John Preston asks this question in today’s Mail, and then proceeds not to answer it over the subsequent thousands of words.
Since not one of those words is ‘Russia’, it’s no wonder the question only acts as a teaser for Mr Preston to advertise his biography of Maxwell. However, without that key word the question can’t even be properly asked, never mind answered.
Now, I hardly ever recycle my old pieces, but this morning I can’t resist. For almost eight years ago (and doesn’t time fly even when you aren’t having fun?) I wrote an article Cap’n Bob of the KGB on this very subject.
The facts I cited were all real, even if the prima facie evidence of the murder was, and still is, lacking. However, only a court jury requires ironclad forensic evidence to convict. Intellectual inquiry often makes do with a plausible theory, and the one my old article puts forth is very plausible indeed:
Newly published archival data show that as early as in the 1950s Robert Maxwell was investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Soviet agent. The conclusion was that he wasn’t, yet this conclusion was wrong.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone: both the FBI and MI5 were notoriously inept at flashing out Soviet spies. One of them, Kim Philby, almost became head of the Secret Service; another, Aldrich Ames, ran the CIA Soviet desk for years; yet another, Robert Hanssen, was one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officers – this list can become longer than anyone’s arm.
The FBI was probably correct technically: Maxwell didn’t “transfer technological and scientific information to the Soviets”. Of course he didn’t. He was much too valuable to risk on such trivial assignments.
Maxwell was what the Soviets called ‘an agent of influence’, perhaps the most important one next to the American industrialist Armand Hammer. Said influence was exerted through both individuals and ‘friendly firms’. One such firm was Maxwell’s Pergamon Press.
Maxwell, a retired captain in the British army, bought 75 percent of the company in 1951 and instantly made it an unlikely success. Actually, it’s also unlikely that a poor Czech immigrant could have found the required £50,000, which was serious money then, about £1,000,000 in today’s debauched cash.
If the original investment miraculously didn’t come courtesy of the KGB, the overnight success did. Maxwell signed a brother-in-law deal with the Soviet copyright agency VAAP (a KGB department) and began publishing English translations of Soviet academic journals.
Making any kind of income, never mind millions, out of that venture would have been next to impossible. On the one hand, Soviet science at the time was hardly cutting edge stuff, and those parts of it that were didn’t publish their findings in journals – they were (and still are) strictly classified. Interest in the Soviet academic press was therefore minimal, while the cost of having it translated and published was immense.
Publishing even English-language academic periodicals is an extremely laborious and low-margin business requiring much specialised expertise. That’s why it’s usually done by big and long-established firms, which Maxwell’s wasn’t. Add to this the cost of translation and one really begins to wonder about the provenance of all that cash.
Subsequent close ties between Maxwell and the Soviets dispel any doubts. He became a frequent visitor to Moscow and a welcome guest in the Kremlin. There he met every Soviet leader from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, and they didn’t just chat about the weather.
As an MP, Maxwell made speeches defending the Soviet 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, bizarrely portraying it as some kind of recompense for the country’s betrayal at Munich. The Soviets were beginning to get their money’s worth.
In the ‘70s Pergamon Press prospered by churning out such sure-fire bestsellers as books by Soviet leaders. On 4 March 1975, Maxwell signed another lucrative contract with VAAP and published seven books by Soviet chieftains: five by Brezhnev, one by Chernenko and one by Andropov, then head of the KGB.
Under a later 1978 contract he also published Brezhnev’s immortal masterpiece Peace Is the People’s Priceless Treasure, along with books by Grishin and Ponomarev, the former a Politburo member, the latter head of the Central Committee’s International Department.
All those books were published in huge runs and, considering the nonexistent demand for this genre, would have lost millions for any other publisher. But Maxwell wasn’t any old publisher and these weren’t any old ventures. The translation, publishing and printing were paid for by the Soviets, who then pulped almost the whole run.
In 1981 the Central Committee of the CPSU passed a resolution authorising direct payments to the French branch of Pergamon Press for publishing English translations of Soviet leaders’ books.
In the ‘80s Maxwell met Gorbachev three times, the last meeting also involving Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB boss. As a result, Pergamon Press began publishing the English-language version of the Soviet Cultural Foundation magazine Nashe Naslediye (Our Heritage), along with the writings of both Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (Charles Dickens and Jane Austen they weren’t).
One objective pursued by the Soviets was propaganda, but this could have been achieved with less capital outlay and greater effect. The real purpose was the old Soviet pastime: money laundering and looting Russia in preparation for ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’. And the core business of Pergamon Press played only a small role in this enterprise.
Between 1989 and 1991 the KGB transferred to the West eight metric tonnes of platinum, 60 metric tonnes of gold, truckloads of diamonds and up to $50 billion in cash. The cash part was in rubles, officially not a convertible currency. But the Soviets made it convertible by setting a vast network of bogus holding companies and fake brass plates throughout the West.
The key figures in the cash transfer were the KGB financial wizard Col. Leonid Veselovsky, seconded to the Administration Department of the Central Committee, and Nikolai Kruchina, head of that department.
The focal point of that transfer activity in the West was Maxwell, the midwife overseeing the birth pains of the so-called Soviet oligarchy. We know very little about the exact mechanics of this criminal activity, perhaps the biggest one of its kind in history. The actual engineers knew too much, which could only mean they had to fall out with the designers.
Specifically, in August 1991 Kruchina fell out of his office window. Two months later Maxwell fell overboard from his yacht. Veselovsky, who handled most of the leg work, managed to leg it to Switzerland, where he became a highly paid consultant. Obviously he knew quite a bit not only about his former employers but also about his new clients, which knowledge enhanced his earning potential and possibly acted as a health insurance policy.
Thus ended Cap’n Bob’s illustrious career, during which he was a Czech immigrant, a British officer, a publisher, an MP, The Daily Mirror owner, purloiner of its pension funds. And a Soviet agent by anyone’s definition but the FBI’s.