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A Picture for a Foreign Intelligence Agent

A veteran of security agencies, Lieutenant- Colonel retired, Volodymyr Yakymenko never parts with a brush.

Talent for drawing has repeatedly helped him find non-standard solutions during fulfillment of intelligence and counter-intelligence tasks abroad, get distracted from the severe routine of army life and work in the intelligence services, overcome life’s adversities. Today, the 70-year old veteran’s painting is the nutrient source that wakes him every day to vibrant life filled with strength, energy, new plans and ideas.

The –Dead-Drop Enclosure for the Intelligence Officer -Infiltrator

Once while serving in the military counterintelligence subunits in the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany,  Yakymenko’s Chief invited him to his office and entrusted with  quite an unusual task:

- You should immediately make a container for the dead-drop which must meet the following requirements: to sink in water, not to get wet, not to contain metal, to be opened with ordinary automotive tools and not to  be of any interest to outsiders in case of its accidental discovery.

The container was intended for a Soviet intelligence officer- infiltrator, who was in one of the European countries. The container had to  house  a large amount of money, 12 envelopes with the return addresses, prepared in advance letters with neutral texts in English, and cryptographic set, with the help of which secret messages would  be written on top of these letters. According to the legend, the dead-drop had to be put into the  river close to the bank in shallow water near the construction site. And it had to stay there for a long time until the intelligence officer at a convenient time removes it. The container itself must be small in size so as not to attract attention and to be easy to hide in  some personal belongings.

- Now, pay attention to the fact – said the Chief – that all this is known only to you, me and the employee who is related to our infiltrator’s activity. You will stay in touch with him.

It was no accident that the choice to fulfill this difficult task fell to Yakymenko. During the first years of service in Potsdam (he had spent seven years there), the young officer proved to be a master of all trades and a comprehensively developed personality. He was well versed in aviation, having graduated from a Naval Aviation School and having served in the Strategic Long- Range Bombardment  Aviation Regiment  based in Uzyn, he painted well, causing excitement by his caricatures and wall newspapers,  was  familiar with many machine-tools  that were in the basement of the office building, and was an unbeatable fisherman and hunter.

Reflecting on the task, Volodymyr went to the warehouse of old German furniture and there he found what he was looking for. It was a thick strong mahogany board. He tested it in water – it did sink. Just what was needed. At the milling machine he cut two parts of a sort of pencil-box. He made another pencil-box of the same shape but slightly smaller in size, of plexiglass. To reduce the size of the bundles of notes, he had put them under pressure for some time. He then gently put all this into the prepared containers, fastening each together with glue of West German make. Having treated the places of gluing of the wood, so that they were not noticeable, he  began making the piece of wood look old and abandoned. He coated it with cement, paint, varnish, made saw cuts on it. Once again he tested it in water. And only then he went to report.

Six months later, when Yakymenko had already forgotten about the case, the Chief called and said that the dead-drop operation had been successful, and for the assistance in conducting intelligence activities he was awarded a valuable gift – transistor radio “Etude”.

As the memory of that operation, Volodymyr Stepanovych still keeps the old radio and the figurine of an African woman he carved from a piece of mahogany. It was his first attempt of woodcarving. And one of his latest works – the image of the famous “Antelope-Gnu” with Ilf and Petrov’s characters, was exhibited during the Republican exhibition at the Artists’ House. Besides, he hand-carves the frames for almost all his pictures.

- In average it took 4 days to make a frame – recalls Yakymenko. – All in all I have made 90. Seems I have spent a year of my life on making frames.

A Still Life with a “Bug”

While in the German Democratic Republic, Volodymyr Yakymenko painted in oil a series of works. They depict scenes of hunting, fishing, urban landscapes. Usually the themes would come to him according to the mood and perfectly reflected his inner state. But there were works made to order.

At some point the unit in which he served, was developing  a man who was suspected of involvement in the net of agents  of a foreign intelligence service. To document his illegal actions, the leadership decided to equip his house with special equipment, in other words – with a “bug”. Thinking this combination over, it was agreed that it was best to time this to coincide with his birthday, which was approaching, and to build in the device into the frame. In parallel,  they were thinking how to  quietly take the equipment away when the power runs out.

