The assassination of President John F Kennedy: the finger points to the KGB
Nearly 50 years on, a new book suggests that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was guided by hardline Stalinist dissidents
The young American was agitated, increasingly emotional, and had laid a loaded gun on the table. The Soviet Union must grant him a visa as soon as possible, he pleaded. His life was being made intolerable by FBI surveillance and he, a dedicated communist, wished to return to the arms of Mother Russia.
One of the three Soviet diplomats present took the gun and unloaded it before returning it to its owner. There would be no visa in the near future, he explained calmly. Dejected, the American gathered up his documents and departed the Soviet consulate, bound not for his previous home in New Orleans, but Dallas. It was Mexico City, Saturday, September 28 1963, and the man wanting the visa was Lee Harvey Oswald. Fifty-five days later, he would assassinate John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States.
This is the standard version of events, as related by one of the “diplomats” present that day, Oleg Nechiporenko. The other two were Pavel Yatskov and Valery Kostikov. All were, in reality, officers in the KGB. Kostikov was, according to the CIA, attached to Department 13 of the First Chief Directorate, specialising in “executive action” – sabotage and assassination.
Half a century later, two great traumas of the Cold War era stir in the memory – the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 14-28 1962 and the Kennedy assassination on November 22 the following year. The 50th anniversary of the latter is bound to reignite debate about that fateful lunchtime in Dealey Plaza. In his book, Reclaiming History, the lawyer Vincent Bugliosi expends 1.5 million words proving that Oswald was the lone gunman.
Many disagree, not least the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, which in 1979 concluded that, in all probability, two gunmen were involved – and Kennedy was, therefore, the victim of a conspiracy. In its findings, the committee concluded something else, that the Soviet government had not been involved in the assassination. In 1979, the nuclear stand-off between East and West had a decade to run, and the finding was as necessary then as in 1963, when a declaration of Soviet involvement could have triggered a thermonuclear war.
Robert Holmes agrees that the Russian government was not involved at an official level but believes events on Cuba, being marked this week, and those of a year later are intimately related. A former diplomat, who served in the British embassy in Moscow between 1961-2, he has made a fresh study of that fraught era. His conclusion is neither as neat as Bugliosi’s “lone nut” hypothesis nor as labyrinthine as the conspiracies proposed by authors like Jim Marrs, whose work inspired the Oliver Stone film JFK.
Oswald may have acted alone, thinks Holmes, but he was almost certainly under the control of an outside force. In his new book, A Spy Like No Other, he suggests that Kennedy was most likely the victim of a rogue element within the KGB, hardline Stalinists who were, by training and temperament, incapable of taking the humiliation of Cuba lying down. They conspired behind the back of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, to take revenge on Kennedy, whose cool but resolute stance, bolstered by overwhelming US superiority in missiles and bombers, had forced the withdrawal of Russian medium-range nuclear missiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
“Cuba was a humiliation of the first order for these men,” says Holmes. “They believed in the Stalinist way of doing things: hit your enemy, and hit hard.
“Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t become friends in the wake of Cuba but they were able to see eye to eye, to an extent. They were moving forward, calming the world down. This group within the KGB didn’t want that; they wanted to fight. They thought Khrushchev should actually have fired off atomic weapons, and were devastated when he yielded to American pressure.”
The spy of the title is Ivan Serov, a pure cold warrior schooled in the purges of the 1930s, when Stalin sent millions to their deaths. As an agent of terror, he had overseen the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from the Baltic states in 1941 and the liquidation of countless supposed traitors in the war with Germany. After Stalin’s death in 1953, he seized his chance, helping to overthrow Lavrentiy Beria, the old dictator’s principal henchman. Appointed head of the KGB by Khrushchev in 1954, he played a crucial role in putting down the Hungarian uprising of 1956, supported by his allies Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov.
Andropov would go on to lead the KGB, and then the USSR from 1982 until his death in 1984. Kryuchkov would attempt to roll back history in 1991 when he presided over an attempted coup against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1959, Serov was appointed head of the GRU, Soviet military intelligence. His apparent undoing coincided with the Cuban crisis when a GRU officer, Oleg Penkovsky, was unmasked as a British agent. Penkovsky was executed and Serov disappeared into the shadows. Rumours had it that, unable to cope with his disgrace, he had shot himself. In fact, he lived until 1990.
Holmes believes Serov’s “disgrace” was a front, masking his involvement in an affair of infinitely greater importance than Penkovsky. These three, Serov, Andropov and Kryuchkov, were most likely the architects of a plot to kill Kennedy. “These were three stalwarts,” says Holmes. “They want action. Kennedy is the arch enemy. Something has to be done. Serov would definitely have known Kostikov and would have been able to communicate with him through the KGB system. Kostikov would have kept any orders from Moscow secret, and may have assumed he was involved in an officially sanctioned operation.
“Oswald? Yes, he may have been erratic and was a focus of suspicion because he had emigrated to the Soviet Union before returning to the US. But when you need an expendable assassin, you have to work with what you’ve got.”
How long Oswald had been a Soviet asset, Holmes is not sure. But his treatment in Mexico City that weekend in September 1963 was highly unusual. “You would not have had three senior supposed diplomats meeting with a person of no importance on a Saturday morning.
“The three men were supposed to be playing basketball: KGB versus the GRU. They would not have missed that. If there was some kind of an emergency, one of them may possibly have stayed to talk to Oswald, but Oswald was then a John Doe, a nobody.
“Yes, he had spent a couple of years in the Soviet Union but he wasn’t anybody special. He had applied on the Saturday morning for a visa that was going to take four months to come through. The answer would have been, 'Come back on Monday.’ But no, three of them stayed behind to talk to Oswald for up to two hours. For that to happen, he had to be somebody.
“Immediately after the meeting with Oswald, they sent a classified telegram to Moscow. You don’t do that for someone who walks in for a visa. There was something special going on there.”
Holmes, who reached the rank of First Secretary, one level below ambassador, felt the pressure exerted by the Soviet state. “You lived and worked on the basis that there were microphones in every wall.
“When you went to a restaurant you felt you had been placed at a specific table with a microphone attached to it. You could never relax. There was a lot of talk that the Soviets were beaming some kind of ray at embassies.”
The Kennedy conspiracy industry is cranking up for the big anniversary. Holmes is a sober type and tries not to be too sensationalist. He admits he could be wrong, but thinks a rogue element in the KGB is more plausible than Mafia-CIA-Military-Industrial-Complex, and everyone else besides, hypotheses.
“There’s more than a reasonable possibility,” he says. “I would say that it is all circumstantial evidence, but if there was evidence that would stand up in court, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it. None of the Kennedy assassination theories would stand up in court. Other assassination theories require some kind of leap of faith; with mine, it is only a little step.”
But Oswald? Erratic, talkative Oswald? Surely he would have told all, had Jack Ruby not pumped a slug into his stomach? “If he hadn’t shot Officer J D Tippit after the Kennedy shooting, he may have got away that day, but I’m pretty sure the KGB would have either spirited him back to the Soviet Union or killed him. There’s no way they could have allowed him to be captured.”
'Spy Like No Other’ by Robert Holmes (Biteback) is available from Telegraph Books at £18 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk