People who suspect foreign spies walk amongst them might be disregarded as “conspiracy theorists,” but did you know KGB operatives actually lived in disguise as mild-mannered Americans during the Cold War? This important moment in spy history is dramatized in the hit television series, The Americans, now entering its third season on FX (Wednesdays, 10PM).
This season, The Americans continues to follow the complex marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB spies posing as U.S. citizens in suburban Washington D.C. shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected President. But as the Cold War escalates, and danger intensifies, will their cover be blown by the ones they trust most?
While most TV spy shows don’t exactly strive for realism, The Americans continues to intrigue and resonate with audiences because it remains stemmed in real events. The Soviet KGB really did run this sort of operation and the Russian SVR continues to do so, as we were reminded in June 2010 with the arrest of the ten Russian illegals. And illegals didn’t just come to the United States. Germany has recently put a husband and wife team of alleged illegals on trial. There is another aspect of the show that rings true: Phillip has started to go native. He observes that everything seems “brighter” here in the United States, and he openly toys with the idea of defecting to the United States. This is a real problem that the illegals program faced, at least during the Cold War. Sometimes illegals would find the United States or whatever western country to which they were posted more inviting than the oppressive and drab communist country from whence they came. In fact, the International Spy Museum contains spy gear from one illegal who thought better of his work and defected to Canada in the 1960s.
Other bits of realistic tradecraft include the use of dead drops and Phillip’s false flag recruitment of a junior FBI employee. Mind you, I’m not sure an illegal would ever do that, but it’s a real intelligence tactic.
What’s not so realistic, of course, is the shoot ’em up aspects of The Americans. In reality, illegals try to keep a low profile. But then, this is television; it’s supposed to be entertaining. I can forgive that.
If you want to dig deeper…Kevin Costner’s 1987 film No Way Out is another filmic treatment of the illegals program. For non-fiction books, you can do no better than Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield. (Mitrokhin was KGB archivist who took thousands of pages of notes on KGB files and brought them out to the West after the Soviet Union collapsed.) For first person accounts, try Alexander Kouzminov’s Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West or Vladimir Kuzichkin’s Inside the KGB: My Life in Soviet Espionage.
The International Spy Museum’s former mini-exhibit “The Americans: Fact and Fantasy” took guests inside the lives of these Soviet spies, otherwise known as “illegals,” who were dispatched to the United States in order to execute operations while posing as normal, mild-mannered Americans.
Now available for viewing online, see both replicas and actual tools used by agents to gather secret intel, exchange information, and complete sabotage missions. But we warn you, you may never look at a book of crossword puzzles the same way again. And don’t miss the new season of THE AMERICANS Wednesdays at 10PM on FX!