How did the KGB train its deep-cover officers to pose, operate and live under the guise of foreign nationalities? Former KGB Chairman Vladimir Efimovich Semichastny (1924-2001) describes how the KGB First Chief Directorate’s elite Directorate S processed, prepared and deployed illegal officers for work abroad in the field – without the protection of the Soviet embassy or Moscow Center.

Originally published in Семичастный, В. Е. Беспокойное сердце. — М.: Вагриус, 2002, translated by Mark Hackard.

Our nation’s intelligence was distinguished by one particularity that could be discovered only extremely rarely in the practices of other secret services. This concerns the training and use of so-called “illegals” – Soviet citizens who settled in other countries under assumed names, thereby allowing us to create the consummate agent network. Such a network couldn’t be uncovered by the Western counterintelligence services that were orbiting mainly around our embassies; representations; trade missions; bureaus; and press agencies.

Vladimir Semichastny KGB

Lt. Gen. Vladimir Semichastny, KGB Chairman from 1961 to 1967.

Inasmuch as I am aware, illegal agents who themselves recruited information sources were written about in relation to the DDR [German Democratic Republic – East German] intelligence service and its actions against the West Germans. Yet there, with the presence of two German states, the situation was much more simple than with us.

I don’t know whether the Germans in Berlin trained their illegals the same way we did. I only know that their secret agent networks were managed on the basis of the same principle we used when directing a network of our illegals. Concretely this meant the use of agents directly from the Center, and not at all through the residency in Bonn.

Along with that, the agent – a West German – used neither another name, nor another’s biography.

I myself wouldn’t begin a conversation on such a topic, because I don’t share the opinion that with the collapse of the Soviet Union there’s come an end to competition between particular secret services. Many technologies must be used in the future, if in different political conditions.

The secret of our illegals was one of our most scrupulously guarded treasures. However, in recent times, several former Chekists have spoken in the Russian media, revealing the training technology for our illegals in order to make some extra money. I don’t think it follows to keep everything a great secret as it was done earlier, but we must remember the security of our own colleagues who work or simply live in the West, and also remember that disclosing the secrets of espionage could prove a detriment our special services. Instead of helping to understand history, it could turn out to be a successful instruction for terrorist organizations or various mafias, of which there are rather many today. Therefore I will stop only on that which has come to the surface in other print publications.

The training of illegal agents was not a mass affair, and all of it represented a very complex, expensive, and at times drawn-out process. The task was set to prepare a Soviet intelligence officer for human intelligence work so that he didn’t distinguish himself in any way from residents of one or another Western country, particularly the United States, Great Britain, France, or Germany. Beginning with polished speech without any accent and ending with such minor details such as the habit of tying the laces on one’s boots, for example. A Russian, as we know, usually conducts this simple operation by squatting, while a foreigner will first off look for where to set his foot, only then leaning down to his shoes.

Our conventional residents responsible for supplying human intelligence from a given territory were not informed about our illegal agents. An illegal was directed from Moscow Center. Meetings with him were undertaken during either his secret visits to the USSR or in some other state, but not where he lived permanently. Understandably, only a narrow circle of people at Lubyanka itself knew about them.

Work with each selected candidate was purely individual. It was best of all to begin training before the person would turn 30. Then, after training and resettlement to a different country, the intelligence officer could still work for a long period. But on the other hand, it was impermissible to begin training too early: a twenty-year-old person would still be too young for us to choose him. To determine whether he’d be suitable to the forthcoming work or not could only be done around 30 to 40 percent of the time.

Rudolf Abel Konon Molody funeral

Famed illegal KGB Col. Rudolf Abel (William Genrikhovich Fisher) at his colleague Konon Molody’s funeral in 1970. Abel would die the following year. Their bodies are buried near each other at Donskoy Cemetery in Moscow.

A person who became a candidate should have already demonstrated beforehand quickness of intellect, high erudition, an ability to study languages, and other key capabilities. During training we controlled and corrected almost every one of his moves. A large number of potential illegals, and perhaps even the majority, ultimately didn’t reach the final objective.

It was bitter when a person, in whom we had invested much time, funds, and efforts, didn’t vindicate our hopes. Yet a minor thing such as speaking Russian in one’s sleep was sufficient for us to have to reject a candidacy. In addition, a future illegal was not to have loved drinking or chasing skirts too much.

The instructors and teachers of future illegals were both psychologists and pedagogues. For example, language instructors. The time for training was not standard: for one person four years was enough, while another needed six or seven. We trained “authentic” Americans and Englishmen on Soviet territory. Habits of how to fill out forms in a London post office; how to pay for an apartment in New York; where in Bonn to drop in on one’s own, and where one could ask for help; how tax declarations in Paris are filled out – all of this we taught right in the capital of the Soviet Union or on its outskirts.

