Colonel Africa – by Ilona Yegiazarova

The following article is taken largely verbatim from an article written by Ilona Yegiazarova in the Moskovskaya Pravda of 18 September 2020.  Some material irrelevant for the present purposes has been omitted and a few additional facts have been added.  It recounts the life of a Spanish-born KGB Intelligence Officer, Africa de las Heras, whose little-known story we bring forward as LALKAR’s contribution to the celebration of International Women’s Day.

On September 18, 2020, the City of Moscow daily newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda published a chapter from an upcoming book on Soviet intelligence officers by journalist Ilona Yegiazarova. The chapter describes the life and work of Africa de las Heras (1909-1988), a Spanish-born Soviet intelligence officer active both during the World War Two and the early Cold War. In her later life, De las Heras was active in training the new generations of Soviet illegal intelligence officers.

The Sultry Girl

She was born in the city of Ceuta (Spanish Morocco) in 1909, where her father, an officer who was critical of the ruling regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera, worked in the military archive. And although Zoilo de las Heras Jimenez was the brother of the famous Spanish general Manuel de las Heras, working in Morocco was for him essentially an exile. (Remember the uncle who was the general; we will come back to him later in our story). The father gave his daughter an unusual name – Africa – in gratitude to the African continent which had sheltered him and his family. After some time, they returned to Spain where Zoilo died suddenly in 1933. Africa and her older sister Virtudes found themselves on their own.

Our heroine got married early; she had barely turned 19 and her husband was an officer, of course. He was a supporter of Francisco Franco, but at that time Africa did not attach any significance to that. Then the couple had a child, and, with all the passion of her nature, she plunged into the joys of motherhood. But the baby died.

This was the traumatic turning point that changed her life. The unhappy woman looked for an outlet for her emotions; she did not know where to direct her unspent energy… Her husband seemed not to understand what was going on and they divorced. Then Africa turned to the parties of the Left.

[Having trained as a dressmaker], in mid-1933, she worked in a textile factory in Madrid and joined the Communist Party. Soon she took part in the preparations for the miners’ uprising in the province of Asturias. She carried out the most dangerous assignments: she distributed weapons and acted as a liaison between the various detachments of the rebels all the while using the cover of being the famous general’s niece.

She ended up in jail a couple times and then hid from the authorities for a whole year.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, ‘Afrikita’ enthusiastically joined the fight against the Franco regime. It was then that she was recruited by Soviet foreign intelligence in Madrid. On its behalf, she began taking dangerous trips to neighbouring countries. She took on the operational pseudonym “Patria” which she used in her reports to the Centre for the rest of her life.

Leon Trotsky, Ramon Mercader, and Nikolay Kuznetsov

Our heroine faithfully served in the Soviet foreign intelligence service for more than 45 years. It is breathtaking just to try to count the roles she played and the missions she was involved in. However, the truth and the legend are difficult to keep apart in this respect. Her full biography is still classified and there are gaps that many have filled with invented tales.

The most intriguing chapter in her life is perhaps her acquaintance with Leon Trotsky. It is said that she was assigned to him in the role of a translator and a secretary. It is also claimed that she was a friend of Ramon Mercader and helped him prepare the assassination of the ‘demon of the revolution’ on Stalin’s orders. [However, Trotsky was not killed until August 1940, quite some time after she left Mexico, so although she may have been spying on him and would probably have met Mercader who was a part of Trotsky’s circle, it is unlikely she had anything to do with his death, which the Soviets have always denied having organised]. She was urgently recalled to the USSR in 1939 when the Soviet intelligence chief in Madrid, Alexander Orlov, frightened by the purge in the intelligence service, defected to the West. The Centre feared that he would expose Africa and therefore it recalled her to Moscow. Here our heroine received Soviet citizenship and got a job in a textile factory. Many Spaniards arrived in the USSR at that time and no one even suspected who this dark, fragile beauty really was. And Orlov never exposed his former subordinate…

