Top secret missions, double lives, constant danger of being uncovered – living a life of a professional spy is the closest you can get to living a real-life action movie. These are 5 Slavic men and women who made the headlines for being secret sources of information behind some of the most complicated international affairs of modern history.
Although, of course, one might argue that the best of spies were probably those, who were never uncovered…
1. Pavel Sudoplatov
Sudoplatov was Ukrainian national working for Soviet intelligence for more than three decades. He was involved in some of the most famous episodes in the world history of espionage, but his first mission was nothing more and nothing less than assassination of Ukrainian nationalist leader Yevhen Konovalets. Sudoplatov murdered his target by giving him a box of chocolates containing a bomb and the order came directly from Joseph Stalin. After this “initiation”, he was ordered to assassinate another “enemy of the party” – Marxist revolutionary and politician Leon Trotsky. During the WWII Sudoplatov focused mainly on backing up Soviet guerilla and sabotage activities but from 1944, he was installed a head of new intelligence department – Department S. It´s goal was clear – to aid and secure the Soviet atomic bomb project. Later, in his bestselling memoir, Sudoplatov bragged about being the one who personally arranged theft of atomic secrets from the United States, but this was questioned and even openly denied by representatives of both involved sides. Thought he have mastered an awful fate for many comrades, he had his share of bitterness as well. In 1953 he became a persona non grata along his long-term collaborator Lavrentiy Beria and he had to serve full term off 15 years for his crimes. To save himself from being executed with Beria, he even pretended madness. During the Glasnost era after the fall of USSR, Sudoplatov was rehabilitated and wrote his famous memoir Special Tasks, where he admitted deep disappointment of how he was treated by the country, for which he sacrificed so much. He died in 1996 in the age of 89 years.
2. Halina Szymanska
Halina Szymanska was wife of the last prewar Polish military attaché in Berlin – and also one of the most effective and productive agents of British MI6. This inconspicuously looking lady in her late thirties was recruited by the Allied secret intelligence services in Bern, Switzerland, where she emigrated with her family from the occupied Poland. Through the network of Polish officers, she´s been connected to the Britich intelligence. Szymanska’s mission was to provide a conduit of information between the Allies and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence organization known as Abwehr. As her diplomatic passport later revealed, the two were regularly meeting on discreet rendezvous´ in Italy where they exchanged many crucial information. Her role was indeed very important – in fact, she was a middleman between Allies and the Schwarze Kapelle – German anti-Nazi conspirators. She was personally responsible for informing Allies about the Nazi plans to attack France and Benelux in 1940, and later, in 1941, even Soviet Union. In spite of living a high-risk lifestyle during the most dangerous years of modern European history, Halina Szymanska was never uncovered and when the war was finally over, she continued living her happy family life in the Great Britain.
3. Dušan Popov
Did you know that the real-life James Bond was born in Serbia? His name was Duško Popov and he was living an extravagant life of a playboy double-agent serving for the MI6, MI5, German Abwehr and even American FBI during the WWII. Popov was sharp, smart and very charismatic man who had a doctorate of law and was a very talented gambler and also bright in trade and economics. This predicted him to succeed in many complicated tasks he was assigned for by various parties – steeling Nazi money for Britons, constructing spy network in the US for Germans, spying on Germans and Japanese for Americans. Arguably, the most crucial information he ever came across was concerning the Nazis preparation of the notorious attack on Pearl Harbor. He warned FBI´s Edgar J. Hoover about it but the stubborn intelligence boss disliked Popov so much that he decided to ignore him. Hoover was covering up the biggest mistake of his career for the rest of his life but Britons eventually uncovered and declassified documents proving Popov´s warning in 1972. In 1981 Popov´s hedonistic lifestyle of chain-smoking and heavy drinking had its toll – he died in France at the age of 69. However, his legacy will probably live forever – or at least as long as will live the most beloved fictional spy of all times- James Bond. Ian Flemming was inspired to create this character by no one else than Dušan Popov.
4. Václav Jelínek
Though being born near Prague as Václav Jelínek, this cold-war era Czechoslovak spy lived for decades under the name Erwin von Haarlem. Instead of choosing a completely false name, this communist spy stole identity of a missing person, who was born to Dutch-Jewish woman after being raped by Nazi soldier and later disappeared without a trace. Jelínek was recruited by the infamous Czechoslovak secret police STB and moved to London in June 1975, using a Dutch passport, illicitly obtained in van Haarlem’s name. He was working at the Hilton Hotel restaurant and spied on the United Kingdom and United States, for the STB and its Russia counterpart KGB. The hardest part of his service came in 1977 when Jelínek was contacted by Johanna von Haarlem – mother of real Erwin von Haarlem , who was convinced she finally found her long-gone son. Jelínek was ordered by his supervisors to play his role and even went to visit “his” family in Netherlands. As a result of this fraud, poor Johanna was not reunited with her real son until February 1992, when he was finally genuinely located. By then, Václav Jelínek was already serving his ten years sentence for espionage in British prison. He even missed the Velvet Revolution – overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia in November 1989. Nevertheless, Václav Jelínek returned to his homeland after being released from the prison and currently lives somewhere in Prague, enjoying his pension…
5. Anna Chapman
On 27 June 2010, Anna Vasilyevna Chapman (born Kushchyenko) was arrested in New York City along with nine other Russians on suspicion of working for the infamous spy ring known as “Illegals Program”. Then 28-years old daughter of high-ranking KGB official was exposed by Russian intelligence officer Aleksandr Poteyev (who was later convicted of treason in absence by Russians) and she pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. However, Chapman and others are not believed to be of any real use to the Mother Russia before their arrest. They were, most probably, acting as sleeping cells, waiting to be assigned to some actual mission. Chapman was deported from the US on 8 July 2010, as part of a prisoner swap deal – and only then she became really busy! Realizing her youth, beauty and controversial, yet attractive reputation, Chapman became an A-list celebrity in Russia. As a recoupment, she was appointed to the public council of Youth Guard of United Russia. She became writing columns for newspapers, and even hosted her own TV show called Secrets of the world. She is also occasionally modeling – mostly at the sexy photoshoots. In July 2013 Chapman gained worldwide media attention again – by publicly asking American whistleblower Edward Snowden to marry her. Obviously, he didn´t…