When Nairobi was preferred playground for Soviet spies

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. In the 1970s, Kenya was playground of Russian spies. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • In the 1970s, Russia attempted to steal some statistical data from Kenya’s Central Bank

  • The Kenyan Russian spy network appeared to be under Russia’s Kenya embassy First Secretary GP Bekhterev.

  • Mr Moi zeroed in on the Russian networks in Nairobi and declared two Russians, Mr Veniamin Zakharov – posing as head of Novosti Press Agency – and Mr Eduard Agadzihanov.

On March 4, a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, were discovered unconscious slumped on a shopping centre bench in the British city of Salisbury. They had apparently been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union between 1971 and 1980s as part of its attempts to have a chemical weapons arsenal.

The New York Times reported that, most likely, an assassin smeared the nerve agent on the door handle at the Skripals home.

Stories of Russian spies are always intriguing – and have been with us for some time.


Actually, we have had similar stories with KGB spies.

A source who should know tells me that in the 1970s, Russia attempted to steal some statistical data from Kenya’s Central Bank. In those days, the data was held in voluminous books and a CBK official had agreed to deliver one of those books to a KGB spy at a parking lot in Nairobi.

What they didn’t know was that the agent had already been unmasked by the Special Branch who decided to foil the hand-over without creating a diplomatic ruckus.

“We decided that the only way to do it was to break the spy’s legs with metal bars and snatch the documents from him,” the source said.


Armed with metal bars, and shortly after he had bought the documents, the Special Branch agents pounced on him, roughed him up, and broke his legs. Those who witnessed the commotion thought it was an ordinary attack on a tourist by Nairobi thugs.

“The man was whisked away by a Soviet embassy vehicle and flown out of the country the same day,” my source said. The agents then walked back to their office and handed the document to James Kanyotu – then head of the Special Branch. End of story.

In those days, the KGB operatives were known to collect such data by either posing as journalists, tourists or traders.


The role of the Special Branch – at least when Kanyotu was in charge – was to also  investigate and take action against any suspects involved in economic and transnational espionage if the police were reluctant to do it. My source told me that their work was to thwart any subversion before it took place. They called it “proactive intelligence.”

While South Africa was the centre-piece of KGB operations in Africa, the best known spy scandal in Kenya is what is now known as the Yuri Loginov Affair.

Loginov was a double-agent for both the America Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the KGB. He had arrived in Nairobi in 1967 as Mr Edmund Trinka using a Canadian passport to collect information on behalf of the Americans who did not know that the man had been planted on them by the Soviets. The real Trinka, the owner of the passport Loginov was carrying, was a Canadian who had died in Lithuania.


Inside KGB, Loginov was a Line X officer, meaning his work was to get hold of scientific intelligence, blueprints and sample items of Western science and technology. It was while on his escapades in Finland, using an American passport and with an alias Ronald W. Dean, that he volunteered to spy for the CIA who gave him a codename, AE/Gusto.

After establishing contact with the CIA at Helsinki, Loginov said he wanted to defect but was convinced by Richard Kovich – a cold war CIA veteran known for recruiting Soviet spies for the CIA until his career slid into infamy – to continue his sojourn within the KGB. Kovich’s role in Europe was to aid the defection and debriefing of notable Soviet intelligence figures and to create covert operations.

There is little known about Loginov’s arrival in Nairobi or the kind of scientific intelligence he was supposed to collect. He spoke English with an American accent and had trained as a travel writer, welder and bookkeeper.

It was after working in Egypt that Loginov flew to Nairobi - then an emerging CIA station in Africa. His arrival in Nairobi coincided with the tenure of Nicolai Petrov, the Soviet ambassador in Kenya who was later expelled by Daniel arap Moi – the minister for Home Affairs – for espionage.


In the book, Soviet Strategy in Southern Africa, Prof Peter Vanneman described Mr Petrov in passing as a “professional intelligence operative” in Africa. Mr Petrov would later be expelled as an ambassador in Ghana (1971) and Mali in 1978.

The Kenyan Russian spy network appeared to be under Russia’s Kenya embassy First Secretary G. P. Bekhterev, the man who had helped Loginov to get his alias.

