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Modern Russian Super Agent
The life of a spy is not all that hollywood portrays
Books and movies many times glamorize the life of a spy as the jet setting, gambling, drinking martinis in high society life that many people would love to have. Yet the true life of a spy many times is one filled not only with physical danger but moral danger. Could you imagine having to leave the night of your wedding to sleep with a source to get needed information? How about professing love and almost living with someone for 2 years only to abruptly tell them you no longer love them when you no longer need their information? It is not all glamour and high society. There is certainly hard life not to mention having to live with doing things that would turn most of our stomachs. The icing on the cake is what happens when your country, which you sacrificed so much for, turns against you. This is the story of Agent Dmitri of the KGB who lived just that life.
Image source Desencyclopie
The Beginnings of a Super Spy
In many Hollywood stories the origin of a spy is one of a damaged home life, a troubled past apparently makes the best agent. Interestingly enough that is exactly the case of Dmitri. Being born as an illegitimate son, he bore a stigma from the earliest of ages. Never knowing for sure who his father was, he professed many times to be the son of royalty. His mother had an extremely strong sense of class struggles and would lash out at anyone (including her son) who did not take seriously the challenges of a working class individual. One such time was when Dmitri was extremely young on an outing with him mother. They were in a large field covered with prickly plants. They observed a poor woman walking gingerly through the field for she had no shoes. A 5-year-old Dmitri laughed and was thus thoroughly scolded by his mother and then made to walk home through the same field without his shoes, an exceedingly painful lesson.
Dmitri grew up in the time of rebellion and great change in Russia, later Soviet Union. This was the time of the great fight between the Reds and Whites (those that believed in communism versus monarchy). He attempted to fight for what he believed (and perhaps more importantly what his mother believed) but never could seem to catch a break. He tried to fight on the side of the reds in several countries, speaking publicly on class struggles and fight for what he believed in. It seemed everywhere he went, the tide would turn against the Red army and he would find himself fleeing to another place. Eventually finding himself penniless, virtually living on the streets in Czechoslovakia he turned to the Russian consulate to offer his services. Initially turned down, he was later accepted due to his ability to speak several languages and thus beneficial as a translator. Soon his talents would be truly recognized and he joined their clandestine service. As it turned out, without any formal documentation which would greatly hurt him in the future. But for now it seemed he found his calling.
The Glamorous Life of a Spy
Turns out, when provided some funds and a sense of purpose Dmitri could clean himself up to a rather dashing individual. On par perhaps with 007, Agent Dmitri would begin to dress in the latest fashions, adopt a swagger that gained him entrance to all manner of social circles he normally would have no right entering. In these pre-WWII days, Russia was striving for both trade secrets to help their industrial advancement, but also intelligence information that would help them in the muddy European politics. Dmitri's job was to gain access to information on both fronts. The life of a spy rarely comes with a moral code, in fact just the opposite. To get someone to turn on their country, their friends and family, you need to provide tremendous leverage. Sex usually was one of those levers.
A frequent trick that Dmitri used was to leverage an extremely good looking female agent to woo a target. Once they were intimate, Dmitri would sneak into the house and gain access to secret papers. Photographing them he would later confront the target and tell him he wanted all future intelligence or threaten to expose the target to his own country as a sell-out. In essence blackmail.
Lest you think Dmitri could successful keep his own hands clean, he also courted several women in his career who had access to sensitive materials. Most notably on his own wedding night, he snuck out on his new wife to sleep with a contact he had been working for several weeks. Such was his devotion to his cause that he felt was his moral obligation. Alas, his first major reality check came about with the same wedding night asset. He stayed close to this asset professing love and willingness to marry for two years when he was directed by his controller to simply drop her due to orders from above. Dmitri tried to protest explaining it would crush the woman as an individual and of course ruin a wonderful asset. To no avail. Such was his devotion that he simply told her it was over and he did not love her, causing an unbelievable amount of distress and virtually cost his asset her life. Such was the non-glamorous side of being an agent.
Do you think you could ever be a spy?
When a Lunatic runs the Asylum
Dmitri became one of the most success spies in the Soviet arsenal. Gaining access in the run-up to WWII to information and assets almost beyond imagination. Flying around the world including Great Britain, Germany France and even the United States. He built personas upon personas and turned assets that no one else thought possible. At one point was told to find a person in Berlin that was average height with a pointed mustache. That was it, the only information he was given and yet with his remarkable street sense, was able to find and then turn that individual into one of the most remarkable assets from England. Yet for all his success there was trouble brewing. Stalin had come to power and was convinced that world was out to get him. Through his paranoia he started his great purges and prison camps or gulags. Some of the most successful spies started to get recalled home and then on trumped up charges, executed. As tightly as information was guarded, information did leak out and some spies dropped off the radar in foreign countries. What was less well known was death squads were created to quietly eliminate those defectors.
