Through KGB Eyes: Washington, DC

In his memoirs, KGB First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) Colonel Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Sokolov gives his impressions of five years, from 1966-1971, serving in the FCD’s Line KR (Counterintelligence) in the KGB’s Washington residency. Culture shock and tradecraft come together as Sokolov just barely tolerates American cuisine, gets his ears blown out at a Beatles concert, and evades the FBI’s surveillance teams.

That summer in Washington was unusually hot. The temperature during the day went up to 40 degrees Celsius and higher, something that had occurred only 100 years ago. Along with that, as characteristic of Washington, the humidity remained high.

The weather wholly corresponded to the requirements of the KGB medical commission we underwent before our departure to America for work in conditions of a “hot and humid climate.” Dressed in a fashionable black Finnish half-cotton suit not available to all Soviet citizens, white nylon shirt and tie, and Czech “oak” loafers, I felt in the best case like I had a wig on, but confidently and with dignity I stepped onto the land of the Main Adversary for the first time.

In the embassy I was met by Nikolai Fyodorovich Popov, the deputy resident for Line KR and my direct superior. We went up into the residency and chatted. He thought I should settle in one of Washington’s Virginia suburbs. We’d have to live in a hotel until I selected a suitable apartment. All the expenditures for the hotel, by the way, some $50 a day, were paid out of my quite-humble-by-US-standards salary – $520 a month. In a couple of years, the salary was raised for all embassy employees.

After introducing me to the resident Boris Aleksandrovich Solomatin, Popov invited me to a cup of coffee. We went out of the embassy and into a “drug store,” an American pharmacy with an additional set of goods and services, located next door to the embassy on 16th street. Ordering the coffee, he pronounced his English words individually, clearly enunciating them, and the black woman behind the counter, it seemed, understood him little but nonetheless gave us our coffee. Popov’s main language was German, and his knowledge of English was also of the “Oxford” variety. Returning to the embassy, I met advisor Valentin Kamenev, the director of the group on culture in which I would work according to my cover. He introduced me to ambassador Dobrynin. And so passed the first day of my five years of duty in the United States.

In the residency, as was specified at the Center, I was assigned my main task – agent penetration of the CIA and other American intelligence services. It’s worth noting that although my time in the US coincided with the beginning of conversations on re-evaluating Cold War foreign policy positions, American political figures didn’t set any strategic objectives for changing Soviet-American relations. The world was fully under the influence of the doctrine of the Cold War. The intelligence services of the US and USSR carried out their work accordingly. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, testifying in Congress in the summer of 1970, stated candidly:

Today the Soviet Union appears to aspire to an improvement of relations with our country, but we cannot forget about the true goals of its spy services. The KGB and GRU today are as dangerous as they were five, ten, or twenty years ago.

From the end of 1964, the work of Soviet foreign intelligence’s Washington residency underwent serious changes. Much was being done in a new way. With the arrival of resident Solomatin, the operations staff was gradually being replaced. Officers were better trained, both in the operational and linguistic sense. The tactics of conducting intelligence work were changing – they were becoming more offensive-oriented and diversified. The new resident was independent in decision-making, firm, and principled, and he was able to take risks while still governed by common sense. He knew how to mobilize the officers, and he always supported beneficial initiative. The operations staff wholly supported his aspirations.

America’s capital was mostly inhabited by the black population, and neighborhoods with whites were few in number. In the center of the city is the White House, and by it the memorial complexes to the “fathers of America,” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, as well as government institutions, foreign representations, private firms, hotels, and stores. The cultural life of the city was limited to just visiting the museums and site-seeing; there was no theatre. To my surprise, the only constantly active “theatre” was a strip club. Famous singers and groups would rarely come for concerts. In the fall of 1966 I managed to make it to a performance by the Beatles at the sports stadium – I could see it, but I couldn’t hear anything, since the furious screaming of the crowd, mainly youths, totally drowned out even the powerful speakers. Only in 1971 would the concert hall, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts, open.

Yes, the KGB was monitoring Beatlemania. Photo: Ghosts of DC
Yes, the KGB was monitoring Beatlemania. Photo: Ghosts of DC

Georgetown, with its prestigious university, one could call a “city within a city.” Some of our traitors also studied English there. On its narrow streets was preserved an old style so rare in America, and in the shade of the trees stand houses built during the time of the capital’s founding. Here was where the intellectual elite had settled. For operational work, the city of Washington itself was hardly suitable. It’s full of policemen from various agencies and FBI agents – from those of criminal investigations units to counterintelligence – plus employees of private investigative and security firms. But the main factor that made Washington interesting was the presence of civil servants of various levels and categories who could present operational interest.

Acclimatization to Washington life went difficultly. The unbearable heat and high humidity were oppressive. Trips out to nature were not happy ones. I couldn’t ever get used to the taste of American food. Long and without their customary smell, even when you clean them, cucumbers are sold in some type of wax shell, the tomatoes are tasteless, and all the juices have syrup. There was no mineral water aside from French Vichy, and the smell of fried corn and Coca-Cola annoyingly followed you everywhere. There was no black bread, and the white bread was like wool; there was no herring, and instead of sprat they have anchovies. There were chickens on spits everywhere. It was impossible to eat the candy. The ice cream was good, but ours is better. They had never seen any “Antonovka” apples. There were no mushrooms, only champignons; the strawberries were pretty, but incomparable with ours – they were scentless and tasteless. There was no normal fried or broiled sausage Russian-style, and the beer had very low alcohol content – you could drink it like water. Late in the evening, especially in Washington itself, it’s not desirable to go out onto the street; if you’re not murdered, you’ll probably be robbed. The only entertainment was drive-in movies in the open air: you go in your car onto a large area and watch a gigantic screen through your window. The men, gathering in one car, would drink gin and tonic or whiskey on the rocks, while the women and children would watch the film in another car. In a word, it was incomprehensible what good people found in America.

