Push and hold

Her unusual fate of an intelligence agent

Svitlana and Jean spent the new 1973 year in the two-bedroom apartment in Berezniaky in Kyiv, which they had received as a kind of payment for their hard work and deprivation experienced abroad.

During a recent meeting with the chiefs of the Foreign Intelligence Service in Moscow, one of the generals asked them directly: “What would you like to have for your work?”- “We’d like to have an apartment in Kyiv on the banks of the Dnieper River or the lake”, – asked Svitlana, as Kyiv was her home town, where her parents, relatives and acquaintances lived. Their request was acceded immediately. So a new life for the former deep-cover agents, their two twin girls and two-year Masha, who was born in England, began…

“A fortuitous meeting”

While still being a fifth year student at the Institute of Foreign Languages somehow in the hallway Svitlana met an intelligent solid person in a suit and tie who came up to her, introduced himself as a foreign intelligence officer and asked her to talk about her future work. Then there were another meeting and another, and another … In the end, Svitlana, in consultation with her parents and experienced her dad’s blessing, – he was a professional soldier and the key authoritative source of guidance to her, – she agreed to work in intelligence. But she was not told in particular what she would be working on. They just said her: she had to concentrate all her efforts on the successful graduation, exams, defend of graduation thesis, improvement of speaking practice, and then they would talk on the rest separately. Once, on the New Year’s disco, she met a fellow who just wormed his way into her heart. At first glance, no great shucks for looks: a low growth of about one meter and sixty, perhaps even below it, but something betrayed his inner strength, interesting personality, furious energy and a certain mystique. And he had an unusual romantic name – Jean.

Jean said her he was a graduate student at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. No French blood flowed in his veins. He was born in the Dnipropetrovsk region, and for some reason his parents, who liked this name, gave him the name of Jean. At the time they met, he intensively studied the German language. After all, it pulled them together still more. Svitlana even took patronage over him and for fun forced him to speak only in German during some dates.

Jean had held in thrall not only Svitlana, but all her relatives. He had been quite knowledgeable and educated, – at the time he had already successfully graduated from Mykolaiv Shipbuilding Institute. In addition, all had been pleasantly surprised by the fact that he was seriously involved in sports, where he gave a good account of himself. Jean was a champion of Ukraine in yachting sport, he had a lot of medals and cups. But no one knew, including Svitlana, that at that time he had been also a career officer of the First Main Directorate (intelligence) of the KGB of the USSR and held intensive training to work abroad as a sleeper agent. He was not a graduate student. It was a legend for unauthorized persons in order not to reveal his true self. His postgraduate student’s certificate was a fake as well. But his name and his feelings for Svetlana were true.

At that stage of Jean Didenko’s preparation to work abroad, there was a situation when he needed a pair. Jean was forbidden to marry the girl he loved. She had been ill with tuberculosis, so it was out of the question to prepare her for a job abroad together with Jean. Though he was very upset because of this, but objectively understood that such were the realities of his profession, and he could not escape them. The personnel officers initially warn everyone that such situations may occur.

It was necessary to look for another option. And later this option was found … by Jean’s and Svitlana’s curators. They had designed combination so carefully, that Jean’s and Svitlana’s acquaintance at a party seemed quite ordinary. In general, in intelligence everything is thought out and provided for in detail. And they are doing everything in order it looks natural. So it was that time.


They got married in August, 1962. The honeymoon passed too quickly, and everyday lucubration, new experiences, discoveries and new emotions began for Svitlana. According to legend, under which they had to live and work abroad for a few years, she was the German, a native of Berlin, and he was the Austrian. A few months of hard work were spent on improving the German language, the study of the history of the “native” land, its customs, just memorizing a new bloodline. For some time she even had to leave for the German Democratic Republic to consolidate in practice all the knowledge which she had still mastered theoretically.

But suddenly they had to make adjustments to the legend. Before the infiltration, while undergoing an enhanced health check, Svitlana’s heart disease had been revealed. Jean had to go alone, and she had been left for treatment. “Do not worry, we‘ll quickly cure you of an illness”, – the doctors soothed her, trying to distract from the gloomy thoughts. The thoughts were tumbling in her brain and did not leave her, neither in the daytime nor during the night. Romance of intelligence work abroad, which Svitlana did not have time to be struck really, had failed once again. For the first time it happened when during the training the curators learned about her pregnancy.

