How Jazz Became a Secret Weapon in Cold War Berlin

For 40 years, Berlin remained an ideological battleground between the Stasi and CIA. The West used jazz diplomacy and broadcasts, activists smuggled records, and Stasi informers infiltrated music scenes.

Apr 8, 2024By Grace Ehrman, MA European History, BA Russian Language

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During the Cold War, East Germany’s secret police deployed 90,000 spies and 100,000 informers to keep tabs on 6 million people. Beyond the Berlin Wall, the CIA employed jazz ambassadors to penetrate the Iron Curtain with their secret countercultural weapon. Voice of America broadcasts captured the airways to beam jazzy democracy into the Soviet zone. Musicians and activists also risked their lives to smuggle contraband records across the border. Meanwhile, Stasi spies infiltrated clubs to track down subversive influences and harvest information on real or imagined enemies of the state.


Jazz and Cultural Espionage in the GDR

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“A view of Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point for foreigners visiting East Berlin, May 1, 1977.” Source: Helga T. H. Mellman / National Archives


In April 1955, the heads of the East German Ministry of Culture gathered for an urgent, 3-hour meeting about jazz.


After a heated debate, the men decided that jazz, embedded in African American music traditions and popular among urban nightclubs, did not reflect German cultural values. During the Cold War, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) authorities showed confusion about whether jazz reflected a “people’s art” or a tool for Western infiltration. Under the previous Nazi regime, jazz became a voice of dissent and social decay.


Other experts disagreed.

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Jazz represented freedom, and freedom came with an American swing and accent. For many everyday people in the GDR, jazz became synonymous with American democracy.


Officially, the GDR banned jazz. This censorship failed to stop jazz from flourishing nationwide. Despite the risk, fans smuggled black-market jazz records across the border. Over the next decade, jazz played a vital role as a psychological weapon deployed by the CIA in the cultural Cold War. As the nuclear arms race escalated, Western intelligence agencies worked to undermine Soviet power on every level.


While the Stasi viewed jazz as a threat, they also saw it as an opportunity. Even as the Stasi seized recordings, they embedded their spies at the heart of the jazz scene. This tactic enabled the secret police to keep their finger on the pulse of jazz activism, compromise clubgoers, and recruit them as Stasi agents.


Even before the 1961 Berlin Crisis, the CIA disseminated American culture to the people trapped in Soviet-controlled areas.


Soft Power in a Cold War 

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Members of the 11th AB Division kneel on the ground as they watch the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb test, Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada, 1951. Source: Library of Congress


At its core, the Cold War was a war of ideas. As America competed with the Soviets for nuclear superiority, military power, and moral high ground, they had to confront racial issues at home and find ways to combat disinformation. Communist governments spread propaganda to create fear, mask a failing political and economic system, and keep people from accessing outside information.


For America, culture offered an opportunity to showcase American talents and fight Soviet portrayals. They aimed to use sound to gain allies behind the Iron Curtain and win the ideological Cold War.


With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing and racial tensions increasing at home, the US State Department had a brilliant idea. They decided to send both black and white musicians as jazz ambassadors to play worldwide. Jazz diplomacy had a twofold purpose: to undermine the Soviet Union’s cultural superiority claims, and to show racial unity to combat Soviet propaganda about racial tensions in America.


Then, the CIA got involved. At the height of the Cold War, the CIA created the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). They sent “Goodwill Jazz Ambassadors” to export American jazz during the 1950s and 1960s.


The plan worked. When the State Department made black musicians the face of their Cold War foreign policy, they also gave entertainers to help shape politics back home.


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John A. McCone, head of the CIA, rushes to a White House meeting, 1962. Source: Library of Congress


Radio stations such as Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Voice of America (VOA) punched holes in the barriers that the GDR used to soundproof their socialist state.


While jazz could not physically dismantle the Berlin Wall, it inspired a spirit of individualism and resistance that drove political change. Together, jazz ambassadors, radio broadcasters, and German fans helped break the Iron Curtain open from the inside.


City of Spies

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Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, where spy swaps took place during the Cold War. Source: dpa / picture-alliance / Deutsche Welle


Grim, gray, and gritty, East Berlin represented the dark side of a divided city. It stood in stark contrast to its well-lit twin on the other side of the Wall. Sodium lights cast a harsh orange glow over Soviet-style architecture and streets. But at night, the city came alive. Cabaret, once popular under the pre-Nazi Weimar government, had deep historical roots in the cultural and political substructure of the city. Jazz clubs flourished underground. People came to dance, mingle, and spill secrets.


