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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Undercover Lives

In the summer of 1996, the Russian publishing house Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) published an amusing book titled "The KGB's Travel Guide to the Cities of the World." Written by a group of retired Soviet secret agents, it gave tips to ordinary Russians who were just starting to travel to foreign cities that the spies had long known.

Foreign journalists, including myself, ran short reports about the book, which caught the eye of a London literary agent. The agent asked if I would be interested in putting together an English version of the book.

As an opponent and even victim of the KGB, I was an unlikely ghostwriter for Soviet spooks. When I first came to the Soviet Union as a journalist in 1985, much of my work involved meeting dissidents whose critical view of the Lubyanka I shared. My attitudes hardened further when the KGB harassed my Russian fianc?, Konstantin Gagarin, prior to our marriage in 1987. Only the intervention of British diplomats preparing a visit by Margaret Thatcher prevented us from becoming a human rights case.

So it was with mixed feelings that I began helping the agents write light-hearted memoirs, which they hoped would prove lucrative.

From the start, I knew the agents would not reveal any state secrets. But I tried to draw from them details of how they lived abroad, so that the book became less a guide and more an unusual piece of lifestyle reporting. In the process, I learned that many different considerations motivated these men, and their rewards did not always match their efforts. Funniest of all was to discover their prejudices. In short, they were human.

I have not changed my opinions about Soviet Communism. I still think it was an absurd and cruel system. And in that the KGB helped to enforce that system, it was an evil organization.

But I have also learned that inside that machine were human beings. I have become less bitter.

BERLIN: Vyacheslav Kevorkov,


I was in Berlin in 1961, just days after the Wall went up. I knew it was going to happen f the East German Communist leader, Walter Ulbricht, had complained to Khrushchev that West Berliners were flooding into the East to buy up the subsidized goods there and the Kremlin leader had advised him to isolate his young Communist state f but it was still a shock. The Wall really did materialize almost overnight. One day there was a trail of barbed wire and the next there was a gigantic concrete barrier between the two Germanys, cutting through people's lives. There was no panic. Germans do not panic. but I remember the distress of a young man called Heinz Reichenbach, who played the accordion in a caf? in East Berlin. Like the good German son that he was, he used to visit his mother in West Berlin regularly and telephone her every morning. Suddenly he lost all contact with her. The escape attempts and the shootings at the Wall had not yet started but immediately, seeing the suffering of Heinz and others like him, I felt a deep unease. Someday this absurd division of East and West would have to end, I knew.

A few years later, I was fortunate to join a small team working to undermine the divisive effect of the Wall, starting the process which would finally bring down this ugly symbol of the Cold War. I continued to assist the press in Moscow, but this work became a cover for a secret, extended mission which took me to Berlin over 700 times. Although I did not actually live in the city, travelling back and forth so often, I got to know it very well.

The year was 1969. Andropov was worrying that the Soviet Union was becoming cut off from the rest of the world. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, known as 'Mr. Nyet' in the West because of the hard line he always took in negotiations, was obsessed with the idea that, if there were to be East-West d?tente, only friendship with the USA was good enough for a superpower like the USSR.

But Andropov understood that this relationship could not be an equal one, as America had far more economic power than the Soviet Union. Instead, he thought we should look to Europe for new friends, especially to Germany, with which Russia had centuries-old ties broken by the aberration of the Second World War. For this, we needed a dialogue not only with our East German allies but also with the leaders of West Germany, bound up in NATO. Andropov entrusted me with the task of making contact. 'Only do it discreetly,' he said.

Working with me from the outset was another Russian specialist on Germany, Valery Lednev. Unlike me, he did not serve the KGB but was a bona fide journalist writing for the newspapers Izvestia and Sovietskaya Kultura. How were we to get an introduction to senior West German politicians?

We tried the obvious thing and took the West German press attach?, a man called Reinhelt, out to lunch. The venue was, as usual, the restaurant of the Hotel Ukraina. Without revealing why we sought a contact, we asked him if he could put us in touch with someone at the top in Bonn. 'Well, I'll have to ask my wife about that,' he said, and we understood at once that he was giving us the diplomatic brush-off.

Then we tried Hermann P?rzgen, the veteran correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. With him, we were a little franker, 'Andropov is interested in making friends with West Germany,' we said. 'Oh,' he said, 'can I mention this in the book I'm writing?' Obviously, cooperation with the too-talkative P?rzgen was out of the question.

