The Americans season finale, like the entire season that preceded it, was excellent. Literally everything in this post will be a spoiler about the finale. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
One of the big twists of the night was the reveal that the KGB wants to recruit “second generation illegals,” a.k.a., the American-born-and-raised spawn of these undercover Soviet spies. Margo Martindale, who is welcome in all of the TV shows as far as I am concerned, returns as Claudia to give Phillip and Elizabeth the news. Emmett and Leanne’s killer turned out to be their teenage son, who was being sweet talked into service by the young, pretty handler, Kate. (In case you’re wondering just how unforgiving the world of The Americans can be, everyone in that last sentence is dead now.) Paige is next on Mother Russia’s list, whether or not Mother Elizabeth is on board. “She belongs to the cause,” Claudia says.
Intriguing! But is it historically accurate?
The Americans has plenty of Cold War cred; creator and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. But while I am 100% on board with this plot twist for entertainment purposes, it did not strike me as a realistic development. Wouldn’t it be too big a risk, to reveal two highly valuable agents to an American kid who has no idea Mom and Dad are spies? Aren’t the odds of Paige spilling her guts to Pastor Lucky-To-Be-Alive (Phillip’s black gloves will probably haunt him until he dies) too high for Russia to even consider this a viable option?
For answers, I called up Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University and author of a number of books on American Communism and Soviet espionage, including Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. Klehr is “familiar” with the show but hasn’t watched season two. (His tweet-length review of season one: “I thought parts of it were good, other parts were improbable.”) Fortunately for him, I do a great “let me tell you all the vital exposition while blood is erupting out of my neck like some kind of jugular-volcano,” so he got all caught up for this story.
As far as Klehr knows, “There are two cases where the KGB — which had different names at different times — recruited, or tried to recruit, the children of people that were actually spying for them. Now in both of those cases, the people involved were not illegals.” Illegals are people like Phillip and Elizabeth: a Soviet citizen who infiltrated the United States under a false identity. This is a super easy thing to do and everyone should try it! No, obviously, “it’s very, very, very risky, of course. Because these people, if they’re caught, they’re toast.”
So the Soviets used both a legal station and an illegal station. A legal station would be if, for instance, the KGB assigned an officer to supervise Soviet espionage in the States, and that officer “would be somebody that had an official diplomatic position at a Soviet embassy or the Consulate…Formally, he’d have this job — say, the second secretary for cultural affairs — and he would be a Soviet diplomat, [but] his real job would be to supervise the Soviet espionage.”
Good news for the legal station: “If these guys were ever caught spying, they had diplomatic immunity and typically they would be expelled.” This went on in the reverse, too; C.I.A. officers from the U.S. would go to the Soviet Union with State Department jobs as covers but really be engaged in espionage.
But illegals were a far riskier proposition, which meant their kids were likely off-limits. Klehr does know of one couple, Alexander and Helen Koral, Americans who worked for the KGB as couriers, whose son, Richard, was recruited by the KGB to become a spy. Iskhak Akhmerov, an illegal living undercover in the U.S., sent reports back to Moscow about Richard in 1945, saying things like “For a long time I have planned to use him for our work in the future” and “Two weeks ago I met with Richard and had a lengthy conversation with him. I explained to him the social and political importance and necessity of helping our cause.” Akhmerov told Richard to transfer from the University of North Carolina to Harvard on the KGB’s dime because, said Khler, “Harvard is more prestigious and you’ll have a better chance to meet people that will be helpful in the future. And if you can’t get into Harvard, go to Columbia instead.”
Richard accepted the offer, but soon after that, another courier named Elizabeth Bentley went to the FBI and defected. She gave up dozens of Soviet agents, including Alexander and Helen Koral. Alexander was withdrawn from the U.S., “and as far as we know… Richard Koral was never again approached. He apparently did not work for the KGB,” said Khler. “So they did recruit the child of somebody that had been working for them for many years, although again, his parents were not illegals.”
“As far as I know historically, I don’t think [the KGB] ever recruited the children of illegals,” he said. “Because they weren’t old enough, [and] there weren’t huge numbers of illegals. It’s a very, very difficult kind of job, and not lots of people are capable of doing it. It’s very expensive to train them, and to send them over with families would be even more dangerous.”
Besides, kids couldn’t be trusted with the kind of intel they’d need to know in order to be recruited in the first place. “That’s the sort of thing you can’t tell children, because they could just give the parents away inadvertently,” said Klehr. “It would just be very, very difficult, I think, to run that kind of operation. That’s not to say it never happened, but I’m not aware of any case where it did.”
On the show, Claudia makes it pretty clear that Phillip and Elizabeth don’t have much say in the matter; if the Center says Paige need to start setting honey traps, there’s nothing the Jennings parents can do about it. But “certainly with American spies, and it may be different with Russian illegals, they couldn’t just order them to do things,” said Klehr. “The KGB files that I’ve gone through and material I’ve seen, in fact, the KGB officers are like social workers and part-time psychiatric social workers, dealing with all the foibles and fears and problems their sources have.”
What about the threat that seems to loom over not just Phillip and Elizabeth but Nina: that at any moment, if they fail to follow orders, they could be killed? Klehr’s understanding is that sort of thing “happened occasionally, but it was not terribly common.” He cited Juliet Stuart Poyntz, an American woman who worked for Soviet intelligence; she “became disillusioned” in the late 1930s and rumors spread that she was going to defect. “And she vanished. She disappeared. And to this day, no one knows exactly what happened to her,” said Klehr. “It’s quite probable that she was kidnapped and murdered by Soviet officers.”
Still, though, Klehr emphasized, that was the exception, not the rule. “It’s not like they had hit squads roaming around the U.S.”