Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (Tyndale Momentum, 2017)
Back in March, I wrote a bit about the story of former KGB spy Jack Barsky. (See The Spy Who Stayed.) At the time I was eagerly awaiting his soon-to-be-published book. Rather than wait for the library to get a copy (which it now has)—and also to support the first book of a "friend of a friend"—I purchased the Kindle version to take with me on our recent cruise. I know, I haven't written about that yet, but it will come. Believe me, the irony of reading the story of a KGB spy while in Cuban waters was not lost on me.
Deep Undercover is well worth reading. It's 352 pages but reads very quickly. It is competently, though not excellently written. I hate to admit it, but I've been sorely disappointed by the quality of writing coming out of many Christian publishing houses; I'm happy to say that Barsky and Tyndale have done far better than average on that score. Besides, the imperfections give me more of an impression that I'm hearing the voice of Barsky, not of some ghostwriter. After all, chemistry, espionage, and information technology don't teach you all the nuances of storytelling.
The story itself is riveting. First, because it is true. This is the real story of a brilliant young East German, born just three years before I was, who was recruited as a KGB spy, infiltrated American society, and ended up sending his daughter to the small, Christian school in upstate New York where my life-long friend had been principal for decades. I wanted to know how he got from Point A to Point B.
Because we are nearly the same age, it was especially interesting to see the contrasts between Barsky's childhood and my own, and to know, more or less, what was happening to and around me during the times he describes. There's a reason the Communists thought of Americans as lazy, undisciplined, and soft. It's a pity that self-discipline is so much harder to acquire when we're not under duress.
It's also sobering to realize how vulnerable the United States is to infiltration and attack. With money, skill, discipline, and smart young people who believe they are fighting for a great cause, it's apparently pretty easy to take on a country primarily committed to liberty and what it considers humanitarian virtues—especially if its people are also soft, materialistic, and somewhat lazy. The KGB had all of that—and, I may point out, so does ISIS, among other scary entities. Barsky's activities were pre-9/11, but I'm far from convinced that infiltration and more dangerous nefarious activities would be that much more difficult now.
Be that as it may, it was their failure to understand American culture that undid most of the Soviet Union's efforts in America—just as America has been undone by our cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam and in the Middle East. Barsky found an America that did not fit what he had been told all his life.
It didn’t take long for me to see a wide gap between the Communist saga of the exploited worker in a capitalist society and the reality as I experienced it. For some reason, insurance companies were always near the top of the list of capitalist villains in Communist propaganda. But I never felt I was being exploited. Instead, I was quite comfortable in my job, everyone treated me well, and the paternalistic culture of the traditional mutual insurance company was very appealing to my statist roots. The chinks in my ideological armor began to grow into wide-open cracks.
I'm no pacifist, and acknowledge the need for governments to use all legal and ethical means to protect their people. Just being nice won't do. "Be wise as serpents" was uttered in the same breath as "[Be] harmless as doves." Nevertheless, as far as what ordinary Americans can do, I really think kindness is our best defense. Barsky didn't abandon his mission for political or philosophical reasons. And while I'm not denying the importance of his religious conversion, that came much later. Barsky's heart was turned by the ordinary people he met while living an apparently ordinary American life, and it was the innocent vulnerability of his little daughter that broke through both his harsh upbringing and his hard-hearted training.
So if you fear your next-door neighbor might be a Russian agent, or a potential ISIS terrorist, be smart. Don't give him your housekeys. But genuine kindness might change someone's path for the better—even if he's just an ordinary American neighbor.
I didn't pick out many quotes from Deep Undercover, but here are a few random ones that caught my eye. (The bold emphasis is mine.)
Every evening, without fail, I spent an additional half hour listening to words on a phonetics tape and repeating them— listening and repeating, listening and repeating—ad nauseam. When it comes to basic life skills, repetition is the midwife of excellence.
The Moscow Metro is an example of the greatness that can be achieved if a dictator spares no expense to build a monument to himself.
“This is the final step in your preparation. We think that three months in Canada would be an excellent opportunity for you to practice your English and familiarize yourself with the culture and the way of life over there. After all, Canada is a lot like the US, only colder and with fewer people.”
While walking between classes one day in early 1982, I saw a bulletin board notice for a current affairs group meeting, and I signed up immediately.
Led by history professor Selma Berrol, the group of about twenty students met on Wednesdays at lunchtime to discuss current world affairs and American politics. For purposes of these discussions, I positioned myself on the left of the political spectrum, with some sympathy for the Western European brand of socialism, but firmly anti-Communist.
Over the next couple of years, this group provided great insight for my reports to the Center about the mood of the country—particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet reignited tensions between the US and the Soviet Union that had largely diminished during the period of détente in the 1970s. There was widespread concern in our group that Reagan might push the world to the brink of nuclear war with his aggressive approach to international diplomacy.
Only one person in the group, a guy named Fred, sided with Reagan. Fred was ultraconservative, and the rest of us would chuckle or roll our eyes when he started on one of his rants. “I’m telling you, the Russians are deathly afraid of Ronald Reagan. We need to show them that we are serious. Historically, appeasement has never worked, and it will not work today. And if the Russians try to keep up with us in this race, they will simply go bankrupt.”
In his own way, Fred actually expressed historical truth before it became evident.
It is my personal belief that the Russians’ irrational fear of President Reagan contributed significantly to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union—an event that was not yet foreseeable in 1984.
Here's a short video (8 minutes) in which Barsky is asked about Russia's influence on the past election; what strikes me as most important is his take on the clear and present danger of cyber warfare.
And here's an interesting interview that covers some of the stories in the book. It's long (nearly an hour) but worthwhile, at least if like me you can listen while doing something else.