Published Sunday Times: 17 April 2011
According to President Reagan, the actions of Vladimir Vetrov constituted “the greatest spy story of the 20th century”. Some claim Vetrov’s work as a KGB mole was as crucial to the implosion of the Soviet bloc as the Polish Solidarity movement or Russia’s “Vietnam” in Afghanistan.
From spring 1981 to early 1982, Vetrov — codenamed Farewell by his French security handlers — dispatched about 4,000 classified documents across the Iron Curtain. The information led to the decapitation of the Soviet Union’s rapacious industrial-espionage operation in the West, the Kremlin’s last gasp in the cold war.
Quite why Vetrov should have been denied a starring role in history is a complex business. That it is a Gallic tale rather than an Anglo-Saxon one? Certainly, there has been little appetite to dwell on the dark days of a divided Europe. “In 25 years, everything has changed so much,” offers the French director Christian Carion, whose film about Vetrov, Farewell, is released in Britain this month. “The USSR doesn’t exist; Moscow is much like Berlin or Vienna. To young people, the cold war doesn’t mean anything.”
I wanted to make a movie based on a true story, but, very quickly, I understood that I would never know the whole truth
But, in large part, Vetrov’s airbrushing is the result of his controversial standing: was he the Soviet von Stauffenberg, or just a downright traitor whose name is still mud in his homeland? “It’s not just my Russian point of view — I was very hostile to the communist regime,” says Sergei Kostin, whose 1997 book, Bonjour Farewell, forms the basis of Carion’s film, “but there’s hardly a difference between the interests of the communist regime and everlasting Russia. If I put myself in the place of Vetrov, I could never do the same things, because each time, I would think, this is against not only the Soviet Union’s defence, but Russia’s defence.” For the sake of Vetrov’s family, Kostin published his book abroad. Such is the taboo that in Carion’s French-produced picture, Vetrov cannot even be named; he is called Grigoriev instead.
“I did it to show that this is not a documentary — that’s impossible,” Carion says. “In the beginning, I wanted to make a movie based on a true story, like Merry Christmas [his Oscar-nominated film about the unofficial truce in the trenches during the first world war], but, very quickly, I understood that I would never know the whole truth. There are many different truths — the Russian truth, the French truth and the American truth.”
Vetrov’s was a maverick, solo, freelance mission. He declared no intention to defect and refused payment. There exist no recordings of him, few photographs. That the end of the old world order could have been authored by a virtually faceless, middle-aged technocrat toiling in the Orwellian bureaucracy of Directorate T, the technological intelligence wing of the KGB, is an intriguing proposition.
“It’s not a James Bond movie — there is no girl, there is no gun,” Carion cautions. On screen, played by Emir Kusturica, the radical Bosnian director-turned-actor, Vetrov is 007’s opposite: a shambolic bear of a man, albeit with the requisite indestructible liver (and penchant for a basement quickie with the secretary). In fact, as secret agents go, he seems a lousy one, flouting every rule in the handbook, brazenly filching papers from his boss’s desk; bumbling around Moscow with a cardboard folder, spewing as many state secrets onto the pavement as he does upon his bewildered, untrained French liaison: Pierre, in the film (played by Guillaume Canet), is an amalgam of at least two actual contacts.
It was Vetrov’s brass neck that kept him off the radar; that and his choice of the French Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire as his bureau (Vetrov spoke fluent French), an intelligence outfit of significantly lower surveillance status to the KGB than the CIA or MI6.
In exchange for his eventual confession, the KGB rewarded Vetrov with an executioner’s bullet, delivered in January 1985 and announced in a brief, terse letter to his wife and teenage son. Nobody saw the body. The whereabouts of his grave are unknown.
While arguments still rage about Vetrov’s motives — ideologue, adventurer or plain old loose cannon? — what is certain is that, 30 years ago, when the 48-year-old colonel began slipping a few documents under the counter to an engineer from the French company Thomson-CSF, neither could have foreseen where it might lead. But, within a few months (by which time Vetrov was warned to cool things off), the damage had been done. With the Reagan administration mistrustful of the incoming President Mitterrand and his appointment of communist ministers, France passed the Farewell dossier to the United States as a demonstration of loyalty. What Vetrov revealed made devastating reading. Such was the decrepitude of the USSR’s technology that a state that had gone from peasantry to space flight in only 40 years had been reduced to wholesale plunder of western know-how to maintain the illusion of being in the arms race. So thorough was its infiltration of the American military-industrial complex that every innovation was simply ripped off by a widespread network of insiders — 250 agents operating under diplomatic cover. As the film has it, the Soviets knew every detail of Nato defences, right down to missile launch codes.
