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Cold War Courage

THE SPY WHO SAVED THE WORLD By Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin, `25 00 Chfirlp5Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel …

THE SPY WHO SAVED THE WORLD By Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin, `25 00 Chfirlp5

Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU), was a key source for the CIA during the Cold War. He supplied information on his country’s strategy and military secrets to Britain‘s M16 intelligence service and the CIA.

Penkovsky was also a hero. In providing data on Soviet nuclear strength-which was channeled to President John F. Kennedy-he was instrumental in assuring U.S. victory during the Cuban missile crisis. Ultimately, this meant the end of the Cold War and the defeat of what President Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.” These are truisms no knowledgeable CIA or M16 officer would dispute. But they are cast into the public spotlight in The Spy Who Saved the World by two authors with impeccable credentials. Jerry Schecter knows Moscow as few other Western journalists do. Bureau chief in the city for the Time-Life organization from 1968-1970, he is intimately familiar with the heavy hand of KGB surveillance, as practiced before perestroika at the end of the 1960s. Peter Deriabin, meanwhile, is a KGB defector, vintage 1954. He understands both the psychology of the agency’s employees, and the mindset of those who defect and have to cope with the anguish of estrangement from their native land.

Schecter and Deriabin are also great storytellers. They combine this quality with their insider knowledge to focus on Penkovsky’s feats of derring-do, treason and drama. Weaving together historical vignettes, they tell a tale that creates and sustains the Penkovsky legend.

This book entertains and follows with a sense of realism the tribulations of an agent working against his own country. Schecter and Deriabin document how the desire for revenge moved Penkovsky to play a pivotal role in enhancing America‘s understanding of the Soviet missile threat. The highest-ranking Soviet military official ever to cooperate with the U.S., he placed himself at the West’s disposal.

Penkovsky’s career in the military had been stalled because his father had fought against the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Revolution.

But there’s a drawback: The authors have overreached themselves with the thesis-implied in the title-that “Penkovsky was the spy who saved the world from nuclear war.” Indeed, he was a key figure in intelligence-gathering efforts that clearly revealed Soviet military intentions in 1961 and ’62. These led to photographs that persuaded President Kennedy that Moscow planned to put offensive missiles into Cuba.

However, there is no need to gild the lily. Penkovsky provided information long before the confrontation, which made it possible for Washington to verify that the Soviets were deploying medium range missiles in Cuba and protecting them with SAM sites. President Kennedy used this knowledge with skill and courage, and war was averted.

In later years, CIA officers would ask, “What is the ideal Soviet agent?” The answer from those with institutional recall: “a GRU colonel whose father-in-law was a general with access to data on strategic rocket forces.” This officer, of course, is Penkovsky. The response is a more accurate tribute than that offered in the authors’ title.


Theodore G. Shackley, a past contributor to Chief Executive, is former CIA associate deputy director for operations and CEO of Research Associates International, Bethesda, MD.

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