The Capture and Execution of Colonel Penkovsky, 1963
On the afternoon of October 22, 1962, a nondescript man was suddenly seized off the streets of Moscow by the KGB. He had been under surveillance on suspicion of treason. Thus ended Oleg Penkovsky’s career of spying for the United States and Great Britain. Penkovsky is considered one of the most valuable assets in Agency history.
Penkovsky the Spy
Penkovsky was a colonel in the GRU — Soviet military intelligence — and the highest level Soviet officer to spy for the United States or Great Britain up to that time. During his time in the military, Penkovsky grew disillusioned with the Soviet regime. He felt that Nikita Krushchev was leading the Soviet Union down the path to destruction with his relentless pursuit of spreading Communism throughout the world. Penkovsky wanted to help prevent a nuclear war between the superpowers, so he volunteered to spy for the United States and the United Kingdom.
In April 1961, Penkovsky established contact with Greville Wynne — a British businessman. A few days later, Penkovsky met with two British and two American intelligence officers to pass information about the Soviet Union during a trip to London. Penkovsky traveled frequently to Britain and France as a representative of a Soviet scientific research delegation and continued to meet his CIA and MI-6 handlers there for extensive debriefing sessions. In Moscow he delivered documentary material in meetings with the wife of an officer posted to the British embassy.
During the period that Penkovsky passed information to the United States and Great Britain, he:
- Spoke to debriefers for around 140 hours,
- Delivered numerous rolls of film, and
- Passed photographs of a significant number of secret papers to CIA and MI-6.
Penkovsky’s debriefing sessions produced about 1,200 pages of transcripts, which CIA and MI-6 had around 30 translators and analysts working on. The Colonel's information was immensely valuable, helping dispel concerns about Soviet strategic superiority, and showing that the United States had the advantage in missile systems.
Preventing a Nuclear War
In the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. The Soviets believed that the United States would not detect the missiles until it was too late to take action. Penkovsky provided detailed plans and descriptions of the launch sites in Cuba. Without this information, it would have been very difficult to identify which missiles were at the launch sites and track their operational readiness.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Penkovsky’s information gave the Kennedy Administration technical insights about the Soviet nuclear missiles deployed to Cuba that assisted in the pursuit of an eventual diplomatic solution. Because of Penkovksy, Kennedy knew that he had three days before the Soviet missiles were fully functional to negotiate a diplomatic solution. For this reason, Penkovsky is credited with altering the course of the Cold War.
In addition to information about the missile launch sites on Cuba, Penkovsky passed along information about Soviet plans for Berlin to CIA and MI-6. This information was used by analysts well into the 1980s.
Capture, Trial, and Execution
To this day, it is unclear who or what implicated Penkovsky. Some believe that George Blake informed the KGB about Penkovksy’s work for the United States and Great Britain. At that point, the KGB began to keep a close watch on Penkovsky. KGB officers were stationed in apartments above and across the river from Penkovksy’s home. After an extended period of surveillance, the KGB arrested Penkovsky and put him on trial for treason and espionage.
After a public trial in May 1963, Penkovsky was sentenced to death. He was executed in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on May 16, 1963. Penkovsky’s ashes allegedly were dumped into a mass grave at Donskoi Monastery cemetery in Moscow.
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