Real Spies


Vladimir Vetrov (FAREWELL)

“In fact, you don’t give a damn about people. You spout a lot of crap about Western democracy, but you’re letting a man go to his death because it suits you. I understand. If Gregoriev talks on this side of the wall, you get flushed down the tubes.”

  • Guillaume Canet to Willem Dafoe, Farewell (2009)

KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Vetrov, who earlier had served a five-year tour in Paris, told a French businessman in 1981 that he wanted to spy for France. The businessman contacted the French counterintelligence service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), and arranged for a colleague to serve as go-between. The DST, focused on internal affairs, had no experience in running foreign agents, but Vetrov knew that the Soviet Bloc hadn’t penetrated the DST’s ranks. The DST designated its new agent FAREWELL so that the KGB would assume he worked for the CIA if it learned his codename.

Farewell French posterVetrov had grown to hate the KGB and the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Breznev regime. France offered to give asylum to Vetrov and his family, but the KGB officer insisted on remaining in place so he could steal Soviet secrets. His position gave him access to the product of KGB scientific and technological espionage against the West, which was far more extensive than Western officials realized.

Newly elected French President François Mitterand shared FAREWELL’s information with US President Ronald Reagan. The information surprised and embarrassed the CIA. The Soviets had detailed intelligence on the US early-warning radar system, among other technological programs. FAREWELL’s information fed into the Reagan administration’s multifaceted effort to undermine the Soviet economy and contributed to the decision to create the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based shield against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack derided by opponents as “Star Wars.” Trying to match SDI placed inordinate stress on the USSR’s economy. The capstone of FAREWELL’s espionage was a list of all the KGB’s Line X agents in the West, the men and women who sold their countries’ scientific and technological secrets to Moscow.

Overcoming his initial disgust that the DST had sent an amateur as his go-between, Vetrov came to rely on his French contact for psychological support. Increasingly strained by his double life, Vetrov unsuccessfully attempted to kill his mistress, and as a result was imprisoned in Siberia. The DST, unable to contact him, began rolling up the KGB’s network in France, and allied countries followed suit. The KGB’s investigation of an obvious leak led quickly to Vetrov, who was interrogated and eventually executed. (Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud, Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century [2009].)

Kusterica and CanetThe French film Farewell (2009), screenplay by Eric Raynaud based on the book he co-authored, recounts Vetrov’s story. Except for Mitterand and Reagan, the characters’ names are changed, with Vetrov known as Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusterica). Much of the movie focuses on the relationship between Gregoriev and his French businessman contact, here called Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), and on the stress that afflicts each man. The CIA comes off badly in the movie, portrayed first as incompetent and then as calculating and callous.

For three quarters of its length, the film sticks closely to the record but then obscures the reason for the KGB’s identification of Gregoriev as the mole. Worse, it manufactures a dramatic twist that purports to explain Gregoriev’s arrest, diminishing his historical importance as a spy.

Nonetheless, Farewell is a powerful motion picture. Kusterica brings the complex figure of Vetrov to life, courageous in his determination to change the Soviet Union’s totalitarian system yet a deeply flawed human being. Canet also excels in conveying the corrosive effect of espionage on an amateur forced to lie to his wife and lead a double life.

Most important, Farewell demonstrates more clearly than any other spy flick the relationship between espionage and policy. For that alone it belongs on any best-of list.

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