A Picture from History: Oleg Penkovsky

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The Cold War was growing hotter by the hour. The threat of nuclear war — always hanging overhead — was now at a fever pitch as American intelligence reports proved that Soviet nuclear warheads had been stationed on the island of Cuba.

And those nukes? 

They were pointed directly at Florida. 

Cuban launch sites

As the world sat just two minutes to midnight on The Doomsday Clock, John F. Kennedy and American intelligence officials scrambled for information.

If they could figure out weaknesses and where they resided, they could exploit them…

Enter Oleg Penkovsky 

Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Penkovsky

Born deep in the heart of Russia, Penkovsky soon found himself fighting against Germany as an artillery officer during World War II.

Wars don’t last forever, though, and after the shots quit ringing out, Penkovsky would go on to enter the Soviet version of the CIA — the GRU. 

GRU emblem
GRU emblem

While the KGB concerned itself with internal “threats,” the GRU focused on international concerns.

Penkovsky soon found himself placed as a senior official in the State Committee for the Coordination of Scientific Research. 

His job? 

To find out as much as he could about Western scientific advancements so that the Soviets could use that information to benefit Russia.  

Oleg Penkovsky's passport
Oleg Penkovsky’s passport

There was just one problem. 

Penkovsky was growing tired of the Soviets. 

A Coincidental Acquaintance

In April 1961, Penkovsy made an acquaintance that would change his life forever.

He met British MI6 spy Greville Wynne, a businessman with an export business that gave him excellent cover for his frequent travels between England and Russia. 

Greville Wynne
Greville Wynne (center)

An alliance was formed, and from that point on, Penkovsky would serve as a double agent.

As he passed over a massive package filled with classified Soviet intelligence to Greville, he finally burned his bridges. There was no going back. 

Western intelligence organizations were floored by the amount of information that was contained in that initial packet of documents.

It was astounding, and Penkovsky would be given the codename “Hero” as a result. 

Oleg Penkovsky (left, with pipe) and Greville Wynne (center)
Oleg Penkovsky (left, with pipe) and Greville Wynne (center)

Spy Craft

Over the next year, Penkovsky would utilize dead drops with messages contained in cigarette cartons and other pieces of rubbish to smuggle over 5,000 photos, 111 rolls of exposed film, and countless pages of other vital information to the West.

Penkovsky even stepped in for interviews with MI6, producing over 140 hours of dialogue. 

The telephone pole that Penkovsky used to send messages
The telephone pole that Penkovsky used to send messages

He told the West about how the guidance systems for Soviet nukes weren’t functional yet. He discussed how their missile fueling systems weren’t ready.

The range of the Cuban missiles, their age, their strength — all of this information was gleaned from Penkovsky, allowing JFK to make the decisions necessary to help to bring the Cuban Missile Crisis to an end.

An SA-2 missile site in Cuba
An SA-2 missile site in Cuba

But unfortunately, all of this spying brought Penkovsky to his end as well. 

The End of the Mission

Though nobody knows how the leak was traced back to Penkovsky, he was arrested by the Soviets on October 22, 1962

His trial began a few months later, and he was promptly sentenced to death for treason.  

Penkovsky (right) during his trial
Penkovsky (right) during his trial

What happened next is unclear. Wynne — who was also arrested for espionage — would claim that Penkovsky committed suicide in prison. Wynne had a notorious track record for fabrications, however.

KGB interrogator Alexander Zagvozdin said Penkovsky was “questioned” roughly 100 times and then shot. GRU agent and writer Viktor Suvorov claimed to have witnessed Penkovsky strapped to a stretcher and burned alive in a crematorium.  

Viktor Suvorov
Viktor Suvorov

Whatever the case, what is certain is that on May 16, 1963, Oleg Penkovsky ceased to live on this earth. But the contributions he made to the United States? They lived on. 

Want to learn more about Oleg Penkovsky? Check out his journal, published after his death, titled The Penkovsky Papers.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.



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