Inside KGB Directorate S: The Illegals

Directorate S, also known as the Illegals Directorate, was the elite of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence). Journalist Konstantin Kapitonov was able to interview one of its chiefs, Lt. Gen. Vadim Alekseevich Kirpichenko (1922-2005) about his time at the head of the Illegals Directorate during the 1970s.

In March of 1974 Kirpichenko was called to Moscow to report to KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov. With discretion Andropov asked about what was happening in Egypt and how Soviet-Egyptian relations would unfold.

The briefing took place in the Kuntsevo Hospital, in the very same room where Andropov spent no minor part of his life, and to where Kirpichenko subsequently often had to go for the resolution of ongoing service matters.

Two days later Andropov again requested Kirpichenko, this time to his office at Lubyanka. The call was unexpected, since he had just met with the chairman and given a full briefing on the work of the residency in Egypt, to where he was about to return.

Lt. Gen. Vadim Kirpichenko
Lt. Gen. Vadim Kirpichenko

“At 12:00 I was invited into Andropov’s office,” Vadim Alekseevich related. “Yuri Vladimirovich shook my hand and proposed that I sit. His handshake was soft, his hand large and warm. The traditional tea with lemon in glass holders was brought in. Andropov became used to economizing on time and that of his interlocutor; he therefore immediately began with the main topic. “We deliberated,” he said, “and made the decision to appoint you the deputy chief of intelligence and the chief of Directorate S.”

In Kirpichenko’s words, for him this was a completely unexpected turn of events. The proposal, it seemed to him, wasn’t connected by any logic to his previous work. Therefore, having thought about it, he began to politely but rather decisively refuse. He thanked the chairman for his trust. he said that this was a major state post. And he emphasized that he had undergone his formation as an intelligence officer and specialist on Arab countries and Africa. He especially emphasized that his conception of illegal intelligence was weak.

Andropov didn’t like Kirpichenko’s answer. After a short pause, he firmly pronounced:

You have no choice. This is our final decision. Therefore, return to Cairo and pass on your cases. In a month begin work.

He made another pause, and then, laughing, he said:

We tested you in conditions of war and crisis situations. You didn’t flinch. You went against the current when in the Politburo we believed in Sadat. And you alone were firing off telegrams that he had sold out to the United States. You’ll endure – you have the ability, and you’ll calmly stand up to the stress.

After the conversation with Andropov, Kirpichenko went to Cairo to transfer his cases and bid farewell to friends.

From Kirpichenko’s diary:

Upon returning from Cairo, I waited a long time for a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. The visit to the General Secretary took place on April 25th, 1974. The General Secretary was affectionate, languid, not in a hurry, and he unaffectedly told jokes. He clearly spoke at Andropov’s prompting and in his words – about how illegal intelligence is special work, that the most stoic, brave, strong people, without any weaknesses or defects, served there. The Party valued this collective, and I had been entrusted with a great task. Remembering the strict instructions given by Andropov on the way to Brezhnev – “Don’t even think about refusing the position during your meeting with the General Secretary” – I thanked him for the advice and appointment. But I myself was thinking with great apprehension about what I’d have to do, where to start, whether I’d manage, and why such a fate befell me.

Kirpichenko worked over five years in his new position, five years that flew by, in his words, momentarily. These were years of illegal intelligence’s drawing closer to the essential tasks of Soviet intelligence. They were years of tenacious searching for new forms and methods of work, the infusion of youth into the collective, of genuine creativity, humble victories, and also the grief and disappointments inescapable to any intelligence service. But fate in those years was kindly inclined: when Kirpichenko was head of the Illegals, there were no betrayals or major misfires.


During one of our meetings I asked Vadim Alekseevich to tell something interesting from the life and work of illegals, or suggest a theme for publications. He was silent for a long time, and then said, as if of something decided long ago:

To speak on concrete matters of illegal intelligence, including in the past, is extremely difficult. This is a specially guarded subject. Preparation of a genuine illegal intelligence officer, supplying him with reliable documents, and sending him abroad for practical work is extremely arduous business and demands unheard-of efforts by specialists of various profiles. And although much about this activity is known to foreign intelligence services, I will nonetheless not risk mentioning concrete names and facts and give them my evaluation. Information that left us and leaked through various channels to the West and the East is one matter, but statements by the former director of the Illegals are another.

