Oleg Penkovsky

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Oleg Penkovsky
Photograph of Col. Penkovsky
Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky

(1919-04-23)April 23, 1919
DiedMay 16, 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 was responsible 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.


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 had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel. A GRU officer, Penkovsky was appointed military attaché in Ankara, Turkey in 1955. 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]

Western intelligence[edit]

There are two very different opinions about Oleg Penkovsky. While the majority of observers seem to think that he was a genuine defector as described in The Penkovsky Papers,[3] Peter Wright, a scientist with MI5 in Britain, was convinced that Penkovsky was a Soviet plant designed to lead the United States to the conclusion that the USSR's intercontinental missile capabilities were much less developed than they actually were.[4]

The defector account says 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.[5] Penkovsky eventually persuaded the British spy Greville Wynne to arrange a meeting 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.[6]

The initial CIA mistake proved to be regrettable. 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 was responsible for arming 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]

The view of Peter Wright is quite different. Wright was struck by the fact that unlike Igor Gouzenko and other earlier defectors, Penkovsky did not reveal the names of any illegal Soviet agents in the West but confined himself to organizational detail, much of which was known already. Wright noted that some of the documents were originals which in his opinion would not have been so 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 Soviet agents (Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt) could all have been identified more quickly using the scientific methods that he proposed. In Wright's view, British intelligence leaders became even 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. Aware of this sensitivity, Wright says, the Soviets planted Penkovsky to buoy up the sagging fortunes of their ineffective—and therefore highly useful—counterparts in British intelligence. Wright wrote:[7]

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, who were initially suspicious (and remained suspicious) of Penkovsky. 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 once mention Penkovsky in his comprehensive book.[8] 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."[9] While the weight of opinion seems to be Penkovsky was genuine, the debate underscores the difficulty faced by all intelligence agencies of separating fact from fiction.

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. This information allowed the West to identify the missile sites from the low-resolution pictures provided by US U-2 spy planes. Former GRU captain and defector Viktor Suvorov writes, "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 double-agent working for the KGB. The top KGB officers had known for more than a year that Penkovsky was a double agent, but it was a high priority that they protect their source, who was 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. A West German double agent overheard a remark at Stasi headquarters, paraphrased as "I wonder how things are going in Cuba." This was then passed on to the CIA.[11] In any case, Penkovsky was arrested on 22 October 1962—before Kennedy's address to the nation revealing that U-2 spy plane photographs had confirmed intelligence reports and that the Soviets were installing medium-range nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island—code named Operation Anadyr. Thus President Kennedy was deprived of a potentially important intelligence agent that might have lessened the tension during the ensuing 13-day stand-off; intelligence such as the fact that Nikita Khrushchev was already looking for ways to defuse the situation.[12] Such information, arguably, might have reduced the pressure on Kennedy to launch an invasion of the island—an action which potentially could have led to the use of Luna class tactical nuclear weapons against U.S. troops.[13]

Penkovsky's fate[edit]

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]

GRU agent Vladimir Rezun, known for his controversial books under the pseudonym Viktor Suvorov following his defection from the Soviet Union to the United Kingdom, claimed in Aquarium to have been shown a black and white film in which a GRU colonel was bound to a stretcher and cremated alive in a crematorium as a warning to potential traitors,[15] and since Penkovsky is the only GRU colonel known to have been executed, Suvorov's story was taken by many to be an account of Penkovsky's execution.[16] A similar description of the process was later included in Ernest Volkman's popular book,[17] and Tom Clancy's novel Red Rabbit. However, Suvorov, in an interview in 2010, denied that the man in the film was Penkovsky and claimed that he had been shot.[18] Greville Wynne in his book The Man from Odessa claimed that Penkovsky committed suicide.

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. It was broadcast on 15 January 2007.[19]

Penkovsky was referenced in three of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books: 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 in fact 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 another Cold War spy Ryszard Kukliński. His character's execution was the opening scene for the movie.

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. ^ Penkovskiy, Oleg (1965). The Penkovskiy Papers. New York: Doubleday & Co.
  4. ^ Wright, Peter (1987). Spy Catcher. Richmond: William Heinemann. ISBN 0-85561-098-0.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Wynne, Greville (1967). The Man from Moscow. London: Hutchinson & Co.
  7. ^ Spy Catcher, p. 212
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Sakharov, Vladimir (1980). High Treason. Ballantine Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-345-29698-2.
  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. ^ Suvorov, Viktor (1987). Aquarium. London: Grafton Books. p. 11. ISBN 0-586-06879-1.
  16. ^ The Newer Meaning Of Treason|New Republic
  17. ^ Volkman, Ernest (1994). Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-02506-2.
  18. ^ Дорогой наш Никита Сергеевич : Дело Пеньковского (in Russian)
  19. ^ "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 (2007-02-26). 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]