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Dear Matthew:

Tell me about the replicas of American towns constructed in the Soviet Union as training grounds for KGB/GRU/NKVD agents during the '50s and '60s. Do any of these shadow towns or their ruins still exist? Where are they? Are tours available? After all, since we can visit a scaled-down Manhattan in Las Vegas, we ought to be able to visit a scaled-down Dubuque in Kiev.

-- Zlatno Svetdolencz Abzczrazcios, Oceanside

If you really have to see Dubuque, go to Iowa, Zlat. (Hey, hey -- any relation to Zlatno Mickeydolencz?) I'll get mysterious communiqués with no signatures or return addresses telling me I'm wrong, but according to Spook Group One of Team Matthew Alice, these cities never existed. Except perhaps in the imaginations of some Russian defectors. The story was that spies (called "illegals") were trained to be perfect, undetectable-from-the-real-thing Americans in these replica cities. Illegals are spies who enter a country as private citizens, not diplomats or other official representatives of a country, and who are unprotected by diplomatic immunity. They sometimes act as couriers or go-betweens or ferret out information through their new positions in private life or business. It's pretty edgy stuff; if an illegal is outed, the motherland, of course, says, "Zlatno? Zlatno who?" and you're screwed. Pure John LeCarre.

Imagine the difficulty of turning Zlatno into Ward Cleaver. Perfect American mannerisms; unaccented, fully idiomatic American English; head crammed with the accumulation of a lifetime of American trivia. A fool's errand. According to my spooky sources, confirmed in books by some ex-KGBers, potential illegals are spotted early in their university days. They have a facility for languages and are particularly bright. If they accept the offer to be a spy and they're to be sent to the U.S., then they're trained to be anything but American. German, maybe. Or French. If this guy moves in next door to you, and he's trying to act American, sooner or later he's bound to slip up in some way that will make you suspicious. If he's pretending to be a German living in America and he blows it a few times, are you going to know the difference? Not likely. Illegals are trained in their own special classes in KGB headquarters and in their fake country of origin, not in "Coca-Cola cities." By the way, we do the same, of course.

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