The decade of the 1990s witnessed an almost unparalleled outbreak of spy fever in Britain, with newspapers and television falling over themselves in a hysterical feeding frenzy. A similar outbreak of paranoia in the US in the 1950s was called "McCarthyism", after the unpleasant senator who made it his business to denounce leftists wherever they might be found. The 1990s phenomenon in Britain will always be associated with Christopher Andrew, the professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge, who has made a name for himself as a conduit for secret service material supplied for his eyes only. He has just produced another gigantic tome on KGB activities, in tandem with Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB operative who spent many years secretly copying files in the Moscow archives.
As one of the first among many to be affected by the post-cold war "revelations" of spookery - denounced in the columns of Another Magazine in December 1994 as a journalist perceived by the KGB to be an "agent of influence" - I have taken a greater interest in Andrew's works than their intrinsic value might otherwise merit and have followed with bemused fascination the continuing saga of denunciation and revelation.
My own case was swiftly followed up in the Sunday Times in 1995 by "revelations" that the KGB believed Michael Foot, once the leader of the Labour Party and formerly the editor of the London Evening Standard and Tribune, to have been one of their "agents". Denis Healey, the former defence secretary and once the international secretary of the Labour Party, was also brought into the frame, having on occasion had lunch with a KGB man in London in the 1960s. Foot, it will be recalled, successfully took the Sunday Times to the cleaners. Healey simply roared with laughter.
These "revelations" arose as a result of the publication of the memoirs of Oleg Gordievsky, a minor KGB operative who rose to become, briefly, the man in charge of the KGB operation in London in the early 1980s. He had already defected to work for the British secret service in 1974 and, after being "exfiltrated" from Moscow in 1985, he spent several happy years working in partnership with the ubiquitous Professor Andrew on the material he had brought with him - mostly arcane details of the large bureaucracy to which he once belonged.
Others mentioned in Gordievsky's memoirs as people who had been contacted by the Russians included the Labour MP Tam Dalyell; Jack Jones, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union; the old radical campaigner Fenner Brockway; Fred Halliday, now professor of international relations at the LSE; and even Brian Beedham, the hawkish former foreign editor of the Economist.
A fresh outbreak of hysteria has occurred this year with the publication of a new list of "names" derived from Andrew's researches into Mitrokhin's "archive". Not a sign of Michael Foot this time, although Harold Wilson is mentioned, and among the fresh names "revealed" are two dead Labour MPs, Tom Driberg and Ray Fletcher; Dick Clements, editor of Tribune over many years; and assorted folk associated with the CND.
Many of these names had one thing in common: a passionate enthusiasm over the years for nuclear disarmament and disengagement in Europe. Their "crime", if it was one, was to envisage another kind of conclusion to the cold war than the one that actually took place. The project they supported, begun in the relative euphoria of the Khrushchev years, was for the great powers whose soldiers had met in Europe in 1945 over Hitler's grave to be forced to withdraw their forces, leaving a neutral and demilitarised zone at the heart of Europe. Today the scheme sounds utopian and has been all but forgotten, yet it once aroused some interest in the countries of Eastern Europe, notably Poland, and exercised the Labour Party for many years, much as human rights and distant interventions do today.
Many of the proponents of disengagement, it has to be said, did not regard the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" of Ronald Reagan's imagination. Perhaps, with hindsight, it will be argued that they should have done. Yet they were not the "fellow-travellers" of the 1930s, for they had little admiration for the internal development of Russian society. Their chief concern was with Soviet foreign policy. They thought that meeting and talking to Russians, a rare enough occurrence for anyone during the cold war, was a necessary activity for politicians and journalists, involving a reasonable exchange of views. That such meetings might be construed and used by members of the KGB to chalk up a series of successes for the ossified bureaucracy to which they belonged, and might then be regurgitated decades later by a Cambridge professor and his friends to smear an entire generation of left-leaning activists, could hardly have been imagined.
These events are now rather far in the past, and accounts of them have turned into the raw material of history. So who are the historians that we trust to interpret this era? First in the ring is the Cambridge professor, a historian with a not altogether secret agenda. He is a passionate advocate and a proselytiser for a particular area of historical investigation, the history of intelligence. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. "Most academic historians," he writes, "have been slow to recognise the role of intelligence communities in the international relations and political history of the 20th century." He criticises Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill for ignoring the war leader's postwar interest in signals intelligence and disparages Eric Hobsbawm for failing to mention the heads of the Cheka and their successors in his history of the 20th century.
