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Wilfred Burchett and the KGB

The legendary war correspondent was in the pay of the KGB

Wilfred Burchett in Vietnam, c.1965. © The Wilfred Burchett Estate

Wilfred Burchett in Vietnam, c.1965. © The Wilfred Burchett Estate

 
August 2013Medium length read
 

Among Australian journalists there has been no individual more lionised or demonised than Wilfred Burchett. 

Burchett’s supporters include some of Australia’s more prominent left-wing journalists, academics and filmmakers, such as John Pilger, Phillip Knightley, Ben Kiernan, Gavan McCormack and David Bradbury. They regard Burchett as one of the most brilliant and independent 20th-century reporters, whose greatness is found in his unfailing humanity and, in McCormack’s words, “uncommon moral passion”, and in the courage it took to report world affairs during the Cold War from what is customarily called “the other side”. They regard Burchett’s famous report of the conditions in Hiroshima after the dropping of the first atomic bomb and his ten or more years of reporting the Vietnam War from behind communist lines as his greatest achievements. And they regard the fact that Burchett was stripped of his Australian passport by the Menzies government after the Korean War as one of the most shameful abuses of human rights in the history of Australia.

Burchett’s enemies include (or included) some of Australia’s most influential postwar anti-communist or conservative activists, journalists and intellectuals – BA Santamaria, Denis Warner, Frank Knopfelmacher and Peter Coleman, editor of Quadrant. In the 1980s I was associated with this group. We regarded Burchett as a lifelong communist propagandist, who shamed himself in particular by his defence of the Stalinist show trials in Eastern Europe; by his work on the enemy side during the Korean War where his journalism was directed and paid for by the Chinese government, where he visited prisoner-of-war camps holding Australian soldiers under atrocious conditions and where he was involved in the process of producing forced confessions from captured US air pilots on trumped-up charges of germ warfare; by his support for the Soviet Army’s brutal crushing of the anti-communist Hungarian uprising of 1956; and by his breathless enthusiasm for Maoist China in general and for the Great Leap Forward in particular, in which, it is now estimated, up to 40 million Chinese starved to death. 

Possibly the most damaging and controversial charge the anti-Burchett camp ever laid against him was the claim that he was an agent of the Soviet Union’s Committee of State Security, the KGB, one of history’s largest and most brutal secret police empires. The only direct evidence on this matter came from Yuri Krotkov, a playwright and part-time KGB worker, who had defected to the United Kingdom in 1963 and who gave open testimony before a US Senate Committee in 1969. What follows is his Washington story. 

Krotkov claimed he became friendly with Burchett in the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1947, at a time when Burchett was working as a reporter for the conservative British newspaper the Daily Express. Krotkov believed that Burchett had grasped that he was connected to the Soviet security service and that he was interested in establishing some kind of covert relationship. Before anything of substance developed, however, Krotkov was ordered to return to Moscow. 

For the next nine years Krotkov heard nothing from Burchett. In early 1956, or so he claimed, Burchett was in Moscow and phoned him out of the blue. Krotkov’s KGB controller, Krasilnikov, agreed that they should meet to see what Burchett wanted. Burchett now laid his cards on the table. He told Krotkov that he was an underground member of the communist party and had been working in China, North Korea and Vietnam where the regimes had supported him financially. Because of his Korean War activities, Burchett could not hope to find employment with a capitalist newspaper. Although he might work as the Moscow correspondent for the American “progressive” newspaper, the National Guardian, he needed financial support from the Soviet Communist Party. He told Krotkov that “the foreign correspondents in Moscow have 10,000 roubles, in old money and that he needs particularly this money”.

Shortly after, while Burchett travelled to Sofia, Warsaw and Berlin, his proposal was carefully considered by the KGB. On his return, Krotkov informed Burchett that his offer would be accepted. According to Krotkov, Burchett returned to Moscow two years later. In fact it was in 1957. Krotkov took up the case with his new KGB controller, Churanov. Churanov seems not to have been briefed by his predecessor. At first he was not interested. According to Krotkov, Burchett went off in high dudgeon to see two Australian communists then in Moscow. Soon after, the misunderstanding was smoothed out. Burchett was provided with a fine apartment in one of the most prestigious blocks in central Moscow. Krotkov learnt that Burchett had been handed over to Victor Kartsev, a decorated Stalinist secret policeman who had been reduced to part-time work following the Khrushchev “thaw”. Krotkov’s contact with Burchett now ended, except for a chance meeting at a petrol station where Burchett complained about Kartsev’s character, particularly his anti-semitism. Of Burchett’s operations for the KGB, Krotkov had only the vaguest knowledge. 

