January 11, 2011

The Russian Teddy Bear was a KGB Mole: The Oleg Tumanov Story

In modern use the term “mole“ applies to anyone who secretly penetrates an organization, gains its members’ trust, and either steals its classified information and/or undermines it clandestinely.

Encylopedia of Cold War espionage, spies and secret operations, by R.C.S. Trahair

Below we will look at one of the KGB “moles” in Radio Liberty: Oleg Tumanov

Oleg Alexandrovich Tumanov was born in Moscow on November 12, 1944. Oleg Tumanov attended elementary and secondary school in Moscow until 1961. He then attended a "trade school for draftsmen" to 1962. In 1963, he “joined” the Soviet Merchant Marine and served until 1965, when he "jumped ship" in Egypt's waters, swam to shore, made his way to Libya and asked for political asylum.

Tumanov Press ID
American authorities were notified and Tumanov was flown to West Germany. He was then processed at the American controlled refugee center known as Camp King, near Frankfurt, Germany, as a defector. Officials at Camp King notified Radio Liberty (RL) about a young Russian prospect. A RL manger went to Frankfurt and interviewed Tumanov. He was invited to Munich and successfully passed the written and spoken Russian language tests and joined Radio Liberty in June 1966 as a News Writer trainee. Almost 20 years later, he had risen to the position of a Chief Editor in the Russian Service of RFE/RL. He never acquired German or American citizenship. 


Soviet Intelligence officer Viktor P. Gundarev defected to the West in Athens, Greece, on Friday, 14 February 1986. The first media reports of Gundarev's defection appeared a week after his defection. He was about fifty years old and a Colonel in the KGB.  Reportedly, he defected with his seven-year-old son, and a woman identified as a teacher who was taking care of his son.  
            
The following night, Athens police detained four men from the Soviet Embassy because they apparently were staking out the American Embassy to prevent his departure to the United States.  Media reports said they were “armed to the teeth” with automatic weapons and hand grenades.  The four men claimed diplomatic immunity and were released from custody.  Gundarev's presence in the United States was confirmed by the State Department on 22 February 1986.  According to the State Department spokesman, Charles Redman, Gundarev had been working since 1983 in Athens under cover of “head of the maritime section of the Soviet commercial mission” and had been granted asylum in the United States.
            
That day, John Bothwell, a retired US Navy officer was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London for “violating Britain's official secrets act.”  Reportedly, he spent six months a year in Athens, and the other six months, he lived in Britain.  His arrest was directly attributed to Gundarev's defection and his debriefing in the US.  One media report quoted unidentified sources: “confederates warned Bothwell of Gundarev's defection, but not in time.”

            
His defection, though interesting in many respects, did not at first glance affect RFE/RL. However, Gundarev’s defection and the arrest of Bothwell unleashed a chain of events that lead to the unmasking of KGB agents in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Apparently fearing arrest, RFE/RL Russian Service employee Oleg Tumanov fled Germany. 

Oleg Tumanov was reported missing twenty-five years ago on Wednesday, February 26, 1986: RL’s Russian Service director called and said that Tumanov had not reported for work that morning and did not answer his telephone. He added that there had been no word from him for over 24 hours. 

Afterwards, numerous articles appeared in the Western press speculating that Tumanov had been kidnapped by the KGB or that he was a KGB agent in Radio Liberty. Newspapers in the United States, for example, published one article in early March 1986 entitled, “Was this Teddy Bear Really a Mole?” Syndicated columnist Lars-Erik Nelson wrote,
Tumanov, 42, is a “cuddly teddy bear,“ ... Some of his colleagues also raised the suspicion that he was a mole who had risen to the key editorial position at one of America's most important propaganda outlets to the Soviet Union -- and had redefected. Everybody knew there was a mole at Radio Liberty -- maybe more than one.


On April 28, 1986, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that Oleg Tumanov had returned home and considered “it his civic duty to reveal plans hostile to the peoples of the world--the plans of those who inspire a 'crusade' against the USSR and supervise wide-scale psychological warfare.” Tumanov appeared at a 3 PM press conference in the Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. However, the 90-minute conference did not go as expected. Foreign correspondents did not buy his story. After Tumanov read a KGB prepared statement, the floor was opened to questions from Soviet and foreign correspondents -- those from the West vigorously questioned him about his statement.


