It was an incredible story. And part of what made it so incredible was that the woman telling it, Martha “Marti” Peterson, seemed more likely to be in our audience than standing at the lectern. Looking at her, you’d say she was a retired schoolteacher, not a former spy. That was her appeal, she said. The CIA recruited her because she was the all-American type — wholesome and friendly.

Martha Peterson in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1976, on the sidelines of her CIA mission in Soviet Russia.

Her story began at the death of her husband, a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War who was an intelligence officer. After his death, she was recruited to join the CIA and was given an assignment in Moscow in the 1970s working as a secretary in the diplomatic corps, though really she was running a double agent. “The Russians assumed all the men were spies,” she said, “so they were followed all the time. But they didn’t suspect a little lady like me.”

Until they did.

“The Russians assumed all the men were spies,” she said, “so they were followed all the time. But they didn’t suspect a little lady like me.”

Until they did.

On July 15, 1975, Marti got into a car and drove to the center of Moscow, where she changed her dress and boarded a city bus. After switching onto several different buses, she finally hurried to a bridge, where she tucked a rock she had been carrying into an arch. Of course, it wasn’t a rock. Inside it contained a microphone, camera, a large sum of money and two ampules of poison. As soon as she made the drop, a man apprehended her. She was bundled off and interrogated by the Russian security service. Fortunately, she had diplomatic immunity, and after her interrogation they put her on the first available flight back to the U.S. Her cover was blown and her career as a spy was over.

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I have worked at Road Scholar for more than a dozen years, and have attended many, many programs. After hearing Marti’s story and listening to the other speakers in our espionage conference in Washington, D.C., I have to say that week was the most thrilling I’ve ever had on a Road Scholar program. What I love about our conferences is that we bring together the world’s best and brightest on the theme of the conference, and participants don’t just get to listen to them speak, they get to mingle, ask questions, share meals and feel like a true insider.

Dawn Kelly, the Area Director for the U.K., Ireland and Scandinavia who organizes our conferences, has a very impressive “little black book,” as she calls it. Dawn has made contacts at the highest levels in the worlds of espionage, military history, diplomacy and more.

Our first conference was in 2002 at Oxford University’s Christ Church (Dawn is based in the UK) and was focused on the Enigma codebreaker and espionage in World War II. Road Scholar participants stayed on the idyllic grounds of Christ Church and ate in the banquet hall that J.K. Rowling used as inspiration for her Hogwarts School. Dawn arranged an elegant receptionfor our participants with members of the original code-breaking team at Bletchley Park, who arrived wrapped in fur stoles. It was all very glamorous and our participants absolutely loved it.

Road Scholar conferences have included such distinguished speakers as Dr. Andrew Bacevich, the historian and public policy expert; Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the retired British diplomat and Chairman of the UN Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee; Maj. Gen. Julian Thompson, a former Royal Marines officer who commanded a brigade during the Falklands War; and Nigel West, a former member of parliament who is considered the “experts expert” on espionage. 

Access to speakers of this caliber is what keeps participants coming back year after year. Some have enjoyed the experience so much they have attended every conference we have ever offered — from Oxford, England to Washington, D.C. Word of our conferences has even spread to academic communities and our speakers love the opportunity to meet with others in their discipline in an informal setting.

This is really what Road Scholar is all about — enabling our participants to feed their passions by learning from some of the world’s leading experts and meeting their fellow participants who share those same passions. If you are curious to see for yourself some of the most interesting programming we have ever created, I encourage you to peruse our Conference Collection. We are currently offering conferences on World War I history, espionage, diplomacy and more, plus our newest conference based in Miami that focuses on the Cold War and includes an optional extension to Havana, Cuba. I’m also excited to announce we are developing new conferences on “Spies and Hollywood” and the “Gathering Storm” — the 100-year anniversary of the events leading up to World War II. So stay tuned for more information. I hope to see you there. Remember: You never know who you’ll meet.


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