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
Friday 30 October 1998
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
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