Topics Discussed in #301 – Lex Fridman & Jack Barsky: KGB, Communism, Childhood, Becoming a KGB agent, Training, Language, Moscow, Spying, Putin, War in Ukraine, Putin in the KGB, Yuri Bezmenov, FSB and CIA, Putin and Zelenskyy, Quitting the KGB, Love and regrets, Mortality.

Lex Fridman Podcast: Conversations about science, technology, history, philosophy and the nature of intelligence, consciousness, love, and power. Lex is an AI researcher at MIT and beyond.

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Jack Barsky

is a German-American author, IT specialist and former sleeper agent of the KGB who spied on the United States from 1978 to 1988. Exposed after the Cold War, Barsky became a resource for U.S. counterintelligence agencies and was allowed to remain in the United States. His autobiography, Deep Undercover, was published in 2017, and he frequently speaks on his experiences and as an expert on espionage. Dittrich was born in Reichenbach, Upper Lusatia, East Germany, only a few weeks after the partition of Germany, and grew up in Jena. His father, a schoolteacher, was an adamant Marxist–Leninist. He also has a brother, Günther, who is three years younger. When Dittrich was 14, he was sent away to boarding school. Shortly after that, his parents divorced. He earned a degree in chemistry at the University of Jena. Find the books mentioned in Lex Fridman and Jack Barsky's conversation below.

Books Mentioned in this Podcast with Lex Fridman & Jack Barsky:

Book Title: Deep Under Cover – My Secret Life & Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America

Author: Jack Barsky

Books Title: Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World

Author: Mikhail Gorbachev

Book Title: History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Book Title: Conspirator – Lenin in Exile

Author: Helen Rappaport

Book Title: KGB Lexicon

Author Vasiliy Mitrokhin

The Secret Life of a Cold War Spy: Espionage, Training, and Espionage Craft

In the annals of history, tales of espionage have always fascinated and intrigued us. Stories of brave individuals who operated in the shadows, undertaking covert missions in the service of their nations, have a unique allure. One such compelling story is that of a Cold War spy, someone who ventured deep into the world of espionage during one of the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century. This article delves into the intriguing journey of a former Cold War spy, exploring the training, tools, and experiences that shaped his covert life.

Espionage in the Cold War Era

The Cold War era, spanning roughly from the end of World War II to the early 1990s, witnessed intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a time when espionage thrived as both superpowers sought to gain the upper hand in this high-stakes geopolitical chess match. Our story begins in East Germany, deep within the Iron Curtain, where a young man found himself unwittingly drawn into the world of espionage.

Recruitment and Training

The journey of a Cold War spy often starts with an unexpected twist. In this case, the individual’s recruitment was initiated by a university professor. The young student, unaware of the path he was about to embark upon, began a series of discussions that would ultimately change his life forever.

His recruitment was gradual, filled with personal conversations and tasks that tested his abilities. One critical aspect of his training was the development of tradecraft skills. These skills included Morse code, shortwave radio communication, and encryption/decryption techniques. The ability to communicate covertly was paramount for a spy operating behind enemy lines.

Counter-Surveillance and Surveillance Detection

A significant part of a Cold War spy’s training revolves around staying undetected and identifying potential threats. Counter-surveillance and surveillance detection became indispensable skills. The spy learned to navigate the city without arousing suspicion, to recognize when he was being followed, and to employ clever tactics to throw off any pursuers.

A key aspect of these counter-surveillance techniques was selecting surveillance detection routes. These were carefully planned paths that allowed the spy to assess whether he was being trailed. Effective counter-surveillance ensured that the spy’s covert activities remained hidden, a crucial aspect of espionage.

Covert Communication: The World of Cipher Machines and Microdots

Espionage during the Cold War relied heavily on covert communication. For a spy, the ability to send and receive secure messages was paramount. The article touches on two fascinating aspects of this covert communication: cipher machines and microdots.

Cipher machines played a significant role in encoding and decoding messages. These machines used algorithms and keys to encrypt information, making it nearly impossible for unauthorized individuals to decipher the content. However, our spy learned the importance of not using the same encryption method repeatedly to prevent interception.

Microdots, on the other hand, were a clever way to reduce the size of documents. Photographs were miniaturized and could be hidden discreetly, often under the stamp on an envelope. Though our spy was trained in creating microdots, he rarely had the opportunity to use this technique during his covert missions.

Face the Fear: Psychological Challenges of Espionage

The life of a Cold War spy was fraught with danger and uncertainty. Every mission carried the risk of exposure, capture, and even death. Our former spy candidly shares his experiences, including the constant psychological burden of paranoia.

Counter-surveillance measures and surveillance detection routes could not entirely eliminate the fear of being watched. The spy describes the psychological challenge of maintaining composure, facing the ever-present paranoia, and learning to adapt to a life where secrecy was paramount.

The Ultimate Decision: Career vs. Espionage

One of the most intriguing aspects of our spy’s journey is the choice he faced. Should he continue on his promising academic career path as a tenured professor, or should he embrace the thrilling life of a spy, complete with secret missions and covert operations?

The decision was a complex one, influenced by personal attachments, career aspirations, and the allure of adventure. Ultimately, he chose to embark on a journey that would lead him to foreign lands, espionage exploits, and an existence in the shadows.


The life of a Cold War spy is a compelling narrative, blending elements of espionage craft, psychological challenges, and the weighty decisions that shape a person’s destiny. In an era defined by political tensions and clandestine operations, individuals like our former spy played a pivotal role in the grand theater of the Cold War.

This article has offered a glimpse into the intriguing world of espionage, where dedication to a cause, mastery of tradecraft, and the ability to navigate the shadows were essential attributes. The life of a Cold War spy remains a testament to human adaptability and the enduring fascination with stories of espionage and intrigue.