Perhaps the first great spy was an Austrian colonel named Alfred Redl, who was blackmailed by Russians after they discovered he was a homosexual. Between 1903 and 1913, Redle supplied the Russians with important information about the pre-World War I actives of the Austria-Hungarian empire and fed the Austrians inflated figures of Russian capabilities. Redl is believed to be the first spy to use hidden cameras, shadowing techniques and fingerprint dusting. Redl was eventually caught accepting payoff money at a Vienna post office. He committed suicide before he could be executed.

Elizabeth Terrill Bentley, the Red Spy Queen," spied for the Soviet Union in New York during World War II and then changed sides after the war. In 1945 she defected from Soviet intelligence and became an informer for the U.S. She exposed two networks of spies, ultimately naming over 80 Americans who had engaged in espionage for the Soviets. When her testimony became public in 1948, it became a media sensation and had a major impact on Soviet espionage cases of the 1950s. Declassification of both Soviet documents and the U.S. codebreaking Venona project confirmed that upon Bentley's defection the Soviet Union temporarily suspended all espionage activities in the United States. [Source: Wikipedia]

James MacGibbons, an intelligence officer in Churchill’s War Office, confessed on his deathbed at the age off 88 in 2000 that the turned over information on the D-Day invasion and Allied and German troop movements and other secrets to the Soviets. He wrote in a 12-page affidavit, “When I heard that our German intelligence was not passed to the Russians, it seemed disgraceful.”

Reilly: Ace of Spies

Sidney George Reilly is the subject of “Reilly, Ace of Spies,” a 1983 television miniseries dramatizing his life. A Russian Jew, he was one of the greatest spies ever to work for the British. Among his exploits, in the early 20th century, were the infiltration of the German General Staff in 1917 and a near-overthrow of the Bolsheviks in 1918. His reputation with women was as legendary as his genius for espionage. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lieutenant Sidney George Reilly (1873 –1925) was employed by Scotland Yard, the British Secret Service Bureau and later the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He is alleged to have spied for at least four nations. Reilly's fame was created during the 1920s, in part by his friend, the British diplomat and journalist Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, who publicized their thwarted operation to overthrow the Bolshevik regime in 1918. The London Evening Standard published in May 1931 a serial, headlined "Master Spy", imparting his exploits. Later Ian Fleming used Reilly as a model for James Bond. Today many historians consider Reilly to have been the first 20th-century "super-spy". Much of what is thought to be known about him could be false, however, as Reilly was a master of deception and most of his life is shrouded in legend. +

In September 1925, undercover agents of the OGPU, the intelligence successor of the Cheka, lured Reilly to Bolshevik Russia, ostensibly to meet the supposed anti-Communist organization The Trust—in reality, an OGPU deception existing under the code name Operation Trust. At the Russian border, Reilly was introduced to undercover OGPU agents posing as senior Trust representatives from Moscow. One of these undercover Soviet agents, Alexander Yakushev, who later recalled: “The first impression of [Sidney Reilly] is unpleasant. His dark eyes expressed something biting and cruel; his lower lip drooped deeply and was too slick—the neat black hair, the demonstratively elegant suit. Everything in his manner expressed something haughtily indifferent to his surroundings.” After Reilly crossed the Finnish border, the Soviets captured, transported, and interrogated him at Lubyanka Prison.

According to British intelligence documents released in 2000, Reilly was executed in a forest near Moscow on Wednesday 5 November 1925. According to eyewitness Boris Gudz, the execution of Sidney Reilly was supervised by an OGPU officer, Grigory Feduleev; another OGPU officer, George Syroezhkin, fired the final shot into Reilly's chest. Gudz also confirmed that the order to kill Reilly came from Stalin directly. After Reilly's death there were various rumours about his survival. Some, for example, speculated that Reilly had defected and became an adviser to Soviet intelligence.

Yevno Azef

In the Bolshevik era, Double agent Yevno Azef worked both at the number one spy for the Russian secret police as Comrade Valentine and as head of the terrorist wing of the powerful Socialist Revolutionary party. He betrayed a number of young revolutionaries and assassinated leading police officials and political figures, including the Tsar's uncle Grand Duke Sergius Alexandrovich.

Regarded as greedy, opportunist Jew, Azef was paid well for his activities. He hated tsarist officials for their ant-Semitism and rejected the revolutionaries on their ground that their ideology was naive. If he fought for anything, it way freedom.

