On the second-to-last day of March, Leonid Vladimirovich Shebarshin, the former head of the KGB's foreign intelligence arm and chairman of the KGB -- for a single day in the turmoil of the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- died in his central Moscow apartment, apparently taking his own life. According to Russian media accounts, the last entry in his diary found at the scene was: "March, 29 - 17.15, left eye failure. 19.00, went completely blind. Foreign Intelligence duty officer 4293593." Beside his body was a service pistol presented to him upon his retirement from the KGB, and media reports said there was a suicide note. Shebarshin, my longtime adversary and, later, a helpful collaborator in chronicling the slice of history we shared, was 77.
His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.
For much of the last decade of my CIA career, Shebarshin was the closest thing I had to a main adversary in the Soviet spy apparatus. (For you John le Carré fans out there, he was my Karla.) I met him only after we had retired, when our respective organizations were still trying to sort out all the body blows of treachery and betrayal we had taken in those last desperate years of Cold War rivalry.
We first met in Moscow in 1997 at his offices in the KGB's sports facility, Dynamo Stadium. Although the Soviet Union had ceased to exist half a dozen years earlier, Shebarshin's office walls were covered with eerie, almost surreal murals of revolutionary scenes featuring Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the Soviet secret services. It was clear Shebarshin remained faithful to his Soviet creed, and at that first meeting we acknowledged our common threads as adversaries. We spoke frequently and at length on the phone after that encounter; I was researching a book, and Shebarshin was preparing his memoirs, drafts of which he shared with me and allowed me to incorporate into my work. Over those years, Shebarshin and I came to view each other not necessarily as friends, but perhaps as dueling conductors of one of the last symphonies of the Cold War.
Shebarshin and I were first cast as opposites in the last years of the disastrous Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, but at the time I had no inkling of the extent of his involvement there. I would only become familiar with him as a man and as an adversary when I returned to Langley in 1989, after my Afghan interlude, to take charge of the Soviet-East European Division of the CIA's Directorate of Operations. That same year, Shebarshin became head of KGB foreign intelligence, the FCD, where he had been among the handful of key KGB men behind the lingering mystery of the deadly compromise of the CIA's Moscow assets, beginning in 1985 -- a saga that ended, the CIA thought, with the 1994 arrest of CIA veteran Aldrich Ames on charges of spying for the KGB. Although Ames's betrayal seemed to unscramble the riddle of the Moscow losses, some still believe that another traitor was in our midst in the 1980s and that he is still out there. It's just another secret Shebarshin took to his grave.
It was in Afghanistan where Shebarshin and I unwittingly competed head to head. I managed the CIA's massive covert action against the Soviet occupation, running supplies to the mujahideen from neighboring Pakistan; Shebarshin oversaw the KGB effort from Moscow or, often enough, in Afghanistan itself. Although there was always a degree of desperation during that ruthless conflict, there were lighter moments too, as we learned when we compared notes long afterward.
Late one evening in August 1988, to take one example, I received an animated phone call from a Pakistani intelligence officer advising that a Soviet ground-attack fighter, an Su-25, had been shot down in Paktia province just inside Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan. The aircraft was mostly intact, the caller said, and the Afghan militia leader who had secured the crash site would make the Su-25 a personal gift to me, should I choose to send him 10 Toyota Hilux pickup trucks -- painted white, with red pinstripes -- and an equal number of BM-12 rocket launchers. I agreed, but insisted the site be closed off to the usual "souvenir hunters" who would strip the aircraft of its valuable weapons systems and electronics and sell them to the highest bidder.
Almost as an afterthought, the Pakistani intelligence officer told me that the same militia group had also captured the pilot of the Su-25, a white-haired colonel.
He wondered whether I might be interested in him too; if not, the militia would "deal" with him. I was indeed interested, and I agreed to an additional two Toyotas, along with two more BM-12s, in exchange for the colonel.
The deal was set in motion.
At about that same moment, we later discovered in our talks together, Shebarshin received an urgent report in Moscow that a freebooting militia commander in Paktia, a man of constantly shifting allegiances, had notified the Soviet 40th Army in Kabul that he could secure the release of a certain white-haired colonel who had been shot down nearby. The commander's embroidered proposal had his militia group attacking and freeing the colonel from the deadly grasp of another militia group fighting for the other side. It would be expensive, the militia leader reported, but his brave men could handle it. Shebarshin glanced at the colonel's name but didn't know him. He had no doubt there was but a single militia involved, that it was already holding the colonel, and that it was working both sides -- Soviet and American. Nevertheless, Shebarshin set his end of the deal in motion.