Traitor to the Motherland

The life and trial of Oleg Penkovsky…

Colonel Oleg Penkovsky

Colonel Oleg Penkovsky

Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the KGB stood trial in 1962 for passing secret information to Western Intelligence. In what was a classic example of a ‘show trial’ for the benefit of the Soviet people he was abused, humiliated and finally sentenced to death with a verdict that barely went noticed in the West. For at the same time as the Penkovsky trial his English associate Greville Wynne who passed Penkovsky’s secrets to the British was also being tried and eventually sentenced to three years imprisonment followed by five years hard labour. This was of far greater interest to those in the West despite Penkovsky’s hand in the Cuban missile crisis in which he provided details of nuclear launch pads on Cuba and information on the state of Sino-Soviet relations at that time.

There are two very distinct sides to this story. On the Western side Penkovsky was a hugely important asset who, because of his perceived hatred for the Soviet Union risked and sacrificed his life for trying to bring it down. A quite plausible alternative view and one which Peter Wright of ‘Spy Catcher’ fame concurred was that Penkovsky was a double agent. A man who had previously been given multiple chances to defect but refused by later claiming that “as a soldier my place was on the front line”.

The courtroom trials could be seen in the context of history to be more dramatic and therefore memorable than the espionage itself. Both men were given prepared scripts to work from and it is clear that Wynne was undoubtedly threatened to tow the party line or face severe consequences. On the odd occasion in which Wynne managed to deviate from the prepared answers the records were altered to suit the prosecutors.

There is a wonderful section from Front of the Secret War by Tsibov and Chistyakov which shows the espionage equipment and documents reported to have been found in Penkovsky’s flat (see below), The trial recorded “During the search of Penkovsky’s flat, in addition to the already mentioned records with the telephone numbers of the foreign intelligence officers, six message postcards with instructions for them, the report and the exposed rolls of film, the following articles were discovered in a secret hiding-place installed in his desk, and were attached to the file as tangible evidence; a forged passport, six cipher pads, three Minox cameras and a description of them…”

During the trial Penkovsky revealed much about his contacts but claimed never to have done the same about his Russian colleagues. He told of hiding places, lamp-posts for leaving chalk marks on and codes for answering telephone calls. The court, aided by Penkovsky’s admission painted him as a heavy drinker and party-goer but as the trial stood they struggled to pin a creditable reason for his betrayal. There was no doubt why a British businessman like Wynne would have helped the intelligence services but less clear about Penkovsky and they could not make their own version stick.

Throughout the trial the prosecution faced the dilemma of wanting to emphasise the seriousness of the crime without having to explain how much Penkovsky had told the West. In the end it was left to the Chief Prosecutor to release a statement saying that Penkovsky only passed on technical information and that his position was far removed from information connected to troop movement and new types of weapons. What is not in doubt is that he did pass on information to his handlers about KGB agents but virtually all where already known to the services, a point which Wright was keen to emphasise. To add further embarrassment his drinking exploits revealed his friendship and drinking bouts with General Ivan Aleksandrovich Serov, head of the Soviet military intelligence agency (GRU).

At the end of the trial we are told that he was executed on May 16th but Wynne would have his own doubts. He believed they kept him alive and continued to interrogate him after the trial ‘proper’ as they had done with Wynne himself. As for Wynne, he would eventually be swapped for Gordon Lonsdale, one of the KGB’s greatest assets. In ‘KGB-The Inside Story’ by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky there is little doubt that Penkovsky was a traitor. Gordievsky maintains he was shot and following his arrest General Sherov was dismissed as head of the GRU which in turn led to Sherov killing himself in a Moscow back street. What the trial tells us is that as with many other such episodes during the Cold War there was always another version of events to consider. Was Penkovsky brutally tortured and then shot? Did the Russians plant the information about the Cuban missiles? We shall probably never really know.


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