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Gentlemen prefer brunettes: How a GRU agent turned NATO officers around her little finger

In recent years, the work of GRU officers has been associated with high-profile failures: they tried to poison a fugitive spy with Novichok but killed a British citizen instead; they brought a Buk missile system to Donbass to shoot down warplanes but shot down a Boeing passenger jet. Time after time again they demonstrate fantastic unprofessionalism: when hackers from the GRU were arrested while trying to hack the OPCW network, one of them had a cab receipt with the address of a military unit in his pocket; other GRU members were arrested after the failed coup in Montenegro - it turned out they were sending money to militants via Western Union and gave the address of the GRU headquarters on Khoroshevskoye highway. Why do Russian spies fail so often? Perhaps it is simply not a man's profession. This investigation is the story of a woman who, under the guise of a socialite of Peruvian origin, managed to fool dozens of NATO officers (and others) and had been obtaining valuable information from various European countries for years. She would still be living and working in Europe if the investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat had not forced her to return to Russia and change her job as a spy to a modest position in the Pension Fund.

  • Adela's first birth and a ghostly church

  • Adela's Second Coming: From Peru to the Soviet Olympics

  • Rome, Malta, Paris, London

  • A strange marriage

  • Merry Widow Comes to Success in Naples

  • Lions Club and NATO infiltration

  • Bahrain

  • Evacuation and fictitious cancer

  • Identification of “Adela”

This is a joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel and La Repubblica


At midnight on September 14, 2018, Major General Andrei Averyanov, commander of the secret GRU operational unit 29155, was still at work - at the GRU headquarters on Khoroshevskoye Highway. The general was having a hard day: in the evening The Insider and Bellingcat published their investigation “The Salisbury gang”, dedicated to Averyanov's subordinates, “Petrov” and “Boshirov”, where their involvement with the special services was proved. Among other things, the investigation revealed, for the first time, that GRU servicemen used consecutively numbered passports. The text ended with the words: “It is also interesting that if you change the last digit in the numbers of Petrov’s or Boshirov’s passports, you will again find people with strange profiles, incomplete addresses (for example, without apartments), absent from social networks and databases”. The text ended with “to be continued,” and although Averyanov could not have known at the time that the text would be first in a series of high-profile investigations, he already understood the scale of the disaster that had occurred: dozens of active spies, many of whom were in Europe right at that moment with similarly numbered passports.

This text by The Insider and Bellingcat fit on two pages but made a lot of hubbub on Khoroshevskoye highway. Averyanov constantly received phone calls from GRU chief Kostyukov, all the intelligence leadership worked in emergency mode until the night. Three minutes before midnight Averyanov received a call from the GRU department in charge of “illegals”, that is, intelligence officers who permanently live abroad under the guise of foreigners and under false names. Usually, this profession is associated with the Foreign Intelligence Service, but the GRU also has its own “illegals”, albeit few in number. Preparing an illegal alien is the most difficult of all intelligence tasks, long years must be spent on the introduction, a spy must possess excellent language skills and must be able to convincingly play his role; in a word, they must be as unlike “Petrov” and “Boshirov” as possible.

The next day, September 15, 2018, a woman with a passport in the name of Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera bought a one-way ticket from Naples, Italy, to Moscow. The most interesting thing about the passport, however, was not the name but its number - it was different from the passports of “Petrov” and “Boshirov” only by the last digit. “Adela” had been living in various European countries for about ten years and was well known in many circles as a Peruvian-born socialite and designer of her own line of jewelry. She was closely associated with the military, politicians and journalists, giving interviews and throwing raucous parties, but in one day, September 15, 2018, Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera transformed back into Olga Vasilyevna Kolobova, born in 1982, and returned to her Moscow apartment in Western Degunino.

