Interview with a Soviet Spymaster

KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanovich Drozdov is known as a “living legend” of Soviet intelligence. Having himself operated under German identities, Drozdov worked as the KGB resident in China and the United States before eventually becoming the head of Directorate S, the famed Illegals, where he also founded the special commando unit Vympel. The following interview was conducted in September of 2010 on the occasion of his 85th birthday.

Yuri Ivanovich, first of all, thank you for sending your new book Operation President: From Cold War to Reset. I came to congratulate you on your 85th birthday, and as before, you’re at work.

My wife is still trying to convince me: “Enough, quit.” And I constantly answer the truth: if I leave, I’ll die. As previously I’m directing the independent consulting and marketing agency Namakon. And I write books.

Serious ones, concerning history, politics, Russia’s strategic development. But nonetheless I’d like to speak with you…

About intelligence I’ve told everything that’s allowed. Or almost everything.

Almost everyone has admitted – to speak on one thing in 100 years isn’t permitted, but on a certain other thing, perhaps, in five or ten years you could. The years have flown by unnoticed.

We can extract much new information for ourselves from history. Fine, let’s give it a try. A lot of people have passed through my hands.

Before the KGB - Yuri Drozdov as an artillery officer storming Berlin, 1945.
Before the KGB – Yuri Drozdov as an artillery officer storming Berlin, 1945.

I wrote a book about Abel/Fisher, whom you got out of prison by operating under the name of his “cousin,” Jurgen Drews.

Abel was a wonderful man. And a good artist, among other things. He gave me one of his paintings. It still hangs at our house right by a chair. I sensed what your arrival would come to. Here, hold this, I came up with a posting for you from the internet. Have you seen it? “Selling drawings by the intelligence officer Abel in Moscow for 120,000 rubles.”

Quite a business. That’s his drawing from Atlanta. Nowadays there’s much that spins and is told of Abel. For example, that in fact to replace Abel another of our illegals, Georgi, was sent. But if we return to Abel, could we evaluate today what he did in the US? Did Georgi out-perform him?

The question isn’t posed exactly the right way. They had different directions in their work. To some degree Abel worked on the atomic problem. It was a most difficult period of world history – the end of the 1940s into the 1950s – the outburst of McCarthyism. And in the US Abel was restoring what could have been partially lost. He didn’t manage to restore practically everything, no, that didn’t happen. For that there was required much more time than he ended up with. But there were new recruitments, the acquisition of new agent networks. He did salvage a lot. Work was conducted both through the legal residency and through the illegals. All that was done and resolved as a result of continuous efforts over the space of many years. And for the training of an illegal for active work we expended around five to seven years. About five years after Abel’s exchange in 1962, I met him in our cafeteria. We approached each other and spoke warmly. He was a very good person.

You corresponded?

We couldn’t. He said to me, “I didn’t thank you, and I need to.” But you know how it is with us: I was leaving to be the resident in China. Only that painting remained for the memory.

Now let’s try to smoothly transition to his replacement, the illegal known under the name Georgi.

I’m afraid you understand the word “replacement” too literally. He carried out a tremendous amount of work there. So Georgi was already his own man.

From previous conversations I’ve understood that he was a Soviet citizen, but a foreigner.

No, he was a normal Russian guy of middle age and with serious mistakes in his German language, and we still had to make him a foreigner. We had to point out these things all the time, and he assured us that everything would be eliminated and done as necessary. So we stubbornly continued our work, ever the more so since Georgi was a good specialist in his area.

Is it not a legitimate question for me to ask – in which?

He was a technician. Closely connected with what today is called innovation. And accounting for his peculiarities and the condition of his German, we had to find him a female assistant. A German woman with a good, let’s put it this way, local pronunciation. She became that, covering for the gaps in his language.

But the West Germans skillfully broke everyone down who arrived there by certain characteristics.

And that’s why we had to work at it. We began with her, explained some moments, and then she said in German: “Das ist komisch. That’s comical.” She connected all this to publications in literature and events that happened long ago. We took rather interesting security measures, conditional signals, and she understood all of that. And then, when the time came, we introduced them to each other. They looked at each other attentively, captiously, cautiously. And you know, in the beginning they argued. But then all that grew into something totally different that continued the whole period of their stay in the country.

Did she have a husband?

No, she didn’t have a husband. Georgi had relatives in Russia, a family. But that’s not the most terrible thing that can happen in the lives of illegals. He returned to them. And he died in Petersburg at home. When he first went he contracted peritonitis. How many years he had to endure there… But with her it was very interesting. I see her now as if she were in front of me: an attractive woman, taller than average.

And she was a blonde, of course, Frau Elsa.

Not a blonde, she was dark-brunette. But very much Frau Elsa. Domestic, precisely the type that Georgi needed for his external appearance. A talented girl. When I was working in New York, I sometimes was near their house. I’d drive by the windows and look…

But you didn’t drop in and meet up?

God save us from that. As if that wasn’t enough. I’m a supporter of the principle that in work with illegals, no one in general should meet with anyone. At the final stage of my work, already in the position of chief of the directorate, I brought in the following regime: only impersonal contact exists. And no contacts with illegals, none. After long years of this pair’s work, their reports went only to me, bypassing intermediary departments and units. This was to fully ensure their security. They agreed with me, although some people began to look askance at me and got offended. But I had reasons to look after the illegals, because they went into productive work and serious prospects came about. And the time was already dangerous. A period that in the language of our service is called “violation of rules for Soviet personnel living in the United States.” And when these violations appeared, I sent the materials to Moscow. Among the violators was Deputy UN Secretary General Arkady Shevchenko

Who requested political asylum there and succeeded in working for the Americans for a time. Yuri Ivanovich, enough about him, Shevchenko, how did such international pair of Soviet illegals, Georgi and Elsa, get into the US? You somehow said that it wasn’t without the help of a certain Inspector Kleinert, whose role you assumed.

