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

Everything was bugged, we were followed constantly, and even our dog knew we had a "minder."

A Russian policeman guards a protest rally in Central Moscow, October 30, 2005 (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters )
A Russian policeman guards a protest rally in central Moscow October 30, 2005.

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 the 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.

Even as a grade-school child I was aware of the surveillance and the need for caution. I remember the stricken looks on my parents' faces when I once blurted out the code to their locked briefcase; that was when I realized that the walls had ears.

Espionage was a deadly serious game back then, and suspicions and tensions ran high. We worried about the fates of the Russians we interacted with, and we knew that some suffered consequences for associating with us. Westerners faced dangers too; diplomats and reporters could be expelled, or worse, if they ran afoul of the dreaded KGB.

In the 1980s, foreigners were kept strictly segregated from Russians. We lived in walled and guarded compounds, drove in specially marked cars, shopped in hard-currency stores, and attended foreign schools.

Even so, there was a string of scandals in the 80s that caused both the Americans and Soviets to increase their vigilance. Clayton Lonetree, a Marine Corps security guard, was seduced by a comely Russian agent and convicted in 1987 of spying against the United States. Aldrich Ames, who was convicted of spying for Russia in 1994, was found to have compromised several U.S. assets over the years. Construction of the U.S. embassy in Moscow was halted in 1985 after the building was found to be riddled with listening devices.

Our family received a scare when a fellow American journalist was arrested by the KGB in 1986 and accused of espionage, apparently in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet UN diplomat in New York City. The reporter was eventually allowed to leave the country, but not before the Soviet authorities darkly reminded us all that the punishment for spying was death.

My father managed the challenges and we stayed on in Moscow to witness the short-lived regimes of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko after Brezhnev's death in 1982, the interlude of glasnost and perestroika after Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985, and the exhilarating but lawless period in the early 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

Today, with the Soviet Union long collapsed and the Communist regime long gone, the cloak-and-dagger stories seem best relegated to Washington's Spy Museum. Indeed, Fogle's case—almost too bizarre to be believed—seems to be the stuff of contemporary television shows like The Americans, which depicts KGB spies living in U.S. suburbs in the late 80s.

The expulsion of Fogle and other recent cases—such as the American unveiling of Russian spy Anna Chapman and nine other embedded agents in 2010—remind us that the spy game is alive and well. And also that the United States and Russia—though not enemies—are not yet friends.