After the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the victorious Allied powers split Germany into four military zones to ensure that a dictator like Adolf Hitler would never rise to power again. In 1949, the regions occupied by the United States, France, and the UK became the Federal Republic of Germany. The Soviets established East Germany, or the GDR, in the Russian zone.


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Map of East and West Germany. Source: Central Intelligence Agency / Library of Congress


Despite its name, the GDR did not represent a democracy or a republic. Instead, it held power as a communist dictatorship. In this totalitarian state, free speech, free elections, and freedom of movement did not exist.


By 1950, the Staatssicherheit, or the Stasi secret police, became a massive surveillance tool that acted as a proxy for the KGB.


After the Second World War, German leaders noticed how popular American culture affected young Germans’ ideas, tastes, and behavior. Debates over jazz, westerns, and comic books made the authorities on both sides of the Iron Curtain worry about how these influences might erode traditional German culture.


This created an uneasy and hostile relationship between GDR leaders and jazz cultural expression. Fearful of jazz as a tool for cultural infiltration, the Stasi employed their vast network of spies and informers to monitor and utilize the jazz scene inside the country.


Jazz Diplomacy: How the CIA Promoted Freedom Behind the Iron Curtain

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“A view of the Brandenburg Gate, with East Berlin in the background,” February 1983. Source: Thomas Farr / National Archives


In 1956, the State Department launched ANTA’s International Exchange Program with Dizzy Gillespie and his band on a European tour. Gillespie’s band visited eleven countries, including West Germany, in an epic, eight-week tour. Crowds met them so enthusiastically that managers had to cordon off the stage.


In a few years, Louis Armstrong became the most recognizable face of American jazz entertainment abroad. Known as “Ambassador Satch,” the singer and trumpet player toured Europe with his All-Stars group. Before the Berlin Wall went up, East Germans would do anything to hear Armstrong play. In a December 1955 interview, Armstrong revealed that he met excited young men at the West Berlin Hot Club who managed to slip across the border and did not know how to return.


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Ella Fitzgerald. Source: The Rudy Calvo Collection Cache Agency / NPR


Even after the Berlin Wall virtually made travel a suicide mission, fans kept the jazz fever alive. Harlem Renaissance jazz giants such as Ella Fitzgerald toured East and West Berlin on cultural missions.


The “First Lady of Jazz,” Ella Fitzgerald, sang to packed crowds at the cavernous Sportpalast Arena in West Berlin in 1962. In 1965, Armstrong became the first American jazz entertainer to play in East Germany.


Jazz diplomats brought the allure of New York lights, American democracy, and cultural change to vast audiences across Berlin. Beneath the excitement, the East German intelligence services unleashed spies to gather intelligence in jazz clubs’ fertile hunting grounds.


Satchmo Fights the Cold War

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Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet, 1953. Source: Library of Congress


During his single, brief tour to the GDR, Armstrong played his heart out to packed houses. As crowds celebrated Armstrong’s appearance, only jazz musicians and journalists knew the effort and danger it took to attend.


Contrary to official Soviet disdain for jazz music, fans expressed a rabid enthusiasm for jazz that exceeded expectations. Armstrong’s popularity floored the East German authorities since his records had not officially appeared yet. One jazz journalist, Karlheinz Dreschsel, risked his life and career to promote jazz. Later, he toured with Armstrong and announced his concerts while navigating sensitive political waters.


In March 1965, Armstrong gave two performances per day for three days to 18,000 people at the Friedrichstadt-Palast Music Hall in East Berlin. Armstrong also traveled to Leipzig, where he played to awed audiences at the city’s massive trade fair hall. Armstrong only swung one tour thanks to political restrictions, but his impact ignited a Free Jazz scene that spread like wildfire behind the Berlin Wall.


The Stasi recognized this movement as more dangerous than the music. They wanted to stop people inspired by democratic ideas from escaping East Germany. By the time the Berlin Wall went up overnight in August 1961, the Stasi had planted their own informants in the jazz scene.


Jazz, Suppression, & Resistance 

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A march for democracy by East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, 1953. Source: The Associated Press / The Guardian


After World War II, German authorities hurried to distance themselves from the Nazi’s anti-jazz sentiments and promote a thriving socialist culture. Soon, the GDR prioritized saving German culture from a disastrous slide into American jazz, jeans, and democracy.


By February 1950, a shift in the political wind brought a crackdown. The authorities did not just ban jazz but also dancing that caused excessive arm, hip, and leg movement and threatened to energize people enough into thinking about dangerous things like freedom.


After Soviet tanks crushed an anti-communist demonstration by thousands of young East Germans in 1953, the GDR’s prime minister denounced the protestors who wanted to overthrow the communist regime.


