The Kremlin claims it had a “superspy” who posed as an artist and stole secrets from the White House, FBI, CIA, and NATO during a 32-year career that earned him the designation of “Hero of Russia.”
Yuri Shevchenko was an undercover operative in Europe and the United States between 1969 and 2001, a period that included the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The details of his career were revealed by the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, as it announced his death at the age of 82 last Friday.
Shevchenko was first revealed as a spy when the SVR declassified some information about intelligence officers last January.
During his decades-long espionage career, Shevchenko pilfered about 300 volumes of top-secret information from NATO — considered at the highest “cosmic” level of classification — and passed them along to other Russian operatives, the service reported.
He said he had been assigned to control espionage operations in the West, involving presidential administrations, the CIA, FBI, State Department, and NATO headquarters.
Shevchenko said he was aided by his “ability to win friends, sincere friends who help you” in accessing government secrets, the Sun reported.
He said they were unaware they were helping a Soviet spy.
“They did not help the Soviet Union. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. This is the strength of illegal intelligence,” Shevchenko said.
Shevchenko, a former colonel who retired in 2010, has been honored for his exploits with a portrait in the SVR’s headquarters as well as numerous medals and titles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presented him the “Hero of Russia” award three years ago.
“Illegal intelligence is not a fight of a knight, a cloak and a dagger, there is never a James Bond. If shooting starts, reconnaissance ends. Intelligence is a war of the minds. And here you need to have such willpower to survive,” the SVR quoted Shevchenko as saying in its report of his death.
“They say this service requires self-sacrifice. Giving your life is not the most difficult, honest word. But to be without the Motherland for many years, to be a different person, it is very difficult,” he added.
Alexander Bondarenko, who has written extensively about Russian intelligence, described how Shevchenko would fully disguise himself as a French artist and architect.
“And he was, by the way, a very good artist. And under this cover he met many people, he had a wide circle of acquaintances, which allowed him to solve the most serious problems. Yuri … had enchanting charisma, any person at the moment fell under his charm,” Bondarenko told the Russian state-run RIA Novosti.
In an interview in September with Russian outlet TV Vesti, Shevchenko explained how he managed to evade detection.
“There was a moment when all the counterintelligence services of the world were looking for me, and then I said to myself: I need to change my appearance,” he said in the interview.
“I was different. The one they knew is gone. It was a man with curls, shoulder-length black hair, a bohemian, an artist, a completely different person. Now they don’t recognize me,” he continued.
Shevchenko attended the Moscow Architectural Institute with honors and received the Stalin Prize. Upon graduation, he dreamed of “painting houses and palaces” until he met Yuri Drozdov, deputy chairman of the KGB, in the 1960s, and his life changed.
“I knew that the main thing was not to build magnificent palaces and monuments,” he said, according to the Sun.
“It is important that they stand. So that they stay. So that our people who are my close ones, and not close ones, my Motherland should live in peace.”