“The Americans”

For my last blog post, I wanted to write about a TV show that has been airing for a couple of years now. The show is called The Americans, the plot is about two KGB spies living in the US undercover, spying for the Soviet Union, and the difficulties they face in their day to day lives. I just started this show recently and was excited when I saw we might have the chance to get to this time period in Russian history in class. The show depicts the spies during the height of the Cold War, and is based on the Illegals Program, which was an FBI investigation of multiple Russian SVR spies living undercover here in the US. The investigation led to the arrest of 10 Russian spies in 2010.


The show’s director, Joe Weisburg, is a former CIA operative. He had a very short career with the CIA, but after he got out he began writing. He stated that many of his ideas for the show came from his training from the CIA and discussing stories with other spies who lived abroad with their families. In an interview with DirecTV, he stated, “I was in the CIA in the early 90s, so a lot of the tradecraft and espionage type stuff that’s in this show is based on stuff that I learned at the CIA. The tradecraft is period. So the dead drops and the communications protocols and the way that the agents are handled is all based on the training that I received rather than how things are done today . . . I never served abroad but I worked side-by-side with people who did and I was struck by a lot of things including their stories about what it was like to live and serve with a family and spy abroad. Particularly, I was very moved by what it was like to raise kids while not telling the kids what you really did. And then, to sit down with those kids one day as teenagers and have what was called ‘The Talk’ with them and tell them what mom or dad really did for a living because they were finally old enough to keep a secret. I was very interested in bringing that to TV – the idea of a family of spies, not just a single spy” (Weisburg).

The show is immediately captivating. Right away the viewers are introduced to the main characters and their true identities. An article by the theguardian.com explains the plot perfectly, “the premise is dynamite. In the 80s, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) pose as travel agents living outside Washington DC, but they’re really Russian spies who have been deeply integrated into the community. We see not only their daring missions to save the motherland and destroy imperialism during the height of the cold war, but also their struggles with their relationship, their family and their belief in a cause that no longer directly applies to their lifestyle” (theguardian.com). The show also offers an interesting perspective, as you find yourself rooting for the main characters, but then you remember they’re actually the bad guys. It is an interesting point of view, especially for such a crucial point in US history.


The show also gives a good perspective as to what was going on during the Cold War for spies. The Cold War was not a conventional war fought by the military, it was a secretive and strategic battle fought by the intelligence agencies of the US and the Soviet Union. And the show really sheds light on the difficulties posed for both sides, especially for the US on the home-front. We were heavily penetrated by the Soviets during the Cold War, and the show really exposes the audience to that. Obviously no show or movie is without some Hollywood influence, but the premise of the show and the events carried out during the show certainly offer some evidence as to what the War was like for intelligence agencies involved.

If you haven’t seen the show, take a look at the trailer for the first season!





DIRECTV Interview: <em>The Americans</em> Masterminds Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields

The Soviet Union Underground Economy

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began prohibiting typical goods, common to most middle class consumers, that prompted most citizens to seek goods and supplies via other means. An underground market came to fruition to meet the people’s demands.

The government began penalizing people for purchasing common necessities, “Involvement in the underground economy had become a fact of Soviet existence by 1980. Economic activities regarded as normal in market economies not only were prohibited under Soviet law, but also carried heavy penalties. The acquisition of consumer services (repairs of appliances and autos, medical services) and residential housing, the resale of scarce consumer goods, trade in western consumer goods such as blue jeans or cigarettes were on a par with criminal activities such as the narcotics trade and moonshine liqueur. Virtually every citizen became a de facto criminal in the quest for a more comfortable life” (Geldern).

Anything citizens couldn’t get their hands on on the Black Market, the Soviet Union hacked up the prices for most other goods. But it did not necessarily help the Soviet Union, “The underground economy both aided and impeded the growth of the Soviet economy. The system was more efficient when independent agents circumvented artificial price and production controls, thus buffering average citizens from the inefficient allocation of resources by central planners. Growth in the unofficial sector far outstripped growth in the stagnant official economy. Yet obligatory law-breaking had a corrosive effect on society, and undermined the legitimacy of the state” (Geldern).

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the citizens who participated in the Black Market turned into criminals and racketeers.


Underground Economy



Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

In 1968 The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by several of the major nuclear and non-nuclear powers that pledged their cooperation in limiting the spread of nuclear technology.