- You know, – their training manager, for whom this news was unexpected and was not a part of the well thought-out plans, began to beat about the bush and tried to explain delicately, – in this situation we can not send you abroad. You’ll have a child to maintain. This will cause enormous difficulties in the work. Neither you, nor your husband will be able to be fully productive. As a matter of fact, the first stage of settling down abroad is the most difficult for an intelligence agent. You are vested significant functions in the illegal work. And in general, do you have any idea how to give birth abroad?

- As the next woman, – Svitlana said involuntarily.

- Indeed, you really do not understand what problems it is connected with, – the chief was banged up about it, choosing the right words and arguments. He had tried to convince her for a long time, and at the same time he was afraid to cut to chase: “What to do in this situation? What could be the solution?”

- Well, I get the message, – suddenly Svitlana said firmly, – allow me to take my leave.

The following day, she had an abortion. Later, she had repeatedly regretted it, because she could not bear a child abroad. Later, for a long time, she could not get pregnant at all. Only in England she managed to give birth to a daughter.

There were a few years of hard life, full of events and experiences, between those events. Finally, the treatment was left behind, and she received permission to leave. The meeting with her husband in Denmark was unforgettable. Under the control of the Soviet intelligence “station“, their wedding was held there – in fact, one more in their life, but according to legend. The feeling was the same, as it was then, for the first time, in Kyiv. And there was the same stormy emotional honeymoon. Then there were two years in Switzerland. There she was able to obtain the financial and economic education, and even to take up a position as a secretary-stenographer in one of the foreign diplomatic missions in order to gather intelligence information.

Finally, there was a long-awaited move to England. This was the main reason, why they had been preparing for a long time and burnishing legend in the intermediate countries. They rented a small apartment near the naval unit. Jean got employment as a draftsman in one of the firms associated with shipbuilding. This circumstance, as well as good training at the Mykolaiv Shipbuilding Institute, rollout at the military shipyards and operational work at the Mykolaiv department of the KGB gave him the opportunity to strike up an acquaintance with someone who was involved in the construction and operation of the British Royal Navy easily and reasonably. His sources of information did not occupy high positions, but still provided information, which together with the materials obtained by the Soviet intelligence, gave a complete picture of the important shipbuilding and naval plans of one of the key NATO countries.

In tatters

Svitlana’s first labour in an English hospital was obstructed. In the end, she had a cesarean section. When she had regained consciousness on a drip and began to feel the joy of motherhood, she somehow really wanted to keep with someone to native language, to let off steam. But that could not be done even alone. This was one of the taboo for the sleeper agent. At that time, happy Jean with flowers had arrived. She was afraid, that some phrase in Russian would slip out spontaneously.- Okay, get away, – she said the surprised man after a while. – I want to be alone.

Since she gave birth to a daughter and then saw it for herself that she was pregnant again, Svitlana felt, that there had been changes in herself, in her character, in her attitude to her job. She began to think more about the fate of the child, her husband, their security and future. Probably, an absolutely normal survival instinct, which played a particularly important role for the sleeper agent, had been manifested. Her feelings, perceptions, suspicions had sharpened. And probably, it was not for nothing, that at that moment her female intuition helped her to catch and realize that there was something wrong with her husband.

All that time Jean had been working strenuously. Actually, he temporarily took upon himself all functions of his wife. The Center put more and more new tasks, the performance of which needed other ways of obtaining information and involvement of the new sources. The consequences of spy scandals, which had taken a strong grip in the British newspapers, had an impact on him. Soviet station employee Oleg Lalin’s treachery subsequently caused the expulsion of 105 diplomats to the Soviet Union on suspicion of involvement in espionage activities. The atmosphere of suspicion reigned in the society and the police regime became more severe. Each meeting with the English held by Jean, was accompanied by a huge nervous and psychological stress. Some failures added nervousness in the work as well.

