Ex-spies: Undercover life not as dramatic as 'The Americans'

By Kseniya Kirillova
Stars of the TV drama "The Americans," Keri Russell (L) and Matthew Rhys arrive for the Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles last September. The new season premieres Tuesday on FX. File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
Stars of the TV drama "The Americans," Keri Russell (L) and Matthew Rhys arrive for the Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles last September. The new season premieres Tuesday on FX. File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo

March 6 (UPI) -- The Americans, a captivating Cold War story about two KGB agents posing as a normal American family, kicks off for its fifth and penultimate season on Tuesday.

Series creator Joe Weisburg is a former CIA officer who often has said that this program not only presents a dynamic image of espionage, but is also a drama about the complicated relationship between the agents, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), and their unsuspecting children.


The human relationships in the spy saga are dramatically and realistically depicted. As for the depiction of the work of agents, veteran intelligence operatives say the series' fictional depiction is very far from reality.

Christopher Lynch, who consulted on several seasons of The Americans, said, "Regardless of great attention to detail by the creators of the series, there are many errors large and small. Of course, the creators study such things as the pop culture of the period – they even watched old TV shows, studied the music, the fashions, 1980s interior decoration. On one of their podcasts they talked about how they conducted research to find out what local power company ID cards looked like at the time, which the illegals used as part of their disguise. I couldn't help but notice that the FBI ID badges they show in every episode have no resemblance to the real ones – and I've described the real ones to them."


Lynch began his career in 1976 as an FBI counterintelligence analyst specializing in the Soviet Union and in 1985 transferred to the CIA – again in the role of a "Soviet" analyst. He says the show takes dramatic license with the agents' work as "illegals" pretending to be Americans.

"In truth, an actual illegal might have only a few tasks a year — the ones on the show do more than that in a typical day. And the sex and violence is way out of line with reality, but a show that has illegals doing nothing day after day isn't going to attract much of an audience. The main characters are more serial killers than intelligence operatives, and yet the number of dead bodies they leave behind doesn't seem to draw any attention. Real illegals don't do anything that requires them to wear wigs, either, since illegals tend to avoid contacts that would draw attention, rather than seek them out.

"There are also some fundamental problems with how they portray the KGB rezidentura. It looks like a plush men's' club, when actually they are bare bones, so that no bugs could be planted in them without being seen. And there were no female KGB officers posted abroad back then. Of course, the show would be pretty dull without them."


Lynch points to certain instances in the series that took place in real life, but they were onetime events and are in no way "normal."

"For instance, they were big on saying the Martha stories, where an illegal married her for her access, was a common occurrence. They even said that this happened all over Europe, and even inside the USA. In reality, this happened a grand total of once. An East German citizen married a West German – not even a Russian. They tried it a couple of other times, but an actual marriage only happened once. The same is true for the majority of sexual entrapments. While they were common inside the USSR, but only rarely were conducted in hostile operating territory. In the series, such things happened regularly in the USA," Lynch said.

Another former spy, known by his American alias Jack Barsky, participated in an episode in a previous season. Born a citizen of East Germany, Albrecht Dittrich, he arrived in the United States in 1976 as a KGB spy. Dittrich lived in the United States for almost 20 years on false documents, much like the show's fictional couple. For 12 years, he led a double life, divided between two countries and two families, neither of which suspected the existence of the other.


In 1986, when he was ordered to return to Germany, he decided to stay in the United States. Jack Barsky had lived in the United States for 11 years as a normal, law-abiding citizen, when in May 1997 he was detained by the FBI. The most amazing thing about Barsky's story is that he did not spend a single day in jail and even won American citizenship – this time legally, following many years of working with authorities.

Not long ago, Barsky participated in filming of The Americans as an extra and was impressed by the attention shown to the smallest detail.

"For the shoot, there was an entire rack of 1984-style clothes. An entire block in Brooklyn was barred to traffic. Vintage cars were parked along the side and even into the two crossroads to make the scene realistic. This was as unexciting scene as it can get: One of the Russian actresses left a dry-cleaning store and walked down the street. About 15 seconds into the walk, a car opens up in front of her and another lady shows up. They have a brief exchange in Russian, and that was it," Barsky recalled.

Shooting that short scene took almost two and a half hours.


"During the first dozen takes, there was always something wrong: a cloud covered the sun; one of the extras walked onto the scene too soon; the two main actresses did not meet on cue; one of the extras had a cellphone sticking out of his pocket; a fire engine passed nearby, etc. etc. It was rather boring and reminded me of my own undercover existence: 99 percent waiting and 1 percet action," he said.

Barsky said the show's creators were careful to replicate the style of 1980s, from the clunky early personal computer to the telephones and phone books.

But they know much of the drama depicted in the show is fictional.

"Of course, the creators know that this is not real,'' Barsky said. "After all Joe Weisberg spent some time in the CIA. What this show does get right is the psychology of being undercover in enemy territory and the conflict that evolves with the fact that you start embracing the society that you have gotten used to and that you are supposed to help destroy. Obviously, that particular aspect of the show I find very edifying and in many ways paralleling what I went through during my 10-year undercover stint. The rest of the show moves along at a fast clip, and all in all I find this to be one of the best cinematic renditions of a spy's life."


Season 5 of The Americans premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX.

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