Azef eventually fell for a German singer and fled to Germany, where he made a living trading high-risk Russian bonds until he was wiped out by World War I. He later ran a fashionable corset shop and was arrested by the Germans as an enemy spy. He was imprisoned until a few months before his death.

Book: “Comrade Valentine” by Richard E. Rubenstein (Harcourt Brace)

Cold War Spies

KGB agents reportedly talked about recruiting Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. Information provided by a defecting Russian cipher clerk working at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa led to the capture of the famous Russian spies, Klaus Fuchs, Alfred Nunn May, David Greenglass, Harry Gold and possibly the Rosenbergs.

Oleg Gordievsky was the best Soviet spy ever recruited by the British. A colonel in the KGB and bureau chief in London, he a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service from 1974 to 1985. Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, an officer in Soviet military intelligence, was arrested in 1959. He worked briefly as a double agent and was executed in 1960. Lt. Col. William Henry Whalen sold U.S. plans for a potential nuclear war to Moscow until he was arrested in 1962.

One of the most important spies for the United States in Moscow was Col. Oleg Penkovsky, who supplied he CIA with information on Soviet missiles. Penkovsky provided the West with important data until he was caught and executed in 1963. At a party at the American embassy in Moscow in July 1962, he was told to drop off some important documents and microfilm inside the toilet tank high on a wall in the embassy's bathroom. The agent in charge of retrieving it, Hugh Montgomery, had to stand on the toilet seat to reach it. In the process of doing those, he broke the toilet sea and drenched his sleeve up to the elbow in the tank.

The Russian Rudolph Abel came to New York City in 1948 and ran a spy network for 10 years, posing as a painter-photographer. He reported uncovered important secrets regarding the United States's nuclear weapons and rocketry programs. Abel was captured by the FBI after a Brooklyn newspaper boy found a "split" nickel—a coin with a coded message inside. Abel was sentenced to 30 years in prison and was exchanged in 1962 for U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

The Czech spy Karel Koecher and his beautiful wife Hanna, according to a CIA report, recruited "lawyers, doctors, military officers" with "access in one way or another to highly classified U.S. government information" by hosting "swinging parties" in a fancy New York apartment with "sexual partner exchanges." The Koechers were eventually arrested by the FBI and exchanged for the dissident Natan Sharansky.

Kim Philby

H. A. R. (Kim) Philby, the infamous KGB mole in British intelligence and the ring leader of Cambridge Four, has been dubbed "the spy of the century." Philby was recruited at Cambridge in 1934, worked undercover work in Spain, and at the age of 33 became chief of Soviet counterespionage for British intelligence. His father became a Muslim and undermined British efforts in the Middle East.

Philby and the other members of the infamous Cambridge Four spy ring were idealistic left-wing students at Cambridge when they were recruited in the 1930s. The four future spies were true believers that Communism was good for humankind. Yuri Modin, a former Soviet intelligence officer and author of a books about The Cambridge Four, wrote: "They saw themselves as true revolutionaries, ready to sacrifice other people as well as themselves for the cause...They swore an oath of loyalty to the revolution. They did not break faith."

Philby rose through the ranks of British intelligence, first, as chief of counterespionage in London, and then as station chief at the office in Istanbul. The KGB was always a bit suspicious of Philby. They believed any agent who betrayed his country could also betray them. An investigation in 1943 concluded that he and three other Cambridge spies were triple agents working for Britain.

Graham Green was a close friend of Philby's. The author and the spy wrote to each other often and Greene sympathized with Philby. In Russia, Philby was honored with a Soviet postage stamp.

Signs of Philby's betrayal were evident in his family background. His father, H. St. John Philby left the British civil service in India in disgrace. He ended up in Saudi Arabia where he converted to Islam and advised King Ibn Saud to offer his oil concessions to an American company instead of a British one.

Secrets Revealed by Kim Philby

For more than a decade Philby supplied the KGB with information on nearly all the operations directed against it and the names of perhaps thousands of agents who worked for the West. It is believed that Philby was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Western agents. The Russians view him in a different light, praising him for all the Soviet agents he saved.

One of Philby's victims was Selim Daci, a Western spy who spent four decades in a squalid Albanian prison after being uncovered by information provided by Philby. He was released from prison in 1990, a broken man who was last seen living in poverty supported by handouts from his family.

