KGB Undercover: How US Sleeper Agent Jack Barsky Spied Under the Radar


Listen to Jack Barsky’s story  | The Illegal

Among his many shadowy careers, ex-KGB spy Jack Barsky was an extra on The Americans, the 1980s-retro spy series that follows two Soviet deep-cover agents living the American dream in Washington, D.C.

“It took about 2.5 hours to complete what eventually turned into a 30-second scene,” Barsky said of his cameo in Episode 510. “It was rather boring and reminded me of my own undercover existence: 99% waiting, 1% action.”

Still, it was a cheeky appearance for Barsky, once a real-life KGB sleeper agent dropped behind enemy lines to spy on Americans from his New York City base. In his former life, Barsky was East German Albrecht Dittrich, an associate chemistry professor recruited as a university student to spy on the US in the ‘70s and ‘80s during the Cold War.

The notorious - and deadly - KGB spent five years training Barsky and nine other sleeper agents for their undercover mission. He’d spend the next 16 years under the radar in the US before his cover was blown by the FBI.

Jack Barsky appears on The Americans TV series as an extra
                Jack Barsky, on location in Park Slope, Brooklyn as an extra in The Americans


Life as a sleeper agent

Barsky was flattered when Moscow invited him to join its ‘illegals’ program, one of the KGB’s crown jewels. He was a devout communist.

“The KGB was very solicitous of their agents,” Barsky told SPYSCAPE. “They tried to protect us at all costs, not necessarily because they liked us but because they didn’t want the world to know what they were doing.”

True Spies Podcast The Illegal with Jack Barsky

The plan was to run undercover agents in the US and Barsky was among the third wave of KGB spies sent to America with thousands of dollars in cash and orders to blend in. 

Barsky's job was to assume an American identity, get close to US power brokers, and gather inside information. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser was one of his targets. “My task was to operate in the realm of foreign policy, military policy, and get to know people - decision-makers or influencers,” Barsky explained.

Profile of IT expert Jack Barsky, a former KGB sleeper agent
SPYEX consultant and ex-KGB spy ‘Jack Barsky’ was an illegal agent sent to the US in the 1970s


KGB training‍

During years of training in Moscow and abroad, Barsky memorized his six-page ‘legend’, a fictitious US backstory. He also studied English, Morse code, shortwave radio, encryption, decryption, secret writing, photography, self-defense, and surveillance detection. He practiced dead drops to secretly hand over US intel to KGB operatives in the US. 

The KGB even sent him to Canada for three months to learn more about North American ‘culture’, essentially an opportunity to practice his English, eat ham and eggs in diners, and watch The Price Is Right game show - ”Come on down!”


KGB Undercover: How US Sleeper Agent Jack Barsky Spied Under the Radar

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Listen to Jack Barsky’s story  | The Illegal

Among his many shadowy careers, ex-KGB spy Jack Barsky was an extra on The Americans, the 1980s-retro spy series that follows two Soviet deep-cover agents living the American dream in Washington, D.C.

“It took about 2.5 hours to complete what eventually turned into a 30-second scene,” Barsky said of his cameo in Episode 510. “It was rather boring and reminded me of my own undercover existence: 99% waiting, 1% action.”

Still, it was a cheeky appearance for Barsky, once a real-life KGB sleeper agent dropped behind enemy lines to spy on Americans from his New York City base. In his former life, Barsky was East German Albrecht Dittrich, an associate chemistry professor recruited as a university student to spy on the US in the ‘70s and ‘80s during the Cold War.

The notorious - and deadly - KGB spent five years training Barsky and nine other sleeper agents for their undercover mission. He’d spend the next 16 years under the radar in the US before his cover was blown by the FBI.

Jack Barsky appears on The Americans TV series as an extra
                Jack Barsky, on location in Park Slope, Brooklyn as an extra in The Americans


Life as a sleeper agent

Barsky was flattered when Moscow invited him to join its ‘illegals’ program, one of the KGB’s crown jewels. He was a devout communist.

“The KGB was very solicitous of their agents,” Barsky told SPYSCAPE. “They tried to protect us at all costs, not necessarily because they liked us but because they didn’t want the world to know what they were doing.”

True Spies Podcast The Illegal with Jack Barsky

The plan was to run undercover agents in the US and Barsky was among the third wave of KGB spies sent to America with thousands of dollars in cash and orders to blend in. 

Barsky's job was to assume an American identity, get close to US power brokers, and gather inside information. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser was one of his targets. “My task was to operate in the realm of foreign policy, military policy, and get to know people - decision-makers or influencers,” Barsky explained.

Profile of IT expert Jack Barsky, a former KGB sleeper agent
SPYEX consultant and ex-KGB spy ‘Jack Barsky’ was an illegal agent sent to the US in the 1970s


KGB training‍

During years of training in Moscow and abroad, Barsky memorized his six-page ‘legend’, a fictitious US backstory. He also studied English, Morse code, shortwave radio, encryption, decryption, secret writing, photography, self-defense, and surveillance detection. He practiced dead drops to secretly hand over US intel to KGB operatives in the US. 

