In the lore of Soviet spycraft, few figures command as much respect as the "illegals," steel-jawed agents with the intelligence of a chess grandmaster and the fortitude of a cosmonaut.
A Look at Russia's Intelligence Agencies
The Foreign Intelligence Service, known under its Russian acronym SVR, oversees foreign intelligence. It was founded just before the collapse of the Soviet Union when the KGB was split into several successor agencies. The SVR inherited the personnel and structures of the KGB’s First Main Directorate, in charge of spying abroad.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, is another KGB successor. While the SVR's tasks are comparable with the CIA, FSB's main mission of catching foreign spies and combatting organised crime can be compared with that of the FBI. The FSB’s unwritten tasks include shadowing the opposition to the Kremlin.
The GRU, the Russian acronym for the Main Intelligence Directorate, is Russia’s military intelligence. Its name and mission have remained unchanged since Soviet times. It’s main task is spying abroad for military secrets. It also controls highly trained teams of commandos.
Painstakingly trained in the KGB's Directorates, the illegals spent years assuming a fake biography, known in Russian as a "legend," then awaited orders undercover for years or even decades.
Unlike their "legal" counterparts, they worked without a diplomatic cover, which would offer them immunity from prosecution. They were rewarded with the kind of adulation Americans reserve for movie stars. This week's jaw-dropping arrest of 11 people seems to offer a glimpse into a recent form of the program.
Russia has made little comment on the specific accusations, though it called the arrests "baseless" and "unseemly." But if prosecutors are correct, two things seem clear: First, that Russia's network of illegals has survived, and perhaps even grown, since the Soviet Union's collapse.
And second, that the agents' assignment — collecting information about politics and getting to know policy makers — can now be achieved through more straightforward means.
After the 1917 October Revolution, the Soviets had good reason to develop a specialty in undercover intelligence-gathering. Few countries formally recognised the Soviet Union, so no diplomatic cover was available. It was a simple matter to fabricate a foreign identity — the agency mined records of foreign babies who had died, wrote Galina Fedorova in a 1994 memoir about life as an illegal.