Philby's most productive period was in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he worked as liaison officer between British and U.S. intelligence. He worked closely with CIA and FBI in Washington in a position that he later said was "too good to be true...I have had official passes to seven major intelligence headquarters." Referring to his years in Washington he told a group of Soviet spymasters in 1977, "There I always felt myself surrounded by wolves; here, I know that I am with my comrades, colleagues and friends."

The Soviet spymaster who "ran" the Cambridge Four was Yuri Modin, a graduate of the Leningrad Naval Academy who was born in Siberia, joined intelligence to escape the German Front in World War II and was recruited by the KGB because he spoke fluent English, which he learned from his mother. Modin recounted his experiences in his book “My Five Cambridge Friends” and described himself as “a completely ordinary person, with no exceptional talents and certainly not above average brains."

End of Kim Philby’s Spy Career

The Russians showed little concern for Philby, when they ordered Guy Burgess to defect in 1951. Burgess was staying at Philby's house in Washington at the time, which was bound to raise suspicions that Philby too was a traitor. After Burgess's defection, Philby was recalled to London and ordered to resign from British intelligence, which for all intents and purposes was the end of spying career. He underwent hours of interrogation but he was never prosecuted because Western intelligence had no evidence that he done anything wrong. After 1951, he worked as a journalist and informant in Beirut until his defection in 1963, but the information he provided during this period was of little use.

Philby defected in 1963, reportedly because British counterintelligence had information on him delivered by a Soviet defector. When Philby arrived in Moscow he was not received as a prestigious "intelligence officer" but rather as more lowly foreign agent. A KGB colonel told writer Anthony Cave Brown: "As he knew well an agent is not an equal but dirt."

The 25 years that Philby spent in Moscow between his defection in 1963 and his death in 1988 was uneventful. He wrote his memoirs and taught a class for fledgling KGB spies. He married a Russian woman, Rufina Philby (his forth wife), in 1971 and spent a great deal of his time drunk. He stayed true to his faith in Communism even as he saw the Soviet Union decline into Brezhnev corruption and open up to Western ideas under Gorbachev.

Philby was ignored during his Moscow exile. In 1994, Sotheby's actioned off Philby's homburg hat, silver cocktail shaker, books, a rug with Lenin's face, correspondence with a field agent in London, and a speech delivered at KGB headquarters. The items fetched $150,000 and were put up for auction by his Russian widow who desperately needed the money. "It will improve my life if I can buy juice or fruit or one lemon, " she told the New York Times.

Cambridge Four

In addition to Philby the other members of the Cambridge Four were: Guy Burgess, who became First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington; Donald MacLean, a career diplomat who became head of the American section of the British Foreign Office; and Anthony Blunt, a renowned art historian who was friends of the royal family and worked with Queen Elizabeth II as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. He was knighted and kept the title Sir until his activities were revealed in 1979.

Burgess was described by Modin as "a brilliant aristocratic homosexual." The most committed member of the spy ring, he was also the most dangerous because of his heavy drinking and numerous homosexual affairs. Moscow ordered Burgess to defect in 1951. Burgess was not allowed to leave Russia. He died in Moscow a few months after Philby's defection in 1963.

Blunt was not unmasked until 1979 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatchers told the House of Commons that he confessed in 1964 that he was the long suspected "forth man" in the spy ring in return for immunity from prosecution. He was promptly stripped of his knighthood.

Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were members of the “Cambridge Apostles”, a social club that was a mainstay of English upper-class social life. Among its members were the economist John Maynard Keynes who one writer said "promoted homosexuality among the Apostles until it achieved something of a club-within-the-club status.”

The "fifth" member of the group,John Cairncross was a treasury official with access to atomic secrets. He was the first person to report of the American and British programs to build an atomic bomb, which was launched in 1940. He was not revealed until the 1980s. He was the longest living member of the group. He died in 1995 and living that latter part os his life in France.

Good books: “My Five Cambridge Friends” (Straus & Giroux) by KGB colonel Yuri Modin (Philby's master); “Treason in the Blood” (Houghton Mifflin) b Anthony Cave Brown. “Cambridge Spies” is a slightly fictionalized BBC miniseries about the Cambridge Five.

Donald Maclean

The real star of the Cambridge Four was Donald Maclean. As a highly placed official in the British foreign service he supplied Moscow with the information it prized the most: details of the U.S. and British nuclear weapon programs and sensitive plans from NATO headquarters.

