Oleg Penkovsky

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Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Penkovsky CIA.png
Photograph of Col. Penkovsky
Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsk

(1919-04-23)23 April 1919
Died16 May 1963(1963-05-16) (aged 44)
OccupationGRU Colonel for the Soviet Union and agent for the United Kingdom
Criminal chargeTreason

Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky (Russian: Оле́г Влади́мирович Пенько́вский; 23 April 1919 – 16 May 1963), codenamed HERO,[1] was a Soviet military intelligence (GRU) colonel during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Penkovsky is known for informing the United Kingdom about the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba, thus providing both the UK and the United States with the precise knowledge necessary to address rapidly developing military tensions with the Soviet Union.

He was the highest-ranking Soviet official to provide intelligence for the UK up until that time, and is one of several individuals credited with altering the course of the Cold War. He was arrested by the Soviets in October 1962, then tried and executed the following year.


Early life and military career[edit]

Penkovsky's father died fighting as an officer in the White Army in the Russian Civil War. Penkovsky graduated from the Kiev Artillery Academy with the rank of lieutenant in 1939. After taking part in the Winter War against Finland and in World War II, he reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

A GRU officer, in 1955 Penkovsky was appointed military attaché in Ankara, Turkey. He later worked at the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research. Penkovsky was a personal friend of GRU head Ivan Serov and Soviet marshal Sergei Varentsov.[2]

Overtures to the West[edit]

Penkovsky approached American students on the Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow in July 1960 and gave them a package, which was delivered to the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA officers delayed in contacting him because they believed they were under constant surveillance.[3]

Penkovsky eventually persuaded the British spy Greville Wynne to arrange a meeting for him with two American and two British intelligence officers during a visit to London in 1961. Wynne became one of his couriers. In his autobiography, Wynne says that he was carefully developed by British intelligence over many years with the specific task of making contact with Penkovsky.[4]

The delay in CIA contact proved to be regrettable to the US. However, the British would later share intelligence from Penkovsky with their American allies. For the following eighteen months, Penkovsky supplied a tremendous amount of information to his British Secret Intelligence Service handlers in Moscow, Ruari and Janet Chisholm, and to CIA and SIS contacts during his permitted trips abroad. Most significantly, he provided President John F. Kennedy with the information that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was much smaller than previously thought, that the Soviet fueling systems were not fully operational, and that the Soviet guidance systems were not yet functional.[citation needed]

Peter Wright, a former British MI-5 officer, believed that Penkovsky was a fake defection. Wright noted that, unlike Igor Gouzenko and other earlier defectors, Penkovsky did not reveal the names of any Soviet agents in the West but only provided organizational detail, much of which was known already. Some of the documents provided were originals, which Wright thought could not have been easily taken from their sources. Wright scathingly condemned the leadership of British intelligence throughout nearly the whole Cold War period. He reportedly believed that the British/Soviet agents (Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt) could all have been identified more quickly using the scientific methods which he had proposed. In Wright's view, British intelligence leaders became more paralyzed when Philby and the others defected to the Soviet Union. British intelligence became so fearful of another fiasco that they avoided taking risks. Wright believes that the Soviets were aware of this and planted Penkovsky to buoy up the sagging fortunes of their ineffective—and therefore highly useful—counterparts in British intelligence.

In his memoir Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (1987), written with journalist Paul Greengrass.,[5] Wright said:

When I first wrote my Penkovsky analysis Maurice Oldfield (later Chief of MI6 in the 1970s), who played a key role in the Penkovsky case as Chief of Station in Washington, told me: 'You've got a long row to hoe with this one, Peter, there's a lot of K's [knighthoods] and Gongs [medals] riding high on the back of Penkovsky,' he said, referring to the honors heaped on those involved in the Penkovsky operation.