The next day, the British newspaper The Guardian best summed up the failed press conference:

The slick new Soviet publicity machine suffered its first public humiliation yesterday when a carefully staged press conference in Moscow for yet another dissident returning to his homeland virtually collapsed in ridicule. Clearly nervous, sighing deeply, and at times mumbling almost incoherently, Mr. Tumanov refused to give any details about when or how or why he had decided to return to the Soviet Union.

Radio Sofia and Radio Warsaw briefly reported on the press conference and both quoted Tumanov that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were “branches of American special services, a convenient cover for secret operations against the Soviet Union and other Socialist Countries.”  Radio Prague carried brief items in the afternoon newscasts, and Czechoslovak television carried a long report on Tumanov in its prime-time evening news program.  In addition, Radio Budapest broadcast a long report from its correspondent, who had attended the press conference.
           
The Soviet news agency TASS also saw things differently,

Oleg Tumanov, former acting editor-in-chief of the Russian service of Radio "Liberty", spoke at a press conference at the Press Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R. today. He told newsmen how after defecting to the West more than 20 years ago he had found himself in an anti-Soviet trap set up by the military intelligence service and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

“My road back home has been tortuous", Oleg Tumanov said in conclusion.

"I wouldn't wish anybody to experience this kind of 20-year-long road. I am now at home and it would seem the easiest thing to say that everything I have lived through has been a nightmare dream. No, a dream it hasn't been. Everything I told you here has been a reality, a nightmarish reality. Only perhaps it is not everybody that can see this reality objectively. I could and so the road back to my homeland was for me the natural and logical one. At a difficult time, and the world is going through a difficult time now, every honest person should be with his own people. This is why I am here.”

The investigation into his activities at Radio Liberty for almost 20 years showed that Tumanov stole personnel lists, background information and reported on the personal lives of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service personnel. One example of his KGB activities was that by 1974, he had contributed 12 to 13 volumes of information. A Soviet propaganda film “Radio Divisiant” about Radio Liberty appeared in 1974 and some on the documents Tumanov supplied to the KGB were shown in the film. 

Three years after Tumanov returned to Moscow, on February 20, 1989, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda published a very interesting interview with Oleg Tumanov that was contradictory to anything that previously appeared in print:

I took the elevator to the fifth floor. A short bearded man around 40 years old wearing a blue jogging suit opened the door and apologizing, repeated: "Our lamp has burned out--don't trip over." That's how I met Oleg Tumanov..

You are, naturally, interested in how I came to be there. And why I am  now sitting here?--he asked. In reality, it is a sad story. Long ago, finding myself in Genoa, I requested political asylum. I was 20 years old then. After a while they assigned me to Radio "Liberty" in Munich. They gave me US citizenship. I very soon realized that I had made an unforgivable mistake. I had to wait an awful long time before I saw my homeland again. When the time came that I could not bear to work any longer at the radio station, I left. Later, I found out that the Bavarian authorities had sentenced me to 25 years imprisonment.

No. He didn't fit the image of "super spy" James Bond, capable of walking through fire and water, especially in this ordinary blue jogging suit.

Tumanov in his memoirs Confessions of a KGB Agent, published in 1993, wrote that he had been trained by the KGB before being sent to the West with the objective of joining Radio Liberty. Depending on what version you want to believe, he was either recruited by the KGB after arriving in the West, or was sent out of the Soviet Union with the task of penetrating Radio Liberty as a "sleeper" to be awakened with tasking at a later date. In any event, he supplied information to the KGB through personal meetings in Vienna, East Berlin and Helsinki, for at least 14 years, perhaps as long as 19.
  
In his memoirs, Oleg Tumanov succinctly summed up his life and disillusionment in post-Communist Russia when he wrote:

Today I rarely leave my apartment. I don’t have a job and I live on the pension the state pays me. I spend my days reading books and papers. I go to bed early and rise late.I am forty-eight years old, but I sometimes feel like a very old man...I am alone among strangers and among friends. 

Everything is mixed up; everything has changed. Émigrés who had been working against the Communist regime are now regarded not as enemies but as national heroes.

Oleg Tumanov died on or about October 23, 199, and was buried in Khovanskoye cemetery in Moscow. His obituary was never published; in fact, there was no publicity about his death in Russia.  

For More Information:

Chapter 7, of my book Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989, for the Tumanov story and other KGB agents at Radio Liberty.

Oleg Tumanov: Confession of a KGB Agent (Berlin, edition q. inc., 1993). He admits in the book that he wrote his memoirs with the help of the KGB but denies that they “censored” the book (p. 182). He does not give away secrets such as who else was working for the KGB at Radio Liberty. 

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