There was the former Nazi of aristocratic origins Höhenstein, and Inspector Kleinert, as well. It was very difficult at a certain stage to interest the west in Georgi’s persona. We discussed this with one of the senior officers in our Berlin apparatus, and he came up with a bold idea. Together we went to the East Germans and their directorate. This was its own manner of verification of my knowledge of the German language. We spoke for a long time, including touching upon of the places where I’d need to go in order to create an environment for sending Georgi to the West. The whole test ended when at the finish of the conversation, the chief of our apparatus asked, “Well, then, will he pass for a German?” And the East German general gave his blessing for me to penetrate this point for forwarding correspondence, saying, “Let him go do it.”

The forwarding point was in East Germany?

No, it was already in the West. We secured all that, and I worked there exactly two weeks. What did those 14 days consist of? I needed to see Georgi’s documents come in and see how they looked. Although I myself had participated in their preparation at an earlier stage. And then I had to send the documents further along, control them, so that they went to the necessary commercial enterprise. We managed to do all of that.

Was the enterprise American?

No, West German. I succeeded, and moreover managed to strike up good contacts with people working at a point controlled by their special services. When the time came for Georgi to depart, I set up the farewell. We sat a while and had a beer. Everything seemed normal. There was a shudder in my heart, of course. God forbid it be aborted. What can you do? Everything worked out. The situation played out properly. Later, after we intercepted the letter that they “were awaiting his arrival” at the West German company, we already began to resolve questions for the next phase – Georgi’s arrival for work at this company and his following jump over to the United States. From the moment of his starting work in the West, this took him about a year and a half.

Did he know English?

No, only German. But there was also an element of risk here. We said our goodbyes in Berlin. I said: Remember your mistakes. To which he replied, “Now I’ll survive. She’ll support me.” A good, brave guy he was. Artistry helped him.

I didn’t completely understand. Georgi wasn’t a professional intelligence officer?

He was a professional. He was an officer trained by us. But by his specialization he was a skilled, competent engineer. At just that time in the USSR we were resolving questions on the newest electronics. And therefore we needed him to be in the West. The memory of him has remained to this day. Some of his devices – for reading microdots and such – he left me. Later I handed those over. They should be somewhere in our Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) museum. Yes, Georgi was a capable man. And he was interested in photography, a wonderful photographer. Only not everyone in the US loved him, not everyone. His wife told me that in New York he was considered a former Nazi. In any case, he achieved great work for the country. His materials were very beneficial.

Did you fear treachery?

That’s how it really went. There appeared some men in the higher echelons of power who shouldn’t have known of all this in any case, about our results. The so-called “Kryuchkov list” [composed by KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov], with the names of these American agents, wasn’t composed out of thin air.

You think there were such people?

I don’t think it, I’m sure of it. The confirmation is in the materials from our agent networks.

Yuri Ivanovich, were there also totally unknown illegals that even we don’t know about?

Yes, there were such men. 17 years were spent building the life of a totally different person. Sending the illegal to the target country, turning him from somebody unemployed into an honored citizen of his city. When he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, it was a triumph. And then we were alone at his apartment. A critical period of history was already underway in our country. He confessed to me: “If you had said to me 17 years ago that everything will end in this, I would have never believed it.” He suffered terribly; he knew who counting on him, what possibilities he had, what needed to be done. A heroic man. During that time we brought his son to one of the West European countries where he often went on trips away from his permanent place of residence – so that the boy saw what a worthy father he had. And they spoke together normally. But a tragedy happened. The son, on vacation at camp, drowned, and the father came to the funeral for a day. One day. He collected himself and again left for the West.

And was the wife also there with her husband?

No. At that time we couldn’t use them together. First of all, she couldn’t get the language. And second, her personality… Plus the Slavic look. She died recently.

And the husband is a hero of Russia?

Of the Soviet Union. He died a strange death here – he was hit by a car…

Yuri Drozdov w Tsar Nicholas
Yuri Drozdov in recent years – holding an icon of Tsar Nicholas II.

How do you see the future of intelligence? Is there a future for it in the computer age?

I look at the future of intelligence optimistically. Because for all the history of the world’s existence, man has always engaged in intelligence. When a child peers through a keyhole, he’s already begun to engage in intelligence. And therefore without intelligence, if we re-read biblical sources, society can’t live. An intelligence service is needed in any state. Concerning our state, it’s imperative. We want to build our relations with the world correctly, move forward. And for that we’re also obligated to possess a well-equipped illegal intelligence service with multifaceted training.

People say it’s unnecessary now because of computers and open-source capabilities…

Of course all that exists. But a lot of it works for other intelligence services. Why should we refuse what all great powers are using? We must have a full picture of the political landscape and develop a future strategy. Is that really possible without an intelligence service?

Yuri Ivanovich, thank you for the discussion. You’re 85, and we congratulate you. Perhaps in five or ten years the seal of secrecy will be removed from some other episodes. Then, I believe, you’ll tell us even more that hadn’t been known.

Interview conducted by Rossiiskaya Gazeta reporter Nikolai Dolgopolov.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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