The characters and the family saga told in Sins of a Spy are
purely fictional, but aspects of the story come straight from
historical accounts of the Cold War. I have drawn deeply on the
history of Soviet Jews, particularly of the Refusenik community
and their daily trials—the surveillance, the menial jobs, the
anti-Semitism, and the harassment by the KGB. I also found
inspiration in autobiographies and journalistic accounts of
American and Russian spies. I draw on details, large and small,
from these narratives whenever possible to give richness and
realism to this part of the tale. In particular, Sofia’s use of
the Tropel cameras and her methods of signaling the CIA were
drawn from the exploits of Adolf Tolkachev, powerfully told in
David Hoffman’s Billion Dollar Spy.

In conducting research for this book, I was struck by how
often the men dominated the story, with the women relegated to
the roles of wives and daughters, supporters in a public
struggle, but seldom the main actors. I was similarly struck by
how seldom women took central roles in the accounts of spies on
both sides of the struggle. Indeed, in the Soviet Union, it
seems few women served as agents, and many of those that did
were relegated to the role of “dangle,” luring in the prize but
not managing it once caught. This exclusion seemed to reflect a far-reaching prejudice, especially since the Refusenik and dissident narratives almost never included details of women being regularly followed and harassed by KGB tails, and since women also seemed to receive lighter sentences at trial.
As a sociologist, I do not doubt that few women rose high
in the spy ranks. This dearth from the 1980s is still evident
today when we look at the numbers of women in top leadership
positions in the intelligence community. But as a researcher
myself, I do seriously question the second-fiddle role women
ostensibly played among dissidents and Refuseniks. I suspect
that the published histories also reflect the subconscious
biases of their authors in terms of the questions asked, the
people interviewed, the weight given to particular activities,
and the attribution of credit. I couldn’t resist exploiting
these seeming blind spots to create this thrilling saga.