Krotkov’s testimony about Burchett did not have much impact at first, even in Australia. Parts, however, which were read into the records of the Australian Senate by Vince Gair, the leader of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party, formed the basis of an article about Burchett as a KGB agent published in Focus, an obscure DLP magazine. By this time, even though working behind communist lines, Burchett was possibly the world’s most influential anti–Vietnam War journalist. As Krotkov’s claims were potentially extremely damaging, Burchett decided to sue the publisher of Focus, Senator Jack Kane. The trial in Sydney took place in 1974. Because one of the Whitlam government’s first decisions had been to restore his passport, Burchett was able to appear. In the witness box, he agreed that he had been friends with Krotkov but denied all other aspects of his testimony. Burchett was of course asked whether he had ever been paid by the KGB. He swore that he had not. Even though the court accepted that Burchett had indeed been defamed, he lost the case on the ground that the Focus article was an accurate report of Hansard. Heavy costs were awarded against him. He now was forced into what he called a second exile. 

On account of his Burchett testimony, Krotkov was abused by members of the Burchett camp. Gavan McCormack, who thought of Burchett as Australia’s Dreyfus, described Krotkov as “a fabricator of malicious lies”. John Pilger and Burchett’s recent biographer, Tom Heenan, using the identical words, called him “a liar, pimp and perjurer”. Ben Kiernan, later to become a professor of history at Yale, was responsible in 1986 for the most detailed academic deconstruction of the Krotkov testimony in a volume he edited, Burchett: Reporting the other side of the world. But by far the most flamboyant and brilliantly constructed demolition of Krotkov can be found in the chapter of Burchett’s posthumously published autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, sarcastically entitled ‘How I Joined the KGB’.

Not only Burchett’s supporters doubted Krotkov’s testimony. In On Burchett the Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray – who had worked alongside Burchett during the Korean War – showed that Burchett had taken instructions from the Chinese government and lied shamelessly about a Budapest meeting with members of the liberal intelligentsia he had arranged for Burchett on the eve of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. However, even he thought Krotkov’s case for Burchett’s recruitment to the KGB unproven. So did Justice Taylor, the conservative judge in the Kane–Burchett defamation trial. Taylor delivered a lecture to Kane’s counsel: “You show me where there is any evidence on which the jury could find that it was true that [Burchett] applied to become a member of the KGB, and then became one; that he was put on the pay-roll, that he indulged in espionage … or worked for the KGB.” 


Vladimir Bukovsky was one of the Soviet Union’s most courageous dissidents, fully worthy of taking a place by the side of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. Because of his political struggles for democracy and human rights, Bukovsky spent 12 years from the early 1960s in prison, labour camp or psychiatric hospital before being exchanged in 1976 for Luis Corvalan, a Chilean communist imprisoned by the Pinochet regime. When the Soviet Union collapsed in August 1991, Bukovsky returned to Moscow. His ambition was the establishment of a commission that would expose the staggering crimes of the communist era. Although formally given access to the Soviet archives, for many months Bukovsky’s attempts to locate the most telling documentary records were frustrated by the foot-dragging obstructionism of former Soviet official.

In the spring of 1992 the Soviet Communist Party went to the Russian Constitutional Court to appeal against its outlawing. The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, who was responsible for the ban, sprang into action. Bukovsky’s reputation as a human rights democrat was such that he was one of the witnesses Yeltsin most wanted to appear. Bukovsky’s condition was that he be granted genuine archival access. Four months earlier Bukovsky had not been allowed by the bureaucrat in charge of the archives to see the documents concerning his own persecution. Now, because of the order of Yeltsin, access was granted to the party’s most secret records: the “‘special files’, KGB reports, International Department reports. The Holies of Holies of the Central Committee.” Bukovsky understood that even then he would not be granted permission to photocopy these documents at will. Over several months he arrived again and again at the Central Committee archive with a Japanese computer and handheld scanner, a form of technology unknown in Russia at that time. In December 1992 someone noticed a flash of light. “He’s copying everything!” Bukovsky walked quietly from the room. His research was over. However, as he later explained, “That is how the pile of papers marked ‘secret’, ‘top secret’, ‘special importance’ and ‘special file’ came into my hands. Thousands of priceless pages in our history.” These documents can today be accessed electronically simply by googling “Vladimir Bukovsky archives”.


