On a chilly morning in December 1988, computer analyst Jack Barsky embarked on his usual morning commute to his office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, leaving his wife and baby daughter at home in Queens. As he entered the subway, he caught sight of something startling: a daub of red paint on a metal beam. Barsky had looked for it every morning for years; it meant he had a life-changing decision to make, and fast.
Barsky knew the drill. The red paint was a warning that he was in immediate danger, that he should hurry to collect cash and emergency documents from a prearranged drop site. From there, he would cross the border into Canada and contact the Soviet consulate in Toronto. Arrangements would be made for him to leave the country. He would cease to be Jack Barsky. The American identity he had inhabited for a decade would evaporate and he would return to his former life: that of Albrecht Dittrich, a chemist and KGB agent, with a wife and seven-year-old son waiting patiently for him in East Germany.
Barsky thought of his American daughter, Chelsea: could he really leave her? And, if he didn’t, how long could he evade both the KGB and US counterintelligence?
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in January 2017, Barsky strides into my hotel in Atlanta, Georgia and gives me a firm handshake. At 67, he has lived a more or less ordinary life for the past three decades. But the years spent undercover were hard on him and the people close to him. Only recently has he been able to come clean about his past. His late coming out has provided an overwhelming sense of release, Barsky says. “All those years, I had a little man up here,” he says, pointing to the sandy hair swept across his scalp in a side parting. “He would constantly watch what I was saying, and stop me from going into certain territory. And then the little man got killed off, and it was like an explosion.” These days, he is a garrulous conversationalist who requires little prodding.
Barsky’s story is a timely reminder of the immense resources the Russians were willing to expend during the cold war in their bid to embed agents in enemy territory. Hacking was not an option, and casual travel between Moscow and the west was much harder. “As I’m talking about this stuff, it feels unreal,” he says of his convoluted journey from East Germany to the US. “It feels as if it wasn’t me. But it was.”
Albrecht Dittrich was born in 1949, in a small East German town close to the Polish border. His father was a schoolteacher and a devoted Marxist-Leninist, his mother he describes as an intelligent woman who did not hug him enough. “She sent me away to boarding school when I was 14, and I never missed her.” Soon after, his parents divorced and he lost touch with his father.
An outstanding student, Dittrich took a chemistry degree at the university of Jena. During his fourth year, a man knocked on his dormitory door and asked if he might be interested in a career with Carl Zeiss, the lens manufacturer. The stranger soon gave up the charade: he was from the Stasi, the East German intelligence agency. Dittrich was invited to dinner at a restaurant, where he was introduced to another man, Herman, who spoke German with a faint Russian accent; they might, Herman suggested, be interested in preparing him for undercover work. For months, Dittrich studied as normal, meeting Herman every Monday morning, first in the agent’s car and later in a safe house.
Dittrich had graduated and begun work on a doctorate when Herman sent him to East Berlin for three weeks with instructions to look up a man named Boris. After a few weeks’ training, he was driven to a Soviet military base on the outskirts of the city, where he and Boris met someone he assumed was a high-ranking KGB agent. The Soviet Union needed only willing spies, the man told him, and he was free to choose. He was given 24 hours to make a decision.
Dittrich was a committed Communist, but Barsky admits that ego and a romantic sense of what spying might involve played a greater part than ideology in his decision to agree. “I considered myself an intellectual and smarter than almost everybody,” he tells me, fiddling with black-framed reading glasses. “The appeal to my greatness played a big role in getting me over the line.” Most of the time, he sounds pure east coast American, though when I listen back to my tapes, a more Germanic intonation creeps in as the hours pass. Occasionally, a full-blown teutonic R escapes from the back of his throat. Rroom. Rruminate.
In February 1973, Dittrich told his mother he was leaving university and moving to Berlin to train as a diplomat. His KGB training began there, usually conducted by Russians who had their instructions translated into German by a handler. He was taught morse code and cryptography, so he could receive coded messages via shortwave radio. He was trained in evading surveillance, “dead drops” (hiding and retrieving packages from concealed locations) and other elements of classic spycraft. He was allotted English as a foreign language and given hours of individual tuition. “In my spare time, I attended the theatre, opera, museums, and the KGB footed the bill,” Barsky recalls.