Initial shock was tempered with the comprehension that the Soviet economy was near bankrupt in its bid to keep up. With a conveyor belt of dead premiers to boot, the politically spent USSR was a cow just waiting to be tipped. In the finessed American version of the final act, the “evil empire” is nobbled by Reagan’s “bluff of the century”, the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka star wars, a development so fantastical/expensive that the Soviet Union cannot possibly compete. After technological defeat comes ideological capitulation, Gorbachev and glasnost — and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I sincerely think Vetrov contributed very much to the plan to destroy the Soviet Union,” Kostin says, “but to think of him as the prophet of perestroika? No. He never thought about it.”
Farewell sits proudly with the new wave of true-life political thrillers, notably The Lives of Others
The wounds still fester. Carion was denied permission to shoot in Russia, faking Moscow with Kiev, Kharkov and Helsinki. Then, when his lead actor, Nikita Mikhalkov, pulled out, his replacement, another top-notch Russian thesp, who remains nameless, had the screws put on him while returning from pre-production in Paris. “He went to Charles de Gaulle airport and, in the taxi, had a cellphone call from the Russian ambassador,” says Carion, “who said to him, ‘You are a great actor, a star, but you can’t do this movie. You can’t defend a traitor. Russia will never understand why you decided to do it. Think about it.’ On arriving in Moscow, he called me and said, ‘Forget my name. Forget my number. Forget everything. I will not do your movie.’”
One significant liberty has been taken in the film. Whereas the screen Vetrov comes over as a lovable rogue, snaffling smuggled cognac or a Queen cassette for his teenage son, the real version was a convicted murderer. Job done, Vetrov had been cut adrift by the West.
It hastened a spell of paranoia and heavy drinking, during which he attempted to stab his increasingly troublesome mistress. Their night-time struggle in Vetrov’s parked car was spotted by a passer-by, who intervened but ended up being knifed himself. He turned out to be another KGB officer, quite possibly tailing Vetrov. Vetrov was sent down for 12 years. It was during a stint in the Siberian gulag that his loose tongue corroborated the double-dealing the Soviet authorities were now coming to suspect.
Naturally, Kostin does not approve of this omission from the film. “It makes a figure more idealistic, I would even say romantic. So for me, who investigated and got to know the real character, it is a disappointment.”
Carion shot the murder sequence, but left it out because it overcomplicated things, he insists. “It was difficult for the audience to understand,” he says. “That’s why, in the end, I decided only to keep the story of Farewell.”
Its absence does not diminish the film, which sits proudly with the new wave of true-life political thrillers, notably The Lives of Others. For Kostin, the research material unearthed by Eric Raynaud, the film’s writer/producer, has enabled publication of a fuller version of his book, “with new information”.
So why, exactly, did Vetrov do what he did? Where Carion toes the western line — that he was a martyr, motivated to destroy the Soviet Union after conversion to the capitalist way (he had tasted the good life in France and Canada in the 1960s) — Kostin finds a disgruntled soul who simply wanted to get one over on his employers, the KGB. “For me, the mystery was to understand why a guy in Soviet life who has everything — a good family, a car, a dacha, a very comfortable salary — decided on betrayal,” Kostin says. “You know, I never found a trace of his ideological adversity against the regime. Never. Never. I asked several witnesses. Everybody told me it was for revenge, and I think that’s what his motivation was. ‘You think I’m nothing. I’m close to retirement. I made nothing of my life. I’m a failure, a complete loser, I will show you who I am. I will destroy.’”
In making the film, Carion gained the trust of Jacques Attali, the former Mitterrand advisor. In 1996, it emerged that Mitterrand later had doubts about Vetrov’s authenticity, believing him to have been a CIA “plant”, there to test France’s trustworthiness — all part of the technological Great Game in which the CIA turned Directorate T into a weapon against itself. There is even a suggestion that the 1982 trans-Siberian pipeline explosion — thwarting a Soviet attempt to flog oil to Europe — was the result of US counterintelligence.
While making the film, Carion received a phone call from an anonymous source claiming to have inside knowledge of the Farewell case. They met for coffee. “He said, ‘Okay, so Farewell is dead?’ I said, ‘Yes, we have the paper from the KGB to the family.’ He said, ‘Okay, if the KGB told them he is dead, he must be dead.’ I said, ‘Are you are telling me he is not dead? He is living in South America making pizzas somewhere?’ And he said, ‘That’s the problem with spy stories. Everything is possible.’ And then he left me alone.”
Farewell is released on April 29. Farewell, by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud, is published by Amazon Crossing on August 2