Andrew soon discovered that Mitrokhin was a kindred spirit, a man who believed that the "worldwide foreign operations" of the KGB "form an essential, though often neglected, part of the history of 20th-century international relations". Yet Andrew should not have been entirely surprised, since the people behind his entire enterprise, the British secret services, must also have been keen to see their work recognised as historically significant and garlanded with the plaudits of Cambridge professors. What better way of guaranteeing their future than by boosting the importance of their past?
Other historians might argue that the history of intelligence has been quite rightly neglected. In practice, for most of the time, it has been of little significance or importance. The only thing that matters is whether the intelligence was made available, and actually read, and then taken aboard and acted on by people responsible for making decisions. All the rest is but puff and wind and tedious flow charts, splendid titillation for newspaper readers but of little use to serious students of history.
Vasili Mitrokhin's story is certainly bizarre, and anyone who reads a newspaper will by now be aware of the basic facts. Born in 1922, he entered the Soviet secret service in 1948 and was sidelined in 1956 to work at the Lubyanka's archives in Moscow. In 1972, when the KGB moved its headquarters to a new complex on the outskirts of Moscow, he was put in charge of transferring the files. As he did so, he conceived the idea of noting down what he found of interest and secreting it away for future reference.
By now he was, in Andrew's perception of him, a lone dissident, inspired by the idea of documenting "the iniquities of the Soviet system" and producing his own personal account of the KGB's foreign operations. Later, when the task of moving the files was over, he seems to have been the first person to see contemporary files as they were sent to be archived and he continued his surreptitious noting and copying for 12 years. Hiding his notes in his dacha, he worked on them at home after his retirement in 1984.
He came to England in November 1992, "exfiltrated" by the British secret services from Moscow as Gordievsky had been earlier. He then began "working on his archive, typing up the remaining handwritten notes and responding to questions about his archive from intelligence services from five continents".
The secret services teamed up Mitrokhin with Christopher Andrew in 1995, enabling the Cambridge professor to have a second bite at the cherry; in 1990, in collaboration with Gordievsky, he had already published a book on the foreign operations of the KGB, From Lenin to Gorbachev, derived largely from the documents and recollections of the earlier defector. Now he set to work on The Mitrokhin Archive, and he describes in lugubrious detail the four separate sections of which it is made up: handwritten material filed in large envelopes; handwritten notebooks; typed material, mostly arranged by country; and miscellaneous handwritten notes.
The end result is tedious in the extreme, a mixture of Mitrokhin's jottings and the tendentious views of Andrew, already made plain in earlier books. No PhD student would be allowed to get away with such shoddy work, for at no stage does he reveal where the Mitrokhin "archive" is now located, or how other students might be able to make use of it, or verify his claims for it.
In my own case, the entry, though doubtless cleared by the lawyers for libel, is strangely inaccurate. It suggests that the KGB claimed credit for an article I had written in the Guardian "attacking the role of the CIA in the overthrow and death" of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, "and denouncing the military junta of General Pinochet". Even Andrew cannot suppress a quiet chuckle, pointing out that Gott's "support for revolutionary movements in Latin America and loathing for American 'imperialism' were so well established that he would have required little encouragement from the KGB to denounce either Pinochet or the CIA". Yet curiously, I have never written a single article suggesting that the CIA was involved in General Pinochet's coup. I reported from Santiago in the aftermath of Allende's overthrow and, to the irritation of my left-wing friends, I always maintained that it was a home-grown Chilean affair, and that is what I wrote. The CIA was involved in wider schemes of destabilisation, but the coup was performed by the dictator entirely on his own, as I am sure he would confirm.
Andrew also claims that I used to meet Gennadi Titov, "later number three in the KGB hierarchy". No such luck. The Titov I used to have lunch with was called Igor, as a simple check with Gordievsky's memoirs, or indeed with me, would have confirmed. For a writer of contemporary history, Andrew seems to make little effort to cross-check the archives with living people.
We are promised a second volume, dealing in part with Afghanistan and Latin America. Yet we are never told what the archive, which spans 1918 to 1984, actually contains, or why there is apparently nothing about the British Empire, nothing about India, nothing on Palestine or Israel and nothing about the Hungarian uprising.
Although The Mitrokhin Archive covers a huge field, the professor does not make the case for the value of his kind of history. He has produced a pedantic book, in which material is thrown at the reader by the spadeful, with no attention to style or construction. In only small parts of the story can he claim any serious expertise, and for most of the time he flounders about, crushed by an avalanche of unrelated facts.