“After the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, leaders of both nations hoped that other, more comprehensive agreements on arms control would be forthcoming. Given the excessive costs involved in the development and deployment of new and more technologically advanced nuclear weapons, both powers had an interest in negotiating agreements that would help to slow the pace of the arms race and limit competition in strategic weapons development. Four years after the first treaty, the two sides agreed to an Outer Space Treaty that prevented the deployment of nuclear weapons systems as satellites in space. Of far greater import, Soviet and U.S. negotiators also reached a settlement on concluding an international non-proliferation treaty” (www.history.state.gov).

U.S. Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, signs nuclear non-proliferation treaty as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko watches in Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 1968. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/npt

“By the beginning of the 1960s, nuclear weapons technology had the potential to become widespread. The science of exploding and fusing atoms had entered into public literature via academic journals, and nuclear technology was no longer pursued only by governments, but by private companies as well. Plutonium, the core of nuclear weapons, was becoming easier to obtain and cheaper to process. As a result of these changes, by 1964 there were five nuclear powers in the world: in addition to the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, all of which obtained nuclear capability during or shortly after the Second World War, France exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1960, and the People’s Republic of China was not far behind in 1964. There were many other countries that had not yet tested weapons, but which were technologically advanced enough that should they decide to build them, it was likely that they could do so before long” (www.history.state.gov).

The Treaty opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. On 11 May 1995, the Treaty was extended indefinitely. More countries have adhered to the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Treaty in 2003. India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan are the only UN member states that have never officially joined the Treaty. While the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and China are the only states officially recognized as nuclear weapon states, it is believed/known that India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have nuclear weapons and capabilities as well.

“The final treaty involved a number of provisions all aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons technology. First, the nuclear signatories agreed not to transfer either nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to any other state. Second, the non-nuclear states agreed that they would not receive, develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. All of the signatories agreed to submit to the safeguards against proliferation established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Parties to the treaty also agreed to cooperate in the development of peaceful nuclear technology and to continue negotiations to help end the nuclear arms race and limit the spread of the technology. The treaty was given a 25-year time limit, with the agreement that it would be reviewed every 5 years” (www.history.state.gov).

Critiques have argued that the Treaty will not stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the motivation to acquire them. It is extremely difficult to monitor other countries nuclear development and capabilities, especially if those states are not part of the NPT. Another concern to the international community is if a terrorist organization manages to get its hands on nuclear weapons. However, having nuclear weapons is not the same as being able to launch those nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Map http://www.pressenza.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/NPT-map.png

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Map





Spy for a Spy

*This post was recognized in the Comrades’ Corner (week 9)

On February 10, 1962, American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was released from the Soviets in exchange for Rudolf Abel (real name Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher), a Soviet spy convicted of espionage.


Rudolf Abel worked in Soviet intelligence during World War II. After the War, he began working for the KGB and was later sent to New York City, amongst several other Soviet spies, in order to obtain vital intelligence for the Soviet Union. The FBI received a tip from another Soviet spy, who had turned himself in, regarding Abel and his illegal actions. The FBI began surveilling Abel and his residence in New York. On June 21, 1957 Abel was arrested by FBI Agents for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union. He was later tried in Federal Court on three counts of conspiracy. An insurance lawyer from New York, James B. Donovan, who also served as a wartime counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, accepted the case and successfully defended Abel in preventing him from receiving the death penalty. Donovan made the claim that Abel might be needed as leverage in future negotiations with the Soviets.

On May 1, 1960, pilot “Francis Gary Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, at the controls of an ultra-sophisticated Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Powers, a CIA-employed pilot, was to fly over some 2,000 miles of Soviet territory to Bodo military airfield in Norway, collecting intelligence information en route. Roughly halfway through his journey, he was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Forced to bail out at 15,000 feet, he survived the parachute jump but was promptly arrested by Soviet authorities” (history.com). The US Government released a statement saying the plane was collecting weather data and veered off course after the pilot reported issues with his oxygen equipment. However, Powers was unaware with the statements the US was making, and admitted to Soviet authorities he was on a mission to collect intelligence. The Russians also collected the wreckage of the downed U-2 and found evidence to support Powers’s confession.