Wright was more complimentary of the CIA and even of the FBI, whose agents were initially suspicious (and remained suspicious) of Penkovsky. British agent Greville Wynne seems convinced that Penkovsky was genuine and that Wynne's own sacrifices, including 18 months in the Lubyanka Prison, were worthwhile.[citation needed]

Former KGB major-general Oleg Kalugin does not mention Penkovsky in his comprehensive memoir about his own career in intelligence against the West.[6] KGB defector Vladimir Sakharov suggests Penkovsky was genuine, saying, "I knew about the ongoing KGB reorganization precipitated by Oleg Penkovsky's case and Yuri Nosenko's defection. The party was not satisfied with KGB performance ... I knew many heads in the KGB had rolled again, as they had after Stalin."[7] While the weight of opinion seems to be that Penkovsky was genuine, the debate underscores the difficulty faced by all intelligence agencies of determining information offered from the enemy. In a meeting with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, Mikhail Fradkov named Penkovsky as Russia's biggest intelligence failure.[8]

Role in Cuban Missile Crisis[edit]

Soviet leadership started the deployment of nuclear missiles in the belief that Washington would not detect the Cuban missile sites until it was too late to do anything about them. Penkovsky provided plans and descriptions of the nuclear rocket launch sites on Cuba to the West. This information allowed the West to identify the missile sites from the low-resolution pictures provided by US U-2 spy planes. The documents provided by Penkovsky showed that the Soviet Union was not prepared for war in the area, which emboldened Kennedy to risk the operation in Cuba.[9] Former GRU captain Viktor Suvorov, who defected to the UK in 1978, later wrote in his book on Soviet intelligence, "historians will remember with gratitude the name of the GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Thanks to his priceless information the Cuban crisis was not transformed into a last World War."[10]

Penkovsky's activities were revealed by Jack Dunlap, an NSA employee and Soviet double-agent working for the KGB. The top KGB officers had known for more than a year that Penkovsky was a double agent, but they prioritised protecting their source, a highly placed mole in MI6. Jack Dunlap was just another source they had to protect. They worked hard, shadowing British diplomats, to build up a "discovery case" against Penkovsky so that they could arrest him without throwing suspicion on these moles. Their caution in this matter may have led to the missiles being found out earlier than the Soviets would have preferred. After a West German double agent overheard a remark at Stasi headquarters, paraphrased as "I wonder how things are going in Cuba," he passed it on to the CIA.[11]

Penkovsky was arrested on 22 October 1962. This was prior to President Kennedy's address to the US revealing that U-2 spy plane photographs had confirmed intelligence reports, and that the Soviets were installing medium-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, in what was known as code name Operation Anadyr. President Kennedy was deprived of information from a potentially important intelligence agent who might have lessened the tension during the ensuing 13-day stand-off; such as reporting that Nikita Khrushchev was already looking for ways to defuse the situation.[12] Such information might have reduced the pressure on Kennedy to launch an invasion of the island. Such an invasion risked Soviet use of Luna class tactical nuclear weapons against U.S. troops.[13]

Penkovsky's fate[edit]

Penkovsky flanked by Soviet officers in 1963

Penkovsky's American contacts received a letter from Penkovsky notifying that a Moscow dead drop had been loaded. Upon servicing the dead drop, the American handler was arrested, signaling that Penkovsky had been apprehended by Soviet authorities. Alexander Zagvozdin, Chief KGB interrogator for the investigation, stated that Penkovsky had been "questioned perhaps a hundred times" and that he had been shot and cremated.[14]

A similar description was later included in Ernest Volkman's popular history book about spies,[15] and Tom Clancy's novel Red Rabbit. But in a 2010 interview, Suvorov denied that the man in the film was Penkovsky and said that he had been shot.[16] Greville Wynne, in his book The Man from Odessa, claimed that Penkovsky committed suicide. Wynne had worked as Penkovsky's contact and courier, and both men were arrested by the Soviets in October 1962.

