With that contemptuous locution, which one might translate very roughly as, “Well, De Jean, one gets laid,” with perhaps the added thought that having made one’s bed, one must lie in it, Charles De Gaulle dismissed his old friend Maurice Dejean from diplomatic service to the Fifth Republic.
It was 1964, six years after the KGB had staged one of its long-running and most elaborate honey traps in Moscow against a Western diplomat. The operation involved over 100 officers and agents of the KGB including, incognito, the head of the Second Chief Directorate, the branch responsible for domestic surveillance and the monitoring or recruitment of foreigners inside the Soviet Union.
Celebrated Russian writers, actresses, painters, and intellectuals, and not a few prostitutes were conscripted for this mission of interlocking plots and subplots, featuring Dejean’s wife and the wives of others. Even Premier Nikita Khrushchev played a role in snaring the high-value mark he himself ordered snared. It was a mission of entrapment that repeatedly risked coming undone and likely would have but for the cosmic surety of French womanizing.
Dejean had served faithfully with De Gaulle in the resistance during World War II, first in Morocco and then London. Although the two had quarreled in the Free French administration after the Allied liberation of Paris, Dejean went on to become political director at the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry.
From there, his career was largely a series of botched attempts to extricate postwar France from various folds in the Iron Curtain, a somewhat quixotic search for a “third way” between the democratic West and the totalitarian East.
Dejean served as ambassador to Prague and worked assiduously to restore Franco-Czech relations until the 1948 communist coup, which Dejean blamed (rightly) on the Soviets. He headed the French mission in Tokyo in 1950; then he was dispatched to Saigon where he watched the siege of Dien Ben Phu and its fall to communist insurgents in 1954: prelude to an engulfing conflict that would eventually lure the United States into its first disastrous war of choice.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Dejean’s next posting would also be his last, in Moscow, a year later. He was 56, eager to establish cultural ties and, as the haughty De Gaulle put it, not above sleeping around.
In the age of email hacking and cyber insecurity, it is easy to forget the more cunning, intimate, and human side of tradecraft, which is why over the last several months I’ve been taking slow, deep sips from KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, a book published in 1974, at a time when we knew far less than we do now about how the Cold War was being fought in the shadows and street corners and embassies of the world.
The author, John Barron, a Reader’s Digest journalist (and not the “spokesman” Donald Trump used to conjure out of thin air) , spent years accumulating first-hand accounts from Soviet defectors about the nature and style of the special services’ invigilation of the citizenry and of usually unsuspecting foreign visitors to the USSR, or foreign marks abroad.
Barron, who was himself a spook in the 1950s, was so accomplished by the end of his spadework that he frequently testified for the FBI in prominent espionage cases, explaining the patterns of Soviet surveillance and spy-running. The Dejean operation is in many ways the summa of KGB and the subject matter therein.
It all began in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, at the Moskva Hotel, with KGB Col. Leonid Kunavin instructing one of his subordinates, the dramatist Yuri Krotkov, that Dejean was the target for recruitment, given his closeness to De Gaulle and the likelihood that the latter was on his way to ruling France. “The order comes from the very top,” Kunavin said. “Nikita Sergeyevich [Khrushchev] himself wants him caught.”
The use of Krotkov as the seconded scalp-hunter was as clever as it was customary, given his bona fides in the artistic milieu of Soviet Moscow. Born in Tbilisi, he was the son of a famous Georgian painter who once did a portrait of Lavrenty Beria that Stalin’s last-appointed security chief so admired, he had copies made and hung around the security service’s Lubyanka headquarters—until, of course, Beria was purged by Khrushchev following Stalin’s death.
Even so, paternal accomplishment and connections afforded Krotkov the necessary state protections, as a writer, to advance quickly through the ranks of the nomenklatura. He relied on his friends in the NKVD, as Beria’s spy service was then known, to evict squatters who had taken over his former room in Moscow, prior to the Nazi siege, which had forced him to flee. Krotkov then worked for TASS and Radio Moscow. He became an agent of the KGB in 1946, at the age of 28.
“As a writer, intellectual, and friend of the Boris Pasternak [author of Dr. Zhivago] family, Krotkov was welcomed by foreigners in Moscow. This tall, slender man, with a handsome shock of dark brown hair and an intense, expressive face, could talk suavely in English or Russian about the arts, history, and prominent Soviet personalities. Soon he learned to exploit the hunger of visitors for communication with the Soviet people. All the while, Krotkov was instructed to look for attractive girls whom the KGB could use to tempt foreigners into trouble. He picked them primarily from among actresses he met while writing film scenarios. The KGB offered them various inducements—the promise of better roles, money, clothes, a measure of liberty and gaiety absent from normal Soviet life.”
The girls were called “swallows” and they flew solo or in formation, depending upon the needs of Krotkov and his masters in the special services. Quarters were provided to them for assignations with their foreign marks—these were “swallow’s nests”—which consisted of two adjoining rooms; one for the tryst and one for the KGB’s audio-visual squad to record everything for the inevitable blackmail and Faustian offer.
Upon their arrival in Moscow, in December 1955, Dejean and his wife Marie-Claire had already been put under extensive surveillance. Their apartment at the French embassy was bugged. Their chauffeur was a KGB informant. They didn’t go anywhere or see anyone without the KGB’s knowledge, in accordance with Second Chief Directorate policy.
“We know everything about him there is to know,” Col. Kunavin told Krotkov during their meeting at the Moskva Hotel. A day later, the colonel told Krotkov his role would be to get to know Marie-Claire. “You must gain control of her; make her ours. You must get her in bed.”
Nor were the Dejeans the only mark. The Soviets also wanted to recruit an assistant air attaché at the French embassy, Col. Louis Guibaud, who was also married and whose wife Ginette would also have to play a sexual part in Krotkov’s little cinema vérité production. Moscow’s Frank Sinatra at the time, the actor and singer Misha Orlov, would be the one to seduce Madame Guibaud.
“When the time comes, it all will fit together,” Kunavin said. “You’ll see; we have something special in mind. There is one thing in our favor. Dejean really is trying to do his job. He wants to get out among the people—and his wife is trying to help him. He really wants to be friends. Well, we’ll show him how friendly our girls can be.”
Orlov and another KGB operative, Boris Cherkashin, who masqueraded as a Soviet diplomat named Karelin, arranged for a not-so-chance encounter with Madame Dejean at a resort by the Black Sea. She was duly impressed with their company and, perhaps not wanting to squander the opportunity to get to know a national celebrity and fellow foreign service officer, befriended them.
The three kept running into each other again and again at state functions, furnishing the perfect pretext for the eventual introduction of the ambassador’s wife to Krotkov. This happened aboard a police motorboat, repainted and redecorated to resemble a private boat, which, after being stuffed with fine wine and gourmet cuisine, took a picnic cruise along the Khimki Reservoir. Krotkov set to work on Madame Dejean, telling her that a friend of his, an official in the Sports Administration, had lent him the craft that had actually come from the Moscow militia, while Orlov hit on Madame Guibard.
Here the set-piece recounted by Barron really did resemble something out of Dangerous Liaisons by way of The Lower Depths.
Krotkov asked Madame Dejean how she was finding the Soviet Union. Too polite to tell the truth, she answered that she was “delighted” by it as well as the graciousness of her communist hosts. Krotkov then compared Moscow unfavorably to Paris, trying to provoke her into national amour-propre, a challenge she also (diplomatically) declined by refusing to compare the two cities.
Krotkov: “Would you have me believe that you like everything you have seen?”
Madame Dejean: “I am a guest. We did not come here to criticize. We came to help our countries be friends.”
Krotkov: “And I hope you succeed. But we should be honest, and I might as well tell you that there is much in Soviet reality that I detest. As a writer, I would be interested to know if we see the same reality.”
Madame Dejean: “If you insist. One difference between France and the Soviet Union: a conversation over a glass of wine can bring a Frenchman to the verge of revolution, while your people seem willing to tolerate anything. I think it very sad when people lose their capacity to be outraged.”
Krotkov: “I can see that you and I are going to be good friends.”
By the end of the cruise, Madame Dejean had invited the entire retinue to celebrate Bastille Day at the embassy. There was just one wrinkle. Cherkashin had previously been identified by French counterintelligence in Paris as a KGB spy, so he couldn’t attend.
Krotkov and Orlov showed up, however, and finally made the acquaintance of Amb. Dejean, who was also entertaining another Soviet luminary.
“Later in the evening,” Barron writes, “Krotkov watched as Dejean and Khrushchev, the guest of honor, drank champagne and traded jokes, occasionally poking each other in the ribs amid the laughter.”
Khrushchev, who had ordered Dejean’s recruitment, must have found the evening very amusing indeed.
The only Frenchman not susceptible to the KGB’s charms, it seems, was the second target, the assistant air attaché, Col. Guibard, who gave the operatives and plants there to toast French independence a frosty reception. Guibard would require more work, Krotkov and Orlov concluded.
The next cast member to enter the plot was nicknamed “Little Napoleon.” He was Lt. Gen. Oleg Gribanov, at the time the head of the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate. He was infamous—at least internally—for crushing dissent and “counter-revolutionary” activity within the broader USSR. He had won the esteem of his superiors by helping to oversee the destruction of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the year Dejean came to Moscow. So Little Napoleon was enlisted to try to foment treason against La France.
Gribanov was given a “legend,” or back story, that made him an “important official in the Council of Ministers” named Oleg Gorbunov. He was married to a woman named Vera Andreyeva, who was in fact a KGB major. Her introduction to the Dejeans came by way of two more agents: Sergei Mikhalkov, the co-author of the Soviet national anthem, and his wife Natalia Konchalovskaya, a children’s book writer. Vera Andreyeva and Madame Dejean, who had yet to go to bed with Krotkov, became good friends.
The two couples took dinner together at the Grubanov’s supposed home, a spacious apartment in Moscow, which was really a KGB-run residence. They holidayed at a lavishly appointed log cabin in Kurkino-Mashkino, just outside the capital—actually, the dacha of Ivan Serov, the chairman of the KGB. Meanwhile, Andreyeva was tasked with keeping Madame Dejean preoccupied and out of town as often as possible, the easier to fly swallows across her husband’s line of sight.
The first to catch his interest was a French-speaking, curvy divorcee named Lydia Khovanskaya, who was repurposed as a translator and made a point of brushing her hair up against the ambassador’s face at a ballet put on just for the benefit of allowing her to entice him into an affair. A subsequent dinner at the pricy Praga Restaurant brought Lydia back into his attention; and, just in case he wasn’t interested, two more swallows—actresses—were invited along as insurance.
But Dejean was interested, as it turned out. At a later art exhibit, Lydia asked the ambassador for a ride home. Then she asked him up for coffee and to “see how an ordinary Soviet woman lives.” He came down two hours later, according to his KGB chauffeur.
Her mission accomplished, she was instructed by Kunavin to play hard to get. “Gradually build up the relationship,” he told her. “But don’t appear too available for a while.”
It would be a minor victory to let the cage descend upon Dejean when he was still just an ambassador to Moscow. The goal was to wait until he climbed the ladder from diplomat to cabinet official or national security adviser to De Gaulle, now coming into focus, in 1958, as the likely next prime minister or, indeed, president. Dejean’s recall to Paris now appeared inevitable.
Act II was an unexpected rearrangement of the dramatis personae.
Lydia had succeeded but had been miscast, according to Kunavin, because she only had an ex-husband—one well known in Paris—and this operation, to be fully realized, required an active spouse who could barge in on the ambassador and his swallow.
Lydia fashioned an excuse: She was leaving Moscow to shoot a film on location and wouldn’t return for some time. Her replacement was already known to Dejean; one of the beautiful young ingénues brought to the Praga Restaurant as backup.
Larissa Kronberg-Sobolevskaya was an unruly and flamboyant mess, overly fond of the bottle and inclined to take her clothes off without official permission. She had agreed to go along with Moscow Centre’s designs on Dejean in exchange for a permit to acquire a room in the city.
The legend: Her husband, “Misha,” was a geologist away on assignment in Siberia. He was insanely jealous and given to fits of violence. No matter. At a lunch fixed at a former KGB colonel’s house, Dejean asked Lora to take him back to her apartment (another KGB spot). So she phoned Krotkov in a panic.
“Yuri, what should I do with him?”
“That’s a ridiculous question.”
“I’m serious. Oleg Mikhailovich [Gribanov] warned me not to do anything without permission. Nobody told me I could make a date today. The proposition just popped up at lunch, and I took advantage of it.”
“Very well, we’ll call from the apartment.”
Krotkov couldn’t find Gribanov to take orders, so he told Lora to go ahead and take Dejean to bed. The subsequent affair was even steamier than the one with Lydia, possibly because Lora went off script so much that she threatened to spoil the entire operation.
It happened during another picnic.
Dejean spent the entire meal lusting after Lora, while Krotkov watched the clock, given that the ambassador was due back at her “apartment” at 5 o’clock in order for Misha, a hulking Tatar employee of the KGB, and his “friend”—Kunavin himself, in disguise—to unexpectedly walk in on them.
Gribanov’s instructions to Misha, Kunavin and Lora: “I want you to beat the hell out of him,” meaning Dejean. “Really hurt him. Terrify him. But I warn you, if you leave one mark on his face, I’ll put you both in jail. And, Lora, the same goes for you if he is not in your apartment by five o’clock. This must go exactly according to schedule.”
Lora had other ideas. While driving back to Moscow, she ordered the car stopped and got out to swim in a nearby lake. Years later, in his memoir, Krotkov would recall frantically running up to Lora, now taking off her clothes as she splashed around, and hissing at her to get back into the damned car:
“She laughed in response and did whatever she pleased. (We made sure the ambassador didn’t hear us arguing, of course.) O, great is the power of woman! How right Lora was in everything, listening to her intuition and acting in accordance with some sixth sense. I was forced to follow her into the lake…. And so right in front of the ambassador’s eyes, she began undressing and climbing from the water in just her slip, which immediately conformed to her body, and when she came out of the water, she looked not just naked, but naked twice over. She came out of the water several times and walked around on the shore look like this. Poor Maurice!”