In 1975, aged 26, he was sent to Moscow for the first time. There, his English was assessed by two women: a professor from Moscow State University and a “depressed-looking” middle-aged American. “Years later, the FBI showed me a photograph of her. They knew who she was. She fell in love with a Russian, apparently, but she was sadness personified. She had not assimilated at all.”
Later, a group of KGB men came to Dittrich’s apartment for a lavish, boozy banquet, where the man who appeared the highest-ranking made an announcement: Dittrich was to become part of the Soviet “illegals” programme in the US, the most elite and secretive part of the KGB’s operations. Illegals were able to work in a way that agents under diplomatic cover could not; they were also under instruction to lie in reserve for the so-called “special period”, a potential all-out war between the Soviet Union and the US, when diplomatic ties were broken.
Today, Barsky says the wider programme was never shared with him. “It was always kept at the tactical level. I wasn’t given any sense of how I might fit into the bigger picture.” But he can provide a detailed description of the highly secretive training programme. After two years of daily training in East Berlin, he spent a further two years in Moscow, a period he describes as lonely and difficult. “Back home, I was somebody. I had connections – I loved chemistry and I loved teaching. I had to say goodbye to that and I was in a city where I knew nobody except my handlers. I didn’t speak the language, and it was impossible to make friends.” His mother, who believed he was now a diplomat at the East German embassy, made a brief visit. He checked into a hotel and showed her around; their guide was in fact a KGB handler.
Dittrich’s training was one-to-one, and usually took place at his apartment. He never met another “illegal” and never saw a KGB employee in uniform. Several times a week, he spent hours pounding the streets. Some days, the KGB would put a surveillance team of eight people on him, and some days they wouldn’t. He had to learn to detect when he was being followed. There were classes in taekwondo for self-defence, and more English lessons to perfect his accent.
By June 1978, he was almost ready. Soviet agents had found the gravestone of a boy who had died aged 10 in Maryland – Jack Barsky – and got a birth certificate. In Moscow, he and a handler set to work creating a “legend” for Barsky: “The schools he had attended, the addresses he had lived at. We gave him a German-born mother, to account for the remaining traces of an accent.”
Dittrich was given his mission: to establish contacts with foreign policy think tanks, and in particular President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He was given little guidance as to how he should do this, or even how best to blend into US society. The people who trained him had little feeling for the real fabric of America, its visceral, unquantifiable essence. “It’s as if they had spent time looking at fish swimming in an aquarium, and now they are training you to be a fish,” Barsky says. “But they don’t actually know what it’s like to be a fish.”
Before moving to Moscow, he had broken up with his girlfriend, Gerlinde, but when he returned home before his deployment, she told him she still loved him. Dittrich asked the KGB if he could resume the relationship. His handlers ran a background check and agreed – cynically, perhaps, since an agent with a girlfriend back home is, at least in theory, less likely to defect.
He was allowed to tell Gerlinde a version of the truth, but he lied to his mother, who was sent a document from the Soviet government informing her that her son had been sent on a five-year mission to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, home of the Soviet space programme. It was a closed city, accessible only with government permission; this time, there was no chance of her springing a surprise visit.
Before he left for the US, Dittrich was given a stack of blank paper and told to type a series of letters to his mother and younger brother. They would be posted once a month. At the end of each he left space for a KGB officer to add a few lines about current events, or in reply to questions they might ask him. And then he headed to the airport.
Dittrich, now 29, flew from Moscow to Belgrade, then took a train on to Rome and Vienna. In Austria, he retrieved a Canadian passport in the name of William Dyson. He bought a ticket to Mexico City, via Madrid. From Mexico, he bought a ticket to Toronto via Chicago. Finally, he was ready to enter enemy territory.
Barsky describes his arrival in Chicago on 8 October 1978 as “the most intense 60 minutes of my life”. He was carrying a high-end shortwave radio and $7,000 in cash. “I felt as if I had a neon sign around my neck that said, ‘Watch out for this guy.’” But passport officials accepted his story that he was stopping over for a couple of days’ sightseeing before returning home to Canada, and stamped him into America. Two days later, in a Chicago hotel room, he burned the Canadian passport and onward ticket; William Dyson disappeared from the Earth as rapidly as he had appeared.
