Deep Cover in South Africa

Colonel Aleksei Mikhailovich Kozlov (1934-2015) was a deep-cover intelligence officer in the KGB’s elite Directorate S, the Illegals, during the height of the Cold War. Posing as a traveling German businessman, he was captured by South African counterintelligence in 1980, but not before passing onto Moscow Center shocking information on joint South African-Israeli nuclear weapons tests. This December 20th, 2009 interview with the newspaper Izvestia provides another fascinating inside look at the global-scale operations of KGB Directorate S.

Izvestia: How did you get into Illegal Intelligence?

Kozlov: In 1953 I arrived in Moscow from Vologda to go to the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO). My character brought me to humanities, and I very much loved the German language. I had wonderful teacher in school – Zelman Shmulevich Pertsovsky. He was a Polish Jew who in 1939, when the Germans entered Poland, crossed the Bug River and turned up on our side. He was simply in love with the German language and quoted Schiller and Goethe by heart. He called me a “slacker” and helped a lot with preparing for higher education.

When I had returned from practice in Denmark during my last year, I received a proposal to work in intelligence. I answered that I would with pleasure, but I wanted to do only operational work – although I didn’t understand anything about it. The main thing was not to do any paperwork. “Operational work” is how I got this knot on the finger of my right hand! Soon – the only time in my life – I was summoned to Lubyanka. There they asked me:

Have you read The Lone Warrior in the Field (Yuri Dold-Mikhailik’s novel on illegals – Isvestia)? Do you want to work like that?

I answered that I did, and so they sent me to training.

Izvestia: How much time did it take?

Kozlov: It took me three years. I arrived on August 1st, 1959, and went on assignment on October 2nd, 1962. I knew only German and Danish. During training in East Germany, I picked up a Saxon accent. And when I found myself in West Germany, I immediately fell into a situation. I was given a temporary Austrian passport for transit, and in the city of Braunschweig I went into a café. Next to me sat down a young man who turned out to be an inspector for the criminal police. And suddenly he says, “But you’re not from around here.” I answered that I was Austrian, and he declared, “I’d bet my life you’re from Saxony!” I had to disentangle myself – well, my mother is from Saxony, but my father is Austrian. It was good that this guy was more interested in the local girls!

Kozlov Aleksei
KGB Colonel and Hero of Russia Aleksei Kozlov in his later years.

Izvestia: And what was your main “legend?”

Kozlov: I traveled with a West German passport. My profession was that of a technical drafter, which I hated. I was sent first to Lebanon, and then to Algiers, where I was supposed to settle for a long time. I arrived in Algiers on the day when President Ahmed Ben-Bella took his oath. Only recently it had been a French colony where everyone spoke French, even Arabs, and I didn’t know that language. But I successfully found employment in an architectural firm where Swiss engineers were working. The main thing was that they turned out to be acquainted with Algeria’s top leadership. Although Ben-Bella was a genuine Muslim, along with that he had very leftist views. His secret political council consisted solely of Trotskyists, overall Swiss ones. And through my new acquaintances I found out many interesting things on the sessions of this council. I consider it a service of mine, by the way, that a year later Ben-Bella would become a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Izvestia: And you worked all this time alone?

Kozlov: My wife came to me in Algiers. She had undergone training and could carry out technical work – secret writing, reception of radio transmissions. When she got pregnant, it was difficult for her to bear the local climate. So the decided in the Center that it was time for us to get genuine passports.

Izvestia: You were legalized in West Germany?

Kozlov: I travelled to Stuttgart and left my wife in France. Who knew how my trip to West Germany with a false passport could end. It was August – vacation month. I had nothing else to do but to start working at a dry-cleaning service. I became a qualified worker within two months and could support my family. Then I called up my “fiancé” so that she’d come over, and Tatiana and I got married for the second time. Soon she bore me a son.

Izvestia: That means that your spouse passed the “Radio Operator Kat Test.”

Kozlov: Twice, moreover. Already in twelve months our daughter was born – we weren’t wasting any time! After the children’s birth we submitted a request for passports and obtained genuine documents, while we burned the “fake” ones in the oven. It was a shame parting with them; they were much better than the ones I was issued later. Either they’ll sew it unevenly, or they’ll glue the photo on crooked.

Izvestia: When did your children find out that their parents were Russians?