- I offered to nest the “bug” into the canvas-stretcher – says Volodymyr  Yakymenko – and through our person from the  inner circle of the suspected to  give the gift. For this I had to make two absolutely identical pictures with the same frames and stretchers. This work seemed quite funny and interesting. The pictures were being  painted simultaneously: a brushstroke was placed on the first canvas and then in the same paint it was repeated  on the other. When the works were put together, my colleagues could not find a slightest difference between them.

The rest, as they say, was a matter of technique and operational art.

The Meeting with Abel

Among Yakymenko’s portrait works there is a picture of the Soviet intelligence officer Abel against the background of a bookcase. The author gave this  portrait to  the Veteran Organization of employees of state security “Shield”, a member of the council  of which he is today. In the  portrait the legendary intelligence officer –infiltrator looks not quite the way we are used to see him in photographs – lean and with sharp facial features. Here he  is older and has a more fleshy face. Yakymenko saw him shortly before his death.

- I happened to meet him in Moscow on Kuznetskiy Bridge near Lubyanka, – says Volodymyr Stepanovych. – He was wearing glasses and was dressed in a long light raincoat. In his hands he was holding a package with a narrow baguette, of which at home he would make  small frames for his graphic works.

They recognized  each other and talked for about 15-20 minutes, remembered their first meeting in Potsdam in 1969, when, at the order of the leadership, Yakymenko as the guide accompanied Abel around the city,  showing memorable places and taking photographs. During the  intelligence officer’s  meeting with staff management, he and one colleague,  managed to develop the film, print photos, sign them and beautifully place them into the album. Abel was pleasantly surprised by this operational capability. In memory of that meeting in his home archive Yakymenko keeps some black and white photos.

Listening to Volodymyr Stepanovych’s memories and comments about R. Abel, one  instinctively feels that his words are not just a deep respect for the legendary intelligence officer. There is something else to it, perhaps, some sort of kinship of souls. Not by chance, talking about him, Yakymenko quoted Senis de Gramont from his book “Secret War”: “Abel is an exceptional personality. He is well versed in science and arts. He is a great graphic artist, a first-class musician, photographer, linguist, translator, a distinguished mathematician, physicist, chemist. For fun he read Einstein, solved mathematical problems, was a good carpenter, made bookshelves, tables for friends – in a word, he is a man for all seasons”.

The Book about the Work in the Special Service

Volodymyr Yakymenko’s small one room flat looks like a storage of an art museum. On all the walls from floor to ceiling there are his paintings. On one table there is an  incomplete copy of one of his works made in Paris on the banks of the Seine. It is called: “Love on the Seine”.

- An acquaintance liked it,- says the host, – so I am making  a copy.

Many of his works remained abroad in private collections. Having retired from service, he, working in private banking security structures,  found time to travel to Austria, Italy, Turkey, France and other countries at invitations of his friends and acquaintances. He painted a lot there, bringing some works  to Kyiv, and selling others to somehow pay off for the trips. In times of hardships he would  work abroad decorating all sorts of institutions and doing other jobs. He can build houses, make roofs, do various carpentry, lay flooring, work with metal. At the time, he independently designed devices that ensured special services employees’ safety when checking different things for  presence of explosives, made many other necessary things that helped in work. No wonder they called him a master with “golden hands”.

Volodymyr Stepanovych has  written  a book of memories about his work in the Special Service, which he is currently preparing for publication and wants to illustrate with his  pieces of arts. He does not consider himself an artist, as he has never graduated from  any special educational institutions, is not a member of creative unions. To him, this is a kind of hobby, which he has carried through his life. “I paint for myself, for my soul – says Yakymenko – I don’t show my works in Andriyivskyi Uzviz,   the only exhibitions I made were those in  the Security Service of Ukraine, in the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, in the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and in a number of other institutions.” But  he has a lot of creative ideas and plans … So we hope, entire  life is ahead of him.


Olexandr Skrypnyk,


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