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Double agent secret revealed after legendary Estonian art historian's death

Jaak Kangilaski (1939-2022).
Jaak Kangilaski (1939-2022). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In his forthcoming posthumous memoirs, legendary art historian and former rector of Tallinn University of Art (now Estonian Academy of Arts) Jaak Kangilaski (1939-2022) admits to having been an agent of the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and, behind their backs, a collaborator of Swedish intelligence, or a double agent, in a career that spanned 40 years.

Born in 1939 to a family of actors and artists, Jaak Kangilaski studied history and art history at the University of Tartu. In 1962, the young man, who, unlike many of his fellow students, spoke English, was offered the life-changing opportunity to work for the Soviet military intelligence service, the GRU.

The GRU trained the young art historian to operate in the enemy's rear, teaching him how to use encrypted radio communication and identify Western military equipment, among other things.

"He was not sent abroad as an agent at the time, but basically there were different options in the works. For example, he could use a false identity and, I believe, there was a possibility considered that he would move to another country under a Finnish name," Tauno Vahter, the publisher of the memoirs, told ETV's "Pealtnägija".

While he was being trained as a spy, Kangilaski became a well-known art history lecturer in Tallinn. A romance, which began in the classroom with Miralda who studied English philology and appeared in minor roles at the Vanemuine Theater, culminated in their marriage in 1970. Their son was born the same year and a daughter three years later. The young family man often left on what appeared to be military re-training but he was actually training as an intelligence agent.

"There was an occasion when he was on a training session in Riga; they were living in a big apartment with several superiors or trainers or agent managers. /.../ He had to practically demonstrate that he mastered these modes of communication. Setting up a radio station somewhere, I do not know, in the woods in cold weather, sending a message and then receiving confirmation," Vahter recalled.

Ivo Juurvee, a historian of intelligence and researcher at the International Center for Defence Studies (RKK), said that this account of the events is plausible.

"First, the training in Riga, where the then-headquarters of the Baltic Military District (Balti sõjaväeringkond) and the intelligence division were located. The fact that he was trained individually is also consistent with good tradecraft or professional standards, which prescribe that these individuals should not be trained in groups. The fact that he was primed for wartime operations also makes sense," Juurvee said.

Miralda, his wife, told "Pealtnägija" that she had no suspicions at the time.

"I had no idea about these things I am reading about right now [in the memoirs]," she said. "All these maneuvers and the passings at airports, he told me nothing about that. He kept the family's knowledge to a minimum. And thank God! I don't know what would have happened to my nerves if I had known all that."

Kangilaski began working at the Estonian National Art Institute in Tallinn (ERKI) in 1971 and quickly rose through the ranks. Miralda acquired a job as a lecturer in the history of language and literature in the same building. Kangilaski, who had joined the Communist Party, even presided over the Marxism-Leninism department at the ERKI in the mid-1970s, which at the time also covered art history, but people close to him confirm that he was, in fact, a patriot.

"He knew very well what a terrorist organization the Communist Party and Soviet regime as such was. Throughout his later intelligence activities he undermined Soviet power," Miralda said.

Jaak Kangilaski in ETV program "Kunstigalerii" ("Art Gallery"). Source: Heidi Maasikmets/ERR

According to Kangilaski's memoirs, he was an inactive GRU agent with no special duties other than being prepared for war. By the late 1970s, he was director of the art history department at the ERKI, a merited Soviet cultural figure, and vice-chair of the Artists' Union, all of which allowed him to travel more freely. Among other things, Kangilaski contributed to the Association for the Development of Cultural Contacts Abroad (VEKSA), which was under Soviet intelligence surveillance.

There are photographs from 1979 depicting Kangilaski introducing young expatriate Estonians with an interest in Estonian art to the Tallinn Art Hall studios.

"This espionage was made easier by the fact that he knew he was undermining this source of woe all the time. Since his mother was an actress, he likely inherited her acting aptitude so his legends were extremely effective," Miralda said.

The play reached a whole new level in 1981, when another cultural exchange in Stockholm led to contact with Western intelligence, following lectures on art history. According to Vahter's account, Kangilaski interacted with an individual employed by Swedish intelligence.

"From that point on, in the early 1980s, he becomes a double agent. That is, when he travels abroad, which he does frequently compared to the average person, he signals his arrival, and then his contact person, agent manager, or whatever you want to call them, drives over and they exchange information," Vahter explained.

Miralda recounted having a few minor doubts, such as the first time she felt a little unease while visiting indigenous people in Finland.

"There was an odd moment, late at night, someone called us up, and I wondered, who knew to call here? And he answered then somewhat hesitantly and nervously. It struck me as strange," the wife recalled.

"He kept repeating, 'I have friends, I can make friends....' but we never had the kind of relationship, where I could find out who exactly, where, what or why..."

