, they did. At first our conversation didn’t go very well. We had little to say to each other. We chatted about my articles in Moscow News, which they said they had liked, and the Sakharov Congress. I finally asked them why they had come. They said that they wanted to establish contact with political figures and with the public at large. They wanted a clearer idea of what was expected of them and hoped to work out a new concept for their organization.

As for the new concept, I recommended that they get in touch with one of the Congressional experts who had studied the new (Union) law on the KGB and had found that it violated almost every human right. I told them that I didn’t consider myself a political figure and that when I spoke out on issues that worried me I was expressing only my own opinion, that I didn’t belong to any political party, and that they therefore had made a mistake in coming to see me. But in general, our conversation was amicable. I had never seen people from the KGB trying to act in this way, especially in my own kitchen over a cup of coffee on a bright sunny day. So I said that I’d like to have something from them: permission to read the KGB files on my parents and my uncle and help in locating the manuscripts and diaries of Sakharov that were stolen by the KGB in Gorky.

Ivanenko promised to satisfy my first request immediately, but he wasn’t sure what he could do about the second. And with that, they left.

A few days later Andrei Stanislavovich called and invited me to come to the KGB on Monday to read the files. But that Monday was August 19—the day of the Putsch. It was only on the twentieth, when I caught a fleeting glimpse of Ivanenko in the Moscow White House, that I remembered the offer—and immediately forgot it. But Andrei Stanislavovich called again, and soon I was crossing for the first time in my life the marble threshold and mounting the marble steps of the building on Lubyanka Square, the place everyone calls the Big House.

I walked down what seemed miles of corridors. I saw the internal prison, now an accounting office—a small three-story building in the inner courtyard connected by a complicated passageway to the main building that surrounds it on all sides. There were several cells, very small, on two floors. Prisoners were kept there for short periods, just a day or two. They were tried in a courtroom separated from the prison by a short corridor and up a short flight of stairs. A pleasant young lieutenant showed me around. In the passageway between the inner prison and the courtroom, which was now sealed, he told me that his grandfather had been tried in the courtroom and had gotten the most common sentence of those days—execution by shooting (the most extreme punishment).

The sentence was carried out on the other side of Lubyanka Square in the cellar of the Military Collegium building. An underground passage, which goes beneath the entire square, under the subway tunnels and city communication lines, connected it with the main building of the KGB. This had been the last road walked by many thousands of people. I didn’t see the passage and I don’t even know if it is still there. A lump in my throat kept me from asking.

I took the underground passage from the old KGB building to the new one twice in order to see V.V. Bakatin, the new—post-Putsch—chairman of the KGB. At our first meeting he gave me a marvelous present: a two-volume set of Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs, published in 1986—that is, three years before the book appeared—in handsome blue covers, in manuscript format, on good quality paper, in large type. The volumes are convincing evidence that Sakharov’s manuscripts had been stolen, not by random petty thieves, but by the Committee on State Security, the KGB.

The KGB’s edition had the title Pages of Reminiscences, the title Andrei Dmitrievich had first chosen in 1983 at my suggestion but later rejected. It’s too bad I hadn’t known about this edition earlier. I never knew which edition the former leaders of the Soviet Union had read—the KGB one, the one published in Zvezda magazine, or the American edition. At the concert that opened the Sakharov Congress in 1991 Gorbachev told me that he had read the memoirs with great attention, and I could have asked him then.

The second present Bakatin gave me was more modest, since it only confirmed a loss. I received two documents. Here is the complete text of the first:


File of Operative Investigation No. 4490 on Bonner, Elena Georgievna, was received by First Department Fifth Directorate of the KGB USSR from the UKGB [the main directorate of the KGB] of Moscow and Moscow Oblast on December 16, 1971, and refiled as FOI No 3223. On December 29, 1972, FOI No 3223 was transferred to File of Operative Development No. 10740, and on July 4, 1988, to it was added FOD No. 1532 in 200 volumes on Sakharov AD (“Askold”), received from the KGB for Gorky Oblast (our No. 14616).

