The spymaster who planted agents across the West
Yuri Drozdov 1925–2017
As the longtime head of the KGB’s “Directorate S,” Yuri Drozdov recruited and trained Soviet spies to live abroad undercover for years and even decades. Unlike “legal” spies, who were posted overseas under diplomatic cover, “illegals” behaved like ordinary citizens working ordinary jobs—all the while trying to gather top-secret information to funnel back to Moscow. Agents were taught to talk, think, and act like natives of whichever country they were to be posted—sleep- talking in Russian prompted instant dismissal— in a process that took up to seven years. But Drozdov never revealed exactly how he trained his recruits. “You have your Dr. Spock method,” he told The New York Times after retiring. “We have our own ways.”
Drozdov was born in Minsk, but “details on his early life are vague,” said The Washington Post. He served in the Russian army during World War II, joined the KGB in 1956, and was initially stationed in East Germany—where he said he attended a theater school to “learn the art of impersonation.” Drozdov “played a minor role” in the 1962 spy swap of a downed American reconnaissance pilot for a convicted Soviet illegal—the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film Bridge of Spies. After spells working under diplomatic cover in China and the U.S., Drozdov was named head of Directorate S in 1979, said the Associated Press. His agents, some of whom had to pretend to be married to a fellow “deep cover” spy, were generally “considered the elite of Soviet intelligence.” Once deployed, they were essentially on their own. Some hid caches of equipment in their adopted countries for use in emergencies.
Drozdov wasn’t afraid of “hands-on” work, said BBC.com. “In December 1979, he led KGB forces that stormed the Afghan presidential palace, toppling President Hafizullah Amin.” Two years later, he helped set up a new KGB special forces unit, known as Vympel, for covert operations abroad. Drozdov remained in his post until 1991, when he moved into the private sector to help Western businesses set up in Russia. He found his spycraft came in handy. “In my KGB career I had much experience at getting enemies to do my will,” he said. “I thought this would be very useful in business.”