Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
In the previous two Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale installments, I have been discussing the mission I conducted over several years in Moscow. It centered around an asset we codenamed “Sounder” (as a colleague reminded me after reading the first two parts, the op itself was officially codenamed GTSOUNDER, with the GT prefix of the cryptonym at the time designating sensitive Soviet and Eastern European initiatives).
This final part involves how the operation became absorbed by outside events and my attention was directed elsewhere. I had a part to play in what unfolded. I must live with that. But sometimes, one must make decisions in which somebody else loses.
My period of residence in Moscow was ending. The appointment as a foreign lecturer at the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (orchestrated by Sounder) was winding down.
As noted last time, Sounder had indicated he wanted to defect and would not provide the intel promised if the Agency would not extricate him from the USSR. This had immediately set up a frantic process involving the CIA Station at the Moscow Embassy, the “powers that be” back home, and me.
As the operations officer in charge of Sounder and the only one from our side in contact with him, they could not leave me out of the loop. But I hardly had much genuine input in what was decided. There was never any question that the higher pay grades would opt to get him out.
After all, he was a KGB general, now ensconced in an academic career, and had telegraphed being in possession of dynamite intel on the movement of Soviet “illegals.” These were officers (and other assets living abroad without diplomatic cover), including those “living deep” in the US. They were the rough equivalent of what I was doing in Moscow. Our side called it being a NOC (having “no official cover”).
Throughout the years in which we had contact, including several prolonged periods in which I lived in Moscow, we had always had a good personal relationship. But I had also become suspect of his ability to deliver and concluded that he was not worth the risk of an exfiltration attempt that would in all probability fail.
Our record on that score was just dreadful. As I observed in “A Failed Extraction from Tallinn,” Classified Intelligence Brief, August 11, 2021):
Hollywood retains a number of flawed assumptions about our Cold War abilities against the USSR. Unless providing a faithful accounting of a story told by somebody who was in the Great Game, Tinseltown usually opts for the more dramatic but less realistic options.
One of these continues to be the idea that we were good at getting people out of the Soviet Union. It is called the exfiltration myth and it permeates much of the fiction surrounding the Cold War.
So let me set the record straight. While US intel was able to remove folks from other places behind the Iron Curtin (i.e., the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe), and had a much greater win rate if the target could first make it onto a controlled delegation to a Western city like Rome, Vienna, or Lisbon, that did not translate into moving somebody straight out of Soviet territory.
0, as in zero, nada.
That’s the number of successful US-engineered extractions from within the USSR in the 41 years considered the heart of the Cold War (from the beginning of the Berlin Blockade on June 24, 1948 to the Wall coming down on November 9, 1989).
Other Western intel agencies fared little better, although the Brits were able to extract their most important ever in-place spy – KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky – in July of 1985. This operation (codenamed Pimlico) was the highest-profiled and, for the KGB, most embarrassing grab.
The Brit success with Pimlico had rubbed the “seventh floor” back home. I was concerned that they would view Sounder as a way for us to get even.
It would have been easier to extricate him from some foreign location. After all, we had first met in London during an academic conference, and he had traveled to several others after that.
But, in what I viewed as a disconcerting development, he had not been approved for any travel outside the USSR in almost two years. Either his expanding administrative responsibilities at the Institute or occasional advisory stints with new Soviet head Mikhail Gorbachev were taking up his time, or the KGB hierarchy was determining if he was a risk. If they had been sure, Sounder would have already disappeared.
The two of us continued to have our infrequent connections in the Institute and occasionally for lunch at Sounder’s favorite restaurant – Yar. One of the city’s more famous, it has been around for almost two hundred years. Since the early 1950’s, it was in the Sovietsky Hotel on a main thoroughfare in the center of town, about midway between the Institute and my apartment.
Yar had been a go to for czars, literary figures, Stalin, and generations of KGB higher ups. Chekhov, Gorky, playwright Leonid Andreyev, poet Konstantin Balkov, and opera impresario Fyodor Shalyapin were often seen there in earlier days, along with a throng of politicos and party heads, including KGB directors. It was even the site of an infamous 1915 episode centering around a tirade by the legendary mystic/madman Rasputin.
There were two primary objects controlling my attention in the days leading to my departure from Moscow. The first was the fate of Sounder. My reports continued to indicate I did not believe he had the “goods” to oblige a high risk move to get him out. That consistently resulted in some heavy pushback from my higher ups.
Several alternative exfiltration scenarios were considered. But it was finally decided to wait until he was out of the USSR to make any moves. That made one part of my op easier, since I did not want to put others in jeopardy
And that brought up the second goal.
The Institute had a complicated hierarchy, reflecting most organizations in the Soviet period. In addition to having the required onerous paperwork and sign offs, there were only certain ways anything could be done. Often these were neither the most direct nor the easiest.
Increasingly, as I approached the end of my time there, it became necessary to find more reasons to reach Sounder. While everything else was going on, I still needed to keep the intel flow open. Each scheduled meeting required that I use the appropriate routes up the internal structure of the Institute.
That would put several other people in harm’s way. Two of these would be brought under suspicion because of both my frequent interchange with them and the need to use their offices each time I had to reach Sounder upstairs.
One was Greigor, the Institute’s Scientific (i.e., research) Director. He was a rather pompous guy but also had become a personal friend. He subsequently managed to take up residency at a German university. The other was the Administrative Head of Staff.