When the Great Patriotic War began, Africa made every effort to be sent to the frontline. She enlisted in the Special Medical Unit of the OMSBON (Independent Motorised Brigade for Special Operations) of the NKVD, then she attended the accelerated courses for radio operators. After graduating with honours, she was sent to the newly formed reconnaissance and sabotage unit ‘Victors’ under the command of the future Hero of the Soviet Union Dmitry Medvedev. In her memoirs, she wrote:

Sometime later, I took the oath of a radio operator. I solemnly swore that I would never surrender to the enemy alive and would blow up with grenades the transmitter, the quartz mechanism, and the ciphers. I was handed two grenades, a pistol, a curved [Finnish] knife. From that moment on, I constantly carried all of that with me…”

From a partisan detachment, deep behind enemy lines, she fearlessly sent to Moscow secret information obtained by intelligence officer Nikolay Kuznetsov who operated under cover as an officer of the German secret police Paul Siebert. In order to send his encrypted messages to the Centre, three radio operators, accompanied by guards, would go out of the camp into the forest. Two radio operators would broadcast disinformation, and only Africa – because she was the best – was chosen to transmit accurate information to Moscow. This was done to deceive the potential German interceptors. Nikolay Kuznetsov called her his favourite radio operator.

She steadfastly endured all the hardships of partisan life: “We received telegrams from about thirty partisan units. We handled encryption, transmission, reception, decryption… We had almost no time left for sleep.” The Russian winter caused physical suffering in this woman from the South: she felt cold all the time. Once Kuznetsov got three short fur coats for his radio operators and he also gave Africa a beautiful woollen shawl. For the rest of her life, she remembered him fondly…

For the successful performance of combat missions and active participation in the partisan movement during the war years, Africa was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War of the 2nd  degree and the Order of the Red Star, as well as the medals ‘For Courage’ and ‘Partisan of the Patriotic War’ of the 1st  degree.

She got married on the orders of the Centre

In the first year after the war, Africa settled in Paris [as a dressmaker]. [There she married a Uruguayan and transferred to Uruguay with her husband whom she divorced after she received her residency permit]. Her cover was that of the owner of a fashion studio and later of an antiquarian shop [in Montevideo]. And you know, she had some brilliant successes. Elegant, with a lot expertise in art, a painter herself, she easily made friends with high society ladies. Through them, she met their high-ranking husbands and obtained valuable information. She spent 22 years in Latin America [where she was known as Maria Luisa]. There was a lot of work to do. After eight years of solo work, in 1956, the Centre sent her a husband!

She obeyed without a protest and did not ask a single question. Her husband, the station chief Giovanni Antonio Bertoni was an Italian by birth and had worked for the USSR since 1936. He was Africa’s supervisor and a friend. Was there any romantic love between them? When, after eight years of marriage, he died suddenly, she was crushed with grief.

Africa was also engaged in covert missions linked to the Cuban missile crisis and the struggle against the American atomic programme. Although she could have retired after the death of her husband, “Patria” wanted to remain working. The country where she was based seemed to be on the verge of a military coup, and she remained there for another three years to collect and transmit important information.


She returned to the USSR in the 1970s [with the rank of Colonel in the KGB, and was awarded the Order of Lenin]. She trained young intelligence officers and shared her experiences with them. She did not have any children of her own and her maternal care and tenderness found an outlet in her relations with her students. Of course, she longed for her family members left behind in Spain, whom she had not seen since 1939. Once she heard on the radio how the Spanish Red Cross was looking for lost loved ones. The list of endless names included her sister Virtudes who was looking for her. Her heart sank, but she could not reply because of her intelligence work. That’s the kind of life she led: she was completely devoted to the ideals of peace and security.

Africa de las Heras died at the age of 78, on an important day – March 8, 1988 [and is buried in the Khovanovskaya cemetery in Moscow].. On an international women’s holiday, on a date with three eights, which symbolise infinity. …

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