This event had numerous catastrophic consequences. Immediately following the U-2 crash, there was a Four Powers Summit on May 15, 1960 in Paris, it was attended by then president of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, French president Charles de Gaulle, and prime minister of the United Kingdom, Harold Macmillan. Going into the meeting, many people were optimistic, as this could have been an event to ease tensions between the US and the Soviets. It even had the potential of shortening the length of the Cold War. However, “in the wake of the Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane on May 1, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev lashed out at the United States and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at a Paris summit meeting between the two heads of state. Khrushchev’s outburst angered Eisenhower and doomed any chances for successful talks or negotiations at the summit . . . Tensions from the incident were still high when Eisenhower and Khrushchev arrived in Paris to begin a summit meeting on May 16. Khrushchev wasted no time in tearing into the United States, declaring that Eisenhower would not be welcome in Russia during his scheduled visit to the Soviet Union in June. He condemned the ‘inadmissible, provocative actions’ of the United States in sending the spy plane over the Soviet Union, and demanded that Eisenhower ban future flights and punish those responsible for this ‘deliberate violation of the Soviet Union.’ When Eisenhower agreed only to a ‘suspension’ of the spy plane flights, Khrushchev left the meeting in a huff. According to U.S. officials, the president was ‘furious’ at Khrushchev for his public dressing-down of the United States. The summit meeting officially adjourned the next day with no further meetings between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s planned trip to Moscow in June was scrapped . . . The collapse of the May 1960 summit meeting was a crushing blow to those in the Soviet Union and the United States who believed that a period of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the two superpowers was on the horizon. During the previous few years, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev had publicly indicated their desire for an easing of Cold War tensions, but the spy plane incident put an end to such talk, at least for the time being” (history.com).

Upon the capture of Gary Powers, the US began negotiations with the Soviet Union to release Powers. As Donovan had argued, Abel would be used as leverage in the negotiations. Donovan became a key player in the negotiations, his role was displayed in the movie Bridge of Spies. “On Saturday, February 10, 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) at the now famous Glienicke Bridge. American student Frederic Pryor was also released at the same time at Checkpoint Charlie” (garypowers.org). Donovan became a key factor in future US negotiations.








RDS-6s is the codename for a hydrogen bomb the Soviet Union detonated on August 12, 1953. The bomb detonation was done as a test at the Semipalatinsk test site, which is current day Northern Kazakhstan. The bomb detonated a force measured at 400 kilotons (400,000 tons) of TNT.

“Work on the super-bomb had begun in 1946, three years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. The project was organized by the First Chief Directorate under Lavrentii Beria, Minister of State Security (MGB)” (Siegelbaum). Igor Kurchatov, a physicist who had been appointed scientific director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear project in 1943, headed the program. “The design for the bomb was based on the ‘layer cake’ concept developed by the physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), according to which alternate layers of thermonuclear material and uranium-238 were placed in a fission bomb” (Siegelbaum).

But the test was done in reaction to US bomb development, “RDS-6 was part of the Soviet Union’s efforts to catch up with the United States, which had detonated its first thermonuclear device with the ‘George’ test two years earlier in May 1951” (ctbto.org). Developing a strong nuclear arms program was crucial to Stalin. The world was advancing, and Stalin wanted the Soviet Union to be a powerful factor amongst world powers, and developing such devastating weapons would give the country that legitimacy. Even after Stalin’s death, the nuclear program continued to advance. The Soviets even used the RDS-6s detonation as leverage against the US, claiming they (the Soviets) not only had a hydrogen bomb, but that they had the capability of deploying it by air.

There were political setbacks for the Soviets, however, with the testing of this hydrogen bomb, “In a speech on March 1954, Georgii Malenkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, referred to the danger of ‘a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.’ Raising this specter went beyond what Khrushchev and other party leaders were willing to acknowledge publicly, and even though he subsequently reverted to the standard line that nuclear aggression by the United States would lead to the ‘collapse of the capitalist social system,’ Malenkov could not undo the damage to his own political career” (Siegelbaum).

Throughout this time period both the US and the Soviet sought to advance their nuclear programs, and both had catastrophic consequences for surrounding populations, “The largest [test ever carried out by the US], Castle Bravo, yielded 15 megatons and created the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history. Several of the Marshall Islands’ atolls, including one where U.S. servicemen were stationed, were blanketed with fallout. The Japanese fishing vessel ‘Lucky Dragon Number 5’ was also heavily contaminated, causing the death of at least one crewman. This incident created an international uproar and a diplomatic crisis with Japan. One year later, the Soviet Union drew level with its own ‘true’ two-stage hydrogen bomb, codenamed RDS-37. A total of over 2,000 nuclear tests worldwide were conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in modern-day Kazakhstan. More than a million residents were exposed to radiation. The region has reported a surge in cancer rates and birth defects” (ctbto.org).


Hydrogen Bomb




Operation Iskra

*This post was recognized in the Comrades’ Corner (week 7)

Operation Iskra, also known as Operation Spark, was a military operation conducted by the Red Army to break the Leningrad Blockade in 1943.

