A demonstrator stands on a barricade outside the Kremlin during a 1991 coup attempt in Moscow. (Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

George Miller: Anti-Communist

30 years on from the Moscow Coup, Gerald Frost remembers the man bent on bringing down the Soviet Union

More than forty years ago an item the Soviet newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta described me as “the minder of George Miller and a senior CIA manager.”  The item caused considerable mirth among friends, while my wife pointed out that my salary as director of a modestly funded London-based think-tank seemed scarcely commensurate with my alleged role as a master spy.  Moreover, far from minding George Miller (also known as George Miller-Kurakin), who worked for me at the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies as its research officer, I seldom knew where he was, or what he was doing.

Except for the fact that his suits came from Oxfam, George — bearded and with the social ease of a Russian aristocrat — could have stepped out of a novel by Tolstoy.  He was born in Chile in 1955. His father Boris, an engineer, had migrated from Serbia where his own father, a White Russian émigré, had been murdered in front of the family.  So began a pattern of events in which politics shaped the lives and hopes of three generations of the Miller family.

In Santiago, Boris Miller had met and married Kira Kurakin, a member of a distinguished family in Tsarist St Petersburg that had produced ambassadors and senior public servants over more than a century.  In 1959, Boris and his young family moved to Frankfurt where he joined the counter-revolutionary National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS), subsequently moving to London as the organisation’s UK representative. He was somewhat handicapped in his new role by his limited grasp of English. But his son, who knew no English on his arrival in London aged seven, went to a local grammar school, quickly becoming bilingual and speaking the language of his adopted country without a trace of accent by the time he had finished history degrees at Queen Mary College and Essex University. Whereupon he promptly followed in his father’s career as counter revolutionary.

Unlike many Western analysts, its members never doubted that the Soviet system would collapse

George died from a heart attack in 2009, aged 54, having paid a heavy personal price for his vocation. But fond memories of him recently flooded back as the world marked the anniversary of the failed attempt by communist hardliners to take over the Soviet government in August 1991, an event which was followed  in quick succession by the collapse of the Soviet government and the banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in November of that year — outcomes which George and his father had devoted their lives to help bring about.

In his twenties, George had relied for his income on his day job as my researcher, but he was an increasingly influential NTS member. Founded in the 1930s, the organisation operated underground in Russia but more or less openly in the rest of the world through a network of Russian exiles. Unlike many Western analysts, its members never doubted that the Soviet system would collapse, its spokesmen laying stress on the fact that communism went against the grain of human nature and was therefore doomed. Its declared aim was that of hastening the momentous day when Soviet communism would be replaced by a form of liberal democracy.  

In describing their aims and tactics, George and his NTS colleagues were apt to compare the Soviet Union to an elephant being repeatedly bitten by a mosquito. At first the creature would be oblivious, but after a thousand stings, it would roll over without warning with its feet in the air, and die. The bites inflicted on the Soviet beast by NTS were numerous and unceasing.

Like the British Foreign Office, most British Sovietologists as well as politicians tended not take the NTS very seriously. Harold Wilson said that that the “u” in its title was silent. But the KGB took it sufficiently seriously to make assassination and kidnap attempts on its members and to arrest and imprison its members and contacts inside Russia. Soviet diplomacy was largely successful in pressing the Western governments not to do business with it, even persuading the West German government to close down the organisation’s Russian language radio station in Frankfurt. However, NTS members took evident comfort from General Secretary Andropov’s description of NTS as “public enemy number one.”

Recently, prominent members of the Conservative party and others in senior positions in business and British public life, now middle aged, have described  how as young party activists they were recruited by George to take part in a clandestine NTS operation to carry banned literature into the Soviet Union. In this role Miller was assisted by radicals — mainly passionate Thatcherites — within the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) who relished the high excitement and sense of purpose which their clandestine activities afforded. 

The KGB took the NTS sufficiently seriously to make assassination and kidnap attempts

Among those recruited by George were the current schools minister, Nick Gibb, his brother Sir Robbie Gibb (Theresa May’s communications director during her premiership), and Peter Young (founder of the aid contractor, Adam Smith International). Another prominent FCS member, Russell Walters, now an executive with Philip Morris, echoed the sentiments of his fellow subversives when he commented, “it was the noblest act I have ever performed. I remain very proud of what we did.”

