MEETING OLEG - How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)

How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)



The first time I met Oleg Kulikov, my father was also there.

This was early December 2005. The days had gotten shorter. The Christmas lights were already up. The temperatures hadn’t hit freezing yet, but the wind was snapping off the Hudson, and winter was closing in. Just a month earlier, we’d moved the office from Hastings to a larger suite at 145 Palisades Street in Dobbs Ferry, a four-story white stucco riverfront fortress down a steep driveway half a mile from the Dobbs Ferry Metro-North train station. The building had been a naval research facility in World War II and then a Bible factory. Our suite of offices was on the second floor, with picture-window views of anyone who came or went.

Shortly before eleven on a crisp Tuesday morning, I was talking with one of our account managers. The large metal door swung open, and I saw a short middle-aged man step inside.

He didn’t say hello to anyone. He didn’t walk over to us. He didn’t sit on the couch in the reception area. He just stood in front of a large white bookcase filled with sample books that publishers had sent us. We invited visitors to help themselves to one or two if something caught their eye. The man was scanning the titles and mumbling to himself.

I knew immediately he had to be Oleg.

Over the years, half a dozen Russians had come through the business, maybe more. Typically, they served three-year terms at the mission in New York. There had been a lull in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and my parents wondered if they were done with the Russians for good. But after a year or so, fresh Russians returned with the same old requests—books, articles, and research materials they couldn’t find otherwise.

There was Sergei. There was Alexi. There was Ivan. There were a couple of others who made hardly any impression.

Most of what they requested was open-source and seemingly benign. Occasionally, they’d slip in a request for something restricted or otherwise classified as U.S. government secrets. My parents always said no to those, and the Russians never pressed the point.

There had been a couple of creepy incidents over the years.

One Saturday morning, my father and I were at a hobby shop in Dobbs Ferry. I was looking at model airplanes. He looked up and saw two men staring at us from the other side of the store. One of them was Sergei from the Mission.

My father was about to walk over and say hello, then thought better of it. He said nothing. Sergei said nothing. But the Russians’ appearance, so far from their residential compound in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, made one thing obvious: They knew where my parents lived, and they’d noticed my parents’ son.

Another time, my mother noticed a gray sedan driving slowly back and forth in front of their house. No one said anything. No one did anything. But my mother was sure she recognized the driver as a Russian from the Mission.

I had heard my mother and father describe the latest Russian, who had been to the office in Hastings two or three times that summer and fall.

“He’s different from the others,” my mother said.

“Not as sophisticated,” my father agreed. “He has a stronger accent.”

“Not as friendly, not as outgoing,” my mother said. “I liked Alexi. And Tomakhin.”

“Or as educated,” my father added, picking up her thought. “This one doesn’t have anything to say.”

He had none of the charm of the other men from the Russian Mission who’d come by to order books. They seemed intelligent, well traveled, and generally personable, whatever dastardly activities the FBI claimed they were engaged in. They might be spies. For all my parents knew, they might be stone-cold killers. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t be nice. The Russian diplomats carried themselves pretty much like my parents’ other friends did. Not Oleg.

“He’s a peasant,” my mother said.

“That’s it,” my father said. “He’s rough around the edges. He’s thick.”

And now he was over near the bookcase, standing by himself.

I took a moment to check him out. He was maybe five-six. Maybe. He had light-colored hair that was streaking toward gray and a neatly trimmed mustache. He was very pale, almost to the point of looking unhealthy. Even from where I was standing, I could see he had piercing blue eyes. He was wearing a white button-down shirt, a thick red tie, a boxy light gray suit, and a too-large tan trench coat.

Men’s Wearhouse, I thought. Or maybe Jos. A. Bank. I knew that Paul Stuart and Barneys were a short walk from the Russian Mission. This man was not shopping at either of those.

As I was finishing my conversation with our account manager, I heard my father greet Oleg. “Oh, good. You found the new place. Sorry. Was it a problem?” I guessed my father hadn’t mentioned we were moving.

“Uh-kay,” Oleg said, his soft voice turning almost singsongy. I swear he sounded like a slightly watered-down version of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh character from Da Ali G Show on HBO. “I found my way.”