Adela's first birth and a ghostly church

On August 8, 2005, the Civil Registry Office of the Independencia District in Lima, Peru, received an application for adding a new Peruvian citizen to the national database. The woman identified herself as Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, and her attorneys presented a birth certificate from the registry office in the seaside town of Callao. The birth certificate was dated September 1, 1978, and had the serial number 1109 from the 1978 Record of Births. The Registry Office requested further confirmation and Adela's attorneys presented an additional document: a baptism certificate from Cristo Liberador parish in Callao. According to the church document, Maria Adela was born on September 1, 1978, and was baptized two weeks later, on September 14, 1978. To confirm this information, the Registry Office contacted the parish priest of the Diocese of Cristo Liberador, Rev. José Enrique Herrera Quiroga. The priest did not even have to check the church records to realize that the document was fake, because he was the founder and inaugural priest of this church, founded in 1987, nine years after the alleged baptism of Maria Adela.

In connection with this fraudulent claim, the Peruvian ministry of justice referred the case to the prosecutor's office as a “crime against public safety and faith.”

Adela's Second Coming: From Peru to the Soviet Olympics

Although the Peruvian citizenship story failed, the GRU leadership was too lazy to come up with a new cover story (probably not suspecting that the Peruvian government would make the information public). In any case, “Maria Adela” received her first Russian passport in 2006, using exactly the same name and date of birth. According to the cover created for her, she worked as a “leading specialist” at Moscow State University and lived at an address in Moscow, where, as we managed to establish, other people actually lived who were unaware of her existence.

Notably, the internal Russian passport issued to “Maria Adela” had the same number series as the passports issued by the GRU to at least six other GRU employees, including “Sergei Pavlov” (real name Sergei Lyutenko), one of the poisoners of Bulgarian arms dealer Emelian Gebrev, and “Alexander Danilin” (real name Alexander Kovalchuk), involved in poisoning Sergei Skripal. This means that “Maria Adela” received her Russian passport around November-December 2006, just before the Peruvian Ministry of Justice published her exposé (albeit on a little-visited website).

Later, “Maria Adela” told her new acquaintances a rather exotic version of her origins: she was born in Callao, Peru, her father was German and her mother was Peruvian. Her father abandoned them, her mother raised her alone, and in 1980 she went with her mother to the Soviet Union to take part in the Olympics (!). There her mother received an emergency message from Peru requiring her to return home urgently and left little “Maria Adela” in the care of a certain Soviet family (?!) with whom she had apparently become friends. Her mother never returned (!), and “Maria Adela” grew up in Russia, having a difficult relationship with both her adoptive mother and her father, who, she told people, had abused her during her childhood years. The latter, she told people she befriended, was the reason she did not want to live in Russia or marry a Russian man and explained her desire to live and start a family in Western Europe.

Rome, Malta, Paris, London

It is hard to establish exactly when “Adela” appeared in Europe but judging by her photos on other people's social media pages, she was in Rome and Malta between 2009 and 2011.

Marcelle D'Argy Smith, formerly editor of the British edition of the Cosmopolitan magazine, considered Adela a close friend since she met her at her birthday party in Malta in 2010. According to her, “Adela” told her then that she had studied gemology in Paris, but had also been to Malta often, where she had a boyfriend.

“Maria Adela” (center) with friends on the terrace of Marcelle D'Argie Smith's (second from left) apartment in Malta on Sept. 1, 2010  Photo courtesy of Marcelle D'Argie Smith
“Maria Adela” (center) with friends on the terrace of Marcelle D'Argie Smith's (second from left) apartment in Malta on Sept. 1, 2010 Photo courtesy of Marcelle D'Argie Smith
“Maria Adela” at the Vatican with her then Maltese boyfriend, photo circa 2010
“Maria Adela” at the Vatican with her then Maltese boyfriend, photo circa 2010

The earliest records of Adela's international travel that could be found in databases date back to October 10, 2011, when she took the first of many two-and-a-half-day train trips from Moscow to Paris. Why she took the train from Moscow so often is not quite clear; she herself attributed it to aerophobia. The passport with which she traveled at this time was issued in August 2011 and had the number 643258050 - just a few digits away from the passport number of “Sergei Fedotov” (real name Denis Sergeev), the third participant in the poisoning of the Skripals.

