Secrets of a Successful Spy Marriage


Over its six seasons, “The Americans” has dramatized the tension between effective espionage and a happy marriage for a fictional KGB couple. For the Soviet bloc intelligence services, who regularly sent couples across the Iron Curtain as deep cover spies, this tension was more than dramatic fodder. It was a serious operational problem.

To manage this problem, a manual I found in the archive of the East German Ministry for State Security, the KGB franchise better known as the Stasi, shows that spy couples were selected and trained as much for their marital strength as their tradecraft.

Among socialist spies, the Stasi stole the show when it came to infiltrating “illegal residents” into West Germany. This strength arose from constraints: Without diplomatic recognition until the mid-1970s, East Germany did not have embassies in the West from which to run “legal residences.” But it was easy to pose as a political refugee from the East. There were also no language difference. Disguised as everyday West Germans, many stole secrets for decades, serving as the backbone for the Stasi’s spy operations against the West.

These illegal residents recruited and managed human sources abroad. Residents could also gather information directly by penetrating Western governmental institutions. The most infamous of these residents rose to become a top aide to the West German chancellor. By the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi’s foreign branch had more than 30 illegal residents serving in the Federal Republic.

At Soviet insistence, the Stasi was permitted to destroy its foreign espionage documents during negotiations for German reunification. But some secrets evaded the incinerators, including a 1974 handbook with the title, “Basic questions of guidance, education and qualifications of residents.” In stiff bureaucratic German, it reveals how the Stasi selected and trained their deep cover spies. German regulations prohibit reproducing the document, but the rough outlines of how illegal residents were supposed to be recruited and trained can be reported. The handbook reveals how deeply the Stasi relied on communist ideology as a foundation for its intelligence operations.

Qualifications for Spy Couples: Ideological Commitment and a Robust Marriage

The manual begins by emphasizing the job’s unusual demands: “They must lead the conspiratorial struggle against imperialism consistently, using their entire being and abilities.”

The sacrifices, risks, and importance of the job also meant that it could only be performed by the most loyal communists. Candidates would need “Marxist-Leninist convictions, knowledge of the processes of social development, and an understanding of the requirements of the current and future class struggle.” In particular, they had to be reliable Party members who had demonstrated unwavering loyalty to the Soviet Union. Finally, to provide companionship and support in long and lonely missions, potential residents needed to be married to a willing co-conspirator.

Whether running a spy ring in the West or being separated for operational reasons, “harmony and stability” in the marriage was critical. Recruiters would need to collect reliable facts on the subject, including the couple’s respective pre-marital relationships, power dynamics, and points of tension.  The manual also called for the collection of intelligence on the couple’s sex lives, including whether “both partners are satisfied” and “which wishes are being voiced and fulfilled.” To gather these facts, the Stasi manual helpfully suggested surveilling the candidate couple’s apartment and reading their mail.

As much as the Stasi cheered on healthy sex lives for their residents, this was never to result in a child. Unlike the fictional spy couple on “The Americans,” Stasi residents were required to put party before pregnancy and “renounce the natural wish to have a baby.”

Training Couples for Espionage

To select and prepare new recruits willing to take these burdens upon themselves, the manual divides resident training into three phases: defensive tradecraft, handling sources, and operating in the West. Recruitment would begin individually, with spouses brought on board later.

For the first phase, newly recruited officers were indoctrinated and “solved operational defensive problems on GDR territory.” The recruits received beginning lessons in topics like creating cover identities and conducting surveillance. Stasi instructors were to analyze the planning, preparation, and execution of these missions. The analysis would reveal the “effort, determination, endurance, and tenacity with which the resident would solve his operational objective.”  These lessons might involve investigating ideological disturbances among local teenagers or preventing East Germans from escaping across the Wall. Operational pressures and individual autonomy would increase incrementally, including working weekends. To train in unfamiliar environments, later missions could take place in other Soviet bloc countries.

To avoid wasting time and money training spies with unsuitable partners, spouses were now officially recruited as operatives in this phase, too. They would serve as subordinate officers, never as equal partners. The manual was silent on how this might affect the marital stability and harmony the Stasi was so concerned about.

The second phase aimed to achieve three goals. First, the “comprehensive resolution of the contradictions between residency requirements” and the candidate’s personality. Second, developing the couple’s willingness to move to the West once their mission was revealed to them. The third goal was to prepare the resident for their operational tasks, including the chance to practice operating spy equipment.

In this phase, future residents assumed a false identity in a new East German city and practiced managing low-risk agents. Instructors closely tracked improvement in handling social isolation and diligence in maintaining cover identities, as well as the work’s effect on their relationship with their spouse.

The central challenge was to have the couple disappear from their current work, family, and party life. The manual warned that the latter, excising their records from the local communist party and ensuring that their political education would continue while working in the West, was especially complex.

Residents-in-training gathered their first experiences in West Germany during the third and final training phase, which focused on operating in the West. They might take temporary jobs, practice surveillance, or catalog transportation options. More specialized training might follow, depending on their intended mission.

The recruits were only then informed that they were training to be residents rather than GDR-based officers. Would they be willing to serve in this capacity? If they committed, the manual articulated the vow that would bind the couple to the Stasi until death or Western counterintelligence did them part:

With this commitment, they dedicate their entire future life to the service of socialist reconnaissance. They are willing to serve in the enemy’s territory as long as their mission requires. They are aware of the personal risks and responsibility.

A freshly minted husband-and-wife residency was now available to infiltrate the West. In Stasi thinking, they had transcended their narrow individual and even national interests to serve as an instrument of world revolution. There could be no nobler calling.

The fictional Soviet power couple’s mission ends with The Americans’ final episode on May 30. The Soviet Union will not survive. Will the marriage?


Alex Bollfrass is a Stanton Nuclear Security postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.