Barsky, as he now was, moved to New York, carrying his new birth certificate. With that, he got a membership card at the Natural History Museum. And, with that, he got a library card and then a driver’s licence. He covered his hands and face with grime and did not wash for days before applying for a social security card; he had always worked as a farmhand, he told them, and never needed one. It worked.
His route to the world of high-level policy-makers looked like a long and winding one. “They never really told me how I was supposed to infiltrate these circles,” Barsky smiles. “The assumptions behind it were very strange.” He took a job as a bicycle delivery man as a way to get to know the city. A man with a self-declared oversized ego, who graduated top of his class and went through years of elite KGB training, was now biking parcels around New York: wasn’t the enforced humility hard to take?
Barsky scratches gently behind his ear and smiles. “I remember this good-looking young lady screaming, ‘The messenger boy is here!’ It didn’t bother me. I never really thought, ‘Oh man, if you just knew.’” But if the memory is so clear nearly four decades later, I wonder if this is entirely true.
He took trips back to Moscow and East Germany every two years, involving complex passport switches and documents left via dead drop. On his first trip back, in 1980, he married Gerlinde. A few days later, he slipped off the wedding ring and left for another two years. But nine months later an echo of his other life came through on one of the encrypted radio transmissions he received every Thursday evening. He had become a father. Two years later, he met his son, Matthias, but struggled to make a connection. His relationship with Gerlinde seemed ever more distant. “I pushed all my thoughts about it into the future,” Barsky says. “One day I’ll be back for good, then we can reignite the flame.”
Albrecht Dittrich might have had a chemistry degree, but Jack Barsky had little education to his name. So he enrolled at New York’s Baruch College, taking evening courses to get a degree; by 1984 he had a job as a programmer with MetLife, an insurance company. He was blending in; he found the language and the daily deception easy, though there were behavioural subtleties that were harder to conquer. “A good friend of mine sat me down and told me once, ‘You know, everyone thinks you’re a real asshole. You argue a lot, and you’re in people’s faces and you’re being arrogant.’ And I thought I was being really nice.” It wasn’t until decades later that he was able to see the cantankerous behaviour of his old German friends through almost-American eyes. “A lightbulb went on in my head: ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’” It was this sort of cultural nuance, Barsky says, that the KGB was unable to prepare people for.
Every week, he spent hours decrypting the messages from Moscow. Sometimes they would relay tasks: on one occasion, he had to travel to California to find the home address of a Soviet scientist who had defected, transmitting it back (his unease about that mission was alleviated when he discovered, years later, that the scientist had lived to 85). More often, the radio messages would be boring. “The most irritating thing was when you had spent hours decoding the thing, and it would just be greetings and well wishes.”
Responding was an even more complex process. First, Barsky would write an innocuous letter to a fictitious friend on a sheet of paper impregnated with special chemicals. That sheet was then placed on a mirror or plate of glass; on top went a sheet of special contact paper, and then a further sheet of normal paper. The secret message was written in light pencil on the top sheet, which was then destroyed; the chemicals impregnated the words into the bottom sheet. That letter was then sent to an address in Europe, where a trusted handler would transfer it to a KGB agent, who would send it via diplomatic mail to Moscow, where it would be developed in the lab. It took around three weeks to get a message from New York to Moscow.
Barsky’s messages often consisted of profiles of people he had met whom he thought might be susceptible to an approach from Soviet agents. He paid attention to angles that could be used in recruitment. Ideology was one; any bad habits and financial troubles were worth noting. Finally, he looked for skeletons in the closet, anything that could be used to blackmail a potential target.
I ask what he thinks of the unverified allegations that President Trump was compromised during visits to Russia. The dossier of claims, compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, was published just a day before we meet. “Clearly, blackmail is a weapon in the KGB arsenal,” Barsky shrugs. “If they could use it, they would. The only question is whether our new president was foolish enough to do any of that stuff.” Today’s Russian security services seem to think in much the same way as his old handlers in the KGB, he says. “That’s the thing with big organisations anywhere: they’re very resistant to change.”
