The Russian spy who befriended NATO officers in Naples and her time in Malta

A joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, The Insider and La Repubblica uncovers the real identity of a female Russian spy in Italy, who lived for a time in Malta with her boyfriend

Russian spy 'Maria Adela' (centre) with friends including Marcelle D’Argy Smith in Malta in 2010. (Photo published by Bellingcat courtesy Marcelle D’Argy Smith)
Russian spy 'Maria Adela' (centre) with friends including Marcelle D’Argy Smith in Malta in 2010. (Photo published by Bellingcat courtesy Marcelle D’Argy Smith)

A Russian spy who befriended NATO and American officers in Naples had lived in Malta for a while, an investigation by several media partners has revealed.

A 10-month investigation conducted by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, The Insider and La Repubblica has uncovered the real identity of a female Russian spy who charmed her way into NATO circles in Italy until 2018.

The woman, who went by the false name Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, acted as a widowed socialite and styled herself as a successful jewellery designer with a chaotic personal life.

And in a little detail from the whole story, it seems that ‘Maria Adela’ had lived in Malta with her boyfriend between 2009 and 2011.

The investigation revealed that the true identity of ‘Maria Adela’ was Olga Kolobova and she was an agent for GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.

GRU agents had been involved in the poisoning of Russian dissident Sergey Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, the UK in 2018. Bellingcat had carried out an in-depth investigation into the true identity of the suspects of the Salisbury Novichok poisonings to reveal that the two men were actually undercover Russian military intelligence agents.

It was that investigation in 2018 that provided the initial information for the latest revelation, which has blown the cover on ‘Maria Adela’. The domestic Russian passport issued to ‘Maria Adela’ belonged to a range that GRU had issued for domestic passports of at least six other GRU spies.

The Malta connection

According to Bellingcat and its partners, “a scattering of social media posts showing her [‘Maria Adela’] in other people’s photos place her in Malta and Rome in the period between 2009 and 2011”.

The media partners interviewed several people who befriended ‘Maria Adela’ and one of these was Marcelle D’Argy Smith, former editor of the UK edition of Cosmopolitan magazine.

D’Argy Smith has a residence in Malta and became close friends with ‘Maria Adela’ whom she met over drinks in Malta in the summer of 2010.

According to D’Argy Smith, ‘Maria Adela’ lived in Malta with her then boyfriend, but at some point moved to Ostia, near Rome, to take classes in gemology. Maria tried hard to obtain a German passport on account of her German father, D’Arcy Smith said, but the process stalled after ‘Maria Adela’ suddenly appeared to lose interest.

A photo taken in 2010, shows ‘Maria Adela’ at a dinner with D’Arcy Smith and two unidentified male guests in Malta.

A dramatic personal life

Based on interviews with four people whom ‘Maria Adela’ befriended over a decade, she told those she met a back story that made her the love child of a German father and a Peruvian mother, and was born in Callao, Peru. Her single mother had travelled with little ‘Maria Adela’ to the Soviet Union in 1980, to attend the Olympic Games in Moscow. However, her mother had received an emergency message from Peru that required her to return home urgently – and left little ‘Maria Adela’ in the care of a Soviet family that she had apparently befriended.

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 – abused her in her childhood years.

Jeweller and socialite

But it was in Naples that ‘Maria Adela’s’ career as a Russian illegal spy peaked. She became a fixture on the local social scene, opened a jewellery and luxury items boutique, later turning it into a trendy club frequented by the local highlife, and eventually becoming the secretary of charitable organisation Lion’s Club that was also attended by members of the NATO command centre in Naples.

Despite styling herself as a jewellery designer, the items 'Maria Adela' marketed were actually cheap jewellery bought from Chinese wholesalers.

It is unclear whether ‘Maria Adela’ ever gained access to NATO offices and what information she may have gleaned from her well-laced ‘friends’.

But in 2018, shortly after Bellingcat revealed the identity of the Russian agents who carried out the Skripal poisoning in the UK, ‘Maria Adela’ left Italy for Moscow and in a Facebook post two months later posted a Facebook message suggesting she was receiving treatment for cancer.

Bellingcat reports that the real GRU agent, Olga Kolobova, was at the time driving around in her latest Audi model and seeking to purchase a luxury apartments in Moscow’s upscale district.

Just over three years after disappearing from Naples, on 4 December 2021 ‘Maria Adela’ sent one more cryptic message, this time in a direct WhatsApp chat with Marcelle D’Argy Smith. The message read:

“Dearest dearest Marcelle! There are [a] lot of things which I can’t (and never be able) to explain! But missing you a lot and very very much….”.