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October 20, 2009

Obituary: Oleg Tsarev

By Spear's

Tsarev understood the demands of western academia and made little effort to sanitize some of the more unpalatable aspects of Soviet history.

The sudden death of the Russian historian Oleg Tsarev coincides with the publication of his new book, TRIPLEX: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies.

Buy TRIPLEX here in the Spear’s/Amazon store

Fluent in English, Tsarev was a career KGB First Chief Directorate officer and served in the Third (English) Department in Line PR, the political intelligence branch, spending seven years in London under TASS journalistic cover. While in London he cultivated many politicians and was a familiar figure around the Palace of Westminster but in later years always politely declined to discuss the operational activities he had undertaken, and denied having made any significant recruitments.
When the controversial Cambridge historian John Costello approached the KGB in Moscow, by the simple expedient of hammering on the door of the organisation’s headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square, for access to their archives in 1990, he was introduced to Tsarev who succeeded in persuading his chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, that western historians and publishers might pay for the opportunity to examine original KGB and NKVD files.
Costello and Tsarev developed an unlikely bond, based on a common interest in historical research in the intelligence field, and in 1993 collaborated together on a book, Deadly Illusions, which represented the first occasion on which a foreigner had been granted permission to read KGB operational files, including the NKVD dossier on Rudolf Hess who flew to Scotland in May 1941.
Buoyed by the success of their venture, Costello persuaded Crown Books in New York, a subsidiary of the giant Random House publishers, to pay a large sum for an additional four Americans, David Murphy, Tim Naftali, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, to work alongside selected KGB officers, including Sergei Kondrashev and Alexander Vassiliev, to produce Battleground Berlin, One Hell of a Gamble and Haunted Wood.

When Costello died suddenly in the middle of the project, while on a flight to Miami, his place was taken by me, who completed The Crown Jewels with Tsarev.

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Although well-connected to the KGB’s leadership, Tsarev understood the demands of western academia and made little effort to sanitize some of the more unpalatable aspects of Soviet history by acknowledging the horrors of the Gulag and including references to repression and Stalin’s purges.
Apparently fearing the collapse of the whole project, which was taking a long time because of Russian bureaucracy and the transfer of power to the SVR, Random House arbitrarily cancelled the four contracts without warning its authors, leaving them to be swiftly signed up by Yale University Press which shrewdly judged that the authentic historical treasure was worth waiting for, especially when it had been paid for in full already.

The series was released eventually to general critical acclaim and the supporting KGB documentation was declassified and released simultaneously in Moscow. Indeed, so many files were included in the project that Tsarev and I were able to produce a further volume, TRIPLEX, based on secret MI6 and SIS documents stolen by Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and John Cairncross in London, which is scheduled for publication this week.

Always discreet and cosmopolitan, Tsarev was a model modern KGB officer who, after the Soviet collapse, took early retirement from the SVR’s Press Office, found a niche with former colleagues in a Moscow bank and bought a holiday apartment in the Algarve. Visits to London were infrequent because of Foreign Office objections that he had publicly declared that he had “worked against British interests” during his attachment to the KGB rezidentura in Lonfon. His wife worked in the English language faculty at Moscow University.
Oleg Tsarev died after a short battle against cancer on 28 September and leaves a widow and daughter. 

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