Jack Barsky (@DeepCoverBarsky) joins us to discuss his book Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America. This is part one of a two-part episode; listen to part two here!
“The only advice I can give young people is the following: ‘It always takes longer, and it always costs more.'” -Jack Barsky
The Cheat Sheet:
- What Jack Barsky’s childhood was like in postwar East Germany.
- The stickiness of Soviet-style communist ideology and how it appealed to young people on Jack’s side of the Iron Curtain.
- How spies were recruited and trained during the Cold War.
- What skills Jack used to assimilate seamlessly into American culture.
- Why caution is a spy’s best friend; paranoia is his enemy.
- And so much more…
One might be compelled to view the premise of FX’s television series The Americans — about a pair of KGB spies posing as an all-American couple in the suburbs of Reagan’s ’80s — as a fanciful piece of Cold War espionage fiction. But the truth is, as they say, far stranger.
Today’s guest is Jack Barsky, author of Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America. As a consultant for The Americans who once lived a double life in the United States while spying for the KGB from 1978-1988, he’ll help us understand how the realities of the Cold War could often be more absurd than the most imaginative inventions of Hollywood. This is part one of a two-part episode; listen to part two here!
More About This Show
Coming from a family that didn’t express much in the way of affection (his mother made him take the bus to the hospital for an appendectomy when he was fifteen), it might seem like former KGB spy Jack Barsky — born in 1949 as Albrecht Dittrich in East Germany — was primed for the emotional suppression required of a life in espionage.
“When you think about…what bothers people or what gets…in the way of them…fully developing is usually the baggage they take with them from childhood. And my baggage was not necessarily all bad. It was disciplined. It was sort of asceticism…where the harm was was the lack of emotional love. There was just none. I can’t remember any. And that was somewhat typical of Germans in post-World War II, but not necessarily to the extreme that my parents took it. My parents didn’t manage to even hug and kiss or say, ‘I love you.’ It was just completely not part of my childhood. Not having had that, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
So by the time Jack was a teen, it’s no wonder taking the bus to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy seemed completely normal. And if the sticky ideology of Soviet-style communism appealed to his contemporaries, his background made him especially suited to the needs of the party as an operative for the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security).
“I was a most inviting target,” says Jack. “I was a standout. I got a national scholarship; I was active in the communist youth movement; I was a member of the party. At the time they recruited me, I had a spotless record. And then I fathered a child out of wedlock, which by the way, in those days, the party didn’t like a lot and normally they would have called me in and read me the riot act. Nothing happened. So I was already now removed from ‘the masses,’ and I was judged using a different yardstick. I had joined the elite — not necessarily knowing it, but I know it in hindsight.”
Being above the law was empowering to a youth like Jack who understood the value of suppressing an intrinsic rebellious streak in order to fit in. As an insider, he was not only exempt from consequences for breaking the rules, but encouraged to break the rules. Jack says, in essence, he was having his cake and eating it too.
But at the same time Jack was enjoying his status as a veritable untouchable, the KGB was taking notes and testing his potential value to the organization. One of the first exercises with which Jack was tasked was to profile his peers — and, it stands to reason, they were tasked to profile him. It was all very elementary — Jack refers to it as “Undercover Work 101” — but useful in determining how well potential operatives could read people.
Jack must have passed the test, because the next step was exposure to the “evils” of the capitalist west. Sent from the drab browns and grays of the Eastern Bloc bleakscape into the rich hues of West Germany was a sensory overload for Jack. “I would tell people the west was a movie shot in color, and in the east they only had black and white,” he says.
“The unasked question,” he continues, “would be, ‘Well, didn’t you figure out that it might be better on the other side?’ Of course I did! There was a reason — because [the West] took all the wealth away from third-world countries and so that’s why you had poverty in Africa and South America, because the evil capitalists, such as in England and the United States, France, and West Germany, they became rich because they exploited the rest of the world.”
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about how Albrecht Dittrich became Jack Barsky, how Jack learned English well enough to pose as an American while finding cultural assimilation more difficult than anticipated, how a surprise visit from Jack’s mother almost blew his cover, what espionage training looked like back in the day, the three factors that help Jack memorize faces, what Jack means when he says “caution is a spy’s best friend; paranoia is his enemy,” the television shows Jack watched to learn Americanisms not taught in Moscow, and lots more. If you like this one, be sure to check out part two here!
THANKS, JACK BARSKY!
If you enjoyed this session with Jack Barsky, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
Resources from This Episode:
- Transcript for Jack Barsky | Deep Undercover Pt. 1 (Episode 633)
- Jack Barsky | Deep Undercover Pt. 2 (Episode 635)
- Jack Barsky’s website
- Jack Barsky at Twitter
- Jack Barsky on 60 Minutes: The Spy Among Us with Steve Kroft
- The Americans
- Trabi Museum, Berlin
- Stasi Museum, Berlin
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