He spoke in concise phrases with a slight Russian accent and a tiny lilt dropped in. His English was solid. Was he trying to avoid being recorded? Was he in the theater club in high school? I could only speculate. But his tone was soft, calm, and nonconfrontational.

This was my chance, I knew. I didn’t care so much whether my parents found him charming. After my conversations with Randi and Terry about helping the FBI with the Russians, I was eager to meet the new one.

“This is my son, Naveed,” my father said as I walked over. “He is helping with the company now.”

Oleg shook my hand and nodded.

“Let me get your books,” my father said.

As my father walked away, I tried to strike up a conversation with the Russian. “So how do you like New York?” I asked.

I got five words back: “It’s the center of everything.”

“My wife and I moved back from Boston,” I told him. “I much prefer New York.”

“You are working here now?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him. “I’ve come into the business. My parents aren’t getting younger, you know.”

None of this struck a spark. The Russian seemed impatient, like he just wanted to get what it was he had come for and be on his way. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have the slightest interest in me or my assessments of the relative merit of various American cities.

So I tried to loosen things up. Humor had always been my secret weapon. I wasn’t sure it would work on the sour Russian. But I took a chance on a vintage glasnost joke. So much was different now, I figured even the dour Oleg could laugh at the bad old days.

The joke went something like this: Viktor and Boris were standing on line in Red Square for their daily ration of cabbage and borscht when Viktor turned to Boris. “I don’t understand,” he said. “With glasnost, I thought things were supposed to be better.”

“I agree, comrade,” Boris said. “I’m so mad I could shoot Gorbachev right now. In fact, would you hold my place in line?”

Four hours later, Boris returned. “So? Is it done?” Viktor asked him.

“Sadly, no,” Boris said. “There is a line for that, too.”

Oleg shot me a withering look. “I don’t know anything about that” was all he said.

Yeah, I can be a dumbass sometimes. My father had the good sense or the lucky timing to rescue us before I could make more of a fool of myself. He set a cardboard box down on the table and handed an invoice to Oleg.

“Has my son told you he is interested in the military?” my father asked. “Naveed has been studying for his master’s degree at Harvard. Tell him about your thesis, son.”

That was just like my father, to exaggerate my achievements and mention Harvard, then make me sort everything out. I’d been gone from grad school for almost a year, and it didn’t look like I’d be going back. But I resisted the temptation to nitpick my father’s own awkward attempt at conversation and took one last stab at chatting up the Russian diplomat.

“I’ve been writing about universal jurisdiction and its impact on national sovereignty,” I said. “Issues like the International Criminal Court and the point at which a nation’s activities are so egregious that other nations have the right to step in. One of the things we studied was the Cuban missile crisis. It’s interesting how, over the last few years, so much information from the Cold War has been declassified. You can study it much more openly now. It seems like things have really changed.”

“Okay,” Oleg said.

“There was a Russian colonel,” I continued. “I can’t remember his name. But he was in charge of the nuclear missiles in Cuba. Do you know his name?”

“No,” Oleg said.

“Well, a lot has changed since then,” I said.

Oleg stood there. He seemed to have no trouble following the conversation. But he definitely wasn’t doing anything to prolong it.

“Okay,” my father said finally, “we were able to get you everything except”—he ran his index finger across an item two thirds of the way down the list—“this book was backordered.”

Oleg seemed satisfied. He just said, “Fine.” He paid his bill with three hundred-dollar bills, rounding up the tally by forty-some ­dollars and declining the change. He didn’t strike up any further conversation. He just handed my father another list of books and articles, promising, “I will be back for these.”

As I said, “Good to meet you,” and my father said, “See you next time,” Oleg didn’t leave the office. Not immediately. He reached inside his trench coat and retrieved a neatly folded black plastic garbage bag. He walked back to the large white bookcase and removed a book from one of the sample shelves. I couldn’t see the title from where I was standing. But he dropped the book into the large bag. He grabbed another and another and another. Pretty soon he was sweeping them off the shelves like a six-year-old wrecking a house of cards. He was moving so swiftly, he couldn’t possibly have read the titles as the giveaway books tumbled into the garbage bag.

