A few years ago, while recovering from surgery at home, a package arrived in the mail. Inside the box was a get-well card with the obligatory well wishes and smart comments and drawings one expects to receive from friends and coworkers. A handwritten note was included:
“J—, I hope that the recovery is going well. Sorry I did not get this box in the mail sooner. I also enclosed a couple of books that will probably keep you entertained while simultaneously expanding your background on a couple of issues. –D”
D (he is still active duty, hence the initial) was my chief of station, my boss, a friend, and a mentor. I always got into my office hours earlier than everyone (the commute sucked and I liked to work with some quiet before the hustle started), and D would usually come in an hour or so after me. I would catch him up on the day’s cable traffic and any immediates (cable traffic that needed to be responded to right away). If nothing was pressing, we would chat about current events. D was an incredible chief and knew the spy business; he was always pushing us to do more than just fulfill our job description, so I knew that the books he sent were designed to do exactly what he said—entertain, but broaden my background on our chosen career. One book in particular did just that.
“Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War” was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Pete Early. He also wrote “Confessions of a Spy,” in which he interviewed Aldrich Ames and his KGB handlers, and “Family of Spies,” in which he was the only journalist to interview all of the infamous Walker family spy ring.
“Comrade J” is the story of Sergei Tretyakov, who between 1995 and 2000 was the highest ranking spy in the United States for the KGB’s successor, the SVR. Much like my boss, D, Tretyakov was a hands-on leader, not content with sitting behind a desk and directing the plays. Instead, he would get out onto the streets himself, servicing dead drops, recruiting agents, and looking to make contacts. Then, in 2000, he defected, and the book reveals why. During his years in the U.S., “Comrade J” as he came to be identified, was working as a double agent of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The book begins with Tretyakov’s early years in the Soviet Union and his familial ties to the communist government. His grandmother supervised a secretarial pool in a bunker at the the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or the NKVD, the father of the KGB and grandfather to the SVR during World War II. He then tells a story that would come to define the times and give insight into the secret police’s infamous leader, Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria.
One morning, Beria made an appearance in the bunker and announced that he was in need of assistance, saying, “Girls, yesterday I gave a typed report to Comrade Stalin. I have forgotten what it said. Who typed this report and can you tell me please what it was about? One eager young woman rose and said, “Oh Comrade Beria, it was me. I typed it and I can recall every word for you.” Her choice of words may have been her undoing, because the next day she disappeared.
Tretyakov’s father was a soldier before he became a trade representative with the Ministry of Foreign Trade, which allowed him and his family to travel and live abroad. His father’s interaction with foreigners demanded that he report to the KGB, which left a bad taste in his mouth. But the apple fell far from the tree on this one, and young Sergei jumped at the chance to join their ranks when he was approached by a KGB recruiter in 1987. Before he was able to formally begin his training, he was put to a test.
Under arrangement of the KGB, he was placed on a university trip abroad to Paris and ordered to report on the other students. At one point during the trip, he was ordered to figure out how to coax one of the students, who the KGB suspected of wanting to defect, to a specific location so that he could be hauled back to Moscow. On the fly, Sergei got the target drunk, then convinced him to take a six-hour train ride, after which he was picked up by the KGB and spirited away.
The remainder of the 337-page book details his ultimate assignment, after a few starts and stops, to where he would spend his entire career—as the first chief directorate of the KGB (intelligence)—his meteoric rise to its upper echelons, and his ability to commit espionage.
It was during his early career that Tretyakov witnessed firsthand the corruption and culture of denial and deception of the KGB and the communist system, but it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Sergei developed his loathing for the rampant corruption and class system that refused to die with the specter of communism—when he made his decision to work as a double agent for the American FBI.
It is an amazing story, and one that I won’t spoil for you. Grab a copy of this up-close look at what is only hinted at in movies and on television, strap in, and enjoy the spy ride.
(Featured image courtesy of npr.org)