When the Special Branch got wind of his presence in Nairobi, they alerted Mr Moi. As Moi would later say, Mr Loginov had been instructed by Moscow to obtain “certain information concerning members of the Kenya government.”

Mr Loginov, then 34, together with Mr Bekhterev, according to the late Laikipia West MP G.G. Kariuki, were active members of the Russian intelligence service and that was the reason Mr Bekhretev fled from Kenya  after the arrest of Mr Loginov in South Africa – where he was also establishing a similar spy network.


In Kenya, Moi never revealed the intelligence findings on what Mr Loginov was doing. He told Parliament: “Members will appreciate that it would not be in the interests of our country for me to reveal in detail the results of these investigations since the work of counter-espionage is something which goes on even with the departure of those (we) come to notice and against whom we can take no action on account of the privileged position they enjoy by virtue of their diplomatic status.”

He was addressing Parliament on the Loginov affair.

He went on: “Foremost in this category is Mr Bekhterev who, as one would expect, left hurriedly for Moscow when the arrest of his colleague became known.”

In South Africa, Mr Loginov had hired an apartment in Johannesburg’s Smit Street – near “a strip of seedy prostitution hotels and clubs”, according to one author. In some circles, Loginov was nicknamed “the playboy spy”, because of his preference for beautiful girls and life on the fast lane.

His arrival in South Africa coincided with the tenure of anti-communist Prime Minister John Vorster who had just passed the Suppression of Communism Act No. 24 and had vowed to eliminate the country’s “big cancer”: “Whites who agitated (for Communism) amongst blacks”.


Loginov came to the attention of South Africa’s intelligence when he was photographed taking pictures of a former police station.

When he was arrested, Mr Loginov was in the process of establishing identities of other Soviet spies before moving to North America.

He carried with him a forged birth certificate and a complimentary card from the Canadian High Commissioner in Tanzania. In his apartment was a Braun 12-band F1000 radio transmitter, a miniature Minox camera, microfilms, secretly-written notebooks, fake South African driving licences, and a fake passport. It would later emerge, and he said as much, that he had received his Canadian passport from a Soviet Consul in Toronto, Mr Yevgeny Mikhailovich and a Mr “Nick” in Nairobi – thought to be the pseudo-name of Russia’s First Secretary in Nairobi, MrBekhterev.

While Mr Bekhterev was posing as a diplomat, he was actually the head of the Russian intelligence service for East and Central Africa.

Then Mr Moi zeroed in on the Russian networks in Nairobi and declared two Russians, Mr Veniamin Zakharov – posing as head of Novosti Press Agency – and Mr Eduard Agadzihanov, the head of Sov-export-film.


While ordering the closure of their offices, Mr Moi told the Press: “In the interests of national security, I do not propose to elaborate on the events which led to this decision. The methods adopted by hostile intelligence services to subvert and undermine government – and to carry their ideological battles into countries which have repeatedly expressed their intention of remaining nonaligned – are too well-known to require repetition.”

What emerged later was that the two “journalists” had helped Loginov to obtain a postal address in Nairobi under a fictitious name and to conceal his movements in Kenya. According to intelligence, the three were known to have used a secret radio transmitter to pass information from Kenya to their headquarters in Moscow.

More damaging was the dalliance of the two journalists with members of Oginga Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union.


While the CIA thought that Mr Loginov was their man, it would later emerge that his true intention was to deceive the CIA. It was after he was busted by South Africa’s intelligence that he was said to have named several KGB officers posing as diplomats.

But there was no such confession, according to Nigel West in his book, Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence. Mr West says that the list of compromised KGB personnel was “fabricated by the CIA with the express intention of persuading Loginov to be entirely candid with his interrogators.”

“To eliminate any doubt about the depth of Loginov’s supposed confession, local journalist Barbara Carr was offered the opportunity to write his biography and was provided with what were presented as details to his background supposedly supplied by him. What Carr was not told was that the data she received was given by Loginov to the CIA, and not to the South African police,” writes Mr West.


The book, Loginov: Spy in the Sun, omitted the role of Loginov as a double agent. Interestingly, he was later exchanged with some 11 Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND) agents who had been arrested in the East and went on to live in peace in Moscow.

And that is our story with Russian spies – and how Moi disrupted them.

Kamau is a Senior Writer with NMG. Email: [email protected]; @johnkamau1