"I recall him being so angry one day that he probably could not think of anything else, but to tell me I needed to go out to get some spinnerbait. He was, of course, well aware I would not be heading to a fishing store. /.../ Later I told him that I would no longer travel anywhere abroad with him since he was acting so strange, far too tense and angry. Of course, you suspect that another woman is involved or something, in such cases. In retrospect, it becomes evident what was going on," she said.

This is all the more striking because Kangilaski was a fairly well-known figure in his home country at the same time. In addition to educating thousands of students, he published art history textbooks and monographs, and from the mid-1980s he even hosted an art history series on Estonia's public broadcaster (ETV).

On the subject of what secrets he was taking to the West at the same time, Kangilaski remains opaque in his memoirs. On a couple of occasions, the art historian is said to have carried out a visual survey of objects in Estonia, but the main information was about the structure of the GRU, its organization and the officers he met.

Juurvee said that Kangilaski's role was rather dangerous, considering what the Soviet side would have done if they had found out about it.

"He would probably have been imprisoned, if they hadn't tried to play a more sophisticated game, to feed disinformation through him, but this kind of thing is much more complicated in reality than it is in the movies," the intelligence historian said.

Vahter also raised the topic of how such cooperation was rewarded: "They can't give him a Cadillac or gold watches, so there were, let's say, more mundane thank-you gifts: art books, supposedly, and then to get around in Estonia they gave him a second-hand 'Zhiguli,' which would not stand out too much." The family believed that the car was bought as a reward for the higher fees they received for lectures in Sweden.

Jaak Kangilaski in ETV program "Kunstigalerii" ("Art Gallery"). Source: Heidi Maasikmets/ERR

In retrospect, part of the double agent's fee most likely found its way to his adolescent children in the mid-1980s. Kadri Kangilaski, their daughter, recalls her father giving them a pair of cassette players.

"I remember one time, maybe in the mid-80s, when my father went to Sweden for a month or two and came back with a coloring book, which was still a rare find back then," Jaan Kangilaski's son recalled.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance, Kangilask's 1986 travel report on meetings and moods in Sweden emerged from the VEKSA archives. In it, he writes a potpourri of reflections, but he was also likely attempting to earn a new trip abroad.

Arnold Rüütel, who later became president of Estonia, appointed Kangilaski to the position of Rector of the newly renamed Tallinn University of the Arts in 1989.

Unexpectedly, the rector's career as an agent was not over when Estonia regained its independence and the Soviet Union collapsed.

"Swedish intelligence does not initially recommend that Jaak Kangilaskil identify himself to Estonian authorities because, essentially, it is not yet obvious to them which direction events would take. Then, in 1993, Jüri Pihl allegedly calls him up and says, 'I think we should meet,'" Vahter recalls.

According to the memoirs, the then-head of the ISS, Jüri Pihl, and one of his deputies were aware of Kangilaski's secret life. After the regime change, Kangilaski began to reveal snippets of his spy life to his family and associates but he was yet to disclose everything that really happened.

"Of course, it was completely shocking to me; I had no clue. He never brought it up again in my presence and it remained a sort of tacit knowledge," his son, Jaan, recalled.

The reason for the secrecy was that the head of the university and a renowned historian continued his covert activities, now under the direction of the ISS. Even though the USSR had fallen apart, Russian military intelligence continued to operate and believed Kangilaski to be their man. In 1995, Kangilaski returned to the University of Tartu as a professor of art history, and his interest in Russia's Hermitage Museum or Tretyakov Gallery was still a good cover for trips to Russia.

Vahter added, "Isn't the general idea to provide some relatively unimportant information and then hope to receive something useful in exchange?"

Kangilaski's involvement with intelligence ended in 2003, according to the memoir. Overall, he was a spy for 40 years, half of which were spent as a double agent.

The professor emeritus, who was bestowed the Order of the National Coat of Arms and several other national honors, began writing his memoir to be published after his death decades ago; upon reading it now, his wife Miralda compares it to a crime novel.

Kangilaski, who passed away in August 2022 aged 82, was not James Bond, but his family is proud of him. "When I asked everyone whether they would be willing to publish their pictures in the book and how they felt about it, one of the grandchildren said, 'Well, I think it was a heroic deed on the part of my grandfather.'"

"Probably one of the truths is that real-life James Bonds are not James Bonds," Vahter said. "Instead of crawling through a sewer pipe or under barbed wire, there is a great deal of conversation, observation, description and analysis of people."

Juurvee said that "the information bits that are being crammed together are indeed tiny and such activity lasts a long time."

Miralda, his wife, summed it up: "The greatest accomplishment was that he survived all that jam."

"Pealtnagija" emphasized that what appears in the memoir is Jaak Kangilaski's own version and that it is no longer possible to ask him for additional information. 

The show also asked for comments from the ISS, but they neither confirmed nor denied Kangilaski's employment with them.

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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Kristina Kersa

Source: "Pealtnägija"

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