Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Penkovsky, Oleg Vladimirovich (1919–1967)

Soviet spy and double agent. Born in Ordzhonikidze in the Caucasus on 23 April 1919, the only son of a military officer, Oleg Penkovsky attended Soviet artillery school and was commissioned in 1939. His World War II record was exemplary, and in 1945 he was sent to the Frunze Military Academy and after that to the Military-Diplomatic Academy. In 1955 he was assigned as a military attaché to the Soviet embassy in Ankara, Turkey. In 1956 he returned to Moscow to study the science surrounding rockets and missiles. In 1960 he was appointed to the State Committee for the Coordination of Scientific Research. By this time he had become disillusioned with communism and fearful that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would precipitate a nuclear disaster. Penkovsky was also informed that because of his father's past as a loyal soldier, he would never be promoted to the rank of general.

Penkovsky first offered his services as a double agent to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in August 1960 but received a less-than-enthusiastic response. He then turned to Britain. An initial contact with Greville Wynne, a British businessman with a tangential relationship with MI6, led to Penkovsky's delivery of a packet of secret Soviet material in April 1961, the contents of which were shared with the CIA. The CIA and MI6 then agreed to jointly approach Penkovsky when he arrived in London on 20 April 1961 as head of a Soviet trade delegation. From that point on, he provided secret material either via Wynne, when visiting the West as a member of a Soviet trade group, or on park benches in Moscow to Janet Chisholm, wife of undercover MI6 officer Rodrick Chisholm. Soon Penkovsky was passing on a large amount of highly classified information.

Data on Soviet missile production provided by Penkovsky gave the West a realistic evaluation of the true strength of Soviet missile forces and revealed as illusory the so-called missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The information was unambiguous; the United States was far ahead. Information provided by Penkovsky assisted greatly in verification in September 1962 when U-2 reconnaissance aircraft detected missile site construction in Cuba. Penkovsky's material helped President John F. Kennedy in dealing with Khrushchev and bringing about the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

On 22 October 1962 Penkovsky was arrested by the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) and confessed to his spying activities. He was tried, found guilty, and executed in Moscow on 16 May 1963. Wynne was seized a few weeks later. Imprisoned, he was exchanged in April 1964 for Gordon Lonsdale, a Soviet double agent then being held in a British prison. How Penkovsky was detected remains a mystery. He may have been discovered with Janet Chisholm during routine surveillance. He may have been betrayed by a double agent. Some have also suggested that Penkovsky was simply too careless. Nevertheless, most espionage experts consider him the most important Soviet spy for the West in the Cold War era.

Ernie Teagarden


Further Reading
Penkovsky, Oleg. The Penkovsky Papers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.; Schecter, Jerrold L., and Peter S. Deriabin. The Spy Who Saved the World. New York: Scribner, 1992.
 

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