The CIA’s Russians – Book Review

Dick Cameron

By John Limond Hart (United State Naval Institute Press, 2003), 264 pages, $28.95, ISBN: 1-59114-352-7.

John Hart was a career Field Operator and Manager for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1948-76). While assigned to Central Intelligenge Agency (CIA) Headquarters, he ostensibly became so “intrigued” with the reasons behind a handful of “high-lever’ Cold War defections that he, with the permission of CIA Director Richard Helms, took a year to attempt to locate common personality denominators.

In his Prologue, Mr. Hart provides background color to the times, The Cold War, discussing the U.S. attempts to roll back the Iron Curtain and some of the professional challenges facing the CIA “Field Operator.” He discusses challenges such as paper mills and fabrications, the absence of agents in the East (Remember Korea?), spies versus defectors, and he ends by providing an insight into “Cultural Differences” and “the Matter of Motivation.”

Chapters One through Four outline the CIA’s involvement with four Soviet men who, between 1953 and 1962, acted as traitors to their country by providing information to the CIA. Pyotr Popov (1953-1958) was a Major in the Soviet Army; Oleg Penkovsky (1961-1962), a Soviet Colonel (later transferred to the GRU (Military Intelligence)); and Yuri Nosenko (1962- defected in 1964), a Captain in the KGB (State Security); and “Mikhail’ (Jan-Apr (?) 1958), an agent with the GRU.

Whoa Nellie, that’s only four guys! What’s going on here? The CIA has only four Russians? At $28.95 for the book, that’s $7.24 per Russian. That’s all of the CIA’s “Russians”? I truly hope that if there is a Hell it has a place for the folks who title books.

The chapters on Popov and Penkovsky make perfectly good sense. Between the two, they represent perhaps the two greatest spy coups ever perpetrated against the USSR by the U.S. Chapter Three, the piece on Nosenko, describes perhaps the greatest profile screw-up ever perpetrated by the CIA; they locked the man up for three years and two months on the presumption that he was a plant. No evidence, just a presumption. Eventually he was released and proved of some value.

Then there’s Chapter Four, an account of the defection of a GRU officer named only “Mikhail.” The CIA actually validated little of his background and he provided little significant information. Hart raises the question “why did the CIA waste time on him?” Perhaps a more germane question is, “Why did Hart waste time on him?” Maybe a better question would be, “Is this the best of the lot? Security notwithstanding, does the CIA’s “Russians” now consist of only three men?” The Mikhail case was an example of those Wackos with whom field officers must from time to time confront…. I suppose. The price per Russian just hit $9.65.

Chapter Five, the “Motivation” piece, provides a fair personality profile for Popov, Penkovsky, and Nosenko but pretty much presents Mikhail, like many of those who engage in the spy trade, “doing so for selfish and shallow reasons.” For one-fourth the price of the book, I learned this little gem!

At this point in the book, the vast body of psychological data available to the CIA is notably absent. The rather scant four-man study group receives an occasional plus-up with comments about some other heretofore unidentified Russian only to have the conclusion qualified with exceptions. Mr. Hart toys with such phrases as: “Resolution of psychological conflict through treachery…. an alternative way of resolving inner tension…. while bringing enough money to finance an more agreeable double life. Perhaps a sub-category sociopathic or psychopathic personality.”

In an Epilogue, Mr. Hart describes Soviets he met in diplomatic circles and ironically none match as the personalities described. Of course, he probably met more than three diplomats.

The CIA’s Russians is articulate, and quite easy to read; but there are a few speed bumps. While the chapters on Popov and Penkovsky (spelled “Penkovskiy,” Avon Books, 1965 ed.) are informative, the chapter on Nosenko smacks a great deal of airing the dirty linen. Perhaps the Nosenko case was just the worse example of the CIA’s work Mr. Hart could actually share.

All in all, The CIA’s Russians (All Three of Them) provided a look (a very brief look) into the actions of a small (very small) population during a tense, confrontational era. However, I’m left wondering how anyone draws a psychological conclusion from a population of three? I’m thinking this book may have had more meat, prior to the CIA pre-publication review. Look for the book on, you can get it for about $6 a Russian.

Dick Cameron, MW5 (Ret) Colorado Springs, Colorado

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group