And nonetheless, what kind of people were they, the illegals, and where did they come from?

Who is an illegal? What is illegal intelligence? Much is spoken and written about this, and there’s many fantasies and fables here… Illegal intelligence is likely intelligence in its pure form – classic intelligence. If our “legal” intelligence officer goes abroad on his own documents, the documents of our state, an illegal officer goes under foreign documents. Already he is not a citizen of our country; he’s a foreigner. And he has a different citizenship and a different nationality. Overall, over many years of training, he transformed into a person artificially created by us, a different person. He even begins to become unaccustomed to his native Russian language. And returning to Russia years later, he begins to speak with an accent.

This profession is romantic and complex. A heroic profession, I’ll risk saying. We trained illegals and train them, as Andropov liked to say, in a unique way.

Famed KGB illegals Ashot Akopyan, Konon Molody, and Rudolf Abel (William Fisher).
Famed KGB illegals Ashot Akopyan, Konon Molody, and Rudolf Abel (William Fisher).

If you can, in more detail…

We search for candidates and find them ourselves, selecting through hundreds and hundreds of people. The work is indeed one-of-a-kind. In order to become an illegal, a person should possess many qualities. Bravery, focus, a strong will, the ability to quickly forecast various situations, hardiness to stress, excellent abilities for mastering foreign languages, good adaptation to completely new conditions of life, and knowledge of one or several professions that provide and opportunity to make a living. Enumeration of personal qualities necessary for an illegal intelligence officer could be continued into perpetuity.

And so, finally, you have found a suitable person. What next?

Even if a person who has the attendant training and the enumerated characteristics to one or another degree, this in know way means that he’ll make an illegal officer. Some certain traits of nature are also needed, ones that are elusive and hard to transmit into words, a special artistry, an ease of transformation, and even a certain well-controlled inclination to adventure, some kind of reasoned adventurism.

The transformation of an illegal into another person is often compared to the role of an actor. How is it in reality?

It’s one thing to become someone else for an evening or a theatrical season. And it’s something totally different to turn into someone who once lived or a specially “constructed” person, to think and dream in another language and not think of oneself in the real dimension. Therefore we often joke that an illegal going out into the operational arena could already be given the rank of people’s artist.

The labor of an illegal intelligence officer is incomparable with the work of an officer in a regular residency. However tense the day of an intelligence officer working, say, under the cover of an embassy might be, in the evening he nonetheless returns to his family and forgets the day’s worries. An illegal has no native “cover,” no place where he can relax and forget himself, and often there’s no family nearby. He is, as the expression has become fashionable, socially unprotected, and unprotected in general. All of his salvation is in his head and in the precise work of the Center.

How is an illegal intelligence officer trained?

Over the time of his training, an illegal acquires much: wide-ranging knowledge, in particular on political and economic matters, a few professions, foreign languages. But he also sacrifices much. In these conditions it’s difficult to arrange family affairs. A wife, children, and parents are the crown of endless complications. And one rarely manages to resolve everything more or less satisfactorily.

There’s still another moment. An illegal is trained for work cellularly by a narrow circle of instructors and trainers. Limited communications are a negative moment. We always tired to compensate the loss of contact of young illegals from remaining officers with the creation of a friendly microclimate where people would be psychologically compatible, as in a space crew on a long flight. And we succeeded in creating a friendly, family atmosphere around our illegals.

Could you name an illegal officer who made a significant contribution, so to say, to the general cause?

I could give the names of many brilliant intelligence officers. Although to calculate the significance of each is extraordinarily difficult.

Rudolf Abel (William Fisher) became well-known. He worked, of course, very hard, both in the acquisition of nuclear weapons secrets as well as collecting political information. Though perhaps some other intelligence officer acquired no less information that Abel. But Abel not only was capable of collecting information; he demonstrated tremendous bravery in prison. He gave nothing away and posed as another person. His stoic behavior in prison multiplied his glory.

