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Steve Hansen: How a Soviet general became an American ally

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Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 12:00 am

There are a many unsung American heroes. One was Demitriy Fedorovich Polyakov. According to a recently published book titled “Circle of Treason,” he was one of the best spies our country ever had.

If the name sounds Russian, that’s because it is. Polyakov was proud of his heritage and once told his CIA handlers that he had no interest in defecting to the West. The Soviet general was reported to have said, “I was born a Russian and will die a Russian.”

So what made this man an American hero? The authors, Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, both CIA career professionals, reveal that Polyakov provided our nation with invaluable information about the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. He was a high-ranking officer in the GRU.

Most people have heard of the Soviet intelligence bureau known as the KGB. Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, was a lieutenant colonel in this covert organization. But few know of the GRU. The letters stand for a rather lengthy Russian translation. It was larger than the KGB. As a matter of fact, it was — and still is — the foreign military intelligence main directorate of the Russian armed forces.

One might ask: Why would a high-ranking official in this organization would risk his career and status in the Soviet government to secretly work for the United States? Grimes and Vertefeuille describe Polyakov as disillusioned with the degenerate Soviet leadership.

Despite his record as a hero during World War II, along with a history of Russian patriotism, the authors say he began to view the leaders of his country as “... corrupt thugs who subjugated the common man for personal power and to line their pockets and those of their sycophants.”

But at the same time, the general saw America’s faults. He perceived our military as weak and our leaders as indecisive. Polyakov viewed our attachment to civilized rules of behavior as an Achilles’ heel.

On the other hand, the Soviets were only bound by what works, and therefore, the high-ranking military officer believed his country could win the Cold War. This was another reason for helping the U.S. To him, it was leveling the playing field in a balance of power.

Unlike many two-handed players in the espionage world, Polyakov wanted minuscule financial compensation for helping the West. Most of what he asked was not for personal use, but gifts for superiors to gain favor within the power structure. This also helped his sons acquire privileges in a so-called “equal” society for higher education and job opportunities.

His “compensation” often amounted to simple items such as wristwatches, crystal glassware, fishing lures and cheap ballpoint pens — things not readily available in his home country. As the authors opine: “... remuneration we furnished Polyakov was trivial compared to those (Soviet secrets) he provided us.”

In 1980, Polyakov returned to Moscow on assignment and was never seen again by his CIA contacts. During all the years of helping the U.S. by providing many Soviet top secrets, he had managed to stay clear of any suspicion — despite a few close calls.

In a most ironic twist of events, the general was betrayed to the Russians by one of America’s worst traitors — a CIA branch chief named Aldrich “Rick” Ames. In 1988, agents learned that Polyakov had been arrested a few years earlier and had been executed for espionage. Ames was also responsible for providing information that led to the execution of several other surreptitious Russians who were helping the United States.

Unlike Polyakov, Ames had no interest in creating a better world or helping his children. His treacherous reasons were simply greed and narcissism. He collected over a million dollars for his duplicity. Today, Ames resides in an Allenwood, Pa. federal prison cell, while Polyakov rests in a Russian unmarked grave.

The Ames and Polyakov story is an example of how America’s best friends may not be homegrown. Unfortunately, its greatest enemies can be just that.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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