Russian Spy Ring’s Roots: Talking With a Soviet Agent

The suspected Russian spy ring busted this week draws on time-honored espionage tactics. Lawrence Schiller recalls his encounter with a Soviet-era agent.

Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

News that the U.S. had rounded up 11 Americans in a suspected Russian spy ring put the spotlight back on Cold War espionage practices and the way “deep cover” agents work. Author and producer Lawrence Schiller got an up-close look in the early 1990s at the life of several Russian spies sent to gather intelligence—their methods, motives, and expertise in blending into the woodwork of a foreign country. What follows is Schiller’s recollection of his close encounter with a decorated Soviet-era agent.

I’m sitting in a very spacious apartment, maybe 3,000 square feet, high above Moscow, with expansive views of the city from its large windows. It’s 1992, and I’m being offered chai and cake by Vladimir Lenin’s niece, Olga Ulyanova, who was once the playmate of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. She is a revered figure in the Soviet Union. Now 70 and still a member of the Union of Journalists, she has agreed to see me, my translator says, because I’m working on a project with Norman Mailer, a writer admired in her country for his outspokenness against his own. I’m here tracking details about Lee Harvey Oswald’s years in the Soviet Union (1959-1962) and I’m hoping that Olga can give me insight into what the Soviets must have made of Oswald when he defected.

His KGB assignment was to get to know German military officers who interacted with the aircraft company and assess which ones might be open to life under Communism.

In response to one of my questions about Soviet spies, Olga shrugs. All she knows about espionage, she tells me, is that her neighbors are among the most decorated spies. Their story is quite something, she says. Why, they managed to live deep undercover in the United States for 15 years without giving themselves away! I must meet them! In fact, they’re going to stop by later. They’re out at the moment, but she’s left a note under their door. While we wait, she starts to tell me their story.

After World War II, the KGB recruited men and women who spoke European languages besides Russian and whose demeanor would allow them to pass in the West. Her neighbors were among them. Originally from the area around Minsk, this couple was married, had a child, and spoke excellent German. During the last years of the 1940s, they were activated, she says. Their child was sent to live with his grandmother. One parent was dispatched into Austria, the other into West Germany. There, they were to begin new lives.

This wasn’t hard after the war, Olga explains. Many Europeans had lost their documentation, and it was easy to acquire, say, a deceased person’s identification, or false birth certificates. The man was an engineer; his wife, an accountant. Both found jobs relatively easily where they were living. Not long afterward, they arranged to meet somewhere in Germany, and to make a little show of it.

To all outward appearances, they were two young people who had met on holiday, fallen in love, married, and settled down together. He went to work as an engineer for a German aircraft company that held important patents. In time they had another child, and the wife became a stay-at-home mother building social contacts. His KGB assignment was to get to know German military officers who interacted with the aircraft company and assess which ones might be open to life under Communism. The couple reported back to Moscow about the people in their circles—who was pro-Communist and who was not.

Full coverage of the Russian Spy RingJohn Avlon: The Spy Who Loved ChavezOlga smiles as she tells me about the turn of fate that their lives took. The Germany aircraft company forged an agreement with a South American company and licensed some of its trade secrets and patents. And our KGB spy was to move to South America and supervise the conversion and manufacturing of the parts. His orders from Moscow were the same: mix socially, build relationships with military officers and people within the government, and find out which of them was open to the idea of socialism and of Communist ideology. The entire family learned Spanish, and began to integrate in their new country, where they lived for five years with their second child.

Olga is about to reveal a second turn of events when the bell rings. She goes to the door and ushers in a tall, handsome man, impeccably put together. When Olga introduces him, my translator whispers: this is the neighbor—our spy. We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, and he asks me about myself. When I mention that I am here collaborating on a project with the American writer Norman Mailer, his face lights up. “Mailer!” he exclaims. “He is even in our KGB encyclopedia! This is a man who writes what he believes!” It doesn’t take much effort to get him to tell us the rest of his story. Indeed, he seems eager to share it. Why not! He was a decorated hero of the USSR. Perhaps Mr. Mailer would write about him, and then he would be known in the West, too. He picked up where Olga had left off.

During his stay in South America, he had risen to a management position in company. He prospered, and so did the company, which also sought to expand. Eventually, it negotiated a deal with a major American aircraft company, located in Southern California. Would he move there with his family and represent his South American company? It took some time before Moscow responded to this request.

When they gave him the green light, he was made to understand that in the United States, he was to use his South American cover, the better to distance himself from his real origins. He was never to contact the American Communist Party or even any Russians living there. In the U.S., it would be more difficult to pass on information, he was told. His assignment was to gather information about what the company was manufacturing, and particularly the type of spare parts they focused on—which ones the company thought might need replacement and how often. He was also to pass along the production schedules, which noted when the planes were ready to go from assembly to test flights.

He said that in his 15 years in the United States he never met another Soviet and did not have any face-to-face contacts with anyone from the USSR. He lived a normal Southern California life as an engineer. His family settled in and learned English. His child got good grades in school. As for his work for Moscow, it was different than in Germany and South America, where he’d been involved in political matters. In the U.S., he was conducting industrial espionage only: He received messages, burned them, sent information back. The methods for exchanging information were quite primitive, he said—simple drops.

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He did his job for 15 years, and one day he was recalled to Moscow. Immediately, he and his family applied for tourist visas, which they received. They traveled economy, and when they arrived in Moscow, they were met by his Moscow handler and taken to a small apartment. Their first child, who he and his wife hadn’t seen since leaving for Germany some 30 years earlier, was now married and had his own children. His own parents were dead, but his mother-in-law was still alive.

In time, he tells us, he and his wife were given this very nice apartment next door to Olga's and were also awarded one of their country’s highest honors—the Order of Lenin, I think he said. He shows us the apartment. It, too, was very spacious, and filled with period furniture. And there was one photo of him and his wife visiting the La Jolla cove, a place they loved to drive to in Southern California, he comments. I note that I knew the place since I had gone to La Jolla High School.

He was very happy living on his KGB pension, and felt well taken care of. Recently, his son and daughter-in-law had said they wanted to visit Disneyland, but he and his wife had no desire to ever return to the United States. He was grateful that he’d been allowed to return to his beloved country and family.

A lot has changed in the meantime; the Soviet Union fell, and relations between our countries have been reset, and reset again. But as we see from the story that emerged last week, some things never change: Russians still spy for their country and we do the same for ours.

The question that I still ask myself is: After the Second World War, how many others like this couple did the Soviets deploy into countries all over the world, and what were the results of these types of operations?

Lawrence Schiller began his career as a photojournalist for Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He has published numerous books, including W. Eugene Smith's Minamata and Norman Mailer's Marilyn . He collaborated with Albert Goldman on Ladies and Gentleman , Lenny Bruce , and with Norman Mailer on The Executioner's Song and Oswald's Tale . He has also directed seven motion pictures and miniseries for television; The Executioner's Song and Peter the Great won five Emmys.