In September, 1941, the British spy Donald MacLean reported from London that the British were actually beginning work on an a super-powerful bomb based on atomic energy. Maclean had access to data on the U.S. armed forces and the Atomic Energy Commission "without an escort, a privilege not extended to members of the cabinet or Congress or FBI director J. Edgar Hoover," one historian wrote.

An alcoholic and a homosexual, MacLean was ordered to defect in 1951, the same year as Burgess, because American and British counterintelligence were close to unmasking him and Moscow worried the entire ring might be blown. Burgess was sent to deliver the orders and accompany Maclean to Moscow because it was feared Maclean might get drunk and breakdown and reveal everything. The idea was that Burgess, would return from Moscow so quickly he would never be missed. Maclean gave a press conference in Moscow in 1956 and died shortly afterwards.

Klaus Fuchs and the Soviet Atom Bomb

The Soviet Union became the world’s second nuclear power after the United States when it detonated its first atomic bomb, "Joe 1," in Kazakhstan in August 1949, four years after the Hiroshima bomb exploded. The first Russian atomic bomb was an almost an exact copy of the first United States bomb. It was built primarily with information provided by spies. Joe 1 was a copy of the Fat Man bomb. United States "sniffer" planes picked up fallout from the test. The design for the bomb was stolen from the U.S. by the German-born spy Klaus Fuchs.

Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who provided key details on the construction of the atomic bomb to the Soviets, was probably the most valuable Cold War spy for Moscow. A known Communist, Fuchs was hired by the British to do nuclear research in 1941. After offering his services to Moscow as a spy, he became a member of the British-American Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos, New Mexico. At Los Alamos Fuchs had access to documents that detailed the design, construction, components and detonating devices of the atomic bomb, the production of uranium and plutonium, the schedule of the Manhattan Project. Secrets were passed via an intermediary to Moscow.

After a while the information from Fuchs dried up, and not enough information had been supplied to build a bomb. The rest was supplied by Edward Hall, a 19-year-old physics students at Harvard who worked on detonation devices at Los Alamos. He had decided that the United States was going to become fascist and that if the Soviet Union had the bomb they would prevent the world from becoming fascist.

Information provided by Fuchs and other spies is believed to have sped up Stalin's bomb project by two years. Fuchs also provided outlines and drafts of the United States' plan to build a hydrogen bomb and information from nuclear tests conducted by the Americans at Eniwetok atoll. Information provided by a defecting Russian cipher clerk working at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa led to the capture of Fuchs and other famous other Russian spies. Fuchs was arrested in 1950. He spent 10 years in prison and then moved to East Germany.

KGB Agents in Germany

Many KGB agents worked in West Germany. One of the successful was Heinz Sütterlin, an agent posing as a photographer who married the secretary of a high official in the German Foreign Ministry. Sütterlin's wife passed on 2,900 documents, many top secret, to her husband. When he was arrested, and she realized the consequences of what she had done she committed suicide.

One of the most infamous cold war spies was Heinz Felfe, a mole who worked at the BND (the West German CIA) and the KGB. The information he slipped to the KGB made the BND's operations in East Europe virtually useless. Felfe was considered so valuable he was allowed to turn in lower-ranking KGB agents so his position would not be compromised. According to one Soviet spymaster, "east German intelligence unearthed secrets that served as the basis of whole sectors of Soviet industry."

German President Vladimir Putin worked for the KGB in East Germany from 1984 to 1990. His duties included recruiting Western agents, seeking information on political enemies of the Soviet Union and coercing East Germans into collecting information on the West. His career was mediocre according to U.S. intelligence agencies. He was based in Dresden, regarded as a backwater compared to Berlin. Of his time in Dresden, Putin said he drank a gallon of beer a week and gained 12 kilograms. He was in Dresden at the time Berlin Wall came down. During that he time said he and his coworkers worked hard to burn documents before their office was overrun by a mob.

