June 25, 2017

Iraq’s remaining Kurdish Jews look to the future with both hope and scepticism



Kurdish Iraqi Jews now have a representative in government, but few remain from a once vibrant community

Taha Smith, pictured at the Erbil Citadel, where his grandparents used to attend synagogue. Smith is now open about his faith, and has a Star of David tattoo (Matt Alesevich/MEE)

Matt Alesevich

Sunday 25 June 2017 14:48 UTC

Erbil, Iraq - Growing up in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, Taha Smith and his best friend were inseparable.

Long neighborhood days of football and tag evolved into international adventures - as teenagers they vagabonded around Europe, eventually finding jobs and staying a few years.

Lifelong confidants, it was not until recently each revealed one anecdote: He was Jewish.

“He never told me. I never told him,” says the 30-year-old Smith, who revealed his ancestral religion to his best friend only before marrying the man’s sister earlier this year. “It was crazy for me. We were so close.”

The scenario would perplex Smith’s ancestors.

Jews have inhabited Mesopotamia for over 2,500 years and throughout the rise of Islam and into the twentieth century, mosques and synagogues, like the one Smith’s grandparents attended in central Erbil’s Citadel, enjoyed a cordial coexistence.

Centuries of amicability decayed, however, when in early June 1941 Nazi-inspired anti-semitism in Baghdad encouraged rioters to loot and destroy Jewish homes and shops during the Jewish Shavuot festival.

Known as the Farhud, the two-day pogrom left nearly 200 dead and a community traumatized.

A few years later, the establishment of Israel fanned the embers of anti-semitism in Iraq. In response, Israel organized Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, a 1951 airlift that granted Israeli citizenship to Iraqi Jews who felt threatened.

In just two years, around 120,000 Iraqi Jews fled to Israel - all but a few thousand.  

Today, Jews in Baghdad number in single digits at most, with the BBC reporting in 2011 that just seven remained.

This figure stood at 80,000 just 100 years ago, according to a 1917 Ottoman census.

Hidden congregation

In Iraqi Kurdistan, which prides itself as a bastion of tolerance in the region, and which will vote in an independence referendum in September, a higher, yet debated, number reside.

As many have converted to Islam and Christianity over the years and others pose as Christians and Muslims, statistics are unclear and call into question what defines a “Jew.”

Mordechai Zaken, historian and former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has said that most of the several dozen families that had some distant family connection to Judaism immigrated to Israel in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

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The Zoroastrian priestesses of Iran

“Most of these people are Muslim Kurds who perhaps have a grandmother or great grandmother of Jewish origin who converted to Islam two or three generations ago,” he told the Jerusalem Post.

Decades into life without a Jewish support system - synagogues, rabbis, collective holiday celebrations - the once flourishing sense of Jewish community has faded.

Additionally, incidents reminding Jews to proceed with caution haven’t been consigned to the 20th century.

In 2012, Mawlud Afand, the publisher of the now discontinued Israel-Kurd magazine, which one Sulaimaniya man remembers buying covertly “like [he] was buying was cocaine,” was kidnapped and imprisoned in Iran after repeated warnings to cease publication, according to those close to him. He was released in 2015.

Law of Minorities

A seemingly progressive development came in 2015 when the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) passed the Law of Minorities, which gave a handful of minority religions - Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism and Judaism among others - the right to official representatives in the KRG through the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.

The Jewish representative appointed by the KRG was Sherzad Mamsani, a man who claims to have lost his right hand in a 1997 bombing in which he says he was targeted for his faith. 

My father was so happy he cried at the first mention of a Jewish representative

- Anonymous, Kurdish Jew

Chief among his goals, he says, is the restoration of the region’s Jewish historical sites, erection of synagogues, and the carrying out of a public relations effort to improve the perception of Jews.   

One Kurdish Jew, who did not want to give his name, remembers vividly his father's reaction when he first heard the news of Mamsani’s appointment.

“My father was so happy he cried at the first mention of a Jewish representative,” he says.

Sherzad Mamsani, pictured in his office at the Kurdish Jewish Community's office in Erbil (Matt Alesevich/MEE)

“I want to remove the bad image for the Jews,” says Mamsani, at an Erbil cafe in April.

“I want people to know that Jewish people are not dangerous.”

But two years into his post, Mamsani has struggled with his own image in Jewish communities.

