Monday, November 13, 2017

Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky

Imagine driving on the interstate on a Friday evening with a great weekend ahead. You just passed the tollgate and a state trooper waves you over. The moment you get out of the car, an FBI agent approaches and tells you he would like to talk to you. You and I would wonder what on earth the FBI wants from you. Jack Barsky didn’t wonder. He knew his life would never be the same anymore.

If you ever dreamt of joining the secret service and operate as an illegal agent in foreign countries, then you should think twice. It is indeed fascinating work but there’s little glory, no 007 excitement and plenty of stress and worries. Ask Jack Barsky, formerly known as Albrecht Dittrich.

In 1970, Albrecht Dittrich was a talented student at the university of Jena with a promising career in chemistry until a knock on his dorm room changed the course of his life. Scouted by the Stasi, Albrecht was asked by the KGB to join the almighty Soviet secret service and defend the communist ideals as a secret agent. And honestly, you and I would have been honoured to do just the same in similar circumstances. This book explains the how and why.

Albrecht grew up during the harsh post-war years in East-Germany. As a brilliant student he was destined to join the league of men who would define the future of his country and socialism. His childhood shaped his character and ideals, and when offered to serve the socialist cause in the secret service he eagerly took the challenge.

They called it serving but in reality it meant sacrifice. He left family, friends and love to be trained in Moscow as illegal agent. He told his mother he worked in diplomacy and many loved ones were told other fake stories in the next decades. Serving as illegal non-registered agent of the KGB in the United States - the main adversary - is arguable the highest rated mission in intelligence work and more a calling than work, but it had its downsides.

In 1978, after extensive training in secret communications, counter-surveillance, English language and learning his new identity, Albrecht Dittrich finally arrived in the U.S. to shake off his past life and start a new one as Jack Barsky. It was a formidable task to go from zero to hero. His book gives an excellent insight into what it takes to establish a new identity, acquire a fictitious but credible past and the trouble to transfer that fiction onto genuine official documents.

It’s an account of many tricks of the intelligence trade, learning to adapt to the culture and particular habits of an unknown country, getting a university degree all over again, loneliness, the pressure of evading counter-intelligence, improvising solutions to problems that the KGB didn't take into account, missing his wife and child and eventually alienate from his loved ones.

Despite these challenges, Jack Barsky managed to live the American but fictitious Dream and rose from bicycle messenger to successful manager in a large software firm. At the same time, he was challenged in a way that every illegal agent has to cope with. As he began to appreciate the opportunities, given to him by the United States, his dedication to the communist cause faded and he reluctantly decrypted his weekly received radiograms with instructions from KGB headquarters. Eventually, he fell in love and married a woman in the U.S. but his double life took a toll on his marriage. And just when his covert life finally seemed to have embedded perfectly in the land of the main adversary, he was waved aside at the tollgate...

The book is a real page-turner. How Albrecht Dittrich was made a spy, his training, how he embedded as Jack Barsky, what ended his spying career, how he was finally catched and his surprising redemption. But the book doesn't merely provide a fascinating account of espionage tradecraft. It's also a very personal story about the psychological and emotional burden of living a covert life. It unravels the reasons why a self-confident and a bit arrogant young man becomes a dedicated spy who sacrifices his real life in exchange for a fictitious one, how it is to even lose that fabricated life and how he eventually finds a new purpose in life.

You cannot but imagine how you would feel when you had to choose between loyalty to your country, wife and children, cope with building a new future in a country far away and then see everything falling apart. Could you live that covert life, knowing that it can all be over in a blink of an eye?

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America, Jack Barsky, ISBN 1496416821

More on Jack Barsky on this blog post and on Jack Barsky's website. More book reviews at my website.

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