Career in Russia
Vassiliev worked as an operative of the First (American) Department of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB from 1987 to 1990.
In February 1990, Vassiliev resigned from the KGB for political and moral reasons. He resigned from the Communist Party in that same year. He returned to the editorial staff of Komsomolskaya Pravda, where he worked as a reporter and then columnist, writing mostly about international issues and espionage from 1990 to 1996. He also worked as an author and presenter of several political shows on the First Channel of the Russian TV ("Ostankino") from 1991 to 1993.
In the summer of 1993, Vassiliev received a telephone call from Iurii Kobaladze, press officer of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of the Russian Federation, requesting a meeting. Kobaladze asked Vassiliev to participate in a book project with Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, which had arranged for a five book series based upon KGB archival documents, each edited by one Russian and one American editor. The SVR (successor to the KGB), was in the midst of a budgetary crisis and sought to improve its image as an effective service and had agreed to the proposal. Although having misgivings, Vassiliev finally agreed to work on a book dealing with Soviet Espionage in America in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the project.
In the fall of 1993, Vassiliev signed a book contract and met the American chosen by Crown to work with him, historian Allen Weinstein, a specialist in the Alger Hiss spy case. Vassiliev quit his television job and in early 1994 began to work on the book project in earnest, working with archival documents provided at the press bureau of the SVR.
Documents housed in SVR archives were carried to Vassiliev at the SVR press office; he was allowed to made copious notes both summarizing and transcribing their content in the presence of two SVR officers. Although locked up in a safe each night with the archival material, no one checked what he was writing and Vassiliev was allowed to take notebooks home as he filled one and brought in another. A total of eight notebooks were kept, along with a number of unbound pages. Vassiliev later recalled that he attempted to transcribe as many documents as possible verbatim and painstakingly noted archival file and document numbers for each.
The writing of draft chapters for Vassiliev's first book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — The Stalin Era, began in 1995, with each vetted by the SVD Declassification Commission, the head of the archives department, and Kobaladze. Vassiliev was unable to name Americans who assisted Soviet intelligence in his draft chapters owing to SVR regulations which forbid the "outing" of agents and sources, so cover names were used in Vassiliev's draft. Many cover names were already well known in the United States, however, and American author Weinstein had little difficulty understanding who was who and retained control over the final draft.
Beginning in 1995, the political environment began to change in Russia, Vassiliev later recalled, with the popularity of Boris Yeltsin plummeting and an anxious mood sweeping the country. A conservative nationalistic restoration seemed to be in the offing, headed by Russian Presidential candidate Gennady Ziuganov. Adding to the difficulty, Crown Publishing found it necessary to cancel the five volume book deal for financial reasons, throwing the entire project into doubt. In January 1996, Vassiliev was informed that he would be receiving no new files from the archives.
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