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Life Under the KGB's Watchful Eye in 1980s Russia

Author: Anya Schmemann, Director of the Independent Task Force Program
May 23, 2013
Atlantic Monthly


Last week, Russia expelled an American diplomat, accusing him of being a spy for the CIA. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said that U.S. Embassy Third Secretary Ryan Fogle had been caught red-handed with disguises, spy equipment, and wads of cash, trying to recruit a Russian agent.

The episode -- complete with cheap looking wigs, fake glasses, a compass, a street map, and a laughable "Dear Friend" letter -- seemed straight out of the Cold War.

For me, it caused a wave of nostalgia and catapulted me back to 1980s when I was an expat child in Soviet Russia.

Our family moved to Moscow in 1980, at the height of the Cold War, when President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev faced off across a great iron divide. My father was an American reporter, a fluent Russian speaker, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest, and the grandson of White Russian refugees, and he was instantly considered highly suspicious.

We were constantly watched. A small Lada would follow our car around the city and a man in a dark suit would keep an eye on us as we walked about. Our phones were tapped, our apartment bugged, our mail opened, and we assumed that our government-provided housekeeper filed frequent reports on us. Even our dog was enlisted -- when we took him for walks he would run happily to our mortified minder, seeking the treats he was obviously used to getting.

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