In the 1980s, Barsky’s most interesting potential recruits were radical rightwing ideologues; here, Soviet agents would pose as activists from the radical right. “There was one individual I reported on who I’m convinced would have fallen for that, because he was so strongly rightwing,” he says. But Barsky doesn’t know if any of them proved useful sources for the KGB; it was operational procedure that the agent who did the profiling and the agent who tried to recruit them were different people. He continued to send the profiles; the rest remained a mystery.
Barsky had no way of contacting Gerlinde from New York. He became lonely and started dating, eventually meeting Penelope, a flight attendant from Guyana. She needed to get married to remain in the US, and Barsky agreed.
He had been living a double life for so long, he explains, that the ethical quandary of being a bigamist was not a stretch. His two identities inhabited different parts of his brain and, in his mind, neither Jack Barsky nor Albrecht Dittrich were ever unfaithful. “The German and the American were separate personalities. Neither ever dated more than one woman at the same time.”
Barsky made his last trip to Moscow in 1986. He was introduced to an industrial espionage officer who told him to start stealing. “He was quite open with me. He said the Soviets were hurting. ‘We need hardware, software, whatever you can find.’” He gave them software his company used, via dead drop, but never knew if they used it.
In 1988, a year after Chelsea was born, Barsky got the message from the KGB to run. Although he had grown disillusioned with Soviet communism, he had never considered defecting, he says, and did not want to go to the FBI now. “I had withdrawn into a kind of agnosticism. I would probably have called myself a socialist, but I tried not to think about it.”
He ignored the warning. More messages, increasingly insistent, came through on his shortwave radio. A couple of weeks later, he was approached by a stranger on a subway platform, who told him that if he did not come home, he was a dead man. It was the first time someone from the Soviet side had made contact with him inside the US.
But Barsky was determined to stay. He wrote to Moscow, telling the KGB he had contracted HIV from a woman he had dated and profiled, and that he needed treatment he could get only in the US; he had no plans to defect. Remarkably, this ruse seemed to work. The Soviets were terrified of HIV, the USSR was starting to fray at the seams and Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policy of openness was putting pressure on the KGB. The higher-ups presumably had other things on their mind; chasing a rogue agent was not a priority.
And so Barsky settled into family life. He and Penelope had another child, a son called Jessie, but the marriage began to fall apart. He decided to tell his wife the truth, hoping it might save the marriage. “Do you know what I’ve risked for you? I could have been captured or killed,” he told her. But she was angry rather than grateful: if he was here illegally, that meant Penelope was, too, and that her children could be taken from her.
That conversation, in 1997, proved fateful in more ways than one. Barsky had in fact been trailed for several years by the FBI. His name had been discovered in files copied from KGB archives by Vasili Mitrokin, an archivist who walked into the British embassy in Riga in 1991 to offer up his secrets. The FBI had kept an eye on Barsky’s house, sometimes dressed as birdwatchers; they searched his car and had MI5 tail Penelope on a trip to London. They even bought the house next door and moved two agents in, who grew frustrated that there seemed so little out of the ordinary about his life. Perhaps he was a sleeper agent, waiting for a signal from Moscow.
Eventually, they bugged the family home; when Barsky confessed everything to Penelope, the FBI concluded he had left active service and made their move. Barsky was pulled over while driving, and told that, if he cooperated, he might not go to prison. “I agreed immediately. I told them everything I knew,” he says. In 2009, he received a green card, and in August 2014 a genuine US passport, in the name of Jack Barsky, the identity stolen for him by the KGB.
After Barsky’s marriage to Penelope came to an end, he cried himself to sleep every night, he says. “There was no reason for me to exist any more. I was in my 50s, my kids were out of the house, my marriage was on the rocks. What was the point?” It was more than a decade since he’d had any contact with his German wife Gerlinde and their son Matthias.
He moved between jobs, working for various companies, first as a programmer, then as a head of IT. He began a slow romance with his assistant, Shawna, and later married her. They now live an hour outside Atlanta with their six-year-old daughter, Trinity. Through Shawna, Barsky has found God, filling the hole left after the evaporation of his communist zeal. Joe Reilly, the FBI agent who worked Barsky’s case and led his interrogations, has become a good friend and Trinity’s godfather.