One of the documents Bukovsky scanned was a memorandum sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Comrade Serov, the chairman of the KGB. It was dated 17 July 1957. 

The memorandum began with these words: “I am reporting that at the end of May of this year, a worker of the Committee for State Security established operative contact with the correspondent of the newspaper National Guardian, the organ of the Progressive Party of the USA, W Burchett, who is accredited in Moscow.” The memorandum outlined in some detail what was known “about the personality of Burchett and his activity”. The Central Committee was informed that Burchett was “an Australian of English origins” born in 1911 “in the family of a farmer” who in 1934–35 joined “The Friends of the Soviet Union” and in 1936 the Australian Communist Party. Having “failed in any way to distinguish himself”, Burchett soon decided to leave for London. “Since that time, he has not had any organisational links with the party.”

The Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee was informed that Burchett was the author of “many progressive books” and that while “a correspondent for bourgeois newspapers of a rightist direction, he simultaneously covertly collaborated with progressive and communist newspapers and journals”. Before arriving in Moscow, Burchett had lived in Hanoi and Peking. In the Far East he had established “major connections in political and journalistic circles”. Before that, as Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express, he had travelled extensively in the “people’s democracies – Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria”. In 1948 Burchett had been accused by the Czechoslovak head of the Telepress agency, Jaks, of being an English spy. As a consequence, his Bulgarian wife was expelled from the communist party. Subsequently it was discovered that Jaks was a “provocateur and was arrested by the Czechoslovak organs”. Burchett’s wife was now “rehabilitated and reinstated in the Bulgarian communist party”. 

The Central Committee was informed that when Burchett visited Moscow “twice” (the dates are mentioned but are illegible), a KGB agent was “brought close” to him. Burchett was advised “in a cautious way” that he should seek accreditation from a newspaper. When Burchett gained appointment as correspondent for the National Guardian “the relevant authorities took a decision on his accreditation and the provision of an apartment for him”. The newspaper could, however, not provide for him. The Central Committee learnt that Burchett’s “condition” for working in Moscow was that he receive “a monetary subsidy, and also the opportunity of unpublicised collaboration in the Soviet press”.

The formal recommendation of the Chairman of the KGB to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party now followed:

During the period of contact with Burchett we have succeeded in sufficient measure in studying his personal qualities and possibilities, the character of his links in the political world abroad, among diplomatic corps and foreign journalists in Moscow, and also in receiving an array of interesting materials from him in written form.

Considering that Burchett, by his personal qualities and extensive links in political and journalistic circles represents unquestionable operative interest, we have taken a decision to engage Burchett in collaboration with the organs of the KGB.

On our instructions, Burchett is seeking opportunities to penetrate the American and West European press.

Taking into account our interest in the journalistic activity of Burchett for the bourgeois press, in a direction that is desirable for us, and also in his covert co-operation in the Soviet press, the Committee for State Security requests the payment to Burchett of a one-time subsidy in the sum of 20,000 roubles and the establishment for him of a monthly subsidy in the sum of 4000 roubles.

 

The KGB’s request was considered by the Central Committee on 25 October 1957. It resolved to grant Burchett 20,000 roubles but to reduce the recommended monthly subsidy to 3000 roubles.

Every detail in the KGB memorandum is consistent with the Washington testimony of Yuri Krotkov. It now turns out that he was not a liar and a perjurer, but a truth-teller.

The conclusions to be drawn from this document – which has been available in the Bukovsky archive for many years but apparently read by no one involved in the Burchett debate – are almost self-evident. In 1957 Burchett became a paid agent of the KGB. Even before payment had been agreed, Burchett had proved his value. On KGB instructions, he was already “seeking opportunities to penetrate the American and West European press”. He was employed in the hope that he might write pro-communist articles in bourgeois newspapers but also undertake covert work with the Soviet press. Burchett was, then, in part at least employed as what the KGB called an “agent of influence”. But there was far more to his employment than this. The KGB had been impressed by Burchett’s extensive contacts in the worlds of diplomacy and journalism, knowledge that it hoped would prove useful in KGB operations. Even before the payments were arranged, Burchett had provided the KGB with “an array of interesting materials … in written form”.

