These are the true stories of a former KGB spy living in America
With Russian hacking in the news, plus the ongoing success of FX covert spy series The Americans, not since the Cold War have we seen so much interest in the Kremlin and its many tentacles abroad. So when an Ex-KGB spy wants to talk on Reddit, you listen. With his new book, Deep Undercover, on shelves this month, former undercover KGB spy-turned US citizen Jack Barsky took to the social website for one of its Ask Me Anything Q&A sessions.
Here’s the best of his thread, detailing life in Russia, his training, infiltrating the USA and what he misses about his former life. (Hint: not much.)
First, why haven’t you been killed yet for defecting?
I told them that I had gotten sick with AIDS, and that was a death sentence in those days. They thought I was about to die anyway.
They didn’t look for you to confirm?
They did not look – they were too busy trying to figure out what to do with their lives after the Soviet Union collapsed.
How realistic is The Americans?
The shooting, the stuffing of corpses into suitcases, the picking of locks, and the wigs – pure entertainment. No agent who did that kind of stuff would survive more than a week. Having said that, they do a very good job with the psychology of being an undercover agent. That part is very much like me.
Was it as exciting being a spy as film and TV would have us believe?
The life of a spy is mostly rather boring. You wouldn’t want to see that in a movie. My time as an undercover agent was 95 percent waiting and five percent action. And the action was never violent.
Were you conscripted or recruited?
You didn’t volunteer for the KGB, they recruited you. I was a national honours scholar and a very active leader in the communist youth organisation. I could have said no without sustaining damage. The kind of work they wanted me to do requires a volunteer.
How long did you train before integrating yourself into American society?
Training was all one-on-one – it took altogether five years to get me ready. For more details, you need to go to the book.
What were you told about America before you arrived as a spy?
I truly thought that the US was evil through and through (except, of course, for Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Chubby Checker, etc). Well, that opinion didn’t hold very long. I had a hard time finding the evil Americans, and when I was hired by one of those terribly evil insurance companies, I found out that they were just the opposite.
How hard was it to pass as an American?
I messed up many times with regard to fitting in. I was essentially not trained in matters of culture. It was just dumb luck that my first job was that of a messenger. I interacted with folks who were not very curious, so I could watch and learn in a rather safe environment.
Have you killed anybody?
I did not even have weapons training. I bet you that they had killers in the ranks of the KGB, but they tried to keep those tasks separate.
How much cat-and-mouse action was there?
Okay, so I was a mouse for over 10 years. It was important for me to figure out if I had a cat following me. Thus signs in my apartment to see if it was searched, periodic surveillance detection runs and even letters mailed to myself to see if they were opened. This is a rather frustrating exercise, because it’s the same as trying to prove a negative – you can’t! This becomes only “glamorous” for Hollywood, when there is a cat, but it is just as intense when there is none. Some of it is rather tense, but it is in no way the same as depicted in movies and on TV. No car chases and no shootouts, but quite a bit of cat-and-mouse games.
How much aid did you get from the mother country?
Initially, the Russians sustained me with cash. But even as a lowly bike messenger I made enough money to fend for myself. This led to a situation where the salary they paid me – 600 dollars a month plus the rent – added up to a substantial savings.
What were the coolest gadgets you got to use?
None. I had only two things you couldn’t buy in a store. One was a one-time pad that contained a sequence of numbers to decipher messages – the numbers had to be developed with an iodine solution – and a writing pad that contained pages of contact paper to be used for secret writing. It was purposely low-tech to avoid having evidence on me if I got caught.
Some suggest today that both Americans and Russians who lived through the Cold War maybe miss it.
Nostalgia for the Cold War? That’s crazy! I’d rather be not quite united against a common enemy than die in a nuclear blast while holding hands and singing kumbaya.
Is there anything you miss about Russia?
The Russians make the best bread, period! Stoli is pretty good, too. But all the other stuff is rather crappy.