I want people to know that Jewish people are not dangerous

- Sherzad Mamsani, Jewish representative in the KRG

Just months after his appointment, Zaken told the Jerusalem Post that Mamsani was “someone who does not distinguish between truth and lies in his eagerness,” adding that his “publicity campaign” is “causing confusion” and “damaging the KRG.”

Zaken, the author of Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan, accused Mamsani of inflating the number of Jews in Kurdistan for political gain.

Controversial census

Most recently, Mamsani has controversially undertaken a mission to conduct a census of Jewish families in the region by aggregating documents, an initiative he once described in a 2016 Times of Israel interview as “insanity” and an idea that would let “enemies find us and kill us little by little.”

“Information can be bought in Iraq,” worries one Jewish man with his information, given over by a family member, now on file. 

While some families have cooperated, others have balked at what they see as a double standard initiated by a leader who claims to have, but hasn’t proved to have, Jewish roots and official connections.

KRG’s Director of Relations and Religious Coexistence, Mariwan Naqshbandy, confirmed to MEE that Mamsani was granted his post, which is unpaid, without presenting paperwork or community input, but simply after putting himself forward for the role.

“We didn’t turn over paperwork. I haven’t seen good or bad things yet - I just don’t trust him,” says one Jew who has met Mamsani, speaking on behalf of his family.

An X strikes through a Star of David on a wall in Sulamaniyah (Matt Alesevich/MEE)

“Lots of Jewish people are asking who he is. They don’t want to show their documents - they want proof [of who he is] before coming out.”

But confirmation won’t be coming from what many believe to be the most validating source: Israel.

“Sherzad is not an Israeli citizen, has no (sic) an Israeli passport and has no connection to the Israeli government or any official standing in Israel,” writes Margalit Vega, the director of Israel’s Gulf States Department at the Foreign Ministry, in an email to MEE.  

Earlier this year, Mamsani temporarily stood down for what he called “some reasons,” and he himself admits to having many critics.

“Most of my community [is] anti-Sherzad,” admits Mamsani, who repeatedly stresses that he’s not a politician.

The Jewish representative seems to be most favourably viewed on foreign trips and in external publications, where he is painted as a brave champion for religious minorities who, as Mamsani puts it, “stands in the centre of the fire among radical Islamic countries.”

Murder plots?

Many interviews mention his claims that there have been multiple attempts at his life, one which he says is the reason he has a prosthetic right hand.

Last year CNN featured Mamsani in a review of Iraq’s “Minorities on the edge of extinction.”

Also last year, in a New York Times piece summarizing a Kurdish delegation’s lobbying trip to Washington, Mamsani, who attended, is named a “top official” taken “in an open appeal to build support in Israel for the Kurdish effort.” (According to Mamsani, he exchanged gifts - a yarmulke for an American flag - with Arizona Congressman Trent Franks.)

For progressive Kurds, eager to applaud KRG steps toward improving minority relations (for example, five parliamentary seats - out of 111 -  must be filled by each Turkmen and Christian parties and minimum of 30 percent of all seats must be held by women), appointments like Mamsani’s set Kurdistan further apart from rigid Iraq.

A Jewish volunteer creates a Holocaust photo wall before an event at the Kurdish Jewish Community's office in Erbil (Matt Alsevich/MEE)

“I saw [Mamsani’s] work on Facebook and Instagram and what he does for Jews - how he presents for Jewish people,” says Aria Youssef, a Syrian Kurdish women’s rights advocate who attended one of Mamsani’s Jewish shabbat dinner gatherings in Erbil.

“It was interesting to see the reality - not photos - of how he can present Jewish people in Kurdistan.”

While Kurdistan is currently enjoying a period of peace, decades of on-again-off-again conflict - in less than 30 years Kurds have lived through the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds, two American invasions of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State group - has disciplined many to default to caution.

Kurdish people love Jewish people and our government loves Israel

- Taha Smith, Kurdish Jew

Even the now open Smith, who sports a Star of David tattoo on his right arm, acknowledges a future of unknowns.

“I trust my government. I trust the [Kurdish] Peshmerga [military forces]. Kurdish people love Jewish people and our government loves Israel,” says Smith. “But of course, we don’t know what is going to happen next.”