Posing as tourists, the couriers took in medical supplies, money and office equipment as well as books, all strapped to their bodies under baggy clothes. They brought out uncensored accounts of the harsh realities of Soviet life, the imprisonment of dissidents and the evidence of economic failure as well as literary works which for political reasons their authors could not publish in Russia. 

In all, George recruited around 60 couriers, a handful of whom were arrested and briefly held by the Russian authorities. On those occasions their arrest was effectively used by him to attract headlines in the international media in order drive home the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system and the violation of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 which pledged the signatories to respect fundamental freedoms.

 The couriers’ task took nerve as well as idealism but the risk they took was less great than that taken by their contacts. Simon Clark, another of George’s couriers, said recently, “we could leave the Soviet Union on the next plane. Our contacts couldn’t. The risks they took every day were enormous and potentially life changing. My principle contact was arrested a year or two after my visit. He received a three year prison sentence. I don’t know what happened to him after that.”

The materials brought out were used by NTS to brief Western newspapers, the Russian service of the BBC, Radio Liberty and any parliamentarian who was prepared to listen. Sharing seemingly little of his FCS friends’ ideological zeal  — he had joined the young Liberals rather than the Conservative Party for what I suspect were tactical reasons — George, personable, humorous and pragmatic,  provided an increasingly trusted source of information. This was stored in the NTS’s British office, the semi-detached home of George’s parents in Baring Road, Lee, an unfashionable part of south east London. 

After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, George travelled to gather first hand evidence of poison gas

George used his growing influence in London to arrange for a weekly summary of extracts from Russian opposition publications to be published in The Times. He also persuaded large numbers of friends and contacts to send pamphlets through the post to individual Russians identified from Soviet phone books.

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, George travelled there to gather first hand evidence of the use of poison gas against the Afghan fighters. Forging links with National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, he subsequently drew up detailed analysis of the role of the different elements of the gas attacks. With others, he is believed to have persuaded the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, to provide anti-aircraft weapons to the Afghan resistance.

Some three years after his first visit to Afghanistan, George asked my permission to leave immediately for a few days’ holiday, a request which seemed quite out of character. Eight weeks later, he returned smiling with a Boots folder containing what he described as his holiday photos. These turned out to be pictures of him in company of members of the mujahidin over whom he towered as he waved a Kalashnikov.

I later discovered that George — who had been accompanied by other NTS members including the novelist and historian, Vladimir Rybakov — arranged for two captured Russian soldiers to be allowed to be released and given safe passage to the West, an act which may well have saved their lives. George also provided me with a compelling account of how US military aid was falling into the hands of anti-Western factions. This, as he pointed out, necessarily had the effect of strengthening them in in relation to relatively pro-Western rival groups. 

I arranged for him to meet a well-connected American friend who was as impressed and alarmed as I had been by George’s detailed and authoritative account. As subsequent events have demonstrated, it was advice that should have been heeded, but my contact later reported, “it’s no go. The US State Department regards the enemies of America’s enemy as its friend. It lacks the imagination to grasp that this particular enemy of our enemy might also be America’s enemy.”

George’s range of anti-Soviet activities was more extensive than most of his friends realised at the time and demonstrated imagination as well as George’s ability to inspire trust from those with whom he worked. Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee with whom Miller worked to counter the activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), described him “as compassionate and courageous. He was mystical, spiritual, selfless and humane, a hero of our times.”

In 1986, Miller successfully sabotaged what was intended as a major Soviet propaganda coup

When a tiny Moscow-based “Group for Establishing Trust” was cited by members of CND as evidence that a peace movement could be built inside the Soviet bloc, George sent FCS members to Moscow to distribute anti-nuclear leaflets on the Moscow underground. One was arrested and kicked out causing just the kind of publicity that was needed to demonstrate the stupidity of the CND position. He subsequently arranged for one of the group’s advisers, Oleg Popov, to visit London where he was enthusiastically welcomed by CND as well as by George. But the latter evidently made a bigger impression on Popov than the CND leaders. At a press conference, Popov thanked the disarmers for their support but declared, “unilateral disarmament is no answer. It is nonsense and potentially dangerous.”

Other activities included the creation of the Association for Free Russia and the editorship of Soviet Labour Review, a detailed and authoritative bimonthly journal of labour relations in the USSR.

