The strange-but-true life stories of seven Soviet spooks.
- By Katie CellaKatie Cella is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Ever since the 1950s, when the world got wind of the three letters that stood for the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, KGB spies — with their (real or imagined) bug-planting lifestyles and sexy accomplices — have provided endless material for thrilling novels, movies, and comic books. The fascination continues even now: In 2011, the U.S. television network FX announced the pilot of a new series about KGB spies living in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.
In the latest issue of Foreign Policy, retired CIA officer Milton Bearden remembers his Soviet counterpart Leonid Shebarshin, who died in an apparent suicide in March 2012. The former head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence division, who served as KGB chairman for all of one day after his boss attempted a coup in 1991, remained loyal to the agency his entire life and spent his post-KGB days in Moscow.
That can’t be said for all KGB spies, however. Over the years, the lives of several Soviet spooks have come to light as they defected from the agency and turned up in Britain or the United States, in some cases with armloads of notes to share.
Here’s a look at some of the KGB’s best-known former spies and what life was like for them during and after their stints in one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent for 15 years before entering politics and assuming the country’s highest office.
After studying law at Leningrad State University, Putin joined the KGB and spied on expatriates in St. Petersburg. In the early 1980s, he move to the KGB’s foreign intelligence division in East Germany, where his job was to identify East Germans — professors, journalists, skilled professionals — who had plausible reasons for traveling to Western Europe and the United States and send them to steal intelligence and technology from Western countries.
Biographies of Putin suggest that his KGB career was relatively mediocre: Even after 15 years of service, Putin rose only to the rank of lieutenant colonel and never stood out. In a rare comment to a journalist about this period in his life, Putin said he hadn’t wanted higher-level positions in the KGB because he did not want to relocate his elderly parents and two young children to Moscow.
Putin returned to Russia at the end of the 1980s and worked as a university assistant for a year, which was really a cover for clandestine work with the KGB. His days as an official KGB agent came to an end when he became an advisor to St. Petersburg’s mayor — another career stint considered lackluster.
In 1998, Putin rather suddenly and inexplicably became the director of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, and then the head of the Russian Security Council. The next year, Boris Yeltsin chose Putin to become the next Russian prime minister. You know the story from here: The former KGB wallflower is now the most powerful man in Russia.
Critics say that as both prime minister and president, Putin has relied on KGB tactics to keep a tight rein on opposition (just this month, Russian police have repeatedly detained, beaten, and interrogated activists). As one Russian writer told the Washington Post in 2000, Putin is a standard KGB type. “If the snow is falling, they will calmly tell you, the sun is shining,” the writer explained.
Litvinenko made headlines for what some call the courageous whistleblowing — and others, the reckless bravado — that may have earned him an ugly, untimely death.
Litvinenko joined the KGB in 1988 and worked as a counter-intelligence spy until the Soviet Union dissolved. He then joined the most secret division of the FSB, fighting terrorism and organized crime in Chechnya. But things started to fall apart in 1998 after Litvinenko made a public statement accusing an FSB official of ordering him to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.
It wasn’t long before Litvinenko found himself in an FSB prison for “exceeding his authority at work.” After two rounds of charges and acquittals, he escaped to London to dodge a third criminal case, later receiving a sentence in absentia.
From London, Litvinenko published two books — Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror and Lubyanka Criminal Group — both of which blame the FSB for ongoing crimes against the Russian public and, in the case of the second book, for training al Qaeda militants and playing a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In November 2006, at the age of 43, Litvinenko died from “a mysterious illness.” Investigations into his death revealed that he was poisoned by a radioactive isotope, which was ironic considering that Litvinenko had gone on the record with the New York Times in 2004 to allege that the FSB was behind the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
The radioactive cadaver reminded the world that the KGB’s tactics just might have survived the agency.
MARTIN HAYHOW/AFP/Getty Images
Karpichkov, another KGB spy who found himself at odds with the Kremlin, ended up as a double agent and still lives like one in London, where he keeps a low profile and is always looking over his shoulder even though he retired long ago.
The Latvian-born Karpichkov was approached by the KGB in 1984 while he was working as a mechanical engineer in an aerospace parts factory. The agency sent him to a KGB academy in Minsk, Belarus where he was trained in the art of killing, according to an interview he gave the Guardian in February 2012. Karpichkov became a major and worked in Latvia in the Second Directorate, an elite counter-intelligence division of the KGB.
When the Soviet Union fell, however, Karpichkov found himself in an independent Republic of Latvia that was antagonistic to the Kremlin. He quickly joined the country’s intelligence agency — while still working for Russia. As a double agent, Karpichkov ran disinformation operations against the CIA and, on one occasion, broke into the British Embassy in Riga to plant a listening device.
But by 1995, Karpichkov was growing disenchanted with the corrupt FSB, which he claims wasn’t paying him. After the Latvian intelligence agency found out he was working for the FSB, he briefly returned to Russia before sneaking out of the country in the late 1990s. He entered Britain using a fake passport from his KGB days and never looked back.
These days, the Guardian‘s Luke Harding explains, Karpichkov “writes, stays in touch with events in Russia, and vanishes now and again on mysterious trips whose purpose he declines to explain.” On occasion, Karpichov says he finds listening devices and cars with the same Russian diplomatic plates turning up outside his apartment, and even death threats. He worries about the safety of his wife and children, even though they’re adults now.
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Lyalin is famous for a defection to Britain’s Security Service, or MI5, which led to the discovery and deportation of 105 Soviet officials who were accused of spying in Britain.