Israeli support

Israel is a vocal, and much welcomed, supporter of Kurdish independence and Kurdistan is sometimes dubbed “Second Israel.”

Americans are also held in high esteem by Kurds, increasingly so since American bombs deterred ISIS’s advance toward Erbil in the summer of 2014.

With strong international alliances, and a well-policed, checkpoint-heavy interior, it is not everyday security that concerns religious minorities here, but the area’s susceptibility to random volatility, and the spread of violence from outside.

In 2014, after a few years’ lull in anti-Yazidi violence, Kurdistan’s Yazidis faced a sporadic and barbaric genocide at the hands of ISIS. 

A sign for the Jewlakan Mosque in Sulamaniyah. The area is still known by its now much diminished Jewish population (Matt Alesevich/MEE)

“If someone sees me comment on a [Jewish] Facebook page, maybe the time will come [when that causes a problem], god forbid,” says one man. “Kurdistan is like a nest of spies and moles.”

While Kurdish Jews feel protected as Kurds, they would welcome further support from Israel and the US, collectively home to around three-quarters of the world’s Jewish population.

“We hope we can make a connection with the US or Israel. We don’t need to go there,” says one Jewish Iraq-Iran War veteran, distancing himself from Kurds who’ve posed as Jews to gain Israeli citizenship over the years.

If Israel sent just two rabbis to Kurdistan, you would see a line in front of the Ministry

- Anonymous, Kurdish Jew

“Even if we have our name at the US embassy [in Erbil]. Even if they give us a piece paper that gives us protection if something happens again—that is enough.”

In terms of spiritual foundations, however, it’s clear which nation has the best shot of bringing the community out of the woodwork.

“If Israel sent just two rabbis to Kurdistan, you would see a line in front of the Ministry [of Religion]. They could say we are official. Here is our passports. Here is our ID,” argues one Erbil Jew. “If that happened, you’d see a crowd like never before

18 Israeli fighter jets landed in Saudi Arabia to prevent coup


June 22, 2017 - 5:19 PM News Code : 838110Source : FNALink: (AhlulBayt News Agency) - 18 Israeli fighter jets along with two Gulfstream aircraft landed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to prevent any hostile or military moves by former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz who was replaced with Saudi King Salman's son. 

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced on Wednesday his decision to replace Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz with his own son, Mohammed bin Salman. 

After the decision was announced, the Israeli air force sent 18 of its fighter jets, including F16I, F15CD and F16CD, along with two Gulfstream aircraft, two tanker airplanes and two C130 planes, special for electronic warfare, to Saudi Arabia at the demand of the new crown prince bin Salman to block his cousin (bin Nayef)'s possible measures. 

According to a royal decree, Mohammed bin Salman, 31, was also named deputy prime minister, and shall maintain his post as defense minister, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Wednesday. 

Saudi media announced that King Salman has called for a public pledge of allegiance to the new crown prince in the holy city of Mecca on Wednesday night. 

The SPA also confirmed that 31 out of 34 members of Saudi Arabia’s succession committee chose Mohammed bin Salman as the crown prince. 

Just days ago, the Saudi king stripped Nayef of his powers overseeing criminal investigations and designated a new public prosecution office to function directly under the king’s authority. 

In a similar move back in 2015, the Saudi king had appointed his nephew, then deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the heir to the throne after removing his own half-brother Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from the position. 

Under the new decree, King Salman further relieved Mohammed bin Nayef of his duties as the interior minister. He appointed Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef as the new interior minister and Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Salem as deputy interior minister. 

Mohammed Bin Salman is already in charge of a vast portfolio as chief of the House of Saud royal court and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which is tasked with overhauling the country’s economy. 

The young prince was little known both at home and abroad before Salman became king in January 2015. 

However, King Salman has significantly increased the powers of Mohammed, with observers describing the prince as the real power behind his father’s throne. 

The power struggle inside the House of Saud came to light earlier this year when the Saudi king began to overhaul the government and offered positions of influence to a number of family members. 

In two royal decrees in April, the Saudi king named two of his other sons, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and Prince Khaled bin Salman, as state minister for energy affairs and ambassador to the United States, respectively. 

Late April, media source disclosed that Mohammad bin Salman has literally bribed the new US administration by paying $56m to Donald Trump. 

According to reports, bin Salman is paying off the US to buy its support for finding a grip over the crown. 

