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In March 1988, Robert Gates, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was scheduled to have breakfast with a writer from the Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s conservative research center. The writer, a friend of Gates’s, had recently spotted a curious footnote deep in the thick book he was reading. The footnote mentioned an obscure, never-published CIA study on “The Trust,” a mysterious Soviet organization that existed, or was believed to exist, for a period of five years in the 1920s. Walter Pforzheimer, the curator and pioneer of the Agency’s Historical Intelligence Collection, had assigned the study to two seasoned CIA operatives specialized in Russian intelligence; it was completed in March 1967. The CIA’s history staff prepared a careful letter in response. The Trust, Gates told his friend from Stanford, had served “a mildly useful role in educating a number of Agency employees on certain Soviet intelligence techniques.” This was a wily understatement.
Feliks Dzherzinski, legendary Soviet spymaster, founder and head of the Cheka, then of the GPU and OGPU; pictured here in September 1918
Operation Trust is one of the most dramatic and daring conspiracies in intelligence history. The story involves revolutionary Communist spies, exiled royal insurgents, love, extortion, kidnappings, mock and real executions, a fake book, and most of Europe’s intelligence agencies extant in the interwar period. Most significantly, the campaign, which ran over half a dozen years, triggered the creation of the first dedicated disinformation unit. It was so successful that even its beginning and end remain hotly contested.
The most authoritative and detailed source on the Trust is the superb analysis released in 1988 by the CIA, which did not exist in the 1920s and therefore had no axe to grind. In 1997, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency—the direct descendant of the Cheka masterminds of Operatsiya Trest—published its own, somewhat less detailed, less balanced account of the campaign, reportedly derived from thirty-eight volumes of files in the Russian state security archives.1 The stories told by the two adversarial spy agencies overlap in many important details.
By 1921, the civil war had triggered a mass emigration of conservative and anti-Communist Russians. More than one million people left the motherland behind and took with them a romanticized view of life in Imperial Russia. The “Whites,” as they were often called, retained many of their leaders, their military and intelligence organizations, and even some of their weapons, along with, most important, a counterrevolutionary vision for Russia’s future. Many of the most aggressive émigré groups wanted to reinstate the monarchy. The new Soviet government estimated that the Russian émigrés scattered across Europe and Asia numbered one and a half to two million. The émigrés published their own periodicals, of which there were more than a dozen worldwide by 1921 (and more than forty over the course of the 1920s, in Paris alone).2
In July 1921, Lenin warned the Third Congress of the Communist International that the émigrés were publishing their own newspapers, were well organized and plotting, and that “the enemy [had] learned.” Lenin warned his fellow Communists that they would “make every possible attempt and skilfully take advantage of every opportunity to attack Soviet Russia in one way or another, and to destroy it.”3 In reality, life in exile was harsh. The monarchist émigrés were in a dire position, living in constant fear of betrayal, arrest, execution, and poverty. Even the grand duke of Russia, heir to the throne, was able to pay the rent on a small castle outside Paris only by removing and selling individual stones from his wife’s diamond necklace.4
Heading the legendary Bolshevik secret police under Lenin was an iconic personality, “Iron” Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky’s organization became known as the Cheka. Later, throughout the Cold War, intelligence officers across the entire Eastern bloc would proudly refer to their “Chekist” heritage. Dzerzhinsky, tall and rail thin, was a pugnacious revolutionary. He had spent years in tsarist prisons, where guards had beaten him so brutally that he later hid his permanently disfigured jaw under a bushy goatee. From his office in the yellow-brick Lubyanka, the iconic Cheka headquarters, the irritable Dzerzhinsky ruthlessly crushed counterrevolutionary activities within Russia and abroad.
Dzerzhinsky committed his best officers to subverting the White political leaders. Artur Artuzov, head of the counterintelligence department, was in charge of the offensive. A trained metal engineer and the son of an Italian-Swiss cheesemaker, Artuzov was a hardened, burly Bolshevik with an acute ability to sense the weaknesses of his enemies.5
Finding an opening wasn’t easy, but in November 1921, Bolshevik spies intercepted a fateful letter in Estonia (not yet under Soviet control). The letter, sent from a would-be insurgent officer in Tallinn to the Supreme Monarchist Council in Berlin, contained a report of a conspiratorial meeting held in the Estonian capital, where local Russian monarchists had met with a Moscow-based activist. Alexander Yakushev, forty-five years old, was the son of a professor and looked like one himself, with a monocle over his nose, a receding hairline, and a small goatee.6 He was an aristocrat, a famously efficient administrator, charming, and a ladies’ man—indeed, the CIA noted that his trip from Moscow to Tallinn was related to a love affair. Yakushev had worked as a civil servant for the tsar, and carried on under the Bolsheviks as a senior official responsible for waterways in the Ministry of Railroads. Now Artuzov held a letter in which the White insurgents praised Yakushev. “He thinks just as we do,” the insurgents wrote. “He is what we need. He asserts that his opinion is the opinion of the best people in Russia.”7
The missive went on to recount Yakushev’s view about the coming counterrevolution: “The government will be created not from émigrés but from those who are in Russia,” it said, with emphasis. Yakushev had also told the Whites in Estonia that active counterrevolutionary organizations already existed in Russia, and that they had even infiltrated the Bolshevik administration. The aristocratic Yakushev then dismissed the significance of the émigrés in Europe, saying, as the letter quotes him: “In the future they are welcome in Russia, but to import a government from abroad is out of the question. The émigrés do not know Russia. They need to come and stay and adapt to the new conditions.”8
Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Rid