Anatoli Sudoplatov And His Claims

In 1994, former KGB spymaster Anatoli Sudoplatov asserted that three of the 20th century's greatest scientist—Neils Bohr, Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer—assisted the Soviets in their efforts to build a nuclear bomb. [Book: “Special Tasks: The Memoir if an Unwanted Witness—a Soviet Spymaster” by Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov (Little, Brown, 1994)]

Many historians and people at Los Alamos scoff at Sudoplatov assertions and question his credibility. He spent 50 years with the KGB, coordinating assassinations and kidnapping. At one time he had 20,000 hit men under his command and is believed to have connected with the murders of 200 people. He personally assassinated a Ukrainian diplomat, and friend, by giving him a box of chocolates wired with explosives. Sudoplatov claimed he killed one man with his bare hands and remained a Stalin loyalist even though he was purged and imprisoned.

Sudoplatov was the source of the allegations that Oppenheimer was a spy. He asserts that Bohr met with KGB envoys and provided them with detailed answers intended to help the Soviets work out problems they were having with their atomic bomb project. He also said Oppenheimer knowingly shared American secrets with the Soviets. Bohr reported his meeting with the KGB to Dutch officials and there is proof that he handed over the information that Sudoplatov alleged he did.


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the only Americans given the death penalty for spying in peacetime. They were convicted on April 5, 1951 and executed on June 19, 1953 after the appeals and pleas for executive clemency from presidents Truman and Eisenhower had been denied. The Rosenbergs were identified as Soviet spies after the U.S. National Security Agency broke a Soviet code that revealed the existence of an extensive Soviet spy network in the U.S. trying to uncover secrets about nuclear warfare.

The case against the Rosenburgs was not air tight. Later, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg confessed that he lied at the trial and his perjury probably sent her to the electric chair. The judge was regarded as less than impartial and there is evidence that the FBI tampered with important witnesses. But at the same time the Rosenbergs seem to have clearly been guilty. After the collapse of the Soviet Union their KGB handlers talked about how they passed on information. Encryptions of Soviet intelligence telegrams from the 1940s and 50 detail how their spy network functioned.

The Rosenbergs provided information on radar and sonar but not on atomic bombs. Sudoplatov wrote that the Rosenbergs "actually played a very minor role. They were a naive couple, overeager to cooperate, who worked for us because of their ideological motivations. Their contribution to atomic espionage was minor...the case had acquired a political character far out of proportion to their actual roll as spies."

The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence to the end. After saying goodbye to the preteen sons they were executed in electric chairs at Sing Sing prison in New York. Their two sons were adopted by and brought up Anne and Abel Meeropol.

KGB and Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald lived in the Soviet Union with his Russian wife for 2½ years before he assassinated of U.S. President John Kennedy in 1963. The KGB monitored him, watching him through a peephole in the wall of his apartment in Minsk, but asserts it made no attempt to recruit him as a spy. One KGB officer, working on the case, said, "You can cut off my head, but not only did we not try to, the very thought did not even enter our minds."

Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and denounced his American citizenship. This attracted the attention of the KGB which bugged his apartment in Minsk. According to KGB reports unearthed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Oswald couldn't shoot straight. He couldn't shoot a rabbit on a hunting trip that almost ran under his feet, and was a klutz who "couldn't figure out how to put film in a simple Soviet camera." [Book: “Oswald's Tale: an American Mystery” by Norman Mailer (Random House, 1995)]

In an unsuccessful act of disinformation, the KGB attempted to link the CIA with the assassination of Kennedy by forging a letter from Oswald to E. Howard Hunt, a CIA officer implicated in the Watergate scandal. The letter said that Oswald planned to meet with Hunt before going ahead with the assassination.

Melita Norwood

One of the most valuable KGB spies was Melita Norwood, a British woman who passed secrets on to Moscow for nearly four decades without being detected. She was a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metal research Association, the home of Tube Alloy project (the name given to Britain's nuclear weapons program and a British version of Los Alamos)

In 1999, at the age of 87, Norwood told reporters "I did not want money. It was not that side I was interested in...I thought that perhaps some of what I had access to might be useful in helping Russia to keep abreast of Britain, America and Germany." In 1958, she was secretly awarded the order of Red Banner.

Norwood's code name was Hola. She is vague on how she was recruited. She received the Order of the Red banner and turned down financial rewards. She was married to a mathematics teacher who shared her Communist leanings. Her daughter didn't realize she was a spy until it was reported in the newspapers in 1999.

Norwood regularly took files out of a safe, copied them and turned them over to Soviet agents at meeting places near her suburban home. She reportedly stole secrets that allowed the Soviets to build their first atom bomb. She provided much more valuable information to the Soviets than Philby or MacLean.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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