"Since Uncle Sam's satisfaction is the first step for the Saudi princes to get on the crown, paying off Washington seems to be a taken-for-granted fact," Rami Khalil, a reporter of Naba' news website affiliated to the Saudi dissidents wrote. 

He added that since the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is like a sword over the head of the al-Saud, they have no way out but to bribe the US, noting that the Yemen quagmire is also another reason for Riyadh to seek Washington's support. 

Also, a prominent Yemeni analyst said earlier this month that the US has been paid several trillion dollars by Saudi Arabia to protect its crown, adding that Riyadh has recently bribed Washington's support for the Yemen war with $200bln. 

"Washington has asked for more money to defend the Saudi regime and Riyadh has recently paid $200bln to the US for the costs of its support for the war in Yemen," Saleh al-Qarshi told FNA. 

"This is apart from the huge amounts of money that Saudi Arabia pays to the US treasury for protecting its crown," he added. 

According to al-Qarshi, former Saudi Intelligence Chief Turki al-Feisal revealed last year that his country has bought the low-profit US treasury bonds to help the US economy. 

As the defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman has faced strong international criticism for the bloody military campaign he launched against neighboring Yemen in 2015 amid his rivalry with bin Nayef, the then powerful interior minister. 

Saudi Arabia has been striking Yemen since March 2015 to restore power to fugitive president Mansour Hadi, a close ally of Riyadh. The Saudi-led aggression has so far killed at least 14,000 Yemenis, including hundreds of women and children. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Yemen also announced that more than a thousand Yemenis have died of cholera since April 2017 as Saudi Arabia's deadly campaign prevented the patients from travelling abroad for treatment and blocked the entry of medicine into the war-torn country, continues hitting residential areas across Yemen. 

Despite Riyadh's claims that it is bombing the positions of the Ansarullah fighters, Saudi bombers are flattening residential areas and civilian infrastructures. 

According to several reports, the Saudi-led air campaign against Yemen has drove the impoverished country towards humanitarian disaster. 

Nearly 3.3 million Yemeni people, including 2.1 million children, are currently suffering from acute malnutrition. The Al-Saud aggression has also taken a heavy toll on the country’s facilities and infrastructure, destroying many hospitals, schools, and factories. 

The WHO now classifies Yemen as one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in the world alongside Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria and Iraq.

June 24, 2017



Espionage History Archive





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

“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).

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.

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.

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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Yuri Drozdov: The man who turned Soviet spies into Americans

By Kevin PonniahBBC News

23 June 2017

 From the sectionEurope

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Image copyrightSVRImage captionYuri Drozdov had a legendary reputation in Soviet and Russian intelligence circles

Yuri Drozdov once said it could take up to seven years to train an "illegal", the Soviet spies planted abroad under false or assumed identities, sometimes for decades.

As former chief of the KGB intelligence agency's Directorate S, which managed the illegals programme, Drozdov knew more than most about what it took to prepare someone for the task.

He had to train Soviet agents to talk, think and act, even subconsciously, like the regular American, Brit, German or Frenchman they would become from the moment they touched down on foreign soil.

KGB agents in the US and elsewhere would wander around cemeteries in search of children who had died that would have been a similar age as recruits being trained. It was a useful way to steal a real identity in a pre-internet age.

A detailed "legend", or biography, would be devised, and a birth certificate printed. Churches would be paid off to erase the death record.


It was expensive, painstaking work. Some would-be illegals were trained for years, but ultimately judged unsafe to deploy.

Speaking Russian in one's sleep was grounds for a promising recruit to be dismissed.

'There should be no contact'

Drozdov died on 21 June at 91 years of age. It was the end of the life of a man who spent decades in the upper echelons of the KGB and carved out a legendary reputation from his time heading one of the most secretive and infamous programmes in Soviet intelligence.

Unlike "legal" spies, who were posted abroad under diplomatic or other official cover, illegals were on their own - working normal jobs, living in suburbs and operating without the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by other agents should they be caught.

Have you got what it takes to be a spy?

The KGB spy who lived the American dream

In a 2010 interview, Drozdov described a pair of illegals - a man and a woman - deployed to the US via West Germany and posing as a couple.

"When I worked in New York, I would sometimes come around their house. I would drive past, look up at their windows," he told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper.