The Siege of Leningrad began in 1941, as the Germans began surrounding the city and cutting off supply routes for food and goods. Throughout 1942 the Soviets launched multiple offensive attacks to retake Leningrad, but the Germans managed to hold the city. By late 1942, the Soviets were weakening the German fronts during the Battle of Stalingrad. During that same time, plans were drawn up for Operation Iskra, in order to hammer the Germans while they were weak.

The Germans managed to trap thousands of civilians inside the city while they blocked off the supply routes. With hardly enough food to last the upcoming winter, civilians and soldiers began to die of starvation and the harsh winter conditions, “Winter came early, and was one of the coldest winters on record. By November the people were on starvation rations. In December children’s sleds began to appear. But they weren’t carrying kids out having fun . . . ‘The squeak, squeak, squeak of the runners sounded louder than the shelling. It deafened the ears. On the sleds were the ill, the dying, the dead'” (Zimmerman). Some civilians managed to escape and migrate out of the city, but for those that had already lost their lives, their bodies were piled together and burned.

The Red Army launched its operation against the German front on January 12, 1943. It was the Soviet’s third attempt to retake the city, and this time, the Soviets were serious, “At 9:30 am, on January 12, 1943, Govorov and Merestkov opened Operation Spark with the thunder of 4,500 artillery pieces. One gun was positioned for every 20 feet of front line. On top of the artillery, the heavy naval guns of the Red Fleet in Leningrad harbor joined in the bombardment. Bridges, buildings, trenches, and trees exploded and collapsed in showers of steel, earth, and wood” (WHN Staff). The battle lasted until January 30, 1943 with the Soviets making slow but steady advances into the city, day by day.

By January 22, the Soviets began building railroads to connect the city to the rest of the country in order to reestablish supply lines. Within a month, the railroad was complete and the Soviets were able to begin effectively transporting supplies in and out of the city.


“By January 30, it [The Red Army] had reached Leningrad and established a 5 to 6 mile wide corridor along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. Though supply convoys were within range of German artillery, and the siege had many months yet to go, Leningrad had been saved” (Zimmerman).

Operation Iskra was a success for the Soviet forces. They were able to regain their city and reestablish supply lines for civilian and military personnel, in and outside of the city. Soviet leaders Govorov and Zhukov were both promoted that year following their victory in the operation. While their success with Operation Iskra was crucial, Soviet advances into neighboring cities turned out to be a struggle. The Soviets found themselves only making slow advances with not much to be gained.

Firsthand account of Operation Iskra:



Leningrad & Operation Spark: Breaking the Nazi Stranglehold



Chinese-Russian Railway Incident

In 1929 the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, made advancements into Soviet territory. They had just recently eliminated the Chinese Communist, while the Soviet Union had obtained ownership of the Chinese Eastern Railroad, “with the overthrow of the tsarist government and the October Revolution” (Siegelbaum). The Kuomintang sought to regain control of the railroad in the East. In May of 1929 the Chinese hit numerous positions along the railroad, attacking dozens of Russian officials and citizens.

Sino-Soviet Railroad


The Soviet Union openly condemned the attacks, but the Chinese continued their raids until they controlled the Eastern Railroad. Finally, the Soviets launched an return attack to retake the Railroad. They used superior airpower and tanks to regain control of the railroads. This event inspired “US Secretary of State Harold Stimson to invoke the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to prevent war, the main result of which was a flurry of angry exchanges between Washington and Moscow. In 1933 the Soviet government initiated discussions with the Japanese for the sale of the no-longer profitable CER to the puppet state of Manchukuo” Siegelbaum.

Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/chinese-railway-incident/

Nepreryvnaia Nedelia

During the early 1920s, the Kremlin leadership consisted of representatives, old and young, with radical and extreme views. There was a shift in goals and the government sought to increase restrictions on the Church. The authorities rallied the people and began attacking Church property in order to sabotage any extent of faith the people had. Churches were picked apart and turned into nothing more than sheds and warehouses, “ancient churches converted into warehouses, and sacred objects melted down for their metals. Church bells were the object of special attention, since the state claimed the metal for the great industrialization project” (Geldern).

The government then proposed the idea of a continuous workweek, also known as Nepreryvnaia Nedelia (Nepreryvka). “Its basic premise was that while workers required days off, machines did not. . . The solution was to arrange work schedules so that on any given day, only a small fraction of an enterprise’s work force would not be on the job” (Siegelbaum 212). The work week would be as follows: four days of work, followed by one day of rest. As a result of this workweek, workers would not be able to practice Sunday’s as days of rest, and especially, other religious holidays as well. There would be only five days off per year, referred to as ‘revolutionary holiday celebrations.’

