New York, a great city to spy in

In this extract from her new book, Under Cover Lives, Helen Womack describes how she became a ghost writer for the KGB, and retired spy Oleg Brykin reveals some tricks of the trade from his time in New York as a translator at the United Nations

TWO YEARS ago the Russian publishing house Top Secret brought out a light-hearted book of old spies' travel tips entitled 'The KGB's Travel Guide to the Cities of the World'. Based only loosely on that, and more the product of my interviews with the 12 retired agents, 'Under Cover Lives' describes how they lived and what they got up to in 16 different cities during the Cold War.

I was an unlikely ghost writer for Soviet spooks. Much of my early career as a journalist in Moscow was devoted to covering the struggle of anti- Communist dissidents, and I myself was harassed by the KGB when I married a Russian in 1987.

I have not become an apologist for the KGB, but the experience of helping these spies to write their memoirs has given me a better understanding of the human beings who were the West's hidden enemies.

They belong to the generation of the present Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, himself a former spy master. They may have been misguided, but they were motivated by patriotism. Few have any regrets.

Popular tourist destinations from New York, Rome and London to Cairo, Rio and Bangkok appear in unexpected lights seen through the spies' eyes. Their prejudices and misconceptions are hilarious.

Oleg Brykin writes:

DURING MY three years in New York during the early 1960s, I recruited my share of traitors ready to betray their country, usually for financial incentives. The KGB may have been mean with its own staff, but it spared no expense on foreign moles as long as they provided top-quality classified information.

That is still the case today, so if you would care to work for the Foreign Intelligence Service, as the overseas branch of the old KGB is called now, I could do a deal with you.

Back in the days when was preparing for my assignment and wondering whom I might recruit, I had formed the idea that black people, still oppressed by a system which came close to apartheid, were "progressive", in other words pro-Communist. I think my stereotype was created by the singer Paul Robeson, a friend of the Soviet Union and the only black man most Russians had ever seen. But in New York I discovered that, on the contrary, blacks tended to be regular churchgoers and great believers in free enterprise. I never managed to recruit a single one.

Neither did I have any success with Russian emigres. You might have thought the fact that I spoke their language and could play on their nostalgia for home would have given me some leverage with them. But they were almost invariably fiercely anti-Soviet; indeed quite a few of them hated Communism to such an extent that they cooperated with the CIA and FBI.

Ironically I had most success with the "WASPs", the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who formed the American establishment and should have been, one would have thought, the most patriotic.

But there were those who had reason to feel resentment against the United States and were not averse to being disloyal if the price was right. For example, I befriended a clerk at a naval base on the west coast who regularly leaked secrets to me for cash.

Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to reveal any more about his case and must likewise censor myself in telling you about my other operations. Even if I wanted to be more open, there are some secrets I cannot tell you, for the simple reason that I do not know them myself.

"The less you know, the safer you are" was a favourite KGB maxim. The bosses kept the rank and file agents in ignorance of what their colleagues were doing. We would perform parts of operations, but never see the whole picture. We were like horses, blinkered so that we could only see the particular track down which we were running. The thinking behind this was that if we cracked under pressure, we would only be able to give away a limited number of secrets and the KGB's losses would be minimised.

On one occasion I was ordered to make contact with an American traitor called "Larin" who was flying in from West Berlin with some juicy secrets. The KGB in Germany had chosen the place for the rendezvous, but whoever had done it obviously did not know New York because he had picked the corner of Madison Avenue and 35th Street at rush-hour.

He must have just stuck a pin in a map to come up with that ridiculous venue. I, of course, knew that where Madison Avenue crosses 35th Street there are four corners and that in the early evening there would be thousands of New Yorkers there, rushing to catch the subway home after work. Spotting Larin would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

I went to the crossroads twice before I was due to meet the agent, and scrutinised the whole area. I worked out that he was most likely to stand by one of the two exits from the subway and of those, one looked more convenient than the other for waiting. I decided to put my money on this exit. I knew Larin had instructions not to hang around for more than five minutes.

By a miracle, I picked him out of the crowd in that short time and signaled to him to follow me, for there were too many police patrolling in the area for comfort.

As a translator at the United Nations, I was entitled to travel freely around America, but I tried not to let the FBI know when I was going away so that I could work incognito in other cities. A trick I often used was to turn up at the last minute at airports and buy one of the standby domestic tickets which were sold at the steps of the plane to latecomers. In this way, I did not need to go through check-in, where I might come under surveillance.

On one occasion, I went to Chicago to reactivate an agent who had lapsed. For a change, I decided to take the train. I could not afford to use the buffet car so I took with me a large bag of sandwiches and a bottle of whisky and settled down to enjoy the twenty-hour journey from New York. Early in the morning I was overcome by an instinctive sense of danger. I could not understand what it meant at first, but I felt it in my gut, like a hunted animal.

Suddenly I realised what the problem was. Of the eight trains which plied between New York and Chicago, seven took a direct route but one made a brief detour into Canadian territory. I had made the mistake of boarding that train.

My UN documents entitled me to go anywhere in the US, but not into Canada. If the Canadian frontier guards, who were even as I contemplated my situation coming down the corridor towards my compartment, caught me, there would be trouble.

Of course, I would not be arrested as a spy - there was no proof of that. But a scandal would be bad enough, because in my position it was very important that I did not draw attention to myself.

My brain worked overtime. Suddenly I had a bright idea. I put my ticket in my hat-band, took a long swig from the whisky bottle and dribbled the rest of the alcohol over the seats so that the compartment, where fortunately I was alone, stank like a distillery. Then I stretched out on the floor with my hat pulled down over my face, pretending to be dead drunk.

An American ticket inspector and a Canadian border guard came into the compartment together. "Well, he's displaying his ticket. I guess we should leave him to sleep it off." I heard the inspector say and they both left, laughing.

'Under Cover Lives' by Helen Womack is published by

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price pounds 20

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003