At a certain point, as a result of those factors, it seemed to Jean that he was under surveillance. His debris imagination excited by stress and insomnia painted him a dismal picture. Fear for the fate of his pregnant wife and little daughter added dark colors to it. In case of failure it could become those weaknesses, which would be   played off by counterintelligence. His did not share thoughts and concerns with his wife and kept them inside. Although Svitlana tried to distract him, to calm, to maintain an atmosphere of goodwill and optimism, the process had been constantly developing and deepening. And finally it had manifested itself in an unexpected way.

- Madam, you have to come to the police station urgently, – once she heard a harsh official voice on the phone, – we have your husband here. We are waiting for you.

Svitlana’s heart ceased to beat for a moment, and then it speeded up furiously. “Jean was detained. Why? What do they know about their work and why did they call, and why did not come to the apartment with a search warrant? Something does not piece on to the facts,” – such thoughts swirled through her mind when she almost ran to the police station holding Masha. Jean’s eyes were the very first thing she saw. With unnaturally enlarged pupils, which were constantly running around, they were far-out and strange.

- Your husband said that he was a Soviet spy and came to turn in to the police, – said the constable, slyly glancing at Jean.

- He is no more the spy than I’m the queen of England, – Svitlana responded immediately. – Didn’t he tell you that he had come on a mission to steal a top-secret submarine? He did a number on our neighbor’s head that he already had a plan of stealing it, and he certainly would ride her on that boat.

Svitlana let loose quite a string so fast and easy, that the constable unwittingly smiled through his mustache, and said more seriously and sympathetically, glancing at her noticeably bulging belly:

- Take him home.

Now she finally realized, that Jean had mental disorder and that she needed to take some drastic measures. There was not time to inform the Centre and to await instructions. Nobody knows what Jean had told the police or anywhere at work in a circle of friends, or what to await from him in such a state tomorrow. It was possible that after that incident they could set up a watch after him. Was it already set up? She could not apply for protection to the Soviet embassy. They would be figured out with all the negative consequences. That would not be done under any circumstances.

At home, she gave her husband a double dose of sedative. After he fell asleep, he took out from the hiding places all means of intelligence activities – a microdots device, secret writings, codes, ciphers, descriptions of the hiding places, etc. Part of that she had destroyed at once, the rest had been securely wrapped and buried. Then she had written a letter to the false address, which informed the Centre in a predetermined shape about the danger. From the hiding place in the brush for clothes she pulled out the so-called emergency money. It was money which the sleeper agents kept for such emergencies. And then she made three calls. The first – to her husband’s job saying that he was ill and put in hospital. The second – to an apartment owner, warning that the whole family went on vacation. The third – to the airport with a request to book tickets for the evening flight to … Of the few evening flights Svitlana chose Cairo.

Having released Svitlana with her “husband-spy”, the constable several times mocked at them while telling the story his colleagues and friends. And at the end of the day, he had still recorded on this episode in the daily report of the emergencies. The next day, the report, like hundreds of others like it, came to the central office at Scotland Yard. After processing in different departments, later it found its way to the table of the analyst from the Special Division. His job was to pay special attention to unusual arrests, suspicious behavior of persons in detention, actions and behavior of foreigners, which could pose a threat to the national security, signals of the excessive interest of the citizens to the sensitive information and closed entities, and a host of other things. That instruction was given after the mass expulsion of the Soviet diplomats.

Being made aware of the information about the arrival to the police station a person with the symptoms of a mental disorder, who had recognized himself to be a spy, an analyst put a big question mark near his name. The next day, the chiefs of the Special Department had sent a request to the police station with the requirement to provide detailed information about Jean. The bureaucratic machine started to work meticulously, filling the folder with more new information. But there was not a single lead. The only alarming thing was the absence of the suspects themselves. According to the neighbors, they went to rest and recover. On the other hand, in a situation with this disease it looked quite normal.