In response, Moscow launched a frontal assault on jazz and insisted that the GDR toe the party line.


The GDR, armed by the Stasi, hastened to obey. They disbanded jazz bands, banned jazz music from playing on radio stations, promoted “civilized” German dancing without a whiff of racial mixing, and seized jazz records at every border stop.


Predictably, banning jazz had the opposite effect. Music became a popular medium for both men and women to resist the communist system.


A Dangerous Game

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Bone recording from the Eastern Soviet Bloc. Source: The X-Ray Audio Project / ABC News Australia


In this atmosphere, East Germans could not just buy jazz recordings. The 13-foot-tall and 27-mile-long concrete Berlin Wall, watched by guard towers and laced with 55,000 landmines, meant that East Berliners lost access to West Berlin music stores.


Very little jazz music played on the radio. When producers did play swing music, they labeled it Tanzmusic, or dance music, instead of jazz. Instead, fans scanned newspapers for second-hand records or placed ambiguous ads for “dance music records” (Helma Kaldewey, A People’s Music: Jazz in East Germany, 93).


People listened to swing, bebop, and jazz via bootleg roentgenizdat records from GDR bands such as Schmidt-Joos, the Helmut-Brandt-Combo, and Zschockelt’s “That Da-Da Strain” band.


Suffocated by the tense atmosphere and reduced to speaking in double-talk, many jazz artists like Horst Lippman fled to the West in a cultural hemorrhage during the 1950s. There, they produced labels that fans and profiteers smuggled into the GDR.


Bone Records Kept People Dancing

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X-ray record, Cold War period. Source: The X-ray Audio Project / ABC News Australia


Intrepid fans also circumvented state censorship by pressing records from discarded X-rays scavenged from clinics or hospitals. This practice introduced bootleg copies known as “ribs” or “bone records.”


Conspirators cut the X-ray plates into 7-inch discs. Then, they burned a hole into the center of the disc with a cigarette. Next, they used a wax cylinder, an old phonograph, or a dubplate reference machine (that pressed test records) to cut grooves into the disc at 78rpm. While these records had poor sound quality and users could only play them five to ten times, rib records became an enterprising way to get around censorship.


On the street, illegal jazz record sales flourished like the drug trade. Sellers and buyers met in clubs, on corners, dark alleys, and city parks to sell contraband records impressed with ghostly bone images. This fitting symbol of mortality reminded fans that a passion for jazz could land you in jail or worse.


Friends of friends also met up to exchange recordings. Others tossed packaged records from moving cars on the highway. Even the Americans organized a covert jazz lift to drop records behind the Iron Curtain. When reel-to-reel records appeared, bone records became obsolete.


Despite the oppressive atmosphere, professional jazz orchestras and amateur bands thrived. Before Zschockelt escaped to the West, he received an invitation from jazz activist and journalist Karlheinz Drechsel to play in Dresden. While Zschockelt managed to flee the country, Dreschel stayed behind and risked his life to promote jazz. After communism fell, the German government awarded Dreschel for his tireless efforts to bring jazz freedom to the nation.


“My Spies Were Everywhere”

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Café Moskau, Berlin, 1978. Source: Ute Mahler / The Guardian


The Stasi knew everything: what you said, where you went, and who you slept with. Or at least, it felt that way to East Germans, thanks to the secret police’s extensive spy network.


In the 1950s, jazz club critics conjured up images of smoky hot clubs, drugs, alcohol, and seedy individuals. Intelligentsia and black marketeers danced on tables to jazz music in hot clubs (Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels, 56-57). Homosexuals, prostitutes, misfits, and musicians already found themselves outcasts in a society that criminalized and policed behavior.


The Stasi’s attitude towards jazz swung just as much as the music. The mood depended on the local authorities. Even some jazz fans who doubled as Stasi informers became reluctant to denounce fellow jazz artists for fear that they would not have anyone left with whom to play. Others, such as Horst Lippman, the founder of the Frankfurt Hot Club, fled to West Germany. There, they campaigned for jazz culture and other freedoms back home.


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Jazz nightlife at the Badewanne in Schöneberg in Berlin, 1950s. Source: DPA picture alliance / ullstein bild / Berliner-Zeitung


When Café Moskau opened on Karl-Marx Allee in Berlin in 1964, visitors sipped mocha, swung to jazz in the dance café, or headed to the night bar located in the basement. The Bojar Bar, within sight of Checkpoint Charlie, became a favorite meetup point for journalists, secret agents, and Russian aristocrats in exile during the early Cold War. Over time, the exchange of rumors and intelligence slowed, but the bar’s vibe remained.