Kozlov: When they came to Russia once and for all. Our son was five, and our daughter four. Before that they hadn’t suspected anything. We spoke German at home. When I got an assignment to go to a certain French-speaking country, the children began speaking French. Now I can say that it was Belgium. The entire staff of NATO moved with me there from France. At that time in Belgium, the Council of Ministers for the Common Market had formed.

Izvestia: And where did you find employment?

Kozlov: At a dry-cleaner’s again, in the Hilton Hotel. Then a year later, a millionaire proposed that I become general director of the largest dry-cleaner business in Belgium. In addition to all the recommendations, I was a “German.” The owner reasoned in such a way: if he’s German, that means he’ll work.

Izvestia: Business was good for this Soviet intelligence officer!

Kozlov: Only it hindered my main business. I was forever occupied with the damn dry-cleaners, since I had branches in various cities. Although I wasn’t fooling around. The Cold War was at its height. Our service was interested primarily in information of a military character. But when Yuri Andropov became the KGB chairman, a restructuring began in intelligence. Andropov realized that we had to think how to build economic and cultural relations with various countries. That meant that multifaceted information was needed. This crossover didn’t happen so simply. I then understood that the man who doesn’t respect the customs of another country cannot be an illegal. Work experience in the Middle East had confirmed that.

Izvestia: In what period was this?

Kozlov: In the 1970’s, after we had already returned to the Motherland. My wife became gravely ill, and she was put in the hospital. We had to hand the children over to a boarding school – what else could we do…I remember how I was sewing strips with their names on them onto their clothes all night. And then I again departed on concrete assignments for the Center. Dry-cleaning came to my rescue again, by the way. I received an offer to become representative for sale of equipment in various countries. I traveled to crisis spots – the Arab states and Israel. The situation there wasn’t simple, although I had enough difficulties later in South Africa.

Izvestia: Is it true that thanks to you the USSR obtained information on the Republic of South Africa’s nuclear arsenal?

Kozlov: Yes, that is so. At the end of the 1970’s I made a “tour” of Africa and stopped in Malawi. There were a lot of whites who had close connections to South Africa. I was sitting with some company, and the talk turned to the atomic bomb. At that time a mysterious flash in the south of Africa had occurred, one that resembled an atomic explosion. And I said, “And where could they get an atomic bomb from?!” Suddenly one old woman, quietly dozing, opened her eyes and gave it away: “In December of 1976 we doused it with champagne together with the Israelis!” The woman turned out to be the former secretary of the general director of Pelindaba, South Africa’s nuclear center. I immediately informed Moscow. Yuri Drozdov, head of the Illegals Directorate, called down all the department chiefs in the middle of the night, who practically arrived in their pajamas!

South Africa Pelindaba Nuclear
South Africa’s Nuclear Research Center in Pelindaba.

Izvestia: How did it happen that you were arrested?

Kozlov: That took place in 1980, when I had come to South Africa for a third time. Then it was a country of brutal apartheid. I was in transit in Namibia and it was there I first noticed surveillance on me. But there was nowhere to go. I flew out to Johannesburg. The plane had hardly landed when I saw a black car with siren. I understood immediately it was for me. Out of the car walked the deputy director of South African counterintelligence, Major General Broderik. He showed me his identification and told me I was under arrest. He, by the way, wasn’t a bad guy; he was an intellectual. But aside from him there were plenty of people who wanted to bash my head in. I was sent to the security police’s internal prison. My interrogator, Colonel Gloy, was an authentic Nazi, an admirer of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. A portrait of Hitler was hanging in his office.

Izvestia: Did you continue to stick to your legend?

Kozlov: The South Africans didn’t know anything about me. Even when they were beating me, they didn’t understand why. Then came the Germans from the BfV and intelligence. The interrogations continued for a week. I wasn’t allowed to sleep for one minute. They pulled things you wouldn’t believe. Finally they showed me photo cards of when I was still very young. I turned one over, and there it was written: A.M. Kozlov. There was no further reason for disavowal. I said I was a Soviet citizen, but they didn’t find out one more damn thing from me. Soon I was transferred to the Pretoria Central Prison.

Izvestia: Were you in an isolation cell?

Kozlov: I was on death row. The cover of the door slit was torn off, and I could see how the corpses of the hanged were carried by. Every Friday morning they conducted executions. And although they had the same time of apartheid in the prisons – whites and blacks separated – everyone was hanged together. Before death they were served their last breakfast. So a white was given a whole fried chicken, while a black received half that. The hanged men fell downward through a hatch. And there stood the great scoundrel Dr. Malherbe, who gave them a last injection into their hearts.

