The Moscow Rules

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 May 2019

Member Reviews

Life is often more fascinating than fiction. An excellent example is to compare any spy movie set in Moscow with The Moscow Rules by Antonio J. Mendez and Jonna Mendez. The complexity of living and working in a constant state of danger was incredible. Although the Mendezes were not assigned to Moscow, they were directly involved in designing the tools that allowed Americans to work without the KBG observing them. 

Each chapter begins with one of the rules, although there are many that are not used in the book. The Introduction starts with this rule, "Don't harass the opposition." An American was attacked by an FSB (KBG'snewest form) member who tried to stop him by physically assaulting him. The author ties the aggression of the Russians in 2016 to the Soviets in 1986. 

There were two aspects of this book that stayed with me. One was the way the authors show how it is really a team and not one person interacting with the opposition. Everyone is essential to have success. The other aspect was that the Russian FSB is using the Soviet playbook updated with today's technology. I highly recommend The Moscow Rules to anyone who is interested in international relations, the US/Russian relationship, and/or the cold war.

I received a copy of the book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Beginning with the start of the Cold War (in 1946) to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) the CIA battled with the KGB to protect America and learn the secrets of the Russian Government. The authors are a husband and wife, but Jonna who wrote a lot of the book is the more interesting of the two (she was a member and later leader of the disguise section).

They start out with explaining how the CIA had superseded the wartime OSS. The CIA was just like the OSS, made up of upper class Ivy League graduates from all the 'right' families, with all the right connections. Mostly concerned with the Moscow Section and Embassy, their tale is one learning the ropes the hard way. 

The Moscow Rules are created along the way as Agents learn to see the surveillance they are under and to thwart the KGB by using tricks they had learned from "Magicians" from Las Vegas who taught them many of the ways to obscure what they were doing. They discuss the ways they foiled the KGB and how they recruited double agents. They also discussed how they had lost when certain American agents had turned to working for the Russians.

It's an interesting story with lots of side stories that explain how much serendipity featured in their successes, or failures. Good Read.
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I had no idea. The first hundred Bond movies were before my time, when the Cold War (the first one, the second, current one is unofficial) was still definitely on and the Moscow Rules were essential to mental and physical survival.

I grew up in the Jason Bourne era of spy movies, less magic more technology. I cannot fully comprehend the terror of going into a hostile environment without a cell phone, a laptop, Google earth and a host of other gadgets.

When the Mendez's start their stories of disguise, not only was I hooked but I foresaw a terrible outcome for their agents. Not even the Russians would buy that. But I was wrong (too much Bourne) and the disguises worked beautifully. The eye sees what it wants to and readily excludes everything it is not looking for. I learned that from a Bourne movie.

As with my previous blog post, as you may have noticed this is also a spy book and good things seem to come in two's.

Best of Enemies warmed me up to the human aspect involved, and The Moscow Rules solidified those feelings. I took an objective view on what is a spy/traitor/asset last time.

Things have evolved, now that I know how much effort went in to get these guys and gals Moscow ready, not just losing tails but an entire trick bag of other skills and tools, all done by shadow people and shadow departments who are never the flag in the operation, yet always deployed forward and never recognized, I take the treason of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen personally.

Fine, if you must be a traitor give them the blueprints to a missile or something, but don't sell out your colleagues or your operational blueprints. I am offended, I wish their mail wasn't monitored because I'd like to explain to them how I am going to (deleted classified). That's what I'd like to do to them.

Thank you to the authors for this insightful and entertaining book. It came at the right time and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I rate this book 4 stars with a strong recommendation to read for all espionage aficionados.

