Probably thousands of cultural works have been made about Soviet infiltration of Western governments. Not only does this plot line have a kernel of truth on which a thriller can be built, but it’s halfway written itself: the ideological Communist menace trying to undermine and destroy the free society. I don’t doubt that a lot of that actually happened, but there must be more to it.
For instance, I suspect a large part of the espionage carried about by Soviet agents in the West was economically motivated. The Politburo certainly wanted to know about Western military and diplomatic intentions and had a sophisticated intelligence system for this purpose. But they already knew how to run a country, how to conduct international relations, and how to wage war openly and secretly. What they didn’t know was how to produce anything efficiently. In their system there was no way to find out.
They could take a finished product of theirs, such as a camera, an automobile, or a loaf of bread, and judge its quality by comparing it to other products available abroad. And maybe they made better products. But what they couldn’t do was figure out the most efficient way to produce. What less costly combination of inputs could yield the same quality of output? What would they even do with the newly freed-up resources? Where should they go? Even more fundamentally than that, what about the capital goods that produced the intermediary goods that became the consumer goods? How much should they cost?
These are questions a command economy simply cannot answer. Even a halfway free economy such as we had in the West has vastly better answers. Soviet leaders may not have come to grips with the fundamental economic barriers they faced, but surely they could have understood that somehow the US and its Western European partners had better answers than they did.
As such it’s my guess that there was probably a huge amount of industrial espionage. I imagine a manager in a large automobile manufacturer passing the Soviets information on how much tires cost, how much engine parts costs, etc. Or an employee of a television manufacturer telling them feasible labor to capital ratios and kinds of capital. Or an assistant baker in West Germany making exhaustive notes about the business side of the bakery and reporting back. The list goes on and on. It’s known that Soviet economic planners used the Sears catalog to set their consumer prices, but I can’t imagine they didn’t also try to find out other prices. There are other catalogs such as those printed by chemical supply companies that could tell them approximate input prices, but this is only a fraction of what they’d need to know if they wanted to produce even the minimum amount to keep their citizens from revolting.
Of course this is all speculation, but it sounds reasonable to me.
UPDATE: I didn’t mention, but should have, that this all didn’t have to be done by professional agents. Certainly Soviet intelligence would have a guiding hand in it, but it could be something as simple as a Communist Party member from Russia interviewing Communist Party members in France, Italy, etc. These Western Communists might have thought it was odd, but surely the Party needed to know a great many things. Even in the heyday of the Communist Party USA they could have done it this way here. After it ceased to be much of a movement information gathering would be more complicated, but far from impossible.