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Michał Goleniewski: The Best Cold War Spy You’ve Never Heard Of

by Tim Tate

Sixty years ago the best Cold War spy the West ever had defected across divided Berlin to the safety of the U.S. Embassy. Ever since he has been an enigma: his extraordinary life, and the story of his unprecedented contribution to U.S., British, and European security, obscured behind clouds of official secrecy, misinformation, and his own bizarre behavior.

Polish Spy Michael Goleniewski (1965).
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

The spy’s name was Lt. Col. Michał Goleniewski, a senior officer in Poland’s intelligence service who was simultaneously employed by the KGB. In April 1958, he volunteered to work for the United States, and for 33 months risked his life as an undercover Agent In Place behind the Iron Curtain, smuggling hundreds of top secret Soviet Bloc military and espionage secrets to the West.  

After his defection, he gave the CIA an even bigger treasure trove of Moscow’s most vital secrets. In total, according to an internal Agency assessment which I prised—eventually—out of Langley, Goleniewski exposed 1,693 communist bloc spies who had burrowed into Western intelligence services and government departments. And those spies were not minnows in the murky pool of Cold War intelligence gathering: Goleniewski’s information led to the capture of some of the most serious spies and organized spy rings operating in Britain, Europe, and the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  

Among them were George Blake, Moscow’s mole inside Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6; Gordon Lonsdale and Peter and Helen Kroger, long-term KGB agent runners operating under deep cover and stolen identities; Heinz Felfe, West Germany’s head of counterintelligence who betrayed the cover names and true identities of scores of CIA officers; and Col. Stig Wennerström a senior Swedish Air Force officer who sold U.S., British, and NATO secrets to Soviet military intelligence for decades. 

Little wonder then, that in the mid-1960s, the CIA recorded its admiration for Goleniewski’s “unparalleled contribution to Western intelligence”; arranged for the U.S. Congress to pass a private law giving him the right to apply for American citizenship; employed him as a well-paid consultant; and even provided false documents to sponsor his bigamous marriage, under a cover identity, in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Little wonder, either, that on the other side of the Iron Curtain his former communist masters put him on trial—in secret and in absentia—and sentenced him to death for treason.

Yet for six decades Michał Goleniewski has been largely erased from the history books, and his courageous work on behalf of western democracy has been deliberately airbrushed from the story of the Cold War. In 1973—less than ten years after praising his bravery and the accuracy of his intelligence—an internal Agency memo denounced Goleniewski as “a real nut…absolutely nutty” and advised the Secret Service to monitor his movements.

How did Michał Goleniewski go from being the best spy and most valuable defector the West ever had to such a crazed and dangerous threat? The mystery of how—and why—that happened is just one of the many and very tangled strands of a truly remarkable story. Unpicking those strands, and understanding that story, took many years and required me to unearth long-forgotten—or in some cases, long-suppressed—files held by intelligence services in Britain, America, and Poland, as well as scores of other documents, stored in Government and academic archives across Europe and the United States, and Goleniewski’s own voluminous writings.

Often, working on these documents—many thousands of pages of them—I felt like I was trying to complete a vastly-complex jigsaw puzzle. But when all of the pieces came together, a clear picture emerged: that of a remarkably brave and dedicated spy who for almost three years risked his life on behalf of the West. 

Yet as I assembled those same jigsaw pieces, another, more tragic, picture of Michal Goleniewski developed: that of a deeply-flawed man who blew up his own reputation with grandiose—and entirely fraudulent—claims to be the Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, son of the last Tsar of Imperial Russia, who claimed to have miraculously survived the assassination of the entire Russian royal family in Siberia in 1918. It was an absurd pretense, but since the Romanov corpses had then yet to be discovered, it was one which attracted an enormous amount of rather excitable press coverage.

The CIA exploited this Romanov fantasy, arguing that this was evidence its former star agent had lost his mind. Yet the truth is rather more complex: a year before Goleniewski went public with his claims, the Agency had already begun slow-walking investigations into the intelligence that Goleniewski provided; then it reneged on its commitment to employ and pay him.  

It also harassed him, obstructed attempts by lawmakers on Capitol Hill to secure his testimony before Congressional committees, and—at the same time that Polish intelligence service agents in America were searching for Goleniewski with the intention of carrying out his death sentence—reclaimed the handgun it had given him for protection.  

More disturbingly, the CIA also played on Goleniewski’s vulnerable psyche, switching repeatedly his cover identities and ensuring that the documentation which formally regularized his presence in the United States was in a different name to that set out in the Congressional Bill; that made it impossible for him to apply for the U.S. citizenship he had been promised. In short, the CIA cast the best Cold War spy it had ever had out into the cold and contributed significantly to his descent into insanity.

I wanted to know why, and I found the answer in the Agency’s own belatedly de-classified documents. These showed that Goleniewski was the first—though far from the last—casualty of an internal witch hunt led by the CIA’s sinister head of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton. With the help of a deeply dubious rival defector—Anatoliy Golitsin—Angleton’s actions drove Goleniewski ever-deeper down the rabbit hole of insanity. 

Ultimately, the truth about Michał Goleniewski was that he was, simultaneously a courageous undercover agent and a hunted defector; and a bigamist and bogus pretender to the Imperial Russian Throne. But above all, he was the best spy the West ever had—and then lost.

Photo Credit: Andy Boag

Tim Tate is a multiple award-winning documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist. Over a career spanning more than forty years, he has made more than eighty documentaries and written for most national newspapers. His films have been honored by Amnesty International, the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, the International Documentary Association, and others. The author of seventeen previous books, including Hitler’s Forgotten Children and the bestselling Slave Girl, he lives in Wiltshire, England.