While future illegals were diligently studying, our residencies abroad were also not sleeping. A trained illegal was to become one in actuality, not turn into an emigre or the usual agent. Only a flawless legend could make our man such an “Englishman from birth,” and its roots could reach back decades.

Abroad it followed to first find a suitable basis for a legend. One of the possible solutions was to find the grave, of a child, we’ll say, who died in infancy. Then the future illegal would receive the name that was on the child’s gravestone, and along with it a concrete date and place of birth. Then we needed to ensure the disappearance of the infant’s name from the registry of the departed in the corresponding church book. The best option was when the child was born in one place but died in another. In such a way several church books with records on the given person would turn up, and their comparison was practically impossible. If a Western counterintelligence service suddenly wanted to check concrete information about the suspect, then by all means, it was noted that such-and-such was indeed born in the given place. Who would search for whether this person randomly died in a completely different place and in a different state of the country?

Erasing the corresponding record in a church book was usually just a question of the sum required. Of course, with that we conducted business with the most simple and understandable motivation. Every move was based on one or another well-thought-out legend: in one case the matter concerned an inheritance and big money, while in another something most suitable would be thought up at the given moment. Here fantasy played the role, and technique acted it out. But primarily, a legend had to be absolutely natural, and there would be no room left for romantic stratagems.

However, more than once it happened we were unable to get to the appropriate documents, the planned biography didn’t take, and under closer examination, it could have been uncovered by Western security agencies. However difficult it was, we nevertheless had to start from the beginning again. There couldn’t be another solution – founded on underestimation of the opponent – otherwise, many months or years later, we’d have to pay a dear price for failure. And there wasn’t anything terrible that out of ten attempts, only one succeeded. This was more proof that illegals didn’t appear off of an assembly line.

When all the facts were prepared how they should have been, and the candidate proved sufficiently capable and could start working, the time came for our technical service to show itself. The preparation of necessary documents began.

The new citizen, say an American, received a birth certificate that was impossible to differentiate from other similar documents: this related both to the type and age of the paper, as well as the ink used.

Our intelligence got the paper of American paper mills, and then, with special barrels plus chemical additives and complex technologies, this paper began to artificially age. In such a way any other forged documents were produced: a copy from a French birth certificate, just like Finnish driving documents, couldn’t be produced on paper from a factory in 1960’s Archangel.

Soviet KGB Stamp Set First Chief Directorate

A Soviet stamp set celebrating the 70th anniversary of the KGB First Chief Directorate in 1990. Among the officers honored are illegals Ivan Kudrya, Rudolf Abel (William Fisher) and Konon Molody.

At the end of this whole long process, the illegal would hold in his hands an old, worn passport with a multitude of stamps and visas, although the document was actually brand new.

The time came to unite the man and the legend in practice. To imagine that the illegal would move to a new place, buy himself a new house and arrange fancy parties with influential, ranking people is totally naïve.

In appearance an illegal would often look like a failure who at first would be unlucky; he could go bankrupt, raise his head above water and then plunge downward again. Incrementally he’d connect with people who would help him – somewhere they’d give him a recommendation, somewhere else they’d move him forward. (We found ways to help with respect to finances.) And only some time later, our man would stand on his own legs, and then would begin the period of his agent-running activity.

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Why Bother to Get It Right as a Fiction Author?

picture-4I admit it – I’m a real stickler when it comes to realism and authenticity in fiction writing. I’ve been involved in multiple debates with other authors about just how important all those piddling little facts are to a good story, but I’m sticking to my guns. Especially today, when the Internet makes it so easy to do the necessary research to get them right. I think it’s the height of laziness for an author not to make the effort required to get facts straight in their stories.

Having said that, I must admit that I SOMETIMES am willing to tolerate gross inaccuracies in fiction, but the writing had better be great and the story super-engaging. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are a good example of fiction where I’m able to tolerate a very high-level requirement for suspension of disbelief. These are, after all, spy fairy tales with no pretense to being realistic.

I happen to be pretty knowledgeable about firearms, but Fleming uses some of the most ridiculous guns in his books. When criticized about obvious inadequacies with Bond’s firearms, Fleming is quoted as saying, “Quite honestly, the whole question of expertise in these matters bores me.” Given just how good a writer he otherwise is, as well as the wonderful yarns he so artfully spins, I’m willing to give him a pass and still enjoy his books for exactly what they are.

Another reason to forgive him is the fact that the era in which he wrote was pre-Internet, and research was a much more daunting task. With today’s authors, however, I’m more intolerant of what I consider stupid mistakes.

Let me give you a concrete example. Vince Flynn is the extremely successful author of the Mitch Rapp spy thriller series. He appears to claim that they are realistic stories, and not spy fairy tales. “American Assassin” was a best-seller that’s now being turned into a movie.

