The legacy of Nikolai Leonov, the Kremlin’s man in the Americas

The Marxist chronicler of Latin American history died last week at 93. A senior KGB officer, interpreter and politician, he was a mentor to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and friends with Raúl and Fidel Castro

Nikolai Leonov during an interview with the Cuban broadcasting corporation.
Nikolai Leonov during an interview with the Cuban broadcasting corporation.Wikipedia

Born in Russia in 1928, Nikolai Sergyevich Leonov died last week in Moscow at the age of 93. As well as writing a Marxist history of Latin American revolutions and the biographies of Fidel and Raúl Castro, Leonov was a high-ranking interpreter and senior officer of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence services. He reached the rank of lieutenant general and was placed in charge of Soviet intelligence in the Western hemisphere during the 1980s. Later in life he was a member of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

His public life began in 1953 when, on a boat trip from Genoa (Italy) to Veracruz (Mexico, where he intended to study Aztec history), he chanced upon a young man with an interest in history and in Russia. The man was Raúl Castro, who was traveling with two friends from Guatemala. That Castro was on the boat at all was due to a port strike in Marseille (France) which had he and his friends having to sail from Genoa on their way back to America.

The trip lasted 38 days. Leonov could not go ashore at any of the Spanish and Portuguese stops as there were no diplomatic relations between the USSR and those countries. In an interview with the Cuban broadcasting corporation in 2015, Leonov recalled that on this journey he tasted bananas for the first time following a stop in Spain’s Canary Islands: Smiling, he spoke of “a delicious tropical fruit, which Raúl bought for me, as I sat isolated on the ship in a Canarian port.”

Upon arrival in Havana, Castro and his Guatemalan companions were detained by dictator Fulgencio Batista’s police. Saddened by the imprisonment of his friends, Leonov feared that he would never see them again. At the time, the historian was a student at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. He went on with his trip to Mexico, where he worked as an assistant at the Soviet embassy and completed a doctorate in Spanish language and Latin American studies.

They said that the hairy hand of Moscow was pulling the strings of the Cuban Revolution
Nikolai Leonov

A month and a half after arriving in Mexico City, Leonov learned of the assault on the Moncada barracks in Cuba led by Raúl Castro and his comrades; it was the prelude to the Cuban revolution. “Until then,” said Leonov, “Cuba had hardly mattered to the Kremlin. But from then on it gained more importance.”

Some time later, Leonov ran into Raúl Castro in Mexico, where the latter had arrived after being deported by Cuban authorities. Raúl introduced Leonov to his brother Fidel and to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and Leonov left his business card with the Cubans. During a police raid on the Castros’ house, the Russian’s card was discovered and the press made a scandal of it.

“They said that the hairy hand of Moscow was pulling the strings of the Cuban Revolution,” said Leonov. As a result, the USSR ambassador in Mexico terminated Leonov’s position in the Soviet diplomatic corps in the country.

Leonov returned to Moscow to work at the Institute of International Relations. Two years later, high officials of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the KGB learned of his friendship with the Castro brothers, and “thanks to the fact that I had kept some photos of the boat trip,” said Leonov, “I was able to prove my relationship with the Cuban leaders, so they [Soviet authorities] officially asked me to return to America.”

As hostilities between the United States and the Cuban Revolution began to take shape, Raúl Castro decided to acquire weapons in Czechoslovakia. At this point the KGB sent Leonov to Prague, under instructions from the leader and general secretary of the CPSU, Nikita Khrushchev, to suggest to Castro that the Cuban revolutionary should come to visit Moscow.

Raúl consulted with Fidel, who agreed, and Leonov and Raúl left together for Moscow where the Russian, who was by now fluent in Spanish, would act as interpreter in the talks with the Soviet leader in the Kremlin. There, as it became known that President John F. Kennedy was preparing to invade Cuba via Operation Mongoose, the USSR agreed to provide military support to the Caribbean island nation – the antecedents to the Cuban missile crisis.

In Cuba, Leonov served as an interpreter during high-level visits from people like Anastas Mokoyan, then the number two man in the Soviet hierarchy, and even to Kruschev, who came to Havana to meet with Fidel and Raúl Castro, as well as Che Guevara. Leonov did the same thing when Cuban leaders traveled to Moscow.

Following the Cuban missile crisis Nikolai Leonov became closely linked to the political-military leadership of the Cuban Revolution. He attended all the events carried out by the Castro brothers, about whom he would write biographies – Raúl Castro, un hombre en revolución (Raúl Castro, a man of revolution), was a bestseller on the island.

Regarding John F. Kennedy’s alleged killer Lee Harvey Oswald, who visited Leonov in Mexico two months before the assassination in Dallas, the Russian said that Oswald was a gaunt man with trembling hands whom he considered incapable of shooting anyone. Oswald allegedly asked Leonov to give him a visa for Moscow because he felt that someone wanted to kill him.

With the Cold War beginning to thaw in 1991, Leonov was invited to a summer school symposium on espionage in Spain, where other guest speakers would include the founder of Mossad, Isser Harel, along with senior officials from the CIA, MI-6, the French DST, the German BND and the Vatican intelligence service. As a coup d’état was unleashed in Moscow, Leonov was unable to attend, but he sent a paper that was read with great interest due to its display of knowledge about the history and culture of Spain and Latin America, along with a summary of some of the principles that informed KGB activity in the USSR.

Miguel Castro, a senior official in the Cuban Ministry of Culture and a museologist, met Leonov on a visit to the Alicia Alonso Ballet Museum in Havana in 2002. According to Castro, Leonov found that the soul of Russian culture, especially ballet, had been “dispersed and blurred among the 190 existing nationalities in the Soviet Union.”

This sentiment, expressed after the dissolution of the USSR, tracks with Leonov’s subsequent affiliation to a Russian nationalist party, of which he was a representative in the Duma [Congress] for two terms.

“I saw what would happen to the USSR in 1987, it was inevitable once the political backbone, the unity of the Communist Party, began to disintegrate,” Leonov told Cuban media. On Cuba itself, he stated: “Cuba’s political prestige is universal, it is now a matter of its economy receiving the same prestige, at the same level.”

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS