Preview: An Improbable Spy

"An Improbable Spy" by David Paul CollinsMoscow, March 1980

Subzero temperatures did not make Vladimir Sudakov shiver as he walked down Vasilyevskaya Street among the crush of office workers hurrying to the metro. The sight of a coworker—a former Stasi officer—did. Stefan Kantwasser’s penchant for not covering his Nordic blond hair with a ushanke cap made him easy to spot. When they had left their desks in the Office of the Chief Translator a half hour earlier, Kantwasser said he was on the way to meet a date for the Bolshoi Theater. It was in the opposite direction. Shaken, Sudakov slowed his steps, lengthening the distance between them.

The Stasi turned into the corner flower shop, easing Sudakov’s fear that he was being shadowed. A lady always appreciates flowers. Sudakov shouldered into the wind, continuing his walk of no return, relegating the Stasi sighting to coincidence. Then he saw him again. As Sudakov walked by the taxi rank at the Metro’s exit, he saw the Stasi get into a black cab. He was not carrying flowers. Sudakov backed into a doorway, slinking low into his greatcoat, watching the cab drive away. He was sure that Kantwasser was staring through the frosted window directly at him.

Sudakov’s heart pounded as he tried to rationalize why the German was so far away from his engagement. If Kantwasser was tracking him, and if he had found out about Sudakov’s plans, the timetable would have to be moved up—quickly. He turned toward the metro, stepping up his pace as fellow Muscovites hurried past him to their evening trains deep inside the Barrikadnaya subway station. He brushed through the crowds, trying to stay calm. He knew his next step was irreversible; his life would change forever.

Under the reflected glare from a montage of small tiles, an abstraction of Vladimir Illych Lenin towered to the ceiling of the central platform. The tiles were set so that Lenin’s image followed each person who looked at him. Sudakov looked away. He was about to betray Lenin; the USSR; his family, friends, and comrades; and the KGB.

Sudakov shuddered, thinking about being seen on a metro platform where he had no business. He looked left, right, up, down in a practiced movement without moving his head, worrying about a tail. He had rehearsed the plan in other metro stations, having convinced himself there was no other way. If he was caught, the note he palmed would be his death certificate.

Justification played like a favorite song in his mind. He hated the USSR for its ruthless slaughter of citizens like his grandfather in the Magadan gulags. Promotions had been denied by spiteful bosses with no explanation, and he detested his wife, who kept a long list of his shortcomings. But life in America would be different. He would be rewarded when the US learned what the Russians were doing in Iran, when they made the connection that his Middle East section comrades were persuading Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard to pull the American hostages out of their embassy’s cellar and then hide them in six different locations—some in the Dasht-e Kavir Desert, some on the border with Azerbaijan.

Excitement and terror coursing through his body, Sudakov stole a glance at Lenin, who continued to keep his eyes fixed on him. He scanned the crowd. Paranoia kept him alert.

In the dull routine in drafty KGB offices, Sudakov had carried out boring assignments day after day, studying notes and photographs of foreign diplomats who had been identified as spies. American CIA officers were his targets, waiting to be uncovered in dossiers about newcomers joining their embassy. Sudakov’s training at the Institute of International Relations gave him superior skills as a translator, which landed him a prized job concentrating on the bona fides of Americans on their ambassador’s staff—usually CIA operatives. One stood out; he was listed as a defense analyst. In reality, he was the number-two CIA man in the USSR. Sudakov had shadowed him for days, learning his routine.

In the cold, musty station, Sudakov spotted the man walking with the controlled confidence he envied in Americans. The target—a tall, slender, bookish man—was familiar. Glancing at his government-issued steel watch, he noted he had one minute and thirty seconds until the American’s train for Kuznetsky Station would arrive. The man continued to his usual spot on the tiled subway platform, lingering at the back of the crowd. His face was thin with a sturdy jaw and high cheekbones. Traces of gray were set against a full head of wavy black hair that had been ribbed by a wide-tooth comb. His eyes focused straight ahead, feigning oblivion. He carried the day’s Pravda—Cyrillic edition.

Sudakov envied CIA agents for looking cool, as they called it, while they outmaneuvered the KGB. His aspirations to become a “cool” senior KGB agent were always quashed by the bosses. “You are a nobody,” they had said. “You will never be promoted. You’re an imbecile.” Americans were smarter than Russians; they would welcome him like a hero—an important KGB agent who would be appreciated for obtaining deep, dark secrets. He knew he was smart.

His aspiration of freedom came into focus when the American got closer. The man was enviably dressed, wearing an impeccably tailored dark blue suit, a regimental red-and-gold-striped tie knotted snugly on his white button-down shirt. Sudakov could see himself dressing just like that.

Oblivious to the chill in the depths of the station, the agent had his topcoat resting on his arm, his narrow black shoes buffed to a luster that reflected the ceiling lights. Sudakov glanced down at his own shoes and frowned. They were dull, shabby, thick soled—more like boots. The rumpled black suit he wore was exactly like the brown one on a hook in his closet. Tens of thousands of identical suits, fabricated by the Novgorod Textile Factory and stamped for government use, clothed KGB agents around the world. Sudakov concluded in his youth, during his Komsomol training, that he would always be stuck with whatever the Soviet government decided its agents would wear. Choice was a matter for bosses of the evolving proletariat only.

Sudakov knew the American’s expression would not change when he approached, so he sucked in his fat cheeks, ignored a knot in his belly, and moved toward his target. He had to move quickly; in thirty seconds the train would arrive. The note in his hand felt like a time bomb; he still had time to turn and walk away before his bomb exploded. He shook off the thought and moved into the crowd.

Sudakov watched the agent tuck the newspaper under his arm. The moment had come. He sidled next to the American, brushing his elbow into the target’s side. “Take this,” he said in thick, accented English, passing the handwritten note as if it were an invitation to a party.

Middle East Unit advising Iran to disburse American hostages.
Sunday, Slovetsky Park by obelisk. Send someone. 3.00 p.m.
V. Sudakov, MEU

The American did not look at the note. He crushed it in his pocket and stepped forward to his train, just another commuter.

Sudakov joined the masses exiting up the stairs. He took a last look at the rear of the departing train; its roar trailed off as the last of its shiny silver cars disappeared into the orifice toward Kuznetsky Station. Sudakov trembled.

The borders between the East and the West are separated by a no-man’s-land, and he was in it.