That is all the document says. It doesn’t make clear when they started investigating me. And it seems that I wasn’t appended to Sakharov’s file but that he was attached to mine. Of course, he had always said I underestimated myself and that for the KGB I was Enemy No. 1. Strangely, our cases were put together in the same file only in 1988.

The second document also consists of a single page, but there is writing on both sides. I find in it that I had been given the nickname “Fox.” On the front:


On stopping surveillance of File of Operative Development No. 10740, on August 9, 1989, I, Colonel Shevchuk, A.A., chief of First Department Fifth Directorate KGB USSR, examined the materials of file No. 10740 on “Fox” on “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and found: that the materials have lost their relevance, in connection with which (Bonner, Elena Georgievna FOD No. 10740) I resolve: close the case, removing “Fox” from all operative surveillance and destroy the materials.

At the bottom: “Agree. Chief Ninth Department Fifth Directorate KGB USSR Colonel Baranov, A.V.”

At the top of the page: “Secret. Confirmed. Chief Fifth Directorate KGB USSR Major General Avanov, E.F. 6 September 1989.” On the reverse side:

Order on destruction of file No. 10740…September 6, 1989…burn volumes 1, 41, 71, 130, 200, 280, 340. Previously destroyed by decree of 10/17/1988 a total of 116 volumes…. Order of 12/19/1988…116 volumes. Order of 1/4/1989…total of 114 volumes…. Order of 4/5/1989…42 volumes. Order of 5/29/1989…44 volumes. Order of 6/5/1989…43 volumes. Order of 7/28/1989…40 volumes. Order of 7/28/1989…44 volumes. Order of 8/1/1989…17 volumes.

That means a total of 583 volumes were destroyed. The first seven were burned on the basis of the resolution quoted. But what was the basis for the destruction of case files compiled before September 6, 1989?

Did the burned volumes include Andrei Dmitrievich’s manuscripts and diaries? I keep hoping that they will be found. I hope that they destroyed only the evidence of the many years of surveillance—reports by informers, and other materials they describe with the words “operative development.” First they fill up so much paper and then they destroy it—200 volumes on Andrei and 383 on me. I’m not much interested in how they investigated us, how deeply they got into our intimate life. And I don’t want to know the names of the people we considered friends but who worked for the KGB. Today I continue living as I had before—the methods and concerns of the old KGB do not interest me. And I’m not so sure that it can be changed enough to meet the standards of a democratic state.

In my first visits to the Big House, the Russian KGB had modest offices on a single floor, the seventh. Andrei Stanislavovich told me that he couldn’t understand why the KGB of the USSR didn’t arrest him while he shuttled back and forth between that building and the White House. Why did they allow him to leave? Why did they let him back in? But by November the Russian KGB had expanded, and in December his office had moved to the fifth floor. It was strange to look out the window of his office and see the large round square below, with the empty pedestal of the Dzerzhinsky monument in the middle, and the Okhotny Ryad perspective radiating from it. It was lovely! I had walked past these windows so many times, cringing inwardly, feeling the oppressive building suffocating me. And now I was inside. And the case files of my family were before me.

Father’s case file is No. 11888. The order for his arrest and a search warrant issued in June 1937 appear on the first page. He was arrested “at the section for receiving prisoners of the 10th section GUGB”—where apparently he had been brought from the offices of the Comintern, where he worked. Page 2 gives information identifying the prisoner, including photographs taken on the day of his arrest—full face and profile. He had been beaten—there is a large bruise under his right eye and his wide-eyed stare is unrecognizable. I had seen eyes like that. Many of them. In an exhibit of photographs of the prisoners of Auschwitz. The fourth page lists what was taken during the search of his house: “1. personal correspondence and various documents. 2. counter-revolutionary Trotskyite materials. 3. 2 revolvers, Mausers, No. 6117 and No. 268563, and 48 bullets.” On the other side of that page there is a note: “In view [sic] of the absence of keys and the impossibility of searching the suitcase and trunk were sealed with seal No. 30.”

A resolution follows (page 5) on the selected method of restraint—detention under guard—dated November 15, 1937, five and a half months after his arrest. It says: “For several years perpetrated anti-Soviet work, as a member of a Trotskyite-rightist organization in the Comintern system and collaborated with foreign intelligence.”

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