A Tale of Love and Peril in the Cold War


My friend Vladimir McMillin (in this photo he drinks beer in a Moscow bar in September 2017) has authored a book about his father James, or Jimmy, McMillin, who defected to the Soviet Union in the late forties.

Here’s my brief review of the book that might be of interest to Cold War aficionados.

Jimmy was 21 when he got acquainted and fell in love with a pretty Russian girl, called Galina, who frequented dance parties at the American House in Moscow. The young woman had just lost her husband, US citizen John Biconish*. No, he did not die. He was forced to go back to the US shortly after his marriage with Galina to avoid the “fate worse than death”, according to State Department officials.

Let’s see what fate had in stock for Jimmy. He and Galina started seeing each other often, and, no doubt, their relationship was noticed by the Soviet special services. Provided, of course, that Galina had not worked for them from the very beginning. But this we will not learn from the book. Anyway, MGB (predecesor of KGB) operatives shadowed the couple and at some point started pressing Galina to try and get sensitive information from the young sergeant working as a code clerk in the US embassy. 

This is the American House in a photo dated to the time of the love story. The US embassy hosted dance parties there and they were frequented by what the Americans called “mozhno girls”.

The girls obviously shared whatever information they received from their American boyfriends with the Soviet special services, no doubt about that. But, secretly, some of them wanted to find an American husband and move to the United States. That did not work for Galina – neither the first time, nor the second.

What did work was that Jimmy defected to the Soviet Union after two years of being stationed in Moscow, thanks to his love for Galina and the covert operation supervised by Sergei Kondrashev, who at that time was deputy head of the American unit of the Department of Counterintelligence at the MGB of the USSR.

Kondrashev later moved to London where he worked with the famous (or infamous) Soviet spy George Blake. 

In Moscow, the MGB tried – but failed – to recruit someone who would know about the communications system used by the US embassy, including its resident spies. So Jimmy was the next best choice, even though he was a low-level code clerk.

The MGB promised – and later provided – an apartment, car and money in exchange for the defection and the possibility to stay with Galina. Jimmy told whatever he knew – maybe not – and began a new life.

At some point, the Soviet authorities decided to get more from the defection and forced him to make a political statement as well. “As a protest against the anti-Soviet policies of the capitalists who presently rule America, I refuse to go back to America and am remaining in the Soviet Union,” he wrote to his father in May 1948.

Jimmy (now 90) never talked to the media. His wife Galina died in 1997. Their son Vladimir defected to the United States in 1990 and is happy there. He visits his Dad once a year, but Jimmy never visited his homeland again.

The book is fun to read, if you know what I mean. 

*John died in the US in 1960 at the age of 35. Would you call his fate better than death? 

In this photo the just married John and Galina know nothing about their future.

Posted by Vladimir McMillin on Sunday, October 1, 2017

PS. The photos for the review were taken from various sources, presumably in the public domain, including the Facebook group Spy Network.