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Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, codenamed "Agent Hero" (Russian: Олег Владимирович Пеньковский; April 23, 1919, Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, Soviet Russia, – May 16, 1963, Soviet Union), was a colonel with Soviet military intelligence (GRU) in the late 1950s and early 1960s who informed the United Kingdom and the United States about the Soviet Union placing missiles on Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.




Early life and military career

Penkovsky's father died fighting as an officer in the White Army in the Russian Civil War. Oleg graduated from the Kiev Artillery Academy in the rank of lieutenant in 1939. After taking part in the Winter War against Finland and in the 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 [1]

Work for Western intelligence

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.[2] 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. The CIA regretted their earlier mistake, but were included by the British and they shared future information.

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.

Role in Cuban Missile Crisis

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. Only this information allowed the west to identify the missile sites from the low-resolution pictures provided by US U-2 spy planes.

Penkovsky's activities were revealed by Jack Dunlap, a double-agent working for the KGB. The KGB swiftly drew the conclusion that there was a mole in their ranks and set about uncovering him. Penkovsky was arrested on 22 October 1962 - before Kennedy's address to the nation revealing that U-2 spyplane photographs had confirmed intelligence reports and that the Soviets were installing medium-range nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island - code named Operation Anadyr (see Cuban Missile Crisis). 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 Khrushchev was already looking for ways to defuse the situation.[3]. Such information, arguably, would have reduced the pressure on Kennedy to launch an invasion of the island - an action which, it is now known, would have led to the use of Luna class tactical nuclear weapons against US troops. The Soviet commander, General Issa A. Pliyev, commander in charge, had been given permission to use these weapons without consulting Moscow first[4].

Penkovsky's fate

Penkovsky was tried and convicted of treason and espionage in a trial in 1963. As to his fate after conviction, accounts differ. Some sources allege that Penkovsky was executed by the traditional Soviet method of a bullet to the back of the neck and cremated. GRU agent Vladimir Rezun, known for his controversial books produced under the pseudonym "Viktor Suvorov" following his defection from the Soviet Union, alleges in his book Aquarium to have been shown a black and white GRU film where Penkovsky is shown bound to a board with a piano wire and 'cremated alive'. This graphic account has him slowly fed into a furnace alive, feet first, as other officers are made to watch, in a warning to potential traitors. A very similar description was later included in Ernest Volkman's popular book "Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History" [5].

Oleg Penkovsky's remains are subsequently listed as having been interred at the cemetery of the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow.

The spying career of Oleg Penkovsky was the subject of Episode 1 of the BBC series "Nuclear Secrets", entitled "The Spy from Moscow". The programme featured original covert KGB footage showing Penkovsky photographing classified information and meeting with Janet Chisholm. It was broadcast on January 15, 2007.[6]

Portrayal in popular culture

Penkovsky was portrayed by Christopher Rozycki in the 1985 BBC television serial Wynne and Penkovsky, and Mark Bonnar in the 2007 BBC Television docudrama Nuclear Secrets.

Penkovsky is also mentioned in two of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books: The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin. In the Ryanverse, 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 supposed "cremated alive" story also appears in several Clancy novels, but is attributed to another agent named Popov (in the novel Red Rabbit).

See also

Further reading

  • Oleg Penkovsky, The Penkovsky Papers: The Russian Who Spied for the West, Doubleday, New York, 1966.
Note: It is believed that this book was commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency[7]. A 1976 Senate commission stated that "the book was prepared and written by witting agency assets who drew on actual case materials."[citation needed] Author Frank Gibney denied that the CIA forged the provided source material, which was also the opinion of Robert Conquest. Other dismissed the book as propaganda and having no historic value.
  • Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin, The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992. ISBN 0684190680
  • Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, with Henry R. Schlesinger, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda, New York, Dutton, 2008. ISBN 0525949801

Also mentioned in the book : "The Deceiver", by Frederick Forsyth, Bantam Books, 1992 ISBN 0-553-29742-2, p.43, 4th line.


  1. ^ Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew (1990). KGB: The Inside Story. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-48561-2; cited from Russian edition of 1999, pages 476-479
  2. ^ 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 0684190680
  3. ^ Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "Khrushchev's Cold War", 2006. ISBN 978-0-393-05809-3
  4. ^ Vladislav Zubok & Constantine Pleshkov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War, 1996, page 264, Harvard Press, Massachusetts ISBN 0674-45532-0
  5. ^ Ernest Volkman, "Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History". ISBN 9780471025061
  6. ^ "Nuclear Secrets The Spy From Moscow". IMDB. 15 January 2007. Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  7. ^ Howard Hunt, Everette. American Spy. ISBN 9780471789826. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 

External links


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