The Bureaucrat's Revolution: Vasili Mitrokhin and His Archive
Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
In 1992, a seventy year old Russian man named Vasili Mitrokhin walked into the American embassy in the capital of newly independent Latvia. He explained that he was a retired KGB employee and that he had been hand-copying internal documents since the early seventies, and hiding the copies in his home. With the fall of the Soviet Union, he was interested in defecting and had brought along some of the documents as proof. CIA officers at the embassy looked at the documents, and came to the conclusion that they did not believe Mr. Mitrokhin, and that the documents were not even that good of fakes.
Having lived his entire life wading through the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin was not fazed, and simply went to the British embassy instead, where he made the careers of some junior intelligence agents from MI-6 who decided that his story was legit. British intelligence went back to Russia with Mitrokhin, recovered the entire archive of some 25,000 pages of hand written documents, and smuggled the archive, Mitrokhin, and his family out of the country and to Britain. Some accounts suggest that Mitrokin’s wife didn’t even know he’d been squirreling away documents, which might imply that this amounted to the best anniversary present in history.
The story of Mitrokhin himself is fascinating, this midlevel bureaucrat who had enlisted in intelligence after the second World War. He worked in undercover operations outside the country, but the point at which his life changed direction was at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. He bungled an assignment so badly that the KGB transferred him to their archival division and made it clear that he would never serve in the field again. Sometime during this period, Mitrokhin began listening covertly to BBC and Voice of America broadcasts, those quaint little beacons of a time before the Internet, when the control of information was so much easier for the state, and subversion might amount simply to tuning hidden radios in the hush of night to static-ridden ghosts of signals blasted from over the horizon.
In 1972, fifty years old and settled deep into the monotony of the midlevel drone, Mitrokhin found himself in charge of a special project. All of the KGB’s archives would be moved from the old headquarters (the legendary Lubyanka, said to be the tallest building in the world because you could see Siberia from the basement) to the new. It took twelve years, until 1984, presumably because U-Hauls were in short demand, but all through that period, Mitrokhin had his own private project.
As he cataloged and organized the papers being pushed from one archive to another, he also started reading them. “I could not believe such evil,” he recalled. “It was all planned, prepared, thought out in advance. It was a terrible shock when I read things.” Czeslaw Milosz pointed out that it was not intellectuals who revolted but those with the weakest stomachs, for the mind could rationalize anything while the stomach could only take so much.
He loathed the idea that documents might be destroyed. It irked him, tickled at some part of the bureaucrat’s soul. And so he set about hand-copying anything that came across his desk. Page by page. Word by word. Like a monk of a thousands years ago copying manuscripts by candlelight. For twelve years he wrote and wrote filling up the reams and then stashing them below floorboards.
Photocopiers weren’t an option. They existed in the Soviet Union, but the technology was easy enough to restrict access to that they required special permission to use, and they tended to have security features like making a second copy each use, which was deposited in a locked compartment for later review by security officers. And so Mitrokhin copied the text by hand instead.
He did nothing with what he copied but hide it, making no attempt to publish any of it, to leak it to the West. Sometimes resistance isn’t a matter of marching against the oppressor, or publishing underground newspapers, or any of the other grand actions of revolution. Those are needed, and those who do so are the bravest of souls. But there are also those called to quieter stands.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.