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Gripping and insightful – Kevan Jones reviews 'Agents of Influence: How the KGB Subverted Western Democracies'

4 min read

Mark Hollingsworth’s study of how the KGB sought to undermine western democracies demonstrates that Russian interference is nothing new

Fake news, Russian bots on social media, interference in elections and buying influence have all become common themes in recent years when discussing how Russia is trying to destabilise western democracies.

In the Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 Russia Report, many of these themes were covered. We may think these are new weapons, often referred to as hybrid warfare, but what Hollingsworth does in his gripping new book Agents of Influence is show that although the technology and the way of conducting these activities may have changed, the fundamentals behind them have not.

He does this by taking us through a history of not just the activities of Soviet intelligence services during the Cold War, but goes further back to reveal how many of the techniques adopted from 1917 onwards had their origins in Tsarist Russia.

Hollingsworth explains how modern-day Russia, which he describes as a neo-KGB state with its elites, is closely intertwined with the security services.

We meet an intriguing list of characters through which the Soviets aimed to gain an advantage over the West. Motivated by ideology, or in other cases by money, they are an exotic list whose stories are explored in detail and give the book a feeling of a real-life spy novel. 

Fake news – or as Hollingsworth calls it, disinformation campaigns – is not new. He examines the Soviet playbook during the Cold War which ranged from planting disinformation about the West’s evil intentions, to producing phoney articles and books.

We meet an intriguing list of characters through which the Soviets aimed to gain an advantage over the West

He uses the case of the booklet A Study of a Master Spy – not a flattering study of CIA director Allen Dulles – produced in 1961. The ostensible authors were the maverick left-wing Labour MP Bob Edwards and British journalist Kenneth Dunne. In fact Dunne didn’t exist and the actual author was a KGB colonel, Vassily Sitnikov. 

As Hollingsworth says, disinformation does not need to persuade people to believe a conspiracy theory, just to place doubt in their minds. Operation INFEKTION was an attempt by the KGB in the 1980s to blame the US for the invention of AIDS as a way of targeting gays and Black people.

We also see the way in which Russian security services use doctored documents to support their narrative. Sometimes the document would be completely false or original documents would be changed to portray a negative message of the US and its allies: all designed to spread confusion and disruption.

The use of honey traps and sex to compromise individuals to reveal secrets or become agents of influence is covered by several interesting examples. One involved my former constituent, Viscount Lambton who had a relationship with a prostitute Norma Levy who also had a client that worked at the Soviet Embassy in London in the 1970s. The tangled, compromised web was exposed by his membership of the Eve Club in Mayfair, run by an intriguing Romanian refugee Helen O’Brien (real name: Elma Constaninescu) who worked closely with the British security services to expose the activities of Soviet bloc agents in London through their night-time activities at the club.

The book also explains that Russian attempts to interfere in elections is nothing new. Hollingsworth describes attempts by Soviet intelligence to buy influence in the US Congress through attempts to meet John F Kennedy when a presidential candidate, through to the dispensation of false leaflets attacking Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. 

A good read with fascinating insights, Hollingsworth’s book is to be recommended.

Kevan Jones is Labour MP for North Durham and member of the Intelligence and Security Committee

Agents of Influence: How the KGB Subverted Western Democracies
By: Mark Hollingsworth
Publisher: Oneworld

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