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November 30, 2006

Psychology of a Spy

Fun little piece on what drives people to spy against their own country.

Preserved in the permafrost of the Cold War is a piece of advice given by Pavel Sudoplatov, Stalin’s master spy, to an apprentice agent. Sudoplatov’s career in the Soviet secret service spanned three decades of Stalinism, and few understood better the brutal and complex psychology of spying.

When seeking to recruit a spy, Sudoplatov advised his underling that one should “search for people who are hurt by fate or nature — the ugly, those craving power or influence but defeated by unfavourable circumstances. In co-operation with us, all these find a peculiar compensation. The sense of belonging to an influential, powerful organisation will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them.”


For decades, the KGB operated its spy networks on principles represented by the acronym MICE: money, ideology, compromise (as in blackmail) and ego. By far the most important was ego. Spymasters on both sides of the Iron Curtain awarded their spies exotic codenames, the better to flatter their self-esteem. Ideological belief is a useful attribute in a spy; but belief in one’s own importance is essential.

Alongside the arrogance of the spy lies a remarkable capacity for self-delusion. The espionage world has always drawn people with a tenuous grip on reality: fantasists, paranoiacs, conspiracy theorists, fraudsters and fakers. The British secret service, in particular, seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of people who were at best eccentric, and at worst entirely mad. Yet an overactive imagination is not unique to the British spy.

I think he's referring to actual spies rather than case-officers or spymasters (i.e., CIA or KGB operatives), though the writer of the piece then goes on to apply this idea to Litvinenko, who was actually, I think, just a defector. Not a spy remaining in place to transmit secrets to the west.

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posted by Ace at 08:46 PM

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