We were beginning to despair when we ran into Heinz Late, the correspondent of the Ruhr regional news network, at a cocktail party given to mark Press Day on 5 May in the House of Journalists, one of the pretty old mansions on Moscow's inner Boulevard Ring. He was waving a copy of Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn (International Life), one of the grimmer Soviet newspapers, and he already had a few drinks inside him. 'Why do you write this nonsense about Fascists in my country?' he complained. 'You know nothing about the real democratic, modern Germany. If I want to speak to politicians in my country, all I have to do is pick up the phone. But you can't talk to your leaders. Your system is still so closed.'

A light went on in my head. 'He can talk to his political leaders on the phone.' Valery and I drank some more with him, calmed him down and we ended up going back to his flat on Kutuzovsky Prospekt for an all-night session with a bottle of vodka.

In this relaxed atmosphere, we explained to Heinz what we needed. 'Can you find us a solid contact in Bonn?' I'll ask Schmelzer, my chief editor,' he said. 'He knows everyone.' 'But it must be done discreetly,' we said. Heinz could be trusted. The next day he flew to Germany and two days later he came back, saying: 'Schmelzer can fix it. Who do you want to meet?'

Andropov reported to Brezhnev, who said only a contact at the highest level would do. That meant Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the Christian Democratic chancellor. But Schmelzer suggested we wait a little. Elections were due in West Germany that autumn. The Social Democrat Willy Brandt was almost certain towin. It would make more sense to start a new relationship with him.

And that is what happened. Brandt was elected in October 1969 and shortly afterwards Schmelzer advised us that the man with whom we should deal was Egon Bahr, a journalist who had been close to the new chancellor when he was still mayor of West Berlin and who had now come to Bonn to work as his state secretary.

Andropov, Lednev and I met at a secret KGB flat near my childhood home on Ryleyeva Street and decided that Valery, as the clean journalist, would travel to Bonn to 'interview' Bahr while I, as the KGB staff officer, would control the operation from Moscow. During the meeting, if a suitable moment arose, Valery would put forward the idea of starting a Soviet-West German dialogue. But the problem was how to convince Bahr that a simple Soviet journalist could be speaking on behalf of the Politburo.

Andropov had an idea. Some months earlier Brandt, the author of Ostpolitik or the policy of pursuing d?tente with the East, had written a letter to the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin. 'We need a direct link with which no one will interfere,' he had said. He had expressed our very idea. No one knew of the existence of this letter except Brandt and the top Soviet leadership. If Valery carried it and showed it to Bahr, there could be no doubt that he had the highest authorization to discuss the opening of a channel of communication. The channel would have to be secret because our East German allies on the one hand and Bonn's NATO partners on the other would be unlikely to approve of it.

Valery flew to Bonn on Christmas Eve, hardly a good time to be doing business in a punctual country like Germany, but Schmelzer managed to arrange an interview for him with Bahr. It was five o'clock in the afternoon. Bahr's secretary was packing up to go home for the holiday. 'I'll be going home myself soon,' Bahr said pointedly to the Soviet journalist.

But in a master stroke, Valery took from his pocket a little plastic Christmas tree which he had bought in Moscow. Bahr was touched by this cheap souvenir, which served as an olive branch in the season of goodwill. Then Valery showed him the letter. Bahr said afterwards he went cold when he saw it. He immediately understood its meaning. 'Behind you stand those with the power to decide our relations?' he asked. 'The man at the very top,' Valery said, meaning Brezhnev. 'OK, I'll tell Brandt. Come back tomorrow.'

The next day, Christmas Day 1969, it was decided to open the secret channel with Bahr on the German side and Lednev and myself on the Soviet side acting as go-betweens for Brandt and Brezhnev. In the New Year, Bahr flew out to Moscow. Despite the bitter cold, he came without a hat. Valery lent him his fur shapka when he met him at Sheremetyevo airport. Bahr was received by Gromyko at the Foreign Ministry, another of the 'wedding cake' skyscrapers. Then Valery took him home to meet his wife, who cooked a wonderful supper. Valery introduced me as his boss. He did not say that I was from the KGB. But Bahr said years afterwards that, even if he had known, it would not have changed anything. 'All that mattered was that Slava [the diminutive form of my name] had influence,' he said.

