Thursday, August 30, 2012

Some lessons from KGB memoirs about how evil works

Oleg Kalugin was highly positioned in the KGB -- but eventually left the KGB, moved to the United States and wrote a memoir, Spymaster. It wasn't quite a tell-all book; he seems to be protecting the identities of a few old friends and colleagues. But what he did say was eye-opening. In that book, I saw a lesson about how evil works when it doesn't apologize for being evil but still must stay hidden. In some ways it was like a look inside the mind of one of the devils from The Screwtape Letters, and you come away from Spymaster knowing that C.S. Lewis' imagination was nowhere near dark enough.

What does evil do when it can't quite afford to come out of its disguise?

For one, it sows discord and suspicion among people who ought to have been working together. Kalugin showed how the KGB would create news for that purpose. He mentioned the KGB's practice of obtaining American classified documents, altering them to add something sinister or arrogant towards other countries, and then leaking the altered documents to the press. At that point any denials from official U.S. channels seemed self-serving and implausible. Sometimes they would go so far as to have Soviet agents actually commit crimes. He mentioned agents who had been tasked with painting swastikas on synagogues or desecrating Jewish cemeteries. He described a roomful of KGB operatives cranking out hate-mail to a prominent black leader to give the appearance that there was some sort of organized grass-roots hate campaign. The acts of cultural sabotage were designed to hit the press. In America, the negative stories were designed to sow discord, blame, and suspicion among Americans at the natural assumption that some American had done the crime. Abroad, they were designed to shame America and portray them as backwards on a personal level and untrustworthy double-dealers at the government level. The idea that the KGB might be involved was the stuff of conspiracy theorists who were mocked and ridiculed in the press. There were a number of mentions of sympathizers and agents planted in various press agencies, both in America and in other countries around the world. Still, it appears that most of the journalists participated in the honest belief that they were getting real news. Kalugin and his colleagues worked hard to keep a steady stream of anti-American news stories flowing, while doing their best to remain invisible.

Evil also turns people to its side by any means available. The KGB needed a steady stream of information leaks and informers. They would offer money to people with gambling problems. They would blackmail people who had drinking problems or extramarital affairs. They even had agents assigned to seduce people who might have valuable information, and had a "love nest" completely outfitted with hidden camera equipment to make the blackmail easier. Sadly, they often co-opted the church. He painted a picture of Russian Orthodox priests as easy to blackmail and turn informant against their people, saying that a surprising number of them were concealing homosexual relations.

And, of course, evil portrays itself as good whenever it can. They would target people who were frustrated with problems in America, infiltrating campus groups and protest movements. They would subtly work to recruit idealists and turn their causes or organizations into something with an anti-American slant.

Reading through it, I couldn't help but wonder what portion of the poisonous political landscape -- which blossomed under Kalugin's watch as a key operative working undercover in the United States --  actually tracked back to a top secret coordinated Soviet campaign to divide us and sabotage us at a cultural level. Unless a follow-up book is written or someone interviews him to get more information, we may never know the exact scope of their work.

As fascinating as all that may be on the level of history or politics, as Christians I couldn't help but notice it applies to us as well. Evil has some standard tactics. How easily does each Christian group suspect the worst of each other? How often do we take an accusation at face value, without seeing if it is true? How often have we seen people look for a way to shame or belittle another group? Do we take advantage of each others' mistakes, and gloat over each others' sins? Do we willingly speak badly about other Christian groups behind their backs, or to non-Christian listeners? (Given how much evil likes to pretend it is good, it sometimes happens that smearing the reputation of other Christians is done "to show that not all Christians are like that", and may even be seen as "evangelism", or "outreach to the unchurched".) Whenever our Christian relations are poisonous, you can guarantee it's not the spirit of God behind it.

Jesus told us to be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves. As I'm sure has been said before: We tend to get it backwards. Evil has an agenda to discredit us, divide us, and turn us against each other. The more aware we are, the less likely we are to help it along.The more we see how we are working against each other -- and that this is not Christ's work -- the more we can become wise. It's a well-chosen image, I think, that we are to be as wise as "serpents" -- that ancient symbol of malevolent trickery going back to Eden -- to show us who we have to match wits against. And that we are to be as harmless as "doves" -- messengers of hope and peace, and the visible sign of the Holy Spirit's presence -- to remind us what our own goals should be.


Martin LaBar said...

Scary and thought-provoking.

Howard said...

It's amazing how mute we are when it comes to this issue. Re:Lewes- Screwtape is interesting, but his Cosmic Trilogy really looks at evil, especially That Hideous Strength.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all

I was amazed at the things the KGB had done.

I haven't read the space trilogy in many years, and now this is the second time recently someone has said something about it. I might give it another shot.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF