Religion, wrote Lenin, is a "vile contagion of the most abominable kind." But it was useful cover for the Kremlin's spies. Revived during the Great Patriotic War against Hitler in 1943, the Russian Orthodox Church was controlled by the Fifth Directorate of the KGB. How Russian Orthodox priests traveled the world recruiting not just souls but secret agents for the Rodina (motherland) is one of the great stories of the cold war. Last week the tale took an intriguing American twist with the arrest of George Trofimoff, 73, in Tampa, Fla.
A retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Trofimoff became "the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever charged with espionage," according to the Justice Department indictment. Working as a civilian Army employee from 1969 to 1994, Trofimoff helped run a center for interrogating Soviet-bloc refugees in Germany. He had access to many secrets about NATO defenses against the threat of a Soviet invasion. For 25 years, he allegedly photographed top-secret documents and turned them over to his KGB handler, Igor Vladimirovich Susemihl, a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. The sons of Russian emigres, the two men had been childhood friends growing up in Germany. (Trofimoff enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1948 and became a naturalized citizen in 1951.) According to the indictment, Trofimoff allegedly met with his old chum in Austria, where the Soviet cleric/spy (code name "Ikar") served as an archbishop. The relationship was so productive that the Kremlin honored Trofimoff with the Order of the Red Banner, the Soviet Union's oldest award for bravery and self-sacrifice in defense of the homeland. The CIA is still assessing how much damage he may have caused.
It was money, not faith in Mother Russia, that finally trapped Trofimoff. The Justice Department estimates that the KGB paid its spy $250,000 over 25 years. As the Feds tell it, Trofimoff wanted more: he fell for an FBI sting operation that lured him to a local hotel with the promise of past-due payment for spy services. Trofimoff should have been more wary. Both he and Susemihl (who died last year) had been arrested by the Germans for spying in 1994 but got off after claiming that the payments from the priest to his friend were personal loans. The FBI kept him under surveillance after he moved to Florida, where he continued to work part time bagging groceries.
Trofimoff emerged from his meeting at the Tampa hotel in handcuffs, escorted by federal agents. Waiting for him in the car was his shocked wife, who reportedly knew nothing of his alleged spying activities. Trofimoff's neighbors at Indian River Colony Club in Melbourne, a gated community of estate homes for retired military officers, were equally stunned. "He's a very friendly gentleman, just a nice guy to be with," said John Callaway, a retired Navy captain who lived a few doors down from Trofimoff on Patriot Drive. "Hell, he'd come over to happy hour at the club." To the Feds, his demeanor was all good spy craft, honed by years of working in a shadow world where Army colonels and orthodox priests are not always what they appear to be.