Whether you came for the coffee or stuck around for the music, you ran the risk of bumping into a reporter or a spy at Berlin’s jazz clubs and cafés.


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How German authorities pictured jazz clubs’ mythologized decadence: Marlene Dietrich in Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), 1930. Source: DPA / Picture Alliance / Deutsche Welle


As jazz agitation simmered in the oppressive atmosphere, jazz clubs sprang out of the ground like mushrooms. In Leipzig, Eisenach, and Halle Universities, students played jazz, turned clubs into jazz halls, and even tried to organize a public three-day jazz festival.


Meanwhile, the Stasi had been busy.


Worried about subversive influences, the Stasi even reported jazz activities as high up as Walter Ulbricht, the head of the GDR. Stasi agents glided through smoky cellars like sharks in the jazz club’s shadowy underworld.


Some agents, like Werner Sellhorn and Ulrich Blobel, doubled as regular artists at the Berlin Jazz Club. They played alongside German jazz stars like Ruth Hohmann while reporting the names, political affiliations, and activities of the 90 club members back to their Stasi handlers (Barbara Miller, Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany, 139).


Thanks to the Stasi’s mass surveillance capabilities, this network of agents and informers successfully infiltrated jazz clubs. Markus Wolf, the faceless spymaster who ran the Stasi for 34 years, integrated espionage into the fabric of East German society. “My spies were everywhere,” Wolf later claimed.


Secret police kept regular tabs on small jazz groups, the Berlin Jazz Club, and American jazz concerts. The Stasi even spied on their informers. As Blobel reported on his comrades, dozens of invisible Stasi informers watched his every move. They also monitored each piece of mail that he sent or received to and from the West (Kaldewey, 134, 218).


A Hotbed for Spies

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East German VOPO, a quasi-military border policeman standing guard on one of the bridges linking East and West Berlin, 1961. Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Many Stasi informers expressed no regrets for their collaboration. Others, less willing, found themselves trapped in an impossible situation. Nevertheless, this Stasi-informer collaboration helped shape the jazz scene in Berlin and East Germany.


Despite cinema tropes of seductive female spies, the Stasi used far more men than women spies. Despite women’s contributions, most Cold War authorities considered espionage a male-dominated sphere. American spy Leslie Woodhead had a narrow escape from a probable Stasi spy who tried to lure him home from the Eierschale jazz club, a popular Stasi honey-trap spot. At the NAAFI bar, gay Stasi agents targeted American servicemembers out for a good time (Leslie Woodhead, My Life as a Spy, 220).


Blackmail remained an evergreen spy-craft tool. The Stasi regularly recruited gay men to meet new contacts and gather intelligence. In a time that criminalized homosexuality and linked it to a heightened spy risk, the threat of same-sex blackmail had explosive potential.


The Stasi did not limit their operations to jazz clubs on their side of the Wall. In a clever tactic, they stopped West Germans while speeding in the East and frightened them into spying for them at the Dandy Club, the Big Apple, and the Eden Saloon in West Berlin.


Many informers, pressed into Stasi service, frequented jazz clubs. Their handlers wanted to know how Berlin’s subversive gay subculture and jazz dissident networks worked.


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“Attention! You will be leaving West Berlin in 40 meters.” Source: Allan Hailstone, Berlin in the Cold War: 1956 to 1966 / CNN Travel


The Stasi needed eyes and ears on both sides of the Wall. People who had something to hide became the easiest ones to control.


In November 1961, Berlin Jazz Club musician Werner Sellhorn, codenamed “Zirkel,” met with his Stasi handlers to report on Humboldt University students’ jazz activities. As the meeting wrapped up, the secret police warned Sellhorn to avoid jazz demonstrations and not to cross the gray line into “negative influences.” The chilling warning highlighted the uneasy dual existence of jazz musicians and informers.


As the years passed, Sellhorn started skipping Stasi meetings and dragged his feet when asked to report on his fellow musicians (Kaldewey, 138). Other reluctant Stasi informers also helped destabilize the surveillance state from the inside.


When time unmasked him as a Stasi informer, his fellow musicians did not appear to hold this role against him, thanks to his genuine contributions to jazz, despite the Stasi’s constraints and the relationships forged.


A Risky Career

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Broadcasting VOA, 1957. Source: Thomas J. O’Halloran / Library of Congress


Many jazz singers and musicians started their careers in jazz bars or clubs. Jazz producers or singers such as Angelika Weiz used their jazz expression to criticize the socialist system openly. As a result, the GDR banned a defiant Weiz from recording any records during her career.