A comparison of Maria Adela Rivera Kuhfeldt’s (left) and Sergei Fedotov’s (right) passport details
A comparison of Maria Adela Rivera Kuhfeldt’s (left) and Sergei Fedotov’s (right) passport details

According to Marcelle D'Argy Smith, “Adela Maria” first studied gemology at a university in Rome, and in February 2011 traveled to the UK on a school-organized trip to various fashion design companies. In October 2011, Maria Adela moved to Paris to pursue an MBA. Italian immigration records obtained by La Repubblica confirm D'Argie Smith's recollection and show that “Maria Adela” initially traveled on short-term French visas and eventually obtained a student visa in September 2011.

Adela also visited London frequently and D'Argie Smith recalls that Adela asked to be introduced to some English politicians or lords, but never made any progress beyond starting a conversation.

Soon after moving to Paris, she registered her own jewelry trademark in France under the Serein brand. From then on, Adela's official business cover was the jewelry company.

A strange marriage

In July 2012, “Maria Adela” married a man who, she explained to her friends, was Italian. In fact, in addition to his Italian passport, her husband D.M. had Ecuadorian and Russian citizenships and was born in Moscow to a Russian mother and Ecuadorian father. Shortly before their wedding, he obtained a Russian passport from the Russian Embassy in Ecuador. After the marriage was registered in Rome, Italy, he traveled to Moscow, where he received a Russian tax identification number in September 2012.

A year later he went to Moscow again, separately from “Maria Adelie.” He died in Moscow on July 13, 2013, at the age of 30; the cause of death was recorded on the death certificate as “double pneumonia and systemic lupus erythematosus.” Her husband's close friends were very surprised when they learned from The Insider that he had been married; they had never heard of “Maria Adele”, and her appearance told them nothing. They assumed that he had entered into a marriage of convenience to help someone obtain a European passport.

Border crossing records show that “Maria Adela” was not in Russia at the time of her new husband's death and did not arrive in Moscow until a month later, on August 15, 2013. His close friend, who agreed to speak to The Insider on condition of anonymity due to concerns for his safety over the discussion of potential GRU spies, was surprised to learn that he had married without telling his friends and suggested that he may have agreed to a marriage of convenience to help someone obtain a European passport. The friend also told The Insider that he had been diagnosed with lupus less than two months before his sudden death.

Merry Widow Comes to Success in Naples

In early 2013, Maria Adela registered her own company in Italy, Serein SRL, whose purpose was to manufacture and trade jewelry and luxury goods. She later moved to the Neapolitan suburb of Posillipo overlooking the bay.

Source: Maria “Adela's” Instagram
Source: Maria “Adela's” Instagram

It was in Naples that “Maria Adela's” career as a Russian illegal spy peaked. Over the next three years, she became a fixture on the local social scene: she opened a jewelry and luxury items boutique, later turning it into a trendy club, where the local highlife thrived, and eventually headed the local branch of the charity organization Lions Club.

The Maria Adela boutique featured signature jewelry from the Serein line, which she claimed to have designed herself. Her company's now-defunct web page stated, “Since 1800, we have worked to create small works of art that evoke emotion.”

In fact, a reverse image search reveals that the “little works of art” sold in Maria Adela's boutique and supposedly “created in Naples” turned out to be cheap trinkets bought from Chinese online wholesalers.

Amazingly, not only was “Adela” not exposed, but she even managed to launch a “Serein concept gallery.” The gallery's promo video says that the place has become a haven for the local Neapolitan public, including local politicians, businessmen and celebrities. Most likely the owners have somewhat embellished the image of the gallery, but we must admit that “Adela” has succeeded quite well in establishing its legend and making new useful acquaintances.

