Special Tasks

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Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster is the autobiography of Pavel Sudoplatov, who was a member of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union who rose to the rank of lieutenant general.[1] When it was published in 1994, it caused a considerable uproar for a number of reasons. It also made him well known outside Russia by providing a detailed look at Soviet intelligence and Soviet internal politics during his years at the top.

Problems and value[edit]

It is a somewhat problematic work for several reasons. For one, it was based in large part on Sudoplatov's memory, 40 years or more after the events that form the bulk of the book. For another, it was written with the help of his son Anatoli and two American writers, Jerrold and Leona Schecter, with Sudoplatov's contributions being a series of interviews, which the others turned into a book. Finally, the Schecters have produced other works on this topic which are problematic.[2]

The book contains a number of incorrect statements. One example is the misidentification of the source codenamed "MLAD" as Bruno Pontecorvo, instead of Theodore Hall. Various reasons are possible; for one, as the book was written over 40 years later, Sudoplatov's memory may have been in error. (The transcript of the interview where he made the error[3] records him responding to a question as to whether MLAD was Pontecorvo by saying "I think so; Yes.") Also, Hall was at the time unknown in the West, and Sudoplatov may have wished to protect him. Other misstatements have been attributed to a desire on the part of Sudoplatov, who never changed his allegiance, to cause trouble in the West.

Still, the book contains a great deal of material that is of value, and even critics who note its problems feel that it has considerable value. For instance, Alexei Kojevnikov wrote, "Sudoplatov is quite reliable when he writes about his own unit, subordinates and, probably, agents directly connected to it and their assignments."[3]

Overall, it is important as a rare, detailed, inside view of the Soviet intelligence agencies during their golden era and of the power struggles at the top of the Soviet system during and just after the death of Stalin.

Atomic espionage controversy[edit]

The principal source of controversy that it engendered was its statement that a number of Western scientists, including Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and others, while not agents for the Soviets, had provided (in some cases unwittingly) information that was useful to the Soviet atomic bomb program, which has been deeply disputed.

The dispute is about very subtle points: there is no question, for instance, that Bohr met with a Soviet intelligence agent and discussed atomic questions with him (the transcript of the meeting has been made public by the Russian State Archives). The issue is whether anything he said was not merely a repetition of information that was already public and how much help (if any) Bohr's statements were to the Soviet atomic program. The fact that so many people were involved in creating the text may have subtly changed the meaning of Sudoplatov's statements, which would be a problem when treating such a diffuse topic.

The book also confirmed that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had worked for Soviet intelligence although it pointed out that their role was not very important.

Other subjects[edit]

However, the material on the atomic espionage is only a small part of the book, which also details many Soviet intelligence operations, mostly those with which Sudoplatov had personal involvement. For the period after Sudoplatov's arrival in Moscow, it also discusses the political machinations, both inside the intelligence services and at the top of the Soviet government.

For instance, the events surrounding the falls of Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentii Beria are given in considerable detail, as are the events in the Soviet Union leading up to World War II and Joseph Stalin's reaction to the outbreak of the war.

Other reactions[edit]

The controversy around the atomic information charges led to questions about who had written the book and whether Sudoplatov had deliberately made misrepresentations.

A number of parties, including Russia's own Foreign Intelligence Service, contended that Sudoplatov exaggerated his own role in his autobiography. Members of the Soviet atomic bomb project felt that Sudoplatov's claims about the amount of information provided to them by Soviet intelligence denigrated the scientists' role in the creation of Soviet atomic bombs.

Further reading[edit]

  • Pavel Sudoplatov; Anatoli Sudoplatov; Jerrold L. Schecter; Leona P. Schecter (1994). Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-77352-2.


External links[edit]