This is Marina, who I noted last time (“Overseeing ‘Sounder’ in Moscow, Part II, Classified Intelligence Brief, September 8, 2021) was the woman I intended to marry.
We finally were able to do so, 32 years ago come this December. But for that I needed to find a way to bring her out. And so, while I was trying to prevent one departure from the USSR (Sounder’s), I was plotting another (Marina and her son).
I left Moscow in June of 1989 without accomplishing either, although I did go back for an 18-day stay in late August.
As soon as I returned to my East Coast home university, we began setting up the first US scholarly exchange center with institutes of the Soviet Academy. Putting some pressure on Sounder back in Moscow, I secured Marina’s American-based appointment to a post equivalent to what her position had been at the Institute. The invitation was written so that no other institute staff member would qualify and was rushed through by Sounder.
On our side, the position was created by the university’s Provost. He was a personal friend and, aside from certain folks at Langley, was the only American who knew what was really going on.
Since the appointment was to be for two years and the paperwork would include her son Alexei, it required a Soviet business visa. Soviet citizens at the time had to have an exit visa provided by the USSR government as well as an entry visa from the country to which they were traveling. The business visa was necessary for any stay longer than one year. Because of the length of stay, it was also the only one allowing family members to accompany the visa holder.
It was this or nothing. I had no other realistic way to get her out.
Obtaining a passport was another matter. There, Marina was on her own and had to employ all her (and Sounder’s) contacts. Throughout the Soviet period, a separate passport was issued each time a citizen left the country. To compound matters, the once used passport would only be issued the evening before travel.
That meant I had no idea whether she would make it out or not. The first passport was denied on a technicality. The second was approved but so late that Marina and Alex missed their flight. Of course, I had no idea what was going on at her end and spent almost 48 hours “greeting” each flight from Moscow at JFK.
Third time was the charm. We were married in Cumberland, MD shortly after their arrival in December. We thereafter began the slow and frustrating process of registering the marriage legally in Moscow. That ended up being a long story for another time.
But I soon learned that at the eleventh hour two women in the Academy of Sciences security office figured out that she was coming out to get married. They deliberately withheld some essential paperwork from the pile of material Marina needed at the airport to leave.
The package of documents would be reviewed by a young KGB border guard as she crossed that yellow line drawn on the floor of Sheremetyevo Airport separating those leaving from those who had to stay. Those pulled papers should have prevented any departure.
After she told me this upon arrival in the States, and after an appropriate pause on my part, I asked her the obvious. “How did you get out?”
“Simple,” she answered with a smile. “I used the three-button strategy.” Marina had realized the papers were missing as she was being driven to the airport. While awaiting her document review, she unbuttoned the top three (of four) buttons on her blouse and selected a line with a male security officer. The poor KGB youngster at the airport crossing station probably never noticed any of the papers.
So much for thinking we were winning the Cold War, I concluded.
Back to Sounder. We continued a long-distance correspondence relationship (certain each letter was being parsed and analyzed by his colleagues) as we delayed any formal decision on exfiltration. Some simple code words were employed to indicate what pressure he was under. Through this filter, I was informed in late October that his ability to travel abroad had been lifted, although there were apparently no other ramifications. Sounder retained his Institute position and continued to advise in the Kremlin. On another front, however, matters took a dark turn.
Gorbachev had begun pulling forward deployed Soviet military forces back from Eastern Europe. The apex of this was in East Germany and it involved the largest single contingent of Red Army divisions in the Warsaw Pact.
The pullback also involved a considerable amount of Soviet armor and equipment.
One of the largest contracts for the transport home of Soviet tanks went to a Moscow-based trading cooperative called ANT. A major scandal soon erupted. T-72 tanks that were supposed to come back to Black Sea ports never arrived. Instead, consignments labeled “agricultural equipment” showed up in Serbia.
At least one divisional commander was arrested along with other personnel who worked on the ANT contract. One of these was Sounder’s only son.
Sounder took up residence at his dacha southwest of Moscow and cut himself off.
Now a Russian dacha is a cultural thing. For many it serves as a place in the country away from urban congestion during the summer. Yet it also contributes to a “second social life” for those lucky enough to have a dacha that could be used year-round.
That was Sounder’s situation. His dacha was located off Pavlenko ulitsa in the very restricted area of Peredelkino, near some very important political and literary figures past and present. Just up the street is this one:
Now a museum, it was the year-round residence of Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago.
Peredelkino is even today a very important area with residences inside heavily guarded gates. The surroundings testify to its importance. It appears rural but has an impressive hospital and some very nice restaurants.
The nearby hospital would add to the intrigue of what would happen.
Throughout his self-imposed rural exile, Sounder continued our correspondence. We even had a telephone conversation. That was a deliberate ploy to reassure the surveillance. Soviets used an old mechanical apparatus. You could both hear the click-click as telephone circuits were connected and the breathing of third parties listening in.
I could tell he felt cornered and under increasing pressure. We had no choice on our side but to withdraw from any further discussion of an exfiltration. I also cut our personal connection. If it came to it, I concluded Sounder would provide whatever information necessary to free his son and our work was likely to get compromised.
Sounder died shortly thereafter at his dacha. According to what I could piece together after the fact, his housekeeper “mislaid” his heart pills and delayed calling the nearby hospital. It then inexplicably took the ambulance almost two hours to travel the less than four miles to the dacha. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The subsequent autopsy put the cause of death as “infarction.”
His death took place on Monday, January 29, 1990. His son was released from prison on January 30th with all charges dropped.
Dr. Kent Moors
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