“Maria Adela” at the grand opening of the Serein concept store, February 11, 2016
“Maria Adela” at the grand opening of the Serein concept store, February 11, 2016

Lions Club and NATO infiltration

Perhaps Adela's biggest accomplishment, which opened many doors for her, was her position as secretary of the local branch of the Lions Club charity in 2015. The branch, called the Lions Club Napoli Monte Nuovo, had one important feature - it was created by NATO officers based in Naples and even featured the NATO Joint Forces insignia on its banner.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Thorsten S., a German Bundeswehr officer who was treasurer of the Lions Club in 2015, the club’s membership had waned, and an executive from the biggest Lions Club in Naples recommended “Maria Adela” as a way to invigorate the membership by activating international connections in Naples' civil society. He recalls that Maria Adela was very active in trying to revitalize the club, attending all the events, and at one point in 2018, as membership declined and prospects of club closure re-emerged, she even volunteered to pay everyone's membership fee. At the time, the Lieutenant Colonel saw nothing suspicious in this sudden generosity.

Photo of the NATO-associated branch of the Lions Club. “Maria Adela,” fourth from right
Photo of the NATO-associated branch of the Lions Club. “Maria Adela,” fourth from right

Three NATO-affiliated “Maria Adela” acquaintances we interviewed said that as a member of the Lions Club she interacted with many NATO officers, became friends with a number of officers, and frequently interacted with them on social media, some of those connections being clearly romantic in character.

One of the people thought to be close to Maria Adele was Colonel Shelia Bryant, then Inspector General of the U.S. Navy in Europe and Africa. Ms. Bryant, who left Naples in May 2018 and ran for a Democratic congressional seat, said she found Adela's backstory confusing and unconvincing (“Why would anyone abandon their child in the Soviet Union?”) The source of her income was also unclear to her: “She opened a store and frequently moved apartments in affluent parts of town with no credible income streams.”) Ms. Bryant claims she and her husband limited their interactions with “Adela” to small talk, trying among other things to help her overcome what seemed to them to be emotional problems in dealing with men. (Marcelle D'Argie Smith and another acquaintance of “Maria Adela,” who wished to remain anonymous, had the same impression. Shelia Bryant assured that she did not discuss politics with “Maria Adela,” and that Shelia herself had limited access to strictly confidential military information on a need-to-know basis. According to her recollection, Adela communicated socially not only with American but also with Belgian, Italian, and German NATO officers and staff.

Another person that Lieutenant Colonel Thorsten S. described as being close to “Maria Adela” - before they quarreled with each other in 2018 - was at the time the data systems administrator at the NATO command center in Naples (she declined to comment after learning the subject of the interview).

Although “Maria Adela” had direct personal access to many NATO and U.S. Navy officers in Naples, visited the homes of some of them, and attended many events organized by NATO or the U.S. military, including the annual NATO and U.S. Marine Corps balls the only thing that remains unclear is whether she ever had physical access to the NATO base.


Judging by D'Argie Smith's recollections and social media posts on “Maria Adela”’s Facebook page she had been traveling to Bahrain regularly since 2013 under the pretext of attending the annual Jewellery Arabia expo.

A scan of an article from a Bahraini newspaper that mentions “Maria Adela Rivera Kuhfeldt” and a photo of her at the expo. The photos were emailed by “Adela” to Marcelle D'Argie Smith in December 2013
A scan of an article from a Bahraini newspaper that mentions “Maria Adela Rivera Kuhfeldt” and a photo of her at the expo. The photos were emailed by “Adela” to Marcelle D'Argie Smith in December 2013

Adela seems to have made some good contacts in Bahrain as well. In December 2014, a photo was posted on her company's Facebook account showing her gifting Serein cufflinks to the country's then prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

The last known time “Maria Adela” likely traveled to Bahrain was in 2017, judging by the email she sent to Marcelle D'Argie Smith in August 2017, in which she wrote that she was then waiting for her Italian residency permit to be renewed and had booked a trip to Bahrain and then to Moscow in mid-November of that year.

What exactly Adela was doing in Bahrain is unclear, but it is worth noting that the country is home to a U.S. naval base with more than 7,000 American officers and soldiers.