When I started reading it, I actually found it quite enjoyable. Right up to this point in the book when Rapp shoots someone with a 9mm Beretta handgun: “The bullets spat from the end of the silencer, all three of them striking the arms dealer in the nose.” Great so far, that’s actually where a trained assassin would shoot someone with a pistol for the greatest chance of causing the immediate death of the victim. Then we come to the problem.

“The hollow-tipped rounds were designed to pancake on impact and triple in size. A pink mist exploded from the back of Sharif’s head. A good portion of the man’s brains was now in the bushes behind the bench.”


First of all, my most minor complaint. Those bullets would be called “hollow point”, not “hollow-tipped”. Minor quibble, I know, but still, Rapp is supposed to be extremely knowledgeable about firearms. For anyone who knows much about handguns that’s going to cause a minor cringe, like saying “he cocked the pistol’s slide” rather than saying “he racked the pistol’s slide”. OK, perhaps I’ll chill out and let this one go.

“The hollow-tipped rounds were designed to pancake on impact and triple in size.”

This next one I can’t let pass because it shows complete ignorance of they way bullets work. You are VERY lucky if a hollow point round expands 50% on impact. There is no way a bullet is going to triple in size.

But wait, here comes the absolute worst thing in the story.

“A pink mist exploded from the back of Sharif’s head. A good portion of the man’s brains was now in the bushes behind the bench.”

There is no way that’s going to happen from 9mm handgun rounds. Sharif would need to be shot with a high-powered rifle for something like that to happen. Handgun rounds are quite puny in comparison. Heck, over 85% of the people who are shot with a handgun survive, even if shot multiple times. I know of a Florida police officer who was shot 7 times with a .45 ACP handgun, one shot hitting his head and shattering his jaw. He not only survived, but actually killed his assailant, and he remained conscious throughout the entire gunfight.

This is Flynn’s 11th Mitch Rapp novel. I’m sure he’s heard from his readers about these kinds of mistakes. Come on Mr. Flynn, can’t you do a little research on the Internet and get the basic facts in your stories straight?

Another best-selling author in the same genre as Flynn is Brad Thor. His first novel in the Scot Harvath series, “Lions of Lucerne”, had a bunch of mistakes in it regarding firearms. However, when they were pointed out to Mr. Thor he made sure to learn as much as he could about the guns his protagonist uses in the novels. He now writes some of the most accurate and realistic scenes concerning weapons and tactics of any current author. He’s an author I can respect, and it really isn’t that hard to get accurate information on firearms and their proper usage on the Internet.

Let me give you a concrete example based on my own experience as a writer. My first novel, “Trapped in a Hall of Mirrors”, was very much a fictionalized autobiography of my own life, so I didn’t need to do any research to get my facts straight. However, part of my second novel, “Funhouse Mirrors”, takes place in Moscow in the 1980s. The character who lives there is an engineer who works on military radar systems and wants to defect to the West. I’ve never been to Moscow.

So, in order to realistically write about this character, I put together a list of questions I would have to answer. Here they are:

1. What kind of housing would a military radar engineer have in that time and place? What would its interior be like?
2. In what neighborhood would he likely live, and what would that environment be like?
3. What kind of food would he eat? What would be his favorite meal?
4. What kind of medical care (his wife was very ill) would he and his family receive?
5. What was the overall economic situation at this time in Moscow? What was daily life like when it came to mundane things like shopping?
6. Where would he work? What would the facility be like? What would security be like there?
7. Where might he travel to on business? Would he ever even leave Moscow?

Now at first, this looks to be a daunting list of questions that would require quite a bit of time to answer. In fact, it took me just two weeks to answer every one of these questions in great detail. For example, by the end of that time I was able to describe his apartment building in great detail, the exact layout of his apartment inside of it, and the furniture it would contain. I even knew which pieces would have been made in the Soviet Union (very few) and which would have been made in satellite nations like Czechoslovakia and East Germany (all of the nicer pieces).

Knowing all this actually helped me to not only avoid making some jarring mistakes about his life in Moscow, it also really helped me flesh out his character in my own mind. I understood the challenges he faced in living in Moscow during that time, and how they would shape his outlook on life. If, instead, I’d just said to myself, “Well, Moscow is a big city – I’ve been to New York City many times – I’ll just use that as my model for Moscow”, the character of my engineer would have been a very different one. In fact, it would have changed the whole novel in some very bad ways.

So authors: please, please, please take a little time and research the facts in your stories. Not only will it avoid jarring mistakes that can break the spell you are weaving in your readers’ minds, but it will likely also improve your characterizations and plot. It’s really not very much work at all in this Age of the Internet.

More information about me and my books can be found on my Amazon Author Page.