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May 2008

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Comrade J: Russia's Master Spy in America

Reviewed by John M. Handley, Ph.D.

Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America after the End of the Cold War, by Pete Earley, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007 (ISBN -13: 978-0-399-15439-3) 340 pages, $25.95.

Pete Earley, formerly a reporter for The Washington Post, has authored several works of non-fiction, two of which deal directly with the world of espionage: Family of Spies, about the Walker family, and Confessions of a Spy, about Aldrich Ames and his KGB handlers. This book, Comrade J, came about after an introduction, simultaneously, by both CIA and FBI representatives, of Sergei Tretyakov to Pete Earley at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The bulk of the book comes from 126 hours of taped interviews. The author attempted to confirm Sergei's allegations independently by contacting each of the individuals mentioned in the text. Not unexpectedly, all denied they ever wittingly or unwittingly worked for the former Soviet Union.

For those interested in espionage, this is a remarkable book. It is not a James Bond type thriller, but rather the story of how espionage was, and most probably still is, conducted by the agency that replaced the KGB's overseas arm, the SVR (Sluzhba Vnezhney Razvedki). Mr. Earley divided the book into four sections. The first section addresses Sergei's youth and training in the former USSR, while the second section covers his life and his espionage activity in Ottawa, Canada from 1990 until 1994 as the deputy rezident of the Russian embassy. The third section deals with Sergei's activities from 1995 to 2000 in New York City as the SVR's deputy rezident, where he personally directed the covert operations of 60 intelligence officers and over 150, primarily UN, foreign sources. It was during his stay in New York that Sergei and his family came to the conclusion that the new Russia offered no future to any of them. Sergei had previously embraced Russian's turn to democracy, but found that Russia under Putin offered little in the way of democratic reform. He decided to support a country in which he believed democracy was viable, the United States, and thus offered his services to the U.S. government in 1997. For the last three years of his tour as the SVR deputy rezident, he provided the United States information on SVR activities. The fourth section in the book focuses on his and his family's “escape” and provides additional information on why he made the momentous decision to change his allegiance.

As Sergei often mentions, the job of an SVR intelligence officer is not to spy, but to acquire and handle spies. Sergei stated that both as a KGB officer and a SVR officer he had three main targets: the United States, NATO, and China. Getting people to give information, including intelligence, about the United States seemed relatively easy if the SVR operative could first establish that the potential informant simply disliked the United States. That fact seemed to provide the major motivation for the long list of code-named sources in both the Canadian and the U.S. sections. In the Canadian section, the reader encounters ARTHUR, SEMIAN, LEZAR, ILYA, KIRILL and ALADDEN. KIRILL returns in the U.S. section and has his code name changed to KABAN. Additionally, in the US section, Sergei discusses the information the SVR received from KOSACK, a Turkish counselor, MONK, an Iranian diplomat, SILVESTER, a Swedish diplomat, COUNSEL, a German diplomat, PROFESSOR, a Polish diplomat, PHOENIX, a Finnish diplomat, and SAM, an American diplomat. As it turns out, the SVR soon realized that SAM was probably an FBI agent since he did not provide any useful information, so the Russians decided to credit him with information in order to be able to claim they had successfully recruited an American. In the U.S. section, Sergei discusses the disinformation program the SVR ran in order to create the fear of a “nuclear winter” and the role various NGOs played to help propagate this disinformation. Sergei also described how the SVR skimmed about half a billion dollars off the UN's Oil for Food program.

Sergei stated that the KGB and its successor agencies divide sources into four categories. The first two, neutral contacts and information contacts, are not spies since they cannot be contacted and asked for specific information. These are people who wittingly or unwittingly provide information which may or may not be all that useful. The last two types of sources, agents and trusted contacts, are spies (page 48). All of the code named individuals mentioned above fell into this latter category. Interestingly, Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state during President Clinton's administration, is identified by Sergei as a “special unofficial contact” (page 180), although Sergei goes on to say that Mr. Talbott was not a spy, but that he was “manipulated” by Georgi Mamedov, Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs (page 182). From this reviewer's personal experience, I suspect both men knew exactly that whatever they discussed was immediately reported back to their respective capitals, so it is highly doubtful that either manipulated the other.

Many will find this book extremely interesting, and those of us previously or currently in the game will notice more similarities than differences in how U.S. and Russian agencies operate. There was one mistake, however, when Sergei referred to the National Security Agency photo images that tracked Gorbachev's movements while he was vacationing at the Black Sea (page 124). The imagery came from the National Photographic Interpretation Center which, in 1996, morphed into a CIA/Defense Department entity known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, changing its name once again in 2004 to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Regardless of this small error, the book is informative and insightful while remaining somewhat disturbing considering that only one of the coded sources has stopped reporting to SVR handlers, and that was due to his retirement from public life.


Colonel (ret.) John M. Handley, Ph.D., American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President for Outreach, is Adjunct Professor of International Relations for Webster University's Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses. Col. Handley spent most of his Army career in military intelligence, including as Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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