Little is known about Lyalin’s life before he appeared in Britain in the 1960s, posing as a Soviet trade delegation official. But MI5 agents began to recruit Lyalin in 1971 when they learned that he was having an affair with his secretary, Irina Teplyakova — a revelation that could have landed him in hot water with Soviet authorities if disclosed. A few months later, Lyalin was arrested for drunk driving. The policeman at the scene that night recalled that when he put Lyalin in the back of the patrol car, the spymaster sprawled out with his feet on the officer’s shoulder and yelled, “You cannot talk to me, you cannot beat me, I am a KGB officer.”
Lyalin quickly offered to divulge information about the KGB in exchange for protection for him and Teplyakova. In doing so, he became the first KGB spy to defect since World War II (as far as we know). The mass expulsion of Soviet diplomats and trade officials that he helped trigger was, according to the Guardian, “the single biggest action taken against Moscow by any Western government.”
Lyalin and Teplyakova married and changed their identities, but the relationship didn’t last long. In 1995, Lyalin died at the age of 57 after battling a long illness. No one seems to know what the illness was or where Lyalin was living when he died. According to a New York Times obituary, he passed away at an “undisclosed location in northern England.”
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Mitrokhin was a career KGB agent whose secret project — smuggling documents out of the KGB’s archives — became the subject of the 1999 book The Sword and the Shield, which he collaborated on with the British historian Christopher Andrew.
Mitrokhin joined the KGB in 1948 and described himself as a zealous agent until he was relocated to the KGB’s archives in 1956 — a period when he became increasingly critical of the intelligence outfit after hearing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounce Joseph Stalin in a secret speech to the Communist Party congress.
For 12 years, Mitrokhin smuggled thousands of documents from the archives, stuffing them into his shoes before he left each night. At home, he copied each one by hand. He hid the documents in milk containers and buried them in his garden or under the floorboards of his house, not even telling his wife what he was doing.
In 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and eight years after he left the KGB, the archivist approached CIA officials in Latvia with tales of the archive he had amassed and a request to defect. Flatly rejected, Mitrokhin turned to MI6 agents, who spirited him away to Britain and sent agents to Russia to dig up the KGB documents from Mitrokhin’s house (they were transported to the United Kingdom in six suitcases). The British gave Mitrokhin and his wife police protection and a false name.
The FBI later described Mitrokhin’s contribution as “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.” Asked why he decided to copy all the documents, Mitrokhin explained to the BBC, “I wanted to show the tremendous efforts of this machine of evil, and I wanted to demonstrate what happens when the foundations of conscience are trampled on and when moral principles are forgotten. I regarded this as my duty as a Russian patriot.” In 2000, Mitrokhin died of pneumonia at age 81.
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For Americans, Ames is perhaps the most infamous KGB spy, having worked as a mole in the CIA for nine years until he was caught, tried, and convicted for treason.
Ames was the son of a CIA officer who had worked undercover in Burma in the 1950s. It was Ames’s father who encouraged him to train for CIA work, and got him hired in 1962. But Ames bungled his spy-recruitment assignments so badly that he succumbed to bouts of binge drinking and depression, claiming that he was disillusioned by what he saw of U.S. foreign policy.
When Ames was promoted to counterintelligence branch chief in Soviet operations in 1983, he found files on CIA personnel working in Russia at his fingertips. Meanwhile, Ames’s mistress was racking up insurmountable debt, and a divorce settlement with his wife left him deep in the red. Ames admitted later that he needed about $50,000 — and remembered hearing that the KGB paid CIA operatives that exact amount for becoming a KGB spy.
In 1985, Ames offered the names of three double agents to a KGB contact, thinking that what he was doing was not that treasonous since they were technically KGB agents. He got the $50,000 in a brown paper bag, and weeks later informed the KGB about many other U.S. spies in the Soviet Union, including one of his best friends, Sergey Fedorenko. All told, Ames disclosed the identities of 25 CIA operatives, 10 of whom were sentenced to death. He became the world’s highest-paid spy, earning roughly $4 million for turning on his colleagues.
Ames was finally arrested in 1994 by the FBI after eluding the bureau twice. He was sentenced to life in prison under the Espionage Act (the same statute that the Obama administration has used to prosecute government officials for leaking classified information) and is now locked up at a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania.
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A KGB general-turned-Putin-bashing American professor, Kalugin decided to join the KGB in 1951 after he graduated from Leningrad University. He was trained and sent to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to earn a degree in journalism at Columbia University, and later posed as a journalist in New York while spying for the Soviets. He soon moved to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., and became the KGB’s youngest general in 1974.
Things took an unfortunate turn for the rising KGB star when Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief who would later instigate a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, accused Kalugin of recruiting someone who turned out to be an American spy. By that point Kalugin had returned to Russia, where he was ordered to “ferret out” disloyal Soviet citizens, according to an interview he gave Foreign Policy in 2007. Growing more disgruntled by the minute, Kalugin began blowing the whistle on KGB corruption until he got fired from the agency in 1990.
The next year, Kalugin worked to counter Kryuchkov’s coup before moving to the United States. He accepted a teaching position at the Catholic University of America, wrote a book based on his experience spying for the KGB, and helped develop a computer game in which the player is a CIA operative tasked with disrupting a plot to steal a nuclear warhead and assassinate the U.S. president.
Vladimir Putin — who, Kalugin told FP, was “too small to report to me” — denounced Kalugin as a traitor and tried him in absentia in 2002, which resulted in a 15-year prison term that he never served. Now Kalugin teaches at the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies and serves as a board member for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.