May 28th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1987, a once-promising American intelligence asset was executed with a single gunshot to the head in Moscow — his treachery exposed by two of the most infamous Soviet moles in U.S. intelligence history.
A Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB posted to the Soviets’ official Washington, D.C. offices in 1980, Martynov had turned in 1982 and begun funneling intelligence to the CIA and FBI under the cryptonym “Gentile”. Truth be told, he was a mediocre source, but he was a younger officer with the chance to grow into a more important asset in the years ahead.
Fate had sized him up as an extra in someone else’s story instead.
In 1985, “the year of the spy” to those in the know for the volume of important cloak-and-dagger work, the Soviets landed two highly-placed moles in the American intelligence world — Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI.
Here’s a 2001 New York Times account on how it went down:
[Soviet counterintelligence officer Vitaliy] Yurchenko, unhappy with his lot as a defector [after coming over to the Americans in August 1985], suddenly redefected back to the Soviet Union in early November [1985, still]. Mr. Cherkashin has said in a previous interview that Mr. Yurchenko’s redefection presented an opportunity to lure Valeriy Martynov, a K.G.B. officer in the Washington station working for the F.B.I., back to the Soviet Union: The K.G.B. arranged for Mr. Martynov to serve as a member of an honor guard escorting Mr. Yurchenko back to Moscow.
When they arrived back in the Soviet Union, it was Mr. Martynov who was arrested; Mr. Yurchenko was given a job at the K.G.B. again.
No honor among thieves.
Martynov left a widow, Natalia, and two children. But he is remembered and written about exclusively in the context of the men who sold him out, who taken separately or together rate among recent history’s most catastrophic intelligence failures. (Or triumphs, depending on your point of view.)
Martynov’s ultimate tragedy, of course — one he shares with his more infamous American betrayers in this shadowland chess match — is that not by all the information he provided, and neither by his life nor his death, was the Cold War protracted or abbreviated by one single hour.
Books about the Ames and Hanssen cases
Also on this date
- 1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle
- 1829: George Chapman, besotted
- Themed Set: Old New York
- 1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum
- 1872: Franks survives Fiji's first hanging
- 2002: Napoleon Beazley, who threw it all away
- 1871: The Paris Commune falls