The apartment we rented was situated on the top floor. The FBI, of course, had to equip it with visual and audio surveillance. Maybe for this reason, and maybe not, for a whole month in the attic above us, especially in the evenings, something was scratching, squeaking, and falling over. Because of all that the Americans in the building seemed to me unfriendly and even hostile. Jumping a bit forward, I will say that in a year I moved to a different building, which also was located in Arlington and carried the name Cardinal House, and it was more hospitable. Of course, in reality not everything turned out so bad as it seemed at first, although this grinding into our new life lasted almost a year.

The hot summer was over. A warm fall in Washington lasts a few months, and all the trees are dressed in red. The suburbs of the capital acquire indescribable beauty, truly a golden autumn. On Sundays, like many American families, we went out hiking in the mountains. Our daughter Katya began first grade in the embassy grammar school. Gradually life entered into its habitual course. Closer to October Popov said in a discussion:

We need to force an acquaintance with the outskirts and select some places for personal meetings and dead drops. Soon we’re going to transfer a valuable agent to you.

For me this was totally unexpected. Of course, I understood that the transfer of an agent for permanent handling, moreover a valuable one, was a demonstration of the residency and the Center’s great trust in me as an operative. But I had to justify the trust – after all, only three months had passed since I arrived in Washington and my knowledge of the operational environment was still insufficient. I needed to immediately fill what was lacking, but also do it so that my activeness didn’t evoke any suspicions from the local counterintelligence service. The situation around me was unfolding in completely usual fashion, and the FBI placed surveillance on me no more often than on any others, once or twice a month. It was conducted almost in the open, and detecting it wasn’t hard work. Most likely the FBI was aiming for psychological effect. Two cars of the same make with two or three agents in dark sunglasses, dark suits, and white shirts with ties would accompany me at close distance when I left home for work in the morning, during the day in trips around the city, and upon my return home. On Saturdays and Sundays there was no tail.

In the residency our men intercepted the frequencies on which the FBI surveillance teams worked. We could listen to them in their cars. When surveillance teams were being deployed, in the ether you could hear the same words and letters of the English alphabet, disconnected from each other and having no meaningful significance. They sounded like some kind of coded messages. All of this caused strong suspicions that besides the open methods, the FBI was using other hidden means of coverage. And that US counterintelligence wanted to create among us the impression that we were under only the former type. In other words, if there were no cars behind you and the ether was clear, then supposedly there was no coverage. To believe in such a method of conducting surveillance would mean permitting the failure of any intelligence operation.

The former Soviet Embassy, now residence of the Russian ambassador.
The former Soviet Embassy, now residence of the Russian ambassador.

This matter was discussed in the residency and didn’t give us peace for some time. Nonetheless, as a result of generalizing all the data, we came to the conclusion that the surveillance visible to everyone was false and we had to assume the presence of a second, deeply concealed echelon of surveillance conducted clandestinely, disguised and set ahead of us, with the use of radio beacons for determining the location of our vehicles, as well as equipment for listening in on our conversations. It ceased if its probes were discovered, but then could be renewed. It stood to us to carry out surveillance detection on our verification routes, noting every suspicious car, however it might look on the outside.

Doing all that was not simple. It required the detailed development of a route with the selection of reliable places to check for a tail, accounting for the cover story of why you were there and calculating the exact time you’d come to the right point. Routes were composed by map, and therefore we had to know the entire zone well. For surveillance checks we applied no minor efforts – this was tense two-to-three hour, and sometimes longer, physical and mental work behind the wheel, especially during the evenings.

Such a perception of surveillance played a positive role in intelligence operations, both the ones I carried out and those of other officers. For all the five years in the residency, there were no agents compromised over non-detection of surveillance. Rather, as became known later even from the American press, Soviet intelligence officers successfully operated their agent networks in Washington for many years. Nevertheless, there was one shortcoming in such a view – officers again arriving to the residency, especially those who had previously worked in countries with an uncomplicated operational environment, took the absence of habitually concealed teams and the presence of just open surveillance with difficulty. The somewhat latently emergent sense of one’s inability to spot covert surveillance at times led to the occurrence of excessive alarm and even nervous tension. But this usually didn’t last long, and with the help of colleagues, they would bounce back.

The accuracy and precision developed over years in our confrontation with American surveillance teams became ingrained in my habits. Even in normal life in Moscow, having gone somewhere on business and not keeping any schedule, I would discover, to my surprise, how I’d arrive at a place at the agreed time. Yet it was also surprising that it was hard to make myself check my route just for curiosity’s sake; there unavoidably arose a sense of undertaking difficult work. At home in Russia it wasn’t needed, and I refused to fulfill wishes unfounded on necessity. Checking for a tail, after all, is something you do not out of professional habit, but only for serious reasons.

Work Translated: Соколов, А.А. Анатомия предательства: «Суперкрот» ЦРУ в КГБ: 35 лет шпионажа генерала Олега Калугина. Проект Лубянка, 2005. Москва. 

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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