The spy who remained in the cold
Jan 15th 2009
A new film honours a hero of the cold war
WATCHING Daniel Craig, an actor best known as James Bond, playing a Jewish resistance fighter successfully battling the Nazis is an unbeatable combination for film audiences in the western world. “Defiance”, a newly released film about the Bielski partisans, is likely to do well. Some Poles may argue that it does not give a complete picture of their resistance to the country’s double occupation by the Nazis and Soviets. But historical films necessarily tell only one strand of a story.
“Defiance” is a story of a group finding collective courage against impossible odds. Another new film, Polish-made for an international audience, tells a similarly inspiring story, of how one man, in the heart of the Soviet empire’s military machine, was able to make a difference and—perhaps—save the world from a nuclear holocaust. “War Games”, by Dariusz Jablonski, tells the story of Ryszard Kuklinski (pictured), once the West’s top spy behind the iron curtain.
As one of communist Poland’s top military planners, Kuklinski had access to the Warsaw Pact’s most sensitive secrets—including plans for a devastating military onslaught on the West. What his colleagues never suspected was that he had become a fervent anti-communist, who photographed thousands of documents and passed them to the CIA.
His disillusion started in the mid-1960s, and was crystallised by his outrage at the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he helped plan. The film shows his CIA handlers and other American officials giving, for the first time on camera, vivid details of their meetings with Kuklinski. One hardened ex-spook weeps as he recalls his prize agent’s courage.
Kuklinski and his family were smuggled out of Poland shortly before martial law was imposed in 1981. Like many defectors, they lived a twilight life in the West, physically comfortable but emotionally isolated: making friends was risky. If he hoped for speedy vindication once communism collapsed, he was mistaken.
After the evil empire imploded, attitudes to those who had spied for the other side varied. The then-Czechoslovakia said that they were heroes; it invited those western agents who had escaped to return and help set up the new non-communist intelligence service (nobody, it seems, took up the offer). In Estonia, the late Mart Männik, a survivor of the disastrous MI6 post-war operation in the Baltic states, chose not to make himself known to the authorities, fearing retribution from the KGB, which he felt still had plenty of power in the post-occupation republic. His story is well told in a book “Tangled Web”, recently published in English by Grenader, an Estonian publisher.
But the post-communist Polish authorities were shockingly slow to rehabilitate Kuklinski. Many Poles thought he was not a hero, but a traitor who had broken his military oath. Only in September 1997 were charges of espionage dropped; he finally returned to Poland for a visit in 1998.
The film casts a thought-provoking light on that controversy, which the new film is likely to reignite. Lech Walesa’s evasive answers to the question why he as president failed to pardon Kuklinski are striking (he says he was surrounded by ex-communists but does not explain why he couldn’t overrule them).
Also troubling are the mysterious deaths of both his sons in 1994: just a boating mishap and a hit-and-run road accident? Or the belated revenge of his former colleagues? The film cannot answer that. Nor does it answer the question of who tipped off the Soviet authorities that the West had a mole in the Polish military: was it one of the traitors who has since been exposed? Or one who has to this day covered his tracks successfully?
Saturday, January 17, 2009