We agreed that we would meet regularly at Bahr's residence, 14 P?cklerstrasse, West Berlin. We would never meet in the GDR because we did not want the hardline Erich Honecker to know what was going on. Neither would we use the phone or write anything down. All our arrangements would be verbal so that the West German Foreign Ministry did not find anything out. It was harder for the Germans than for us to keep secrets because they had a democracy and everything leaked out. But at this stage, we did not see why our fledgling friendship should become the business of the Americans, the British and the French.

Of course the Soviet Union's wartime allies quickly realized that meetings were taking place. When Valery and I visited West Berlin, we were followed, first by clodhopping CIA operatives who made no attempt to hide the fact they were tailing us, then by the British who were hardly more subtle. We used to stay at the Hotel Am Zoo. Thinking we might be homosexuals, the British sent two pretty boys to linger in the corridors and try to pick us up in the bar. 'I'll deal with this,' said Valery, who had strong feelings about homosexuality .

Later, I went into his room to find him sitting on the floor with the two British agents. He had laid out a train set which he had bought for his son back in Moscow and was making his guests, whom he had already got terribly drunk on vodka, dizzy as the little wagons raced round the track. 'Drink more, drink more,' he cried. 'It is the only cure for sexual deviance.' The British got the message and started sending leggy young women to follow us instead. But neither they nor the Americans found out what we were discussing in our meetings with Bahr.

East Germany we also managed to fool. Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi secret police, soon spotted that we were going back and forth to West Berlin with suspicious regularity and demanded an explanation. Andropov sent me to reassure him that the Soviet Union was not doing anything behind the back of its loyal Communist ally, but that it simply wanted to improve relations with West Germany. 'I know what you're up to,' said Mielke. But from his questions, it was clear that he didn't. He thought we were talking about economic matters and I did not disabuse him. 'I read in Der Spiegel that someone had given Brandt three kilograms of caviar for his 50th birthday,' Mielke persisted. 'Was it you?' 'Oh, all right, yes,' I said, feigning petulance. 'Now our secret's out.'

Having extracted this from me, he calmed down. And he never found out about the weighty political issues which were really the subject of our discussions in the secret channel between Bonn and Moscow.


Oleg Brykin,


Always I was on the lookout for a top-class U.S. traitor. I could never forget my task, even when I went with my Dutch shipping friends to the fantastically diverting Jakarta all-night prostitutes' market or when I visited the volcanic spa at Bandung. After the steam bath, the blind masseur f one of a special caste of Indonesian masseurs who, I was told, were blinded in childhood to intensify their sense of touch f would roll me out like pastry. And all my thoughts would melt away, except that one. What should I do to catch a Yank?

One American came my way without making any effort. I was driving into the embassy when I spotted a hairy young white man standing by the roadside. It was quite a rare sight in Indonesia in the 1960s, and I pulled over to see if he was in trouble. He was just a hippy, one of the first of a wave of Western backpackers which was to hit the Far East in later years. But he was a U.S. citizen. 'Take a seat, Mike,' I said, for that was his name.

He had come out to Indonesia on a one-way ticket, hoping to find casual work to finance his further wanderings, but he had not had much luck and, when I picked him up, was without a cent. I took him home, fed him, made a bed up for him in my garage and gave him a little money. It was not a promising investment, I knew, but my mind began working on the question of how Mike or perhaps friends of friends of Mike could somehow, one day be useful to the KGB. That was how I worked, with such will-o-the-wisps. You can imagine how frustrating it was, how I longed for a concrete result.

I was due to go on leave. I gave Mike a bit more pocket money and told him I would see him when I got back. Imagine my surprise when, on my return, I found an invitation to his wedding in my mailbox. In the month I had been away, he had worked fast, getting himself engaged to a young woman from a very rich Chinese family. He was asking me to be his witness, as I was the only other person he knew in Jakarta.

The wedding reception was lavish. Dressed in cloth of gold, the bride and groomsat on thrones while some 300 guests queued up to give them presents, mainly envelopes containing money. The American ambassador attended as a friend of the bride's family, although much good that did me. I could hardly try to recruit such a public figure. Our Chinese hosts offered us a delicacy f boiled monkey's brain, which we were invited to suck up out of the skull with straws. The ambassador and I dashed for the bar, neither of us sure whether this was an example of Chinese hospitality or black humor.

The Chinese family was of course using Mike to facilitate emigration to the United States. Whether he understood that or not, I do not know, but he seemed happy enough with his fortune. I wished him well, I had missed my chance to exploit him, been too slow, allowed the Chinese to get ahead.