But he didn't go inside - the risks being too great for such face-to-face meetings. There should be "no contact with illegals", he said. "None."

Media caption"This kind of double life wears on you"

Information gathered by these "deep cover" agents was funnelled back to handlers through clandestine means - including dead-drops, by radio, or covert meetings abroad.

Announcing Drozdov's death, the cause of which was not specified, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, described him as "a true Russian officer, a decent man, a wise commander".

But much remains unknown about his life and operations he was part of, the details hidden in Russian security archives.

Bridge of Spies

Drozdov was "a legend" in the KGB First Chief Directorate, and still is considered as such in the SVR, says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an expert on Russian security affairs.

His father was in the Bolshevik worker militias known as the Red Guards and he served in the Second World War as an artilleryman.

Graduating from the Military Institute for Languages, a key finishing school for Soviet spies, Drozdov joined the KGB in 1956.

Rudolf Abel, the most famous illegal, was arrested in New York in 1957 and later famously exchanged with the USSR in return for the captured US pilot Gary Powers on a Berlin bridge in 1962.

Yuri Drozdov, then a young KGB agent based in East Germany, helped organise the swap, the subject of Steven Spielberg's 2016 thriller Bridge of Spies.

Rudolf Abel: The Soviet spy who grew up in England

Image copyrightAFPImage captionThe 1962 swap took place on the Glienicke bridge, which connects West Berlin and Potsdam

Later, in 1975, after a stint in China, he became the "rezident" - or chief KGB officer - at the Soviet Union's UN office in New York, before taking up his position as head of Directorate S in Moscow four years later. After retiring in 1991, he ran a consulting firm.

The Bridge of Spies episode was not the first time Drozdov would be on the ground for a key moment in Cold War history.

In December 1979, he led KGB forces that stormed the Afghan presidential palace toppling President Hafizullah Amin, paving the way for the Soviet invasion.

"This was a guy who spanned the ultra-cerebral world of the spymaster and the action man world of Spetsnaz [special forces]," Mr Galeotti says.

He would later, in 1981, instigate the creation of a new KGB special forces unit called Vympel.

Behind enemy lines

Drozdov's penchant for "hands-on" work is clear. "I would not give top marks to Nato's Special Forces, nor to the American system of training," he said in a 2011 interview. "What they do is try to carry out their special operations without 'getting their hands dirty', and that, to my mind, is a rather dubious business."

He also described caches of equipment hidden in "a number of countries" for sleeper agents to use behind enemy lines in the event of a crisis.

"Whether they are still there [or not], let that be a headache for foreign intelligence services," he said.

Image copyrightAFPImage captionIllegals operate without diplomatic cover and blend in like ordinary citizens

Much remains secret about the illegals programme, including the number of people involved. It is estimated that hundreds may have been planted in total by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Vadim Alekseevich Kirpichenko, Yuri Drozdov's predecessor at the top of Directorate S, described them as agents "artificially created by us", who return to Russia after years of covert service abroad and often speak their native language with an accent.

🔴What recruiters looked for in an illegal was "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 an opportunity to make a living," he told the journalist Konstantin Kapitonov, according to the online Espionage History Archive.

But other traits, "ones that are elusive and hard to transmit into words, a special artistry", are also required to be able to forget one's identity and become someone else.

Long read: The spy with no name

While the deployment of deep-cover agents to try and obtain information and get close to powerful people makes much less sense in today's digital world, the demise of the Soviet Union did not signal the end of the illegals programme - and Drozdov's legacy lives on to some extent.

In 2010 a group of 10 Russian "sleeper agents" were arrested in New York. Some lived as couples and had grown-up children.

The story inspired hit US TV show The Americans, which portrays the life of a Russian spy couple working as travel agents in American suburbia by day and setting honey traps and assassinating people by night.

Image copyrightAFPImage captionAnna Chapman was one of the "sleeper agents" sent back to Russia from the US in 2010

The group caught in real-life have been mocked for their ineptitude, however, and were reported not to have actually obtained any secrets.

They were later swapped with Russia for four Russian nationals said to have worked for Western intelligence.

But other alleged modern-day illegals have popped up elsewhere, including in Spain.

"It's certainly a diminishing aspect [of Russian spycraft]," says Mr Galeotti, "but obviously where you have people already in place, unless you have a reason to do so, you leave them there just in case."