Ahead of his talk at the Hay Festival, Jonathan Haslam discusses his forthcoming history of Soviet intelligence organisations, revealing, among other things, just how unprepared for Operation Barbarossa Stalin was in 1941.

Old ways of thinking do not change rapidly. They are glacial, as generations tainted by poor practice die away.

Jonathan Haslam

Intellectual repression and technological backwardness imperilled the efficiency of Soviet intelligence and left Stalin completely unprepared for the German invasion in June 1941, according to a forthcoming book on the history of 20th century Soviet intelligence.

Jonathan Haslam, professor of the history of international relations, says the degree to which repression and lack of technological advancement affected the Special Service [codes and ciphers] is "shocking", as was the massacre of personnel in the late thirties. He states: "The degree of inefficiency of the GRU's immediate predecessors in the thirties was also quite a surprise."

Professor Haslam is to publish the first book on the history of all the Soviet intelligence organisations, including the GRU [military intelligence] and the Special Service as well as the KGB. He will speak about his research, which will be published next year by OUP, as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival at 2.30pm on 24 May.

Professor Haslam says it is important to see the role of Soviet intelligence agencies in the round, rather than through the eyes of only one agency. The KGB, which is by far the best known agency, deals only in human intelligence and with a focus on the civilian rather than military targets.

The reason the KGB is almost the only agency researched is, says Professor Haslam, that by far the greatest leak of material from the former Soviet Union has been that of KGB documents and notes from such documents: notably the Mitrokhin archive [a collection of notes made secretly by KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin], of which a small portion was edited courtesy of MI6 by Christopher Andrew and the files of Alexander Vasiliev, who obtained access while a trusted Russian historian and later absconded with his notes to the United States. The GRU has held tightly to its secrets, as has the Special Service, says Professor Haslam.

He describes the research process as "slow and painstaking", mainly as a result of difficulties in accessing material other than that obtained by Andrew and Vasiliev. However, uncovering information which has never before been published is, he says, "very rewarding".

For Professor Haslam, one of the most surprising findings was the degree of negligence with which codes and ciphers (decryption) were treated under Stalin and his immediate successors.

Has the system changed substantially since the end of the Cold War, though? Professor Haslam says: "Undoubtedly awareness of past errors has improved matters, but institutions and old ways of thinking do not change rapidly. They are glacial, as generations tainted by poor practice die away. Competition with the main adversary is a much greater influence than the truths of history!"

More information: http://www.cam.ac.uk/public-engagement/public-events/other-events/cambridge-series-at-the-hay-festival-2015 For tickets: www.hayfestival.org


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