But Dmitri, while knowing of the executions of those that were recalled home, when it was his turn never hesitated. He believe he spent a life working for the country he loved for a cause he truly believed. Upon returning home he was shocked at the mass arrests that took place all around him. His co-workers, his superiors, his friends all at one point were taken in the middle of the night to secret prisons never to be heard from again. Each night he would go to sleep with his wife with a bag that he could take with him if he was arrested that night. Each night he and his wife would be up for most of the night hearing the screeching of car tires and slamming of doors as his neighbors were visited by the secret police and arrested. Finally the stress of waiting for his turn overcame him and he visited his central office to make sure his name was clear. Ironically enough this condemned his fate. In the vast bureaucracy of the period apparently his name and location escaped notice. By checking-in he fixed that oversight. Within days he was arrested and brought to the infamous Lubyanka prison.
For days even weeks after being arrested he was convinced this was a simple misunderstanding that upon explanation would be quickly clarified. He had no idea the scope and depravity of Stalin's great purge. He was ruthlessly tortured, had ribs broken, flesh ripped off his back, his skull partially caved in while being beaten with every possible object. He continued to deny wrongdoing, but alas during the purges friends would make up stories about friends just to get the torture to stop. He was so named by his peers. No matter what he said about his past, as a spy his exploits were not documented and certainly not available to his interrogators. Eventually, he gave up and started to make false confessionals when he knew there was no other option. No one can withstand prolonged torture. He then began 20 years of the worst hell anyone can imagine.
Life in the Gulags
Life in the gulags was more terrible than anyone could possible grasp. Not only was a level of systematic torture created by the guards and state leaders, but since true criminals (rapists, thieves murders) were considered working class and thus superior to state spies (proletarians) they were allowed to run the gulags from the inside. These hardened criminals were able to form vicious gangs and perform unbelievable crimes with impunity. Dmitri's job was to simply survive in this terrible new world.
At one point Dmitri was transferred to a terrible prison where he lived in solitary confinement for 2 years. At no point was he told why he was there or how long he was to reside in this fortress. A word was never spoken to him for two years and slowly he lost his mind. He failed to grasp the concept of where he was or the world around him. Only through sheer force of will was he able to drag himself back from the abyss and slowly regain his faculties. Shortly thereafter he was moved back to a distant work camp in the freezing Siberian artic. He learned that his mother and wife died while he was in prison. And yet he was a survivor. Against all odds, he was able to overcome terrible environmental, physical and mental strain to finally gain his release from prison. Even upon his release he was not considered innocent only reprieved. This stigma meant that he was severely limited where he could live or what jobs he could perform. Fighting for years to have his record of service to the state made public was like running into a brick wall. Each time an excuse or a new hurdle was thrown in his way.
Throughout his life Dmitri wanted to be an author. Throughout his time in the gulags he would write stories, novels and historical biographies of his life both as a spy and in prison. Each time his work would be destroyed or lost through heartbreaking circumstances in prison. Now that he was out he worked in earnest to publish. Although in those post Stalin days life was slightly more relaxed, painting a poor image of the state was still not allowed. Time after time his work was rejected.
Only in his final years did he finally earn official recognition of his work to the state, and some publishing of his life history. He received formal celebration to a hero of the state and an official spy who was arguably one of the most successful spies in KGB history. In 1975 while moving a sofa in his home, he died of a heart attack. He dies as he desired, active and on his feet, just like his ancestors.
What we can take away from this story
Intrinsically we all know that the decisions we make have consequences. Yet few times can we always predict what the full impact of our actions. Sometimes during the wrong thing for the right reasons is for the greater good. And yet sometimes the ends do not justify the means. We see this debate in many countries over 'aggressive interrogation', which can be considered by some torture. If you have a suspect that you know has planted a nuclear weapon in a major city, how far would you want authorities to go to get the location? Many would say whatever it takes to prevent the death of tens or hundreds of thousands. What if that suspect hasn't yet planted it but knows who will? See that slippery slope?
Agent Dmitri played on weaknesses of his targets either to financial gain or sexual gain to eventually turn them against what they love. He drove some to alcoholism, others to suicide. At what level can a civilized society condone this behavior for the the greater good. We know there are evil people in the world and sometimes you need to do things you wouldn't normally tolerate to combat evil, the hard part is knowing where are the lines and how to ensure you don't slip over them. This is going to be a challenge of world powers like never before with the greater advent of terrorism and state-controlled attacks. We need to always remember that not always do the ends justify the means.
A story with this depth would seem to many an insurmountable task, especially considering the dearth of documentation and corroborating information. Yet Emil Draitser, as a seasoned reporter, accomplished the impossible. This book reads halfway between a Cussler hero/spy novel filled with intrigue and dashing agents and a horrifying expose into prisoner/torture camps. Accomplishing both in a condensed book is a work of art that deserves to be recognized. While the second half of the book while he is in prison is sometimes painful to read, it would benefit all to understand the history of what once was one of the most powerful countries and individuals in the world. A readable book at all levels I strongly recommend it to all readers.