It wasn’t just factories that shifted to this workweek schedule, businesses including educational institutions, shops, laundry shops, clubs, etc. were expected to follow this schedule. It turned out to be ineffective. At first, workers had a very hard time adjusting to this tedious work schedule. And while the factory machines could theoretically run 24/7, they frequently broke down due to overuse and had malfunctions. Businesses also found that they were going through materials much faster and had more frequent shortages. Over the years, the nepreryvka proved ineffective. By the early 1930s, the nepreryvka was discontinued due to its lack of success.

Russian Factory, early 1900s (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/fc/32/ce/fc32ce19e2d926d4194309f121a9eb25.jpg)


“Churches Closed,” James von Geldern (http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/churches-closed/)

Soviet State and Society Between Revolutions, 1918-1929, Lewis H. Siegelbaum (https://books.google.com/books?id=kog_NaF7J1YC&pg=PA212&lpg=PA212&dq=nepreryvnaia+nedelia+1929&source=bl&ots=_XIDe6elwd&sig=_b5Je_rqVewM5_pCC4dN5Wn08e8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiVxvPTq_jKAhXKaz4KHV-mD98Q6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=nepreryvnaia%20nedelia&f=false)

Kornilov Affair

General Lavr Kornilov was an influential war hero in 1917 and stood out because of his determination to establish order following the April Crisis. He was liked by most political figures and industrialists. Kornilov was appointed as the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed forces by Kerensky, who saw promise in Kornilov’s plan to restore the army’s fighting capability with discipline and resorting the death penalty. But Kornilov “had broader political ambitions, for he doubted that the coalition had the will either to win the war or to stabilize the domestic front. Regarding the government as a Soviet hostage, he concluded that a true patriot must put an end to dual power” (Freeze 287). He also “held the Petrograd Soviet responsible for the breakdown of discipline in the army. He also came to regard the Provisional Government as lacking the backbone to dissolve the Soviet and therefore unworthy of survival” (Siegelbaum).

Kornilov rounded up his loyal troops and lead a military coup d’etat towards Petrograd in an effort to restore order. He was under the impression he had the support of Kerensky, however, Kerensky had become enraged with Kornilov’s ambitions, and was prepared to launch a coalition against Kornilov’s coup.

General Lavr Kornilov (http://imageweb-cdn.magnoliasoft.net/printcollector/supersize/1217102.jpg)

Kerensky mobilized the Red Guards, made up of workers and paramilitary units, and quickly arrested Kornilov and disarmed his troops. Kerensky established himself as head of government. But even after Kornilov was arrested, the armed forces he had rounded up managed to keep their moral high, without being disbanded, and posed a serious threat to the government. The chaos that came from this affair caused Kerensky’s support to diminish and expedite the Bolshevik seizure of power.


Kornilov Affair

Russia: A History, Gregory L. Freeze

Bloody Sunday

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a period of public unrest and opposition against the Government following the combination of many social and economic issues. One of which was labor issues following the emancipation of the serfs by the Tsar. A new working class emerged, which primarily consisted of peasants. But this new system of a working class failed to transition smoothly into the Russian infrastructure. Workers found themselves working long hours, for low wages, in dangerous work environments.

A Russian Orthodox Priest by the name of Georgi Gapon worked closely with factory workers and organized assemblies to promote workers’ rights. It is important to note Father Gapon’s “charismatic and sympathetic personality . . . he came to embody all the workers’ conflicting and confusing aspirations, lending them palpable personification at a moment when the workers might otherwise have lacked unity and direction” (Freeze 251).

Father Georgy Gapon (http://welcome-to-poltava.com.ua/file/171279113)

In January of 1905, Father Gapon led a strike to march on Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, with a petition for Tsar Nicholas. The petition demanded higher wages and shorter hours during the work day for laborers. The march was comprised of workers and their families, including women and children, carrying religious crosses and singing Orthodox hymns. The Tsar order military troops to Saint Petersburg in order to suppress the crowd of marchers. When military troops formed a barrier in front of Winter Palace, the crowd refused to stop marching. The troops responded by using force to push the crowd back, and soon, troops opened fire on the crowd of marchers.

Bloody Sunday, Saint Petersburg, Russia (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/The_Russian_Revolution,_1905_Q81561.jpg)

This massacre ordered by the Tsar is known as Bloody Sunday. Hundreds of marchers were killed and injured. Father Gapon managed to escape the conflict and was forced to flee to Europe for safety. This violent response by the Government prompted dozens of violent protests and backlash throughout the country by the general public. This event is considered by many as the start to the Russian Revolution of 1905.


  • http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bloody-sunday-massacre-in-russia
  • Russia: A History (3rd Edition), Gregory L. Freeze