Burchett was obviously regarded by the KGB as a significant asset. The recommendation of his appointment was by the Chairman of the KGB to the Central Committeee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His memorandum was marked “top secret”. Nor does it seem as if the resolution was decided by the Central Committee without thought, as part of some routine bureaucratic process. Having considered the KGB’s recommendation, the Central Committee decided to reduce Burchett’s monthly subsidy by 1000 roubles. The payment was handsome. In the late 1950s the average monthly salary for a Soviet worker was around 600 roubles. Burchett was paid five times as much. Workers would take more than three years to earn what he received just as a down payment. 

There are many questions that are not answered by the KGB memorandum and the Central Committee resolution. We do not know which KGB operations Burchett was involved in. Krotkov gave evidence in Washington about Burchett’s participation in an action concerning the Daily Express but knew none of the details. We also do not know what information Burchett might have supplied about his contacts in dissident circles in Eastern Europe. On his second visit to Moscow in 1956 Burchett discussed with Krotkov the mood he had discovered among the Polish intelligentsia. “[H]e told me that he talked to some intellectuals and that their ‘brains’ are not good enough, that they are thinking too free.” Krotkov passed on this intelligence to his KGB controller. In the summer of 1956, Tibor Meray introduced Burchett to leading members of the anti-Stalin opposition in his Budapest apartment months before the Hungarian uprising. One of those Meray introduced to Burchett, Miklos Gimes – defamed by Burchett in his memoir, At the Barricades – was executed in 1958. Did Burchett in 1957 provide the KGB with his version of this meeting? 

Nor do we know how long Burchett worked for the KGB. Three years after Burchett began working as a KGB agent, a great schism in the international communist movement opened between the Soviet and Chinese parties. In 1963 Burchett wrote a letter to his father arguing that in this dispute the Chinese were “one hundred per cent right”. He urged his father to keep his opinion confidential. Even if Burchett was still a paid KGB agent, clearly this fact did not determine his privately held ideological world view. By now Burchett was working for the North Vietnamese regime, which maintained relations during the 1960s with both Moscow and Beijing. There is some evidence that payments from Moscow if not the KGB continued at least until the late 1960s. In mid 1969 the Australian filmmaker Edwin Morrisby was working on a documentary with Burchett. He witnessed a Vietnamese communist at Phnom Penh airport hand Burchett a wad of traveller’s cheques and tell him that they were a gift from either ‘Starigrad’ or ‘Tsarigrad’, a reference Morrisby took to be to Moscow. Logic suggests, however, that by the early 1970s all relations between Burchett and the KGB must have been broken. In 1973 Burchett co-authored with Rewi Alley a book of unconditional praise for Maoist China following the Great Leap Forward and the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, China: The Quality of Life. By this time the Soviet Union and China were bitter foes. The KGB was not in the business of subsidising the ideological enemies of the Soviet Union.

At this point, a personal explanation is necessary. In 1985 I wrote an article in Quadrant on the anti-Burchett side of the debate. In 2008, I returned to the question of Burchett in this magazine. Despite my political movement towards the left since the end of the Cold War, my view of Burchett was largely unchanged. Except for one issue. Under the influence of Tibor Meray’s scepticism, I abandoned the earlier case about Burchett as a KGB agent. Although he was, I argued, undoubtedly in the pay of several communist regimes and had connections with their intelligence services, the description of him as a KGB agent – commonly understood to be someone enjoying a long-term, covert relationship under the direction of the Soviet intelligence service – was probably misleading. As it now turns out, on this matter I was wrong. My (false) concession did not, however, save me from the wrath of Burchett’s supporters. 

The new documentary evidence about Burchett’s relations with the KGB places these supporters in an awkward position. They might resume their attack on the messenger of unpleasant tidings. They might claim that the document in the Bukovsky archive is a forgery. They might assert that there is nothing untoward in being a paid agent of a secret police force responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. They might simply try to ignore the evidence that has been presented in this article. Or they might, instead, re-think their position on the Burchett question. 

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977–2005 and Making Trouble. Visit his blog.