Ruth Hohmann, known as the Ella Fitzgerald of the East, became the first East German to obtain a professional jazz singer license before 1965 (Kaldewey, 185). She even performed at the House of German-Soviet Friendship with the Jazz Optimists Berlin group in 1961. Her powerful, versatile voice made listeners laugh, cry, or punch the air with their fists as she reached the chorus.


By 1966, the government moved to silence her. They canceled her bookings on short notice. Before a television interview, the station received anonymous complaints. Sometimes, she fought back. In the 1970s, attitudes began to thaw. When Erich Honecker replaced Ulbricht at the nation’s helm, Hohmann resumed her jazz circuit.


Today, Germany remembers jazz activists for their intense devotion to improvisation, free expression, and banned music. They developed networks that stretched across the GDR and even penetrated beyond the Iron Curtain.


War on the Airwaves

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Voice of America studio radio system. Source: Thomas J. O’Halloran / Library of Congress


The CIA did not stop at jazz diplomacy. They also covertly funded the Voice of America’s radio broadcast program. VOA’s contrarian broadcaster and producer, Willis Conover, insisted on doing things his way. A tall, thin man with black-framed glasses, Willis helped convince a reluctant Congress that, rather than wasting taxpayers’ dollars, jazz had the potential to win the Cold War.


At the height of the Cold War, the West waged psychological warfare against the Soviets via radio stations, which beamed music and news to the Soviet satellite states, including East Germany. In response, Soviet authorities ramped up their efforts to jam VOA radio signals.


Up until the 1980s, the Stasi used local and long-distance jamming methods to block the airways and soundproof East Germany. In return, shortwave radios used high power and numerous frequencies to outmaneuver jamming efforts. The Stasi also launched propaganda crusades against the corrupting influence of jazz.


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Voice of America studio interior, 1957. Source: Thomas J. O’Halloran / Library of Congress


Despite this, millions of listeners fine-tuned their radio dials daily to catch the familiar surging theme music and the slow, sugary baritone voice that greeted them, “This is Willis Conover in Washington DC, with the Voice of America Jazz Hour.”


For over 30 years, Willis Conover and the Voice of America bombarded the Eastern Bloc with forbidden music. This hour of freedom reached millions of people in communist states. It not only helped Soviet citizens survive, but it helped pave the way for more cultural acceptance.


A Secret Sonic Victory

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East German students sit on the Berlin Wall in front of the border guards. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end of a divided Germany, November 1989. Source: University of Minnesota Institute of Advanced Studies / US National Guard


Across the Eastern Bloc, Soviet authorities fought a losing battle against the lure of jazz and democracy. By the 1980s, Glasnost and Perestroika’s “openness” and “restructuring” policies meant that resistance to popular music began to collapse.


In November 1989, an official slip-up resulted in a watershed moment. An official announced that East Germans could now cross the border. In response, crowds attacked the Berlin Wall with hammers, pickaxes, and their bare hands. Afterward, thousands of fans poured through to hit West Berlin music stores and get their hands on their favorite jazz artists’ records.


US jazz diplomacy and VOA broadcasts played a dual role in the cultural Cold War. America’s information war introduced new ideas that drove grassroots dissent. It also helped destabilize Soviet culture from the inside. This cultural invasion on an international scale may only have worked with the backing of the federal government. It certainly could not have succeeded without the efforts of millions of Germans.


Despite intense censorship, East Germans created jazz ensembles, clubs, and networks that crisscrossed the country. The combined force of musicians and journalists turned a musical passion into a popular form of unconscious resistance.


While it is impossible to quantify jazz’s impact on the GDR, jazz diplomacy, broadcasting, and activism launched a powerful cultural force. This triple threat helped break down ideological barriers and tested the limits of the communist regime.


Selected Bibliography


Kaldewey, Helma. (2020). A People’s Music: Jazz in East Germany, 1945-1990. Cambridge

University Press.

Miller, Barbara. (1999). Narratives of Guilt and Compliance in Unified Germany: Stasi Informers

and Their Impact on Society. London and New York: Routledge.

Poiger, Uta G. (2000). Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a

Divided Germany. University of California Press.

Woodhead, Leslie. (2005). My Life as a Spy. London: Macmillan.

Author Image

By Grace EhrmanMA European History, BA Russian LanguageGrace is a historian and Late Tsarist and Russian Civil War artifacts enthusiast. Her thesis explored the unrecognized Kuban Cossack state, grassroots anti-Soviet resistance, and connection to agrarian revolutionary movements in Ukraine. She holds a Master of Arts in Modern European History from Liberty University with a specialization in Imperial Russia, the Russian Revolution, World War I and II, and the Cold War. Her research interests include intelligence, autonomy, and resistance. She earned her BA in Russian linguistics. She is a member of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the American Historical Association.