Portrayal in popular culture[edit]

Penkovsky was portrayed by Christopher Rozycki in the 1985 BBC television serial Wynne and Penkovsky. His spying career was the subject of episode 1 of the 2007 BBC Television docudrama Nuclear Secrets, entitled "The Spy from Moscow" in which he was portrayed by Mark Bonnar. The programme featured original covert KGB footage showing Penkovsky photographing classified information and meeting with Janet Chisholm, a British MI-6 agent stationed in Moscow. It was broadcast on 15 January 2007.[17]

Penkovsky was referred to in three of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan espionage novels: The Hunt for Red October, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and Red Rabbit. In the Jack Ryan universe, he is described as the agent who recruited Colonel Mikhail Filitov as a CIA agent (code-name CARDINAL), and had urged Filitov to betray him in order to solidify his position as the West's top spy in the Soviet hierarchy. The "cremated alive" hypothesis appears in several Clancy novels, though Clancy never identified Penkovsky as the executed spy. Penkovsky's fate is also mentioned in the Nelson DeMille spy novel The Charm School.

Penkovsky was portrayed by Eduard Bezrodniy in the 2014 Polish thriller Jack Strong, about Ryszard Kukliński, another Cold War spy. His character's execution was the opening scene for the movie.

Penkovsky was portrayed by Merab Ninidze in the 2020 British film The Courier, in which Benedict Cumberbatch played Greville Wynne.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schecter, Jerrold L.; Deriabin, Peter S. (1992). The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. p. 284. ISBN 978-0-684-19068-6.
  2. ^ Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew (1990). KGB: The Inside Story. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-48561-2; cited from Russian edition of 1999, pp. 476-79
  3. ^ Schecter, Jerrold L.; Deriabin, Peter S. (1992). The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-19068-0.
  4. ^ Wynne, Greville (1967). The Man from Moscow. London: Hutchinson & Co.
  5. ^ Spy Catcher, p. 212
  6. ^ Kalugin, Oleg (1994). The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-11426-5.
  7. ^ Sakharov, Vladimir (1980). High Treason. Ballantine Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-345-29698-2.
  8. ^ Schwirtz, Michael; Barry, Ellen (9 September 2018). "A Spy Story: Sergei Skripal Was a LIttle Fish. He Had a Big Enemy". New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  9. ^ Rothstein, Edward (17 May 2012). "Where Shoes Listen and Coins Kill". New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  10. ^ Suvorov, Viktor (1986). Soviet Military Intelligence. London: Grafton Books. p. 155. ISBN 0-586-06596-2.
  11. ^ Tennent H. Bagley, Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief, Skyhorse Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978-1-62636-065-5
  12. ^ Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War, 2006. ISBN 978-0-393-05809-3
  13. ^ Coleman, David G. (2012). The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-08441-2.
  14. ^ The Cold War. Prod. Jeremy Isaacs & Pat Mitchell. CNN, 1998. DVD
  15. ^ Volkman, Ernest (1994). Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-02506-2.
  16. ^ Дорогой наш Никита Сергеевич : Дело Пеньковского (in Russian)
  17. ^ "Nuclear Secrets The Spy From Moscow". IMDb. 15 January 2007. Retrieved 16 January 2007.

Further reading[edit]

  • Oleg Penkovsky, The Penkovskiy Papers: The Russian Who Spied for the West, Doubleday, New York, 1966.
Note: The book was commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency see Howard Hunt, Everette (26 February 2007). American Spy. ISBN 978-0-471-78982-6. Retrieved 19 March 2019.. A 1976 Senate commission stated that "the book was prepared and written by witting agency assets who drew on actual case materials." See Church, Frank (23 April 1976). "Book I: Foreign and Military Intelligence: X. The domestic impact of foreign clandestine operations: the CIA and academic institutions, the media and religious institutions, Appendix B". U.S. Government Printing Office, Senate, Report 94-755, Church Committee. Retrieved 3 April 2010. Author Frank Gibney denied the CIA had forged the provided source material, which was also the opinion of Robert Conquest. Other dismissed the book as propaganda and having no historic value.[citation needed]

External links[edit]