Being about to put an end to this case, which lasted for several weeks, the chief of the Special Department for reinsurance had contacted the representatives of MI5 (counterintelligence) and asked to look at the photos of Jean and Svitlana. The MI5’s employees, in their turn, showed photographs to Oleg Lyalin and Oleg Gordievsky – the Soviet intelligence officers who became defectors. The result was stunning: a married couple of the sleeper agents was recognized.

Immediately all the police and counter-intelligence were dragged out of the hay. The search engine was up and running at full capacity and quickly cranked out the information: the aforementioned persons had left England. The search had to be continued in Egypt.

The return

Meanwhile, Jean was in one of Cairo’s clinics. Only Svitlana knew how much effort she had put to persuade him to go for treatment. Jean would not recognize his illness, he was angry, nervous, even blamed the wife for all the failures. Only her patience, softness, flexibility, female cunning and boundless love for Jean, which she had carried throughout all her life, allowed her to gain an advantage over her husband’s strong-willed, stubborn nature. Svitlana was in a hurry, knowing that the British counterintelligence could search them. The rapid treatment had brought only minor changes. Doctors told frankly, that the disease could occur unexpectedly and it could take a long time. Serious examination, significant resources and a lot of patience were needed. He could get it only at home. But they still got to get there.

Sometimes it seemed to her that she would not stand all the stress which so unexpectedly had lighted upon her. Svitlana was already seven months pregnant and she needed rest and care herself. But she knew no rest. Somehow Jean, whom she took away from the hospital, in a hotel room in the presence of the porter had suffered a mental attack again. He began screaming in Russian, that he was a Soviet spy. It was a good thing, that the porter bleed for Svitlana and, apparently, even was heartset on her. After all, he came to her and said:

- According to our laws, I should notify the police of what I have heard. But I feel that you don’t do anything bad to my country and that you are here temporarily. I see that you have a serious problem, so I will not say anything to anyone.

It made the cup run over, and Svitlana decided to stop treatment of her husband and bought the tickets to Bulgaria. But the fate had to throw her one more ordeal. In the process of packing things and calculating for the hotel at the last moment she noticed that her husband and her daughter had disappeared. There were two or three hours prior to the flight departure, but they had not been around. She would not notify the police indeed. Svitlana desperately ran round the hotel and was close to hysteria, but she controlled herself as much as she could. When all deadlines have passed, the plane flew without them, and the tickets were gone, the familiar doorman found Jean sleeping beside her daughter on one of the sofas.

Nevertheless, they departed from Egypt on the next flight. They did it quite in time. Because a day later, the British Intelligence representatives arrived in Cairo. In Bulgaria, Svitlana, already openly, went to the Soviet Embassy, and later they were met by their colleagues in Moscow. Two months later she gave birth to twin daughters. After treatment her husband retired from the service on health grounds in the rank of lieutenant colonel and headed the department of translations of the Scientific and Technical Information Center in Kyiv.


For some time Svitlana Dmytrivna Didenko was attracted to language training of the future sleeper agents. Later, she worked as an editor of the German version of the Ukrainian radio broadcasting abroad, travelled abroad as an interpreter with the various delegations, to the last days of her life he taught German language at the Goethe Institute.

- We first learned about the fact, that formerly our parents had been intelligence agents, in upper school – tell her daughters Maria and Antonina. – At first, we just could not believe it. How is that possible? Our mom, so fragile, modest, home-and relaxing in nature, and suddenly she had been a secret agent? (We know a lot less about our father, he died in 1978). There were no documents to prove it. Even in the workbook our father’s work during his stay abroad was recorded as work in some closed institution – “mailbox number”. And concerning the father’s pension certificate, where he was registered as a lieutenant colonel of the KGB, Mom explained that he worked at a military defense plant. Only a few remaining pictures made abroad and her fluency in German and English gave credibility to her words. We were overwhelmed with the mixed feelings of confusion, astonishment, pride and respect. However, our mother strictly asked us not to tell it anyone. And she herself did not tell anything about her work in intelligence her own colleagues in higher education institutions.

Only from her fragmentary memories we knew the incredible and bizarre episodes of the last stage of their foreign “Odyssey.” Somehow it seems to be an unreal dream until now. But as a matter of fact, it was in reality.


Oleksandr Skrypnyk

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