KGB Slang

farewell book cover

I read a book recently called Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud. It was really, really good, as is the excellent film that is loosely based on it (L’affaire Farewell). The book was translated from French and unfortunately, the translation leaves a bit to be desired in certain sections, but overall it is very interesting.

One of the main things I remember from this book was the KGB slang I learned. (Yes, there is such a thing as KGB slang.) The term I learned was мокрое дело (mokroe delo), which translates to “wet affair” – i.e. an assassination. (If I’m not mistaken, this term exists in English, too.) I’m not sure what this says about me as a person that one of my favorite aspects of the book was learning this slang. It probably just means that I am way too obsessed with spies and Russia, but we already knew that, right?

Oh, and if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should watch L’affaire Farewell. It’s available on DVD with English subtitles and is amazing because Emir Kusturica is in it. Emir Kusturica is one of my favorite filmmakers and actors ever. And now that I’m thinking of him, I am reminded of the fact that he speaks Serbian and I want to speak Serbian so badly and so I’m going to publish this blog entry and go study random Serbian words.


16 thoughts on “KGB Slang

  1. Weird, i was going to correct you and say that that’s not KGB slang, it’s criminal slang, but apparently the KGB appropriated the term. Originally, it meant a robbery which involved spilling blood/murder…


  2. Hello Natalie,

    It’s good to hear that your desire to learn Serbian didn’t let you go. If you want to hear really good Serbian, you should listen to Rade Serbedzija. He’s Serbian actor who is very famous in Hollywood and Kusturica’s friend. As I sadi before, if you need any help with your Serbian lessons, I would gladly help you.


    1. Zdravo, Aleks! Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve seen some of Rade Serbedzija’s work, but I think he was speaking English in everything I saw, so I will have to look for clips of him speaking Serbian. I actually do have a question about Serbian verbs, so I’ll send you an email soon about that. 🙂


  3. I was contemplating getting this book, but I’ve so much on my reading backlog that I’m actually listening to audiobooks while doing work or on the roaad just to keep up! Currently ploughing through. amongst other things, the Jason Bourne books on my commute, Condi Rice’s autobiography, and Russia and the Cult of State Security by Julie Fedor, and Leslie Woodhead’s How the Beatles rocked the Kremlin.

    From my limited knowledge of the intelligence community, a lot of spy “slang” is invented for the sake of the novel, but even in Le Carre’s works, the slang in the books made it back to the real world.

    In any case, very few things in intel work is actually exciting enough to write about, so when people do write about it, you pick and choose the juiciest bits, and hammer it altogether. The resulting is something that’s absolutely awesome reading, which spies themselves enjoy, but is nothing like the real thing. It’s like writing fanfiction, really. It’s fantasy. You live out the bits in the book that you can’t do in real life. I think this is much the same for most of the creative non-fiction out there.


    1. Wow, you certainly are reading a lot! It all sounds really interesting. 🙂

      Yeah, I would definitely believe that actual spy life is a lot less interesting than it is in the books. I still have a dream of becoming a spy someday, though. 😉


    1. I totally agree. I read a Daniel Silva spy thriller involving Russia on one of my many flights to London (I used to be a regular on that Atlanta-Heathrow leg back in the day!) and the time passed so quickly. It was great.

      Yes, I just came across the term “wet work” recently. Definitely useful to know for the spy thrillers I intend to write. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Catherine – I think I saw that post when Lisa first posted it. I had just seen the film based on the book, so it was a really funny coincidence. 🙂


  4. Hi, Natalie
    Hi, Catherine (nice seeing you here!)

    Since it is always thrilling to see younger generations getting interested in topics that had a big impact on previous generations, I wanted to add a few notes here.
    “Farewell” (the book by Kostin and Raynaud) is NOT a spy novel nor an entertaining book. It is a very detailed documentary work by investigative journalists on a character unknown to most (even to specialists of the USSR, scholars, etc.) even today, 32 years after the events that are said to have accelerated the collapse of the USSR. The story of Vladimir Vetrov, codenamed Farewell by the French DST, could not be told in Russian for Russians. So the author, who is fluent in French, had to write the book directly in French and was published in France. Although it was possible to adapt the text a bit for the English version, authors don’t expect (don’t want) translators to “rewrite” their work, even if it is by no mean a literary text. Hence the rough spots… redundancies, etc. Here what matters is the content, first comprehensive account to date of this extraordinary case that is still waiting for witnesses to come forward and fill the gaps. The story had to be told, especially to Americans.