What was he going to do with them? Send them back to Moscow? Sell them on eBay? Fill up his bookcase at the Riverdale compound so his colleagues would think he was well read? I didn’t know, and he didn’t say.

It seemed strange to me that our latest Russian customer, who’d earned what I assumed was a prize posting and a sought-after job, was also a free-book hog. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I also noticed how eager he was to leave. Fifteen minutes tops, from door open to door close, he was in and out of there.

I returned to my desk, plopped in my chair, and gazed out the big picture window. Just as I did, there was Oleg walking briskly up the steep driveway with his box and his bag of books. The load he was carrying had to be awfully heavy. But I have to give him credit. The short, pale Russian UN diplomat really flew up that hill.

* * *

“What’s with him grabbing all the free books?” I asked my father as soon as Oleg had left with his heaping cardboard box and heavy Hefty bag. “What a piece of work! When he goes to the diner, does he fill up doggie bags with the free mints?”

“I don’t know what he’s doing with all those books,” my father said. “Maybe he is selling them to the Strand,” the legendary resale bookstore in Greenwich Village. “Or he just likes to read.”

I knew my father didn’t believe that. “Oleg doesn’t seem like a big reader to me,” I said.

I had very much wanted to start off well with the latest Russian. If I was going to make any real inroads with the FBI, if I was going to get the kind of experience I needed for the navy, I had to convince the Russians to trust me. And I had barely gotten two grunts out of Oleg. In that short visit, I saw firsthand what my parents had been talking about. He was different from the other Russians who’d been coming. Less sophisticated, less cultured—let me just say it, less couth.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told the glasnost joke,” I said to my father. “The whole thing was pretty awkward. And I expected him to be taller.”

“Height is not his biggest issue,” my father said.

By this point, my mother and father had met Oleg two or three times. They didn’t know him well, but well enough. “He makes no effort at all to be charming,” my father said. “What I really notice about Oleg is that he so obviously doesn’t want to be here. He seems to find dealing with us almost contemptible, like it’s beneath him somehow.”

That reminded me. “Why would you have to bring up graduate school?” I asked. “That’s what you want the Russians to know about me? I’m not even there anymore.”

“You said you might go back.”

“It’s been a year,” I said. “I’m probably not going back. I didn’t finish. I left.”

“Well, there’s no harm in letting people know what you’ve accomplished. It’s all very impressive.”

I just rolled my eyes.

The not-so-hidden message, I knew, was I should go back to graduate school. I should get a brand-name education. I should stack as many letters as possible at the end of my name. My father really knew how to deliver the Pakistani guilt. It was like he was asking me: “When are you gonna give us grandkids?” Was he going to push that, too? Maybe next time he could tell the Russian, “Naveed is working on making us grandparents. Tell him about your progress, son.”

Ava and I were enjoying being back in New York. Now that she was finishing with her postdoc at NYU, she would soon be going from crazy hours to bankers’ hours. We had far more predictable lives. We were taking on the normal trappings of a couple in their late twenties: building careers, thinking about starting a family, and genuinely settling down.

* * *

An hour after Oleg left the office with his books, the ones he paid for and the ones he didn’t, I dialed Terry’s number at 26 Federal Plaza. I knew this was my chance to pique his interest. I decided cryptic was the way to go.

“Hey, Terry, it’s Naveed,” I said. “I have some information for you.”

He paused. “Oh-kay,” he said slowly. “What do you have?”

“I had an interesting experience today.”

He paused again. “Hold on,” he told me. This time I swear I could hear a clicking sound over the phone line, as if he’d just pushed a little red button marked record.

“So tell me,” Terry said.

“I met with the latest Russian,” I said. “It was, ah, it was very revealing. I have a new list for you. Would you like me to bring a copy of it?”

“Sure,” Terry said. “Let’s meet. You wanna shoot for Thursday?”

FBI agents, I was discovering, aren’t so good at appointments. Their schedules are unpredictable. Stuff comes up. Even a day or two later is far in advance for them.

“Thursday is good,” I said. “Can we do it before work?”


“I’ll meet you in the city,” I said.