When Dejean and Lora finally made it back to the apartment, a telegram had been placed there, ostensibly from Misha saying that he’d be back from Siberia the next day. So Dejean and Lora undressed, this time together.
The code word for Misha’s abrupt entry was “Kiev” and as soon as Lora spoke it, the thuggish Tatar and Kunavin sprang into action, beating Dejean about the body and also smacking Lora around for theatrical effect. She screamed that the man they were on the verge of killing was the French ambassador, so Misha and Kunavin pretended to think it over. Misha decided that he’d instead call the police and Dejean would find himself in disgrace and out of a job in the embassy.
Dejean drove home in agony and terror.
In the apartment next door to Lora’s, the champagne glasses were clinking, as the actress-swallow still strutted around naked, taking her bows and chiding Misha and Kunavin for hitting her too hard. She’d earned her room with distinction.
Later, Kunavin received the Order of the Red Star, according to Barron. Krotkov was feted at an expensive feast at the Aragvi Restaurant. One KGB general referred to what had just transpired as “one of the most brilliant” operations “ever consummated by the organs of State Security.” He personally handed Krotkov a gold Doxa watch.
The same day he was beaten up, Dejean attended a dinner engagement black-and-blue under his black tie.
Gribanov/Gorbunov was at the dinner and, seeing a familiar face and someone plausibly in the Soviet Council of Ministers, Dejean approached him and confided all. Gribanov, ever the wise counselor, told him that if Misha sang, “he could make quite a scandal” given that Soviet law was on the jilted husband’s side in such circumstances.
Gribanov offered to try and help but made no promises to Dejean, being suitably downcast about the chances of plucking the Frenchman from his own misfortune. Days later, he delivered. Gribanov said that he’d convinced Misha to keep quiet “in the interests of Soviet-French relations.” The implicit understanding was that in future Dejean might have to return the favor.
But De Gaulle’s ascent had not yet led to the ambassador’s. So the KGB kept Dejean in its good graces; it even arranged to have Lydia return from her movie to take up with him again, all the while feeding every utterance and move by the incorrigible diplomat back to Moscow Centre.
For his part, Dejean relayed whatever Gribanov and his new secret-sharers intended for him to relay back to Paris, whether it be truthful or false.
Everything, in other words, had gone off beautifully, save for just one thing.
The assistant air attaché, Col. Louis Guibard, finally succumbed after a series of swallows had flitted past him and one proved irresistible. The KGB wasn’t as artful in entrapment this time, however. Plainclothes Chekists presented Guibard with photographic evidence of his indiscretion and told him he had two choices: either work for Moscow or be exposed. He opted for a third choice: suicide.
In death, he didn’t confess to what he had done, making it easier for the KGB to invent a story that he shot himself out of severe depression. But to one man, Krotkov, Guibard’s demise did not appear to be self-inflicted at all.
It was murder and it haunted the Georgian dramatist for years afterward and there was only one course of action he could conceive of to exorcise his demons.
While touring London with a delegation of Soviet writers and artists in 1963, Krotkov defected and explained what Barron calls one of the KGB’s “most massive entrapment operations since World War II.”
The British were shocked, but not nearly so much as their French counterparts. The counterintelligence official stationed at the French embassy in London flew back to Paris the same day he was briefed by MI6 about Krotkov’s tale. De Gaulle ordered an investigation and had Dejean recalled for interrogation.
The French concluded that everything Krotkov had said was true, but could not find evidence that Dejean had yet betrayed his country—he was still being cultivated at the time of the Soviet playwright’s defection, and had apparently not given up any state information. Nor did he know that Gribanov/Grubanov was a spy.
The entire plot had been uncovered just in time, before De Gaulle had had reason or chance to promote his old ally in the resistance to a more sensitive portfolio in the French government. When the pouty moralist De Gaulle pronounced his famous animadversion, he allegedly refused to shake Dejean’s hand in dismissing him.
Her Majesty’s Secret Service, meanwhile, faced its own dilemma: Should it out Krotkov’s story to humiliate the Russians, or would doing so only scandalize and antagonize the French, then still dyspeptic over Churchill’s policies toward Paris during the war, as the Soviets well appreciated and, indeed, tried to exacerbate. In the end, MI6 convinced Krotkov to keep his mouth shut, at least temporarily.
Krotkov came to the United States in 1969 to testify before the Senate about the Dejean case, by then no longer a secret. He decided to expatriate to these shores and write novels. He died, as it happens, the same year that his erstwhile victim Dejean did, in 1982.