P.S. Again, Putin comes out smelling like a bad guy... Because maybe he IS a bad guy. Time and Russian dash cams will tell.
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One of my favorite books of the year! I honestly could not put this one down. 
Mendez and his wife were CIA employees (yes, spies), in Moscow during the 1970's (combined, they served for 52 years!). The USSR, thanks to the KGB, had an (almost) impenetrable society at the time. Constant surveillance of foreigners, as well as it's own citizens, made spying impossible. They had no limits on the resources they could expend on counter-surveillance. Add to that the awful damage done by "moles" (traitors) from our own country, and it was darned difficult to find out what was going on there. 
Mendez relates his (and his wife's) experiences, failures, and successes during their careers. Fascinating narratives that read like the best James Bond novels, except that they are true! Edge of your seat reading that you will not be able to put down!
And, through it all, he relates everything to a series of rules they followed, called the "Moscow Rules". They are a series of 42 simple rules, used to help them succeed. Things like: Murphy is right; never go against your gut, technology will always let you down, and betrayal may come from within. 
This is just an incredible, fascinating book. I have to wonder, given the current state of Russian affairs, if a whole new set of rules is in play. 
I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
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The author's painstaking research and attention to detail is obvious in the writing of this book.  There were many facts that I only discovered after reading this!
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‘Moscow Rules‘ by Tony Mendez and Jonna Mendez is out today and I have to say I couldn’t be happier. The book is a thrill ride for spy nerds such as myself who simply wish to read and learn about everything spy related. The book offers an intimate look of how the CIA ran agents and collected information behind the lines of one of the most secretive cities in the world – Moscow. Every page of this book spills secrets.

Tony Mendez was a spy and an American hero, who with a group of his colleagues developed tactics to help CIA agents operate undetected in Moscow. At the height of the Cold War the U.S. was on the losing end, with intelligence gathering operations barely functioning in Moscow as a result of the FSB (the Russian equivalent of the CIA) keeping tabs on all foreigners who were in Moscow. Tony, Jonna, and other brave men and women studied the FSB patterns, perfecting the Spycraft and ultimately turning the tide in favor of the U.S.

‘Moscow Rules’ takes the reader on a journey offering a deeper look into the extreme lengths spies went through to obtain intel on the Russians. In the business of smoke and mirrors, such tactics ensured the safety of the agents. But most importantly, these tactics prevented a clash between the two countries.

More so today than ever before when Russian is taking an aggressive approach to undermine our democracy, books such as ‘Moscow Rule’ are imperative to our society. We mush remember that even today there are heroic men and women who operate in the shadow behind the enemy line.

It’s a splendid read. It’s informative and engaging. Moscow Rules is by far my favorite nonfiction of the year thus far.
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The Moscow Rules is an excellent addition to the history of Cold War espionage. Recommended.


In tales of espionage, the tension of whether the protagonist gets found out and captured drives the narrative. With one chance, does the agent succeed and save the world or fail and let democracy die? In reality, that agent had hundreds of hours of training and support before venturing onto the front lines to exhibit the bravery and skill needed to succeed. But skill acquisition and practice do not rise to the same level of tension that the actual act of spying achieves. In films, these moments get summarized in a montage (hopefully one with a 80s ballad playing over the top). The professionals who protect this nation – whether they’re the military, the police, the FBI, or CIA operatives – know that practice and dedication to honing one’s craft provides the best odds of not only mission success but survival. The ones on the front lines will be rightly glorified by history, but an expansive look away from those front lines shows large organizations of support. These organizations usually get overlooked until one gets back to the command tent and the person making the decisions. However, the truth is that the support personnel play important roles as well. The trainers, the equipment makers, the engineers, the strategists, cooks, cleaners, planners, quartermasters, all play an important role in keeping the people on the front lines free to do their job. Bringing the role of a support organization was firmly in Antonio and Jonna Mendez’s mind when they wrote "The Moscow Rules." These two former CIA agents recount the formation of the so-called Moscow Rules in a book filled with history and insight into one of the U.S.’s most secretive institutions.

The Moscow Rules

"The Moscow Rules" opens with the loss of one of the CIA’s Soviet informants, Oleg Penkovsky. Then, the authors start a journey through their productive career telling the tale of how the CIA rose from this failure. Moscow, at this time in the Cold War, was sealed up tight by Soviet intelligence units. Surveillance made contacting assets nearly impossible, and internal CIA paranoia stopped operations in the Soviet capital. But soon, an opportunity arose that the CIA could not afford to pass up. Operations needed new methods to free agents from surveillance, and this book describes the process of discovery for those methods.

Along the way, readers learn of the successes and failures that Antonio and Jonna witnessed during their time working for the CIA. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s no more present than in this history. The authors recount their methods of escaping into “the black,” their jargon for losing all surveillance tails. It’s all here from maneuvers, to masks, to pop-up decoys. It would all seem a bit silly if the authors didn’t soon remind the reader of the stakes. For the Soviets who betrayed their country, a happy ending of defection to the west was rare. While this book lists a number of successes, it also documents the Americans who betrayed their nation and the harm these traitors caused.


In the Bond movies, James always visited Q for some lovely gadgets to complete the mission. Imagine if Q wrote a book, but instead of cars with oil slicks, the spy equipment were masks, decoys, and sleight of hand. That is "The Moscow Rules." It’s a book about the craft of shaking surveillance, of information retrieval. The gadgets in this book were infinitely more fascinating because of their practicality. The authors demonstrate that Cold War spies had more in common with stage magicians than action heroes. It’s fascinating to see the evolution of their craft to operate in one of the most dangerous peacetime environments.

There’s an excellent meditation on what causes people to resort to spying, and the authors differentiate the causes that drove Americans and Soviets to spy. These four motives each have an example to go with them, and it drives home how bad decisions and emotional reactions are ripe for exploitation. Attempting to discern motivations remains one of the difficulties of spying, and throughout, the agency worries about whether the Russians who contact them are real or “dangles” meant to draw out American agents in Moscow.

A Reminder

This book comes at an important time in the US. The current president and his political party attack members of the Intelligence Community (IC) for political gain, and this book reminds readers that the IC serves the US as well. Antonio and Jonna put names and faces to agents that put their safety on the line to protect this nation. They tell of the Soviets who turned traitor and their fates. "The Moscow Rules" doesn’t spare the reader from the consequences of betraying one’s nation.

It’s also a timely reminder that Russia and the man who leads it, despite the current Republican party’s feelings, aren’t the US’s friends. From Lenin to Stalin to Putin, Russia views the United States, in particular, and democracy, in general, as existential threats. Reading The Moscow Rules one can’t help but be nostalgic for a time when the nation had a foreign policy that reflected an understanding of Russia’s threat. Republicans should read this book and remember.

Like a Conversation

"The Moscow Rules" read more like a conversation. It reminds of an older co-worker on a long digression about their career.  This book is told in a stream-of-conscious manner with digressions into the future or the past. It took time to adjust, but it was worth it. This stream-of-conscious style moves back and forth through time in a way that made the book feel unorganized and rushed. This is unfortunately the pairs last book as Antonio passed away in January of 2019. The urgency to get the book done and published pervades the text. With all the stories, one can’t help but wonder what tales we’re missing out on with Antonio’s passing (may he rest in peace).

Jargon, like “in the black,” and technical devices that the authors are intimately familiar with pepper the book but receive little explanation. The reader is thrown in and expected to keep up.  It can be daunting but it ultimately worth it.

Thank You

In the US, people thank military personnel for their service. But many, many people serve the country in one form or another. Both Antonio and Jonna served the US in their support roles, and the general public may never know just how much their contributions to the CIA helped protect this nation. So, to both of them, thank you. And ultimately that’s what this book is. It’s a thank you to the Office of Technical Services and their colleagues. Throughout the authors concern and care for their fellow agents is apparent, and by the end, one knows they both loved their work at the CIA. 


Antonio and Jonna Mendez’s "The Moscow Rules" recounts a career serving the United States of America’s intelligence service. From the early 60s to the 90s, the Cold Warriors that ran assets in Moscow get their recognition here. Read it for the craft of spying; enjoy it for the tales of spies stalking the Moscow streets.

7 out of 10!
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