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It may be something of a surprise to many, but it isn’t often that spies committing treason are actually tried and executed for their crimes. The majority of those caught spying end up in prison or as a prisoner exchange. But one man’s fate has become the subject of much speculation and, if that speculation is only partially true, Oleg Penkovsky met a gruesome end.

Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky was born in Vladikavkaz, Northern Ossetia, on 19th April 1919. He became a colonel in the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the late 1950s. It was Penkovsky who was responsible for informing the UK intelligence service that the Soviet Union were placing missiles, possibly with nuclear warheads, in Cuba. His information provided the UK and US the heads-up that allowed the west to challenge the Soviet Union during a worsening of tensions between the opposing sides in the infamous Cuba Missile Crisis of the 1960s, when the world came to the brink of a nuclear confrontation.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 became a 13-day stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the end the Soviet Union was forced to back down and in the eyes of the Soviet leadership, were humiliated. It soon became apparent to the leadership that there was someone high up, on the inside, leaking Soviet secrets to the West. Penkovsky was supplying a a massive amount of data to his British Secret Service handlers. It was a dangerous game to play and the Soviet hunt for the mole was intensifying.

In the end it was another double-agent, Jack Dunlap, a US army sergeant assigned to the United States NSA, who was secretly working for the KGB, who revealed Penkovsky’s activities to his Soviet handlers. Penkovsky was arrested on 22nd October 1962.

The Chief KGB interrogator for the investigation into Penkovsky ‘s activities, Alexander Zagvozdin, stated that Penkovsky had been “questioned perhaps a hundred times” and was eventually shot and his body cremated. But it has been said that a more gruesome fate befell the unfortunate spy.

After defecting from the Soviet Union to the UK, GRU agent Vladimir Rezun, claimed while in the Soviet Union he watched a black and white film which showed a GRU colonel, bound to a stretcher, who was placed in a crematorium oven and cremated alive. This was meant to act as a warning to potential traitors within the Soviet intelligence services.

Whatever Penkovsky’s fate, it is a feature of all work carried out by intelligence services the world over that secrecy shrouds the truth in a cloak of mystery.

Copyright © Tom Kane 2020

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