“We can come up to your neighborhood,” he said. “We’ll call when we’re close.”

After Oleg left and I’d reached out to Terry, I took a moment to reflect on the three things I needed to accomplish, and they all had to do with my own independence. One, I had to get Oleg to deal with me solely, instead of my parents. Two, I had to continue to build my own relationship with the FBI. And three, I had to get both sides to meet me outside of the office. Our office was the worst place to talk privately. The space was wide open. I never knew when my parents would be around. As far as I was concerned, an upper Broadway park bench in the middle of December, or a terrible chain restaurant in the suburbs, was a far more hospitable environment.

That Thursday morning, a little before nine, while I was getting ready for work, Terry’s number came up on my cell phone. “We’re downstairs,” he said.

I came down from the apartment. Ava was off at work. Tucked into my winter jacket pocket was a copy of Oleg’s latest list. As soon as I hit the sidewalk, I saw Terry standing outside his car, which was parked at a fire hydrant, directly across from our building.

Randi wasn’t with him this time. Standing beside Terry was a very large man.

“Where’s Randi?” I asked when I walked up.

“She transferred,” Terry said.

Oh, shit, I thought. Did someone hear about the maxi-pad debacle? But how could they? I hadn’t told anyone besides Ava. “Is she okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Terry said. “It’s something good.”

I was glad to hear that, even if Terry’s lack of detail left a lot to the imagination.

“This is Ted,” Terry said. No last name. Just Ted. He was blond and thick and muscular. He had very large hands, like someone who could open a stuck jar from your refrigerator in record time. He and I shook hands firmly. He gave me a big smile. He seemed more outgoing than the subdued Terry. Neither one said so, but I got the clear impression that Ted was the senior agent, just as Randi had been senior to Terry. But Ted, like Randi, seemed friendly enough.

“I have your list,” I told them.

As we spoke, I noticed a couple of my neighbors coming out of the building. Luckily, they didn’t cross the street on their way to the subway. But I knew it was only a matter of time until someone walked past us and said “Good morning.” It occurred to me that this was not exactly discreet, the unshaved me in gym clothes talking intensely with two well-groomed gentlemen in suits.

“Hey, guys, this is a little awkward,” I said. This time I didn’t invite them up to the apartment. “Do you mind if we don’t do this right in front of my building? There’s a park over there.”

Straus Park is a one-block landscaped triangle where Broadway and West End Avenue come together. The little park is famous for a bronze statue, erected in 1913, of a nymph gazing over calm water. The statue honors Isidor Straus, a U.S. congressman and co-owner of Macy’s, and his wife, Ida, who died together on April 15, 1912, when the S.S. Titanic went down in the North Atlantic.

The Strauses lived in a house on Broadway a block south of the park. As the doomed ship took on water, Ida refused to climb into a lifeboat with other women and children, insisting on staying with her beloved Isidor. A passage from 2 Samuel 1:23 is carved into the memorial: “Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.”

Ted, Terry, and I sat on a bench to the left of the nymph. On this chilly December morning, the three of us were the only people sitting out there.

“How did Oleg react when you approached him?” Terry asked, getting the conversation rolling. “He was expecting just your father, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call him friendly,” I said. “Unfortunately, I made a joke. It didn’t go over too well. He didn’t think it was too funny.”

“You made a joke?” Ted asked. “What kind of joke?”

“A glasnost joke.”

The agents looked at me and then each other. “You know any glasnost jokes?” Terry asked Ted.

“I don’t think so. You?”

“Me, neither,” Terry said, and then to me: “What was the joke?”

“You want to hear it?” I asked.

“Yeah!” the agents said almost in unison.

I told them about the guy who was so sick of all the lines in the old Soviet Union, he went to shoot Gorbachev, but the line was too long.

“And Oleg didn’t find that funny?” Ted asked.

I figured Ted was messing with me.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Terry said.

“You would,” Ted told him.

I told the agents how Oleg wasn’t much of a talker and seemed more comfortable interacting with my father than with me, not that he seemed too comfortable interacting with anyone. I said I’d been able to chat him up a little, discussing what I’d studied in graduate school and how I was in the company now.