    For those interested, the Discover/Military channel is just now starting a new series, Shadow Ops. They retained the Farewell dossier as the first episode (based on Kostin’s book in English). It aired on May 27, and will be on several times in June. It’s called Reagan’s Secret Weapon, Vetrov help wipe out the KGB.
    Canadian TV aired a documentary last January just on the gas pipeline alleged explosion from alleged sabotage by the CIA (for the Gasprom fans out there ;-)).

    Also, because this was at first a French operation, the Sorbonne organized a big conference in Paris last november on the aftermath of the case for the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The main actors of the operation were there and spoke publicly, some for the first time after all those years (Monsieur Paul, for instance, also interviewed in the Discovery channel documentary). There are YouTube videos of the conference.

    The Farewell operation was totally unusual because it was led by obscure humble people who managed to collect and transfer huge amounts of critical information on industrial and technology theft by the USSR with no involvement whatsoever by the big foreign intelligence institutions in the US, UK, or France (the DST being like the FBI). They did it against all the rules of spying-101, with no Swiss bank account for Vetrov, no megabudgets at taxpayers’ expense, no colateral damage, and Vetrov did not want to leave Russia although he knew very well what it meant for him. He felt the urgency of “betraying” the KGB from within because he saw first hand the risk of nuclear war. This is confirmed by his main handler and friend codenamed Mr. Paul.

    We owe them a lot!


    1. Hello Catherine, thanks so much for your comment! And apologies if I implied that “Farewell” was a spy novel – I did not mean to do so, as I know it’s an extremely well-researched book about actual historical events. I would argue that it is entertaining to read, though, since it’s about such a fascinating subject. 🙂

      I will definitely check out that “Shadow Ops” series. It sounds really interesting. The Canadian documentary sounds interesting, too. Do you know what it’s called?

      Again, thanks for commenting! 🙂


  5. Now, for those who prefer fiction and entertaining novels, read The Charm School by Nelson DeMille… Excellent. It is in the early 80’s, in Moscow and Borodino, contemporary to The Farewell operation.

    For those who read French, the best rendering of the Farewell story in a poetic prose “fiction” (less than 150 ) pages is a gripping book by French author Michel Louyot, “Le Violon de neige,” 2008. The English translation exists but is still looking for a “good” home…

    And Natalie, for you:
    “KGB Lexicon, The Soviet Intelligence Officer’s Handbook” by Vasiliy Mitrokhin

    Enjoy your summer!


    1. I will definitely have to find the Mitrokhin book so I can add to my knowledge of all things KGB. 🙂


  6. Natalie, here are the links for the Canadian documentary (French), whichever works best for you. You’ll notice that they alternate between Bon Baiser du Canada (should be plural in French), Bon Baisers, and Bons Baisers… Quality controle is always the victim of cost cutting. I mentioned it , afterI got the DVD, to the journalist who consulted with me at length on this story, but the message was half way implemented 😉
    There is a Mingazprom witness in there. As the journalist concludes: Truth is the real victim in all this (dubious witnesses). For openers, CovCan software was never used in the end…
    Hoping for more reliable witnesses to come forward…

    In a recent article on the Internet, there was a totally different explanation (plausible): there was a leak in the system in Nadyn, the worker on duty decided to pump more to compensate, which by itself would not have been ne essary a big issue, but, so they say, a train went by and ignited the gas cloud… and boum! Explosions were very common in those remote areas under Soviet rule (I know nothing of the current work conditions in the gas industry in that region).

    You should have no problem finding Mitrokhin. I read his books to translate the Farewell story. There was virtually nothing about the case in there…


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