Izvestia: How long did they not know anything about you in the Center?

Kozlov: Six months. They continued to send telegrams, and several were intercepted. The South Africans demanded I decode them. I lied that I wasn’t able to without a cipher pad. I said: “You stripped me down to my underwear at the airport. But I attached the microfilm with the cipher to my underwear, and then later I chewed it up and flushed it down the toilet.” I made that up, of course. A half year later, Prime Minister Peter Willem Botha announced that a Soviet intelligence officer had been arrested in South Africa. They started taking me out for walks. There were no political prisoners there – all murderers, thieves and rapists. And suddenly I heard from all sides: “Hold on, man! You’ll get exchanged soon!” That’s how they cheered me up.

Izvestia: In 1982 you were indeed exchanged.

Kozlov: For ten West German agents and one South African officer. The chief of the prison came up to me with a suit told me to get my things together. For some reason I took with me a piece of green soap that reeked of carbolic, a belt from my prison pants and a device for rolling cigarettes that the prisoners had given me. Major General Broderik warned me: “We are transferring you to our intelligence service for an exchange. I don’t know what they’ll do with you, but you stay silent as if you don’t know anything.” And Colonel Gloy said as a farewell, “I apologize for everything that happened to you. Now we know you’re a normal guy and a real man.” He shook my hand, and in my palm there remained a South African counterintelligence badge granting right to arrest – “for the memories.”

And their intelligence service was truly infamous. They sat me down on a cliff overlooking Pretoria and told me they were going to shoot me. Then they pushed me back into the car and drove me to the airport. From Frankfurt we already had flown to a border post by helicopter. Those for whom I was exchanged had a whole bus full of things, while I stood with one bundle. When we were crossing the border, I was somehow prostrate. Then I saw the familiar faces of my intelligence officer colleagues. We embraced, kissed each other on the cheek and went to Berlin. A grave silence reigned for thirty minutes. And then I said, “Guys, I’ve returned home! We need to wash this case away!” We stopped at the first cafeteria, got 100 grams of vodka each and a beer, and after that we were no longer silent.

Izvestia: Is it now known why you were discovered?

Kozlov: We understood that only in 1985, when our resident in London, Oleg Gordievsky, defected to the West. We were acquainted back at the Institute; he was two years behind me. And then he found out about my time in Denmark. He has admitted this betrayal of his as fact, by the way, by making mention of me in his book.

Izvestia: That you returned to operational work is also from the realm of the incredible.

Kozlov: It is truly a unique case. And I’m proud that after my imprisonment I again went out on illegal work. For four years I had sat around in Moscow. And suddenly it became so dreary for me that I couldn’t take it and went to Yuri Ivanovich (Drozdov). Right at the threshold he said to me: “I know what you want, Leshka. But how do you conceive this?” And then he said,

Why shouldn’t we take a risk? After all, you’re not wanted anywhere. And who would get it in their head that you’d return to your previous work?

And I did return, for another ten years. And these were really strong Center assignments.

Izvestia: When did you receive the star of the Hero of Russia?

Kozlov: In the year 2000. But I can’t say for what.

Izvestia: This year you have a double anniversary – your 75th birthday and half a century in intelligence.

Kozlov: And since a year abroad for us is counted as two and a year in prison as three, then reckon that I’ve been in intelligence from the age of four!

Izvestia: What do you wish our intelligence officers for today?

Kozlov: I can wish them only one thing: that they worked all their life and didn’t leave for anywhere from this work. Because their business is exceptionally important not only for our service, but for the entire country.

“Stirlitz Was on the Brink of Exposure”

There were quite a few funny moments. Somehow in Jerusalem I went into a cafe during the evening, and there were no empty chairs. I saw that three old men were sitting down. I asked them in German, “May I sit with you?” And suddenly one said to me, “During the war I served in Soviet military intelligence. And when they dropped me behind German lines, I let you dogs have a light!” And he pronounced it with such feeling! Or another such case. My wife and I went to an Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington concert. I very much love jazz, especially classical. We had only gotten ourselves situated in the first row when I heard a wild shout from across the hall: “Lekha, get over here!” Guys from our embassy were sitting there, and with them the correspondent of a certain newspaper, with whom I had studied at the Institute. I told my wife, “You’re lucky, you can stay and watch. But I’m leaving, and maybe I’ll be lucky.” And I ran off into a pub…

Interview Text in Russian 

Translated by Mark Hackard


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