It seemed like a simple day’s work last March: to travel down from London to Exeter University for the paper I work for, the Independent, spend a pleasant day at this small town in the English west country, and interview a former major general from the KGB about his evil past. My journalistic friends in Moscow confirmed to me that Oleg Kalugin was the person he claimed to be: a major general who had, among other things, studied journalism at Columbia and served for several years at the Soviet embassy in Washington. Returning to the Soviet Union, he had rapidly become disillusioned with the corruption and inefficiency of the system and had become a prominent liberal opponent of Gorbachev’s.
He was appearing with a former press aide to Gorbachev in a debate at the Exeter Student Union as part of the annual Russian week run by the exceptionally energetic and imaginative Russian Studies department. They were to debate the previous summer’s coup; but the real interest in his visit was simply the chance to talk to someone who had worked for the KGB. Like most other journalists, I had assumed that virtually all intelligent and personable Soviet diplomats were in fact KGB men, and the more suave and diplomatic an official Soviet representative was the more likely he was to be from the KGB and not the Foreign Service. But appearances have to be maintained, and Kalugin was the first Russian I’d met who was completely open about his former employment.
He turned out to be a man of considerable force of character and no obvious regrets. His work abroad had been perfectly honorable, he said: it was only when he returned home that he found the system wholly corrupt. Then he had rebelled. But all countries needed a secret police and an intelligence organization. These must be under democratic control, but even the British had problems with that, he said, in a nicely edged allusion to the Spycatcher case. I talked to him for about half an hour in his hotel room; and then for a further twenty minutes in the company of Richard Norton Taylor, a Guardian journalist who had also come from London for the debate.
Following the lecture I borrowed a room from the Student Union and sat down at my laptop to produce a five-hundred-word news story. After I had sent over the main story, I rang the news desk in London. They wanted more on spying and less on Russian domestic troubles. So while talking on the telephone and reading straight from my notes taken during the day, I added one of Kalugin’s anecdotes about the difficulty of getting interesting people to talk to the KGB. There had been a journalist in Washington, he said, who had broken off all ties with officials at the Soviet Embassy in 1956. He, Kalugin, had persuaded the man to talk to them again in the 1960s, but after the invasion of Czechoslovakia …
‘The Attack on I.F. Stone’: An Exchange December 3, 1992