In 1992, senior KGB official Vasili Mitrokhin defected from Russia, and he didn't leave empty-handed. With him came documents that the AP calls "one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history—a who's who of Soviet spying." Two decades later, the first batch of them has been released, upon Mitrokhin's explicit wishes. Mitrokhin was a senior archivist at the KGB's foreign intelligence headquarters, and, between 1972 and 1984, smuggled files to his home, where he copied them by hand, then typed them up and hid them—some were squirreled away in a milk churn, others under floorboards.
As the story goes, following the Soviet Union's 1991 fall he first tried to hand the files over at a US embassy: In the AP's telling, it was in an unnamed Baltic state and he was denied; the Guardian reports it was in Riga, and Mitrokhin gave up after seeing the long visa line. The Brits in Riga, however, offered him tea, and he ended up handing over his 2,000 pages—along with the demand they be published, reports the Guardian. The first wave of documents is now out, and includes:
- a 40-page, 1,000-name-strong list of KGB agents in America
- details on the "Cambridge Spies," upper-level British intelligence officials who worked for the Soviets—but who were described as "constantly under the influence of alcohol" (though Guy Burgess handed the KGB at least 550 documents) and "not very good at keeping secrets" (Donald Maclean told his lover about his work ... and was drunk all the time, too)
- the revelation that the Soviets hid weapons and booby traps outside its borders, including three spots in Rome
- the names of undercover agents who targeted the future Pope John Paul II
- the identity of the spy they "valued most," per the Independent: Melita Norwood, who as a personal assistant to the head of the British Association for Non-Ferrous Metals Research had access to British atomic secrets that she passed on
Mitrokhin didn't live to see his files go public: He died in Britain, where he lived under a fake name, a decade ago at 81, though he did publish a book based on the files in 1999, in tandem with MI5's official historian.