Evacuation and fictitious cancer

After The Insider and Bellingcat published their investigation about “Petrov” and “Boshirov” mentioning GRU passport series, “Maria Adela” flew to Moscow for the last time without having time to explain anything to her European acquaintances. The only souvenir from her past life that “Maria Adela” took with her was her cat Louise, which her acquaintances described as “the only stable thing in her life.” Two months after her departure, she made a final cryptic but important post on her Facebook page. In it, she mentioned that she had been suffering from cancer and revealed that her hair had grown back “after chemotherapy.”

As the fictitious “Adela” was dying of cancer, the real Olga Kolobova was getting on well in Moscow - she bought a latest-model Audi and moved into a state-supplied luxury apartment in the Seliger City complex in the already familiar Western Degunino neighborhood.

 Adela's new home
Adela's new home

Her European friends thought the missing “Adela” was probably dead. But just over three years after her disappearance, on Dec. 4, 2021, “Maria Adela” wrote a cryptic message, this time in a direct WhatsApp chat with Marcelle D'Argie Smith. The message read:

“Dearest, dearest Marcelle!

There are a lot of things I can't (and never be able to) explain!

But missing you a lot and very, very much...”

Identification of “Adela”

“Maria Adela” drew our attention in late 2021, when we discovered that a holder of a GRU passport was a person with the name absent from every Russian database. We discovered that she had been issued at least three passports – one domestic and two foreign travel passports – with the number ranges used by many other known GRU officers. Her cover identity was that of a mixed-ancestry South American-born person, a favored backstory for both Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR) and GRU illegals.

Finding Adela's real identity proved a challenge. A reverse face search of the Russian passport database yielded hundreds of possible matches with low similarities, which we analyzed one by one. Comparing two different-aged photos of “Adela” from social media sources against an old passport photo of a Russian citizen named Olga Kolobova, born in 1982, using the Microsoft Azur tool gave an unimpressive estimate of less than 35%. However, due to the fact that the photo in Kolobova’s passport file was very old, the low percentage could be simply due to the age difference.

Otherwise, the biographies of Kolobova and “Adela” fit together well. First, Olga Kolobova left no digital footprint in Moscow until 2018. But traces of her presence can be found in great abundance after November 2018 - just about the time Adela was supposed to return to Moscow.

In November 2018, Olga Kolobova purchased her first car in Russia, a brand-new 2018 Audi 3 - “Adela” had also preferred the Audi brand.

Instagram photo posted by Maria Adela in 2016
Instagram photo posted by Maria Adela in 2016

On her Odnoklassniki (OK) account, Kolobova promotes pro-war content from the Friends of Putin group, she is also subscribed to a group run by a veterinary clinic in Moscow that treats cats, among other animals.

Using old regional databases, we were eventually able to trace Olga's previous digital presence in Russia to 2005 when, at the age of 23, she registered a company selling alcohol in Russia’s Krasnodar region. Upon finding her then registered address, we were able to track down her father. He heads the military department at the Kamensk-Uralsky branch of the Urals University, was decorated with the Order of Honor, and “performed international duty in the Republics of Iraq, Angola, and Syria.” Apparently, Olga Kolobova was a second-generation GRU officer.

Curiously, Kolobova became the owner of two apartments in Moscow within a short period since November 2018: one, a small studio in a prestigious district, was purchased in April 2019, and the second, a luxurious one-hundred-meter apartment in the elite Seliger City residential complex worth about 600,000 euros, was bought in 2020, and its owner is still officially listed as the Russian state.

At the same time, judging by the leaked food delivery data from YandexFoods, Olga had been ordering food during working hours to an address matching that of the Russian Pension Fund. Few rank-and-file employees of the Pension Fund are so well provided with apartments.

A decisive confirmation that Adela and Olga Kolobova are one person was a photo we received of Olga Kolobova from her driver's license, taken in 2021. A comparison of these photos has already yielded a convincing match.

Olga Kolobova declined to comment for The Insider.

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