Luck was waiting for me instead in a sleazy downtown bar. What else was there to do but drink in the middle of the monsoon season? I had gone out with a colleague from the embassy and it was he who first spotted the solitary American ordering himself another whisky. But it was I who spoke English and had all the best chat-up lines. My new friend turned out to be a U.S. serviceman called Rogers. We got on so well that he invited me to visit him the next day at his hotel. If hotel was the word. In a run-down one-storey building, in a filthy room in which the sluggish overhead fan barely stirred the humid air, he was lying on a pallet, reading a book. He brightened when he saw me and, over whisky and a tin of black caviar which I had brought along, told me his sad story.

Rogers was serving in a unit responsible for supplying the U.S. army but, as his contract with the forces was due to run out, he was trying his hand at other business. He had bought three cranes cheaply, expecting to sell them at a good profit to a client in Singapore. But the customer had gone bankrupt and he had been advised to come to Jakarta instead. Here nobody wanted the cranes. He was out of money and the U.S. embassy, which he had approached for the airfare home, had shown him the door.

He was ripe for the taking but how best should I do it? Back at the embassy, I discussed the problem with the rezident, who was excited about Rogers but concerned lest I scare him off with a hasty move.

At one of our next meetings, the American mentioned in passing that he had taken part as a mercenary in the overthrow of Sukarno, keeping a diary about the events of 1965 and 1966 when a Communist coup failed and subsequent anti-Communist riots gave the pro-U.S. Suharto the excuse to take power. It was history now and of no great interest to the KGB but I offered Rogers a few hundred dollars for the diary as a means of hooking him.

Then he himself began to ask what he might do for us. The Lubyanka wanted information about the American army. He said he could give it for $100,000, in advance. Naturally, I refused those impudent terms but gave him $500 and told him he would get more when I had assessed the quality of the material he brought. He went away to Singapore and returned a month later with a file of secret documents which Moscow Center valued at $10,000.

I paid him. He was pleased. So was the rezident, which made me happy. It seemed that Rogers and the KGB were in business.

Some months later, in the wee small hours of the tropical morning, I was drifting off to sleep to the monotonous sound of the air conditioning when my guard raised me with a telephone call. I had had a few security problems in the past. Thieves had stolen my talking Bea bird, although they hardly got any secrets for I had only taught him to say 'Who's a pretty boy?' and a deserter from the Indonesian army had broken into my flat. What could it be this time?

I went out onto the balcony and saw a car parked below. 'Who's there?' I shouted. In reply, I heard the voice of my agent Rogers, but it did not reassure me. On the contrary, I was overcome with an instinctive feeling of danger. On my way downstairs, I switched on a tape recorder that I kept hidden in the hall. 'Come in,' I said. Rogers was with a companion, whom he introduced as G?nther, a second secretary from the West German embassy.

I poured out the whisky. We talked about this and that. Rogers said he had been in Singapore again. The German didn't say much. The spools of the tape recorder turned silently. I sensed they were going to try to turn me. I was right.

'Oleg,' Rogers began rather sheepishly, 'we have a proposal for you. Here's an air ticket and $30,000 in cash. We'll fly with you to Singapore, from there you will go to the U.S. where you will receive another $30,000 and political asylum.'

Why me? Did the Western intelligence services sense that I was vulnerable? I think not; they were just trying it on. They could not have known of the growing doubts I had about communism because I kept them strictly to myself. Besides, I might hate the Soviet political system, but I was always a patriot of my Russian homeland. I could not for one moment imagine myself betraying my country.

I reacted immediately and very angrily. The offer of $30,000 made me think of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Christ. 'How dare you?' I shouted at Rogers, throwing my whisky in his face. The German ran for the door but Rogers stayed to listen to my tirade of abuse. I was genuinely furious. It was illogical, I know, for Rogers was only trying to do what I had done to him. He was the hunted, turning on the hunter. But I could not see it that way then.

'You lousy scum, I helped you when you were down, found you work, and now you have the nerve to insult me etc. etc. ...' At which Rogers began to cry and justify himself. He was sorry, he said. He would never have approached me in this way but the CIA had forced him. They had found out about his shady business deals and threatened him with court martial if he did not try to trap me.

Excerpted from Undercover Lives: Soviet spies in the cities of the world. Edited by Helen Womack. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pounds 20. Available in Britain from Oct. 12.