Shawna, who is Jamaican and moved to the US a little more than a decade ago, smiles when she tells me about her first date with Barsky. He decided to tell her everything about his past, making her one of the few people outside the FBI who knew his real story. But she simply laughed. “I used to be married to a man who lied a lot,” she says, “so I didn’t really want to hear it. I thought he was a quirky guy, and I thought, ‘OK, if you want to live in this fantasy world, fine – but no need to talk about it.’” It was only years later, she says, that she realised his story about growing up in Germany might be true.
Barsky’s new life is reassuringly suburban, that of the “natural-born American” he was sent out to be, but there are a few behavioural tics he has carried over from his KGB days. Occasionally, when out running, he sees a car parked in an unusual place and darts away from the road, zigzagging to lose any potential trails. Usually, it turns out to be birdwatchers (real ones) or amorous young couples. The habit of dead drops and secret hiding places has not completely left him, either, just morphed into a habit of hiding cookies. “I know I shouldn’t have them, so I hide them. Various places – you can’t make a pattern. Shawna says I don’t need to hide them, but I can’t help myself.”
He ignored his orders back in 1988, he says, because of his newborn daughter – choosing her over Gerlinde and Matthias. “If Chelsea had been a son, I don’t know if I’d have acted the same way. I have always thought women are better people.”
But there were at least two women in his life for whom that decision was exceptionally painful. Gerlinde was told by the KGB that her husband had died of AIDs, while his mother, who believed he had been sent to Baikonur, was left in the dark. Barsky put his German family out of his mind, determined never to contact them again.
Chelsea, whom he told about his past when she turned 18, had other ideas, however: when she heard she had a half-brother in Germany, she tracked him down, and in 2014, she and Barsky returned to Germany to see Matthias, now in his 30s. Gerlinde, who is still alive, did not want to see him, having thought her son’s father dead for a quarter of a century. Barsky admits to feeling guilty, but says an apology would be meaningless. “If we do meet, I would say I’m really sorry, but the bottom line is, I didn’t pick her. I didn’t choose another woman, I chose a child.”
His mother agonised for years over what had happened to her missing son. She wrote to Gorbachev and to the first East German cosmonaut, to ask if they knew anything about a young diplomat sent on a secret assignment to Baikonur. Years later, she met a German scientist while on safari in Africa. The scientist said he was going to Russia soon, and when Barsky’s mother told him about her missing son, he promised to make an appeal on Russian television. Unsurprisingly, nobody called in. She died without knowing what had become of him.
Barsky tells me this without any visible emotion. “It sounds cruel, but she set herself up for what happened,” he says. “In a relationship between a parent and a child, the emotions must be seeded by the parent. There were never any hugs. That doesn’t make it right that I lied to her. It is not an excuse, but it’s an explanation.”
As for his brother, three years his junior, Barsky tracked him down in Berlin and they exchanged emails, before he told Jack he did not want to see him, unable to forgive him for the torment of his mother’s last years. Barsky shrugs, as if the reaction is inexplicable. “His choice. He could have had a nice trip to the US to visit me. I certainly never did any harm to him. We didn’t have much of a relationship. He was always a marginal student.”
These matter-of-fact responses about his German family jar with Barsky’s usual joviality. Does he really feel no burden of guilt or responsibility? He shrugs. “I would probably come across more sympathetic if I said something else, but there’s just nothing there. No emotions.” After a lifetime of lying, he says, he can’t help but be honest now.
I ask him what Jack Barsky would say to the young Albrecht Dittrich, if he could go back in time to the moment before the man from the Stasi knocked on his door. He doesn’t hesitate. “Don’t do it. You’re going to mess yourself up. It’s a scheme that is bound to fail, and it has failed in most cases, and the adventure aspect is completely overrated. Being undercover is very often quite boring: it’s 99% waiting and 1% action. It’s lonely.”
But, he says, everything happens according to God’s plan, and in the twilight of his life he has finally found peace and happiness. “I always had this childlike feeling that everything would turn out all right in the end,” he says, with just a hint of wistfulness. “And in a way, it sort of did.”