“I think I made a little progress with him,” I said, exaggerating the stiff interaction a bit.

I gave Terry the new list. I said I was sure Oleg would return in a few weeks to pick up these books and place another order. Then, as vividly as I could, I described the kind of person Oleg seemed to be. I gave special emphasis to the freebie books.

“What a cheap ass he was!” I said. “Are these guys that broke? They have to come to small businesses and take free shit? A box of wire hangers from the dry cleaners? A bucket of ketchup packets from McDonald’s?”

Ted started laughing. “I believe it,” he said. “They’re awful.”

The senior agent said that some of the diplomats got subsidies from the UN to pay for their tolls on New York bridges and tunnels. “Then they go out of their way to use the free bridges. They complain that the tolls are supporting the American government—and really, they just want to pocket the money themselves.”

I told them that my father had a theory about the booze the Russians often brought after they went home to Moscow. “My father says they don’t actually buy it there,” I said. “They get it dirt-cheap from the Mission, or they pick up a few bottles at the duty-free store.”

“Sounds about right,” Terry said.

I count that conversation in Straus Park, which lasted no more than fifteen minutes, as my first operational meeting with the FBI, the first time I was reporting to the agents about something I had picked up in the field. It might not have been much. It was just my initial impressions and a few stray details. But I’d had my first face-to-face conversation with a Russian diplomat, and I’d passed my own intelligence to the FBI. I’m not saying any of it was valuable. But that is how trust is built, and I hoped I was building some on both sides of the post-Cold War divide.

* * *

Nine weeks later, Oleg returned to Dobbs Ferry, for all the usual reasons: To pick up the books he had asked for. To order some new ones. And yes, to fill his Hefty bag with sweeping armloads from the restocked shelves. It was the dead of February, and as usual, Oleg simply showed up. No call beforehand. No prescheduled appointment. No heads-up of any kind. Expecting this, I’d been making sure to be around the office as much as possible, arriving early, staying late. I didn’t want to miss Oleg. My other hope was he’d arrive when my parents were out.

Success on both counts: I didn’t miss him, and they weren’t there.

He stepped inside the front door but came no farther. After he stood there for a moment, I walked over to him.

“Hello,” I said.

“Good morning,” he said in that soft, flat voice. “Is Naseem here?”

“He isn’t,” I said. “My mother isn’t, either. Is there something I can help you with?”

He paused. “I see. Will they be back later?”

“Not today.”

“I see. Perhaps I should come back another time.”

The whole point was having Oleg establish a rapport with me. My parents were out. This was the perfect opportunity. I didn’t want to let it slip away. Who knew when Oleg might return? If he thought something was wrong here, would he come back at all?

I pedaled hard. “You’re more than welcome to come back later,” I told Oleg. “But my parents are spending less time in the office. They told you they’re retiring, right? Their schedules are very erratic, you know. I’d hate to have you return and miss them again.”

I could tell he was studying me, trying to process what I was telling him. For the first time it occurred to me that there was a very real possibility the Russians had done some research of their own and decided my parents were safe to do business with. I was an unknown.

“I’m sure I can help you,” I told him.

He took a breath and finally agreed. “I am here to pick up my order,” he said.

“It’s not a problem,” I said. “I can go and grab it for you.”

“Uh-kay,” he said.

I didn’t get the feeling that he disbelieved me. It was more like this was a new development for him and he was taking it in. He didn’t seem like someone who reacted well to surprises.

I headed back to the storeroom and found his cardboard box. As usual, the box wasn’t sealed yet, and the invoice was sitting on top. I carried the box out to the reception area and placed it on the coffee table. “I believe we have everything here,” I said. He didn’t check.

I handed Oleg the invoice. He looked at it carefully. He paid his money with the usual sweetener added on. He left another list. Then he reached into his trench and pulled out his trusty Hefty bag and got busy at the bookcase.

As he left, I had the feeling that this time I’d made some actual headway. He hadn’t expected me to be in the office. He assumed he’d see my mother or father, like he and all the Russians before him usually did. I could tell he didn’t like that. But at least he and I were talking. And even that little conversation gave me hope that we might be heading somewhere.