In 1986, Miller successfully sabotaged what was intended as a major Soviet propaganda coup to weaken support for Western nuclear deterrence. The occasion was the Copenhagen “Peace Congress” staged by the Soviet controlled World Peace Congress. His wrecking strategy had been worked out in cooperation with the Coalition for Peace Through Security, an anti-CND outfit run by two future Tory MPs, Julian Lewis and Edward Leigh. As the event opened, George and two others could be seen on the platform unfurling a giant banner on the platform which read “This is the KGB’s Peace Congress.” Photos of the trio being manhandled off the stage dominated the following morning’s Danish press. And when on the final day of the event dozens of activists who had been mysteriously provided with delegate credentials mounted a vociferous campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the resulting mayhem received worldwide media coverage.

George was in London at the time of the Communist hardliners’ botched August coup of 1991. But his father — sensing that dramatic change might be imminent — had flown to Moscow and made contact with those loyal to Boris Yeltsin, standing besides Yelstin as he faced down the Russian tanks outside the Russian parliament. Yeltsin subsequently passed a special decree making him a Russian citizen. 

George arrived in Russia for the first time shortly afterwards, kissing Russian soil on his arrival, keenly anticipating a process of democratic reform and the privatisation of the Russian economy in which he hoped to play a significant role. His wife, Lilia, and two children were to follow him from England.

But subsequent events did not evolve as he would have wished. In January 1991, a meeting of the NTS council, of which George and his father, Boris, were members, was split on whether or not its representatives should join the new Yeltsin government. George argued powerfully that the historic opportunity should not be missed to help shape Russia’s democratic future. An opposing faction, which included his father, argued that the offer was a trap set by its old KGB enemies and that it would be better to wait for a more propitious moment to enter government; perhaps both proposals contained an element of wish-fulfilment. Boris’s faction won by a single vote, resulting in a lasting rift between father and son, and George’s immediate resignation from the NTS.

George complained to friends that Russia now resembled America’s Wild West

Boris died penniless in a Moscow hospital following a heart attack in 1997. He had spent his last years as the Russian head of an international human rights body, appearing regularly on Russian television to denounce various human rights violations. 

Although he had little practical knowledge of privatisation and of business, George went on to work to in the Economics Ministry under Anatoly Chubais, the privatisation minister. But he grew rapidly disillusioned by the emergence of crony capitalism. Several of the reforms he sought did not materialise and he grew increasingly aware that a new class of oligarchs, many with KGB backgrounds were exclusively concerned with personal enrichment.    

George complained to friends that Russia now resembled America’s Wild West. But as the historian, Norman Stone, pointed out, the difference was that in America’s Wild West there was a judge, a sheriff and a preacher. I had often teased George by suggesting that he might not like living in the Russia that would emerge if he and his friends succeeded in destroying the Soviet system: the sad truth is that he did not.

Keenly aware that he had neglected his family’s material interests and his own health by the single-minded pursuit of political aims, he now sought consultancy work advising Western companies on business opportunities. But by this time his wife had returned to Britain and what funds he had saved went on a divorce.

I last saw George about 18 months before his death after he rang to suggest a meeting. George remained cheerful and showed no sign of bitterness. He declared his intention to remain in England where his children were being educated and asked me whether I would run a new think-tank for which he would find funds. Its purpose, he explained would to analyse threats to liberal democracy, including those posed by the country which he had struggled to free from communism, as well that posed by China. The money would come from backers of various environmental projects in which he had become enthusiastically involved, including one with plans develop the means to turn pig dung into energy. Companies were set up in his name, but little progress was made and there was no income stream. As we parted, I pondered on whether the project had come to fill the place of an earlier vision that had died.

The couriers recruited by George Miller remember him with fondness and respect

Like me, the couriers recruited by George Miller remember him with fondness and respect. The Soviet elephant did indeed roll over and die. The proximate reason for the Soviet collapse may have been Western policies vigorously promoted by Reagan and Thatcher which in turn prompted the Soviet leadership to attempt to modernise, unleashing forces which it was powerless to control. But George, along with a relatively small number of anti-communist activists and scholars shaped the environment which made those Western policies possible. Although he had been given ample reason to reflect on the need to think carefully about what he wished for, I don’t think he regretted any of his counter-revolutionary activities.

Nor do those who helped him.

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