The KGB even sent him to Canada for three months to learn more about North American ‘culture’, essentially an opportunity to practice his English, eat ham and eggs in diners, and watch The Price Is Right game show - ”Come on down!”


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His English tutor in Moscow explained the American mindset required to maintain his cover, Barsky recalled in his memoir Deep Undercover: “Imagine living in their big houses and driving one of those huge cars… To be successful in the United States, you must think big.”

The straight-A chemistry student who considered himself smarter than his professors was a natural.

“Sending an illegal into a closed society is asking for trouble,” Barsky said, “but America was an open society. And the only reason that I succeeded in becoming an American was their openness. You could get a birth certificate just by asking - anybody’s birth certificate.”

Jack Barsky, former KGB spy and sleeper agent as a young IT worker at Met Life

‘Jack Barsky’ is born

By 1978, he was ready for the big time: New York City where 28-year-old East German KGB spy Albrecht Dittrich transformed into American ‘Jack Barsky’, a New Yorker with a German mother (deceased) to explain the slight accent. He obtained the birth certificate of an American boy who had died at the age of five.

The new ‘Jack Barsky’ began collecting IDs. He joined the American Museum of Natural History, then the public library which he parlayed into a New York driving license.

Barsky needed a Social Security number to get a job, however. He was burning through the KGB’s $10,000 seed money while living in cheap hotels, but he soon found a loophole: if Barsky applied as a farmworker, he wouldn’t have required a Social Security card in the past. Before long, Barsky had his card and a job as a New York bike courier.

He settled in for the long haul and talent-spotted 30 possible KGB spies, mostly American college students, and sent their profiles to Moscow.

He communicated by shortwave radio, secret letters, and dead drops. Sometimes the KGB left painted signals in the subway station, meaning: come to a meeting; container deposited; or radio transmission received. He also kept his eye out for a dab of red paint on a metal beam that would signal: Danger. Run!

“I’ve always taken on things most people would shy away from because they don’t know what it’s like, or whether that risk would actually pay off. I was never afraid of doing those things,” Barsky said.

Jack Barsky, former KGB spy and sleeper agent as a young IT worker

Jack Barsky studied IT at night school before landing a job at MetLife.

Within a decade, Barsky had moved from bike courier to insurance company IT manager, making the daily slog from his apartment in Queen’s to the MetLife office in Manhattan, then back home to the suburbs. 

Barsky climbed the corporate ladder and socialized with people who might introduce him to American decision-makers. He married and his daughter Chelsea was 18 months old in 1988 when Barsky saw the red paint warning: Danger. Run!

'Come home or you're dead'

His KGB orders were to drop everything, pick up emergency documents in a park, then flee to Canada where a Russian embassy worker would expedite his flight home. Except... Barsky didn’t want to go. He couldn’t imagine leaving his daughter behind but, if he stayed, Barsky's life might be at risk.

Instead, he stalled. Two weeks passed. One morning on his way to work, a resident KGB agent delivered a personal message while he waited on the subway platform: "Come home or else you're dead.”

To keep the KGB at bay, Barsky pretended he had HIV-AIDS and required medical attention in the US. What he didn’t know was that, in addition to the KGB, the FBI was watching him.

By 1997, ​​Barsky had relocated to Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania. The FBI moved in next door and bugged his home. They had questions about his birth certificate and real identity after reading about a 'Jack Barsky' in the Mitrokhin Archive. As Barsky was driving home one evening, a state trooper pulled him over for what seemed to be a traffic violation. It was the FBI. After almost 20 years of leading a double life, the game was up.

Barsky cooperated fully and was eventually granted a US passport and citizenship as Jack Barsky. (The parents of the young, deceased ‘Jack Barsky’ agreed he could use their son’s name.) He went public with a 60 Minutes interview in 2015 and later wrote his memoirs before embarking on his sixth career: public speaking.

Jack Barsy, former KGB spy
Barsky had to choose between saving his life or abandoning his child



Barsky never did learn what the KGB’s ‘emergency’ red signal in the subway was all about but assumed it was a false alarm. 

Does he still look over his shoulder?

“No”, Barsky said, explaining that he was an East German contractor, not a Russian national, so he does not feel he betrayed Moscow. Even if he were to somehow make it onto a potential list of victims, Barsky believes he’d be close to the bottom. That said, he’s not taking any chances.

“If you gave me $1 million to spend two weeks in Moscow, I would say ‘no thank you’ because you don’t want to create an opportunity for them to send a message.” 


***

Jack Barsky has given more than 70 keynote addresses to a variety of audiences.  He can be booked at SPYEX.com to appear at events or consult on film and television projects.

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