There was another illegal, Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov. He worked before and during the war and did much. If we were to weigh what he acquired, it may be that it would turn out more than what Abel had.

Foreseeing your question, I composed a small directory on famous intelligence officers. I put Nikolai Kuznetsov in first place. A legendary, heroic person. A full-blooded Russian who mastered German to perfection and posed as a German. That already means something…

Legendary Soviet illegal Nikolai Kuznetsov, who posed as Wehrmacht Lieutenant Paul Siebert.
Legendary Soviet illegal Nikolai Kuznetsov, who posed as Wehrmacht Lieutenant Paul Siebert.

Other names: Konon Trofimovich Molody, also known as Gordon Lonsdale. He was a resident of our intelligence in England and acquired materials on NATO activity. With Lonsdale-Molody there worked the Kroger spousal pair, the Cohens, that is, Peter and Elena. He was an American Jew with roots somewhere in Belorussia. She was an immigrant from Poland. They also, by the way, worked with Rudolf Abel in the United States.

Maria de las Eras Africa, or as we called her, Maria Pavlovna. She was a Spaniard. She tied her fate to Soviet intelligence back in 1937. After the war, from 1945 to 1967, she was doing illegal work in Latin America. I was familiar with her, and participated in awarding her the Order of Lenin. Until the end of her days she trained our illegals. Colonel Africa passed away in 1988.

And if we go deeper into history, then we can list such names as Dimitry Aleksandrovich Bystroletov, Vasily Mikhailovich Zarubin, Ivan Ivanovich Agayants, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Korotkov.

They always were working “in the field.” Some of them became intelligence chiefs.

Of course, this in no way means that the people I’ve named were the most productive. To say that would mean to unintentionally offend others.

And another very important circumstance. The foreigners who worked in our intelligence service were usually adherents of socialist ideas. In the eyes of these people, even if they saw its shortcomings, the Soviet Union was at that time the one focus of these ideas. After Hitler’s coming to power, there appeared in the West even more people who helped Soviet intelligence.

At the beginning of the discussion you said that in materials on intelligence there are many fantasies and fables…

Yes, there’s a lot of that. Especially in recent years. Including various types of defectors and traitors. These people asserted that illegal intelligence was the structure of the KGB that carried out acts of retribution, killed traitors, poisoned, shot, and stabbed with umbrellas. Indeed, in the far-off 1930s, Soviet intelligence, including the illegals, was charged with actions to destroy opponents of the regime and enemies of the state. These cases are well-known. Take just the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which was prepared and executed by Soviet intelligence. But now there’s nothing like that.


Kirpichenko (center) with the leadership of KGB Directorate S. Yuri Drozdov is on the far left.
Kirpichenko (center) with the leadership of KGB Directorate S. Yuri Drozdov is on the far left.

Heading up illegal intelligence, Kirpichenko often had to see off young spousal pairs to their missions and regularly meet with mature officers and veterans who became educators to their young colleagues. Most of all the worries came with the rookies. Problems of their training, their family affairs, their documentation as foreigners, and employment abroad. Sometimes he had to act in the unusual role of either a priest or director of registry to sanction a marriage.

Young illegals being sent on their missions reminded him of people who, having just learned how to swim, are immediately sent far out to sea. Additionally, it was never known whether they’d have the strength to overcome the long distance. And all those who worked with the young illegal or married pair at the Center could not escape their anxiety and alarm until the illegals sent the signal that they reached their destination and that everything was fine.

“For me the years working in illegal intelligence were a time of the highest moral-psychological tension, when it seemed that your nervous system was on the brink of the impossible,” admitted Vadim Alekseevich to me one time. “Neither before nor after have I experienced such stresses.”

Kirpichenko didn’t have to work in this field for too long. But for his whole life, there remained a great satisfaction from work in an extraordinary unit of Soviet intelligence as well as enormous respect for all of his comrades and colleagues in this difficult trade. And especially, of course, for the illegal apparatus – the golden resource of the KGB.

Work Translated: Капитонов, Константин. Египтолог из внешней разведки. М.: Алгоритм, 2008.

Translated by Mark Hackard

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