Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Cloak and Dagger: On Espionage and Intelligence Services. Part One (October 2020): Warning the West about Soviet Intentions

Christopher C. Lovett

Warning the West about Soviet Intentions

Stephen Koch, a historian and literary critic, examines the role of the Comintern as an intelligence institution in Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas against the West. Koch also analyzes the particular role played by Willi Münzenberg, a close associate of Lenin and one of Stalin’s agents of influence. According to Koch, Münzenberg was more than a mere propagandist; he ran disinformation operations for the Kremlin, manipulating and using Western writers and scholars for the Kremlin’s benefit by distorting the truth. Sean McMeekin, one of a new breed of Russian scholars, also tackles Münzenberg in The Red Millionaire, demonstrating, like Koch, how Münzenberg helped poison the political atmosphere in 1930s Germany and elsewhere. Some of his recruits are still household names, including Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Andre Malraux, Dorothy Parker, and Bertolt Brecht. But the Comintern also recruited for the Soviet intelligence services, relying on national communist parties for those probationers. 

In The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service, Andrew Meier, a former foreign news correspondent based in Moscow, details the strange case of American Isaiah “Cy” Oggins, the son of Russian immigrants living in Connecticut and a Soviet intelligence operative murdered on Stalin’s orders. After joining the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in the 1920s, Oggins, and later his wife, embarked on a career in espionage, counterfeiting foreign currency in Berlin, spying on Russian émigrés in Paris, and later even reporting on Japanese activities in Manchuria. While in China, he himself was under suspicion by Moscow. Like so many others before and after him, Oggins met his fate in the Lubyanka prison in 1939 before disappearing into the Soviet Gulag.

In the 1930s, recruiting Americans to serve as Russian intelligence operatives was simple for the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) and GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate). They could rely on members of the CPUSA who went underground to serve the interests of the Soviet security apparatus. Some were cultivated in Marxist study groups among young government officials in Washington, many of them traumatized by the horrors of the Great Depression. Hope Hale Davis, although not a spy, joined the party and knew many of those implicated in Soviet espionage. She details how this happened in her memoir, Great Day Coming: A Memoir of the 1930s. Much like the British with the Cambridge spies, American officials naively believed that people from good families would never betray their country, and thus never fully adopted security procedures for government employment with the sudden expansion of New Deal agencies until much too late. In Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground, Thomas Sakmyster highlights a key operative of the period, J. Peters, who moved Soviet agents throughout the US in the 1930s and 1940s, especially those in “Carthage,” the Russian codename for Washington. However, as the Soviets realized their networks were made vulnerable by so many informal recruits, they sought more disciplined agent networks to better prevent exposure.

Throughout the 1930s, Soviet operatives, often part of the illegals program (a network of sleeper agents), identified Americans susceptible to Soviet interests for recruitment; first contact to final recruitment was an ongoing exercise by Russian talent scouts. In True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, Kati Marton, a writer and journalist, describes the espionage career of Noel Field, one of Moscow’s assets in the State Department and a contemporary of Alger Hiss, Julian Wadleigh, and Laurence Duggan. As Marton’s title indicates, Field and his accomplices were true believers in the Kremlin’s communist vision of a new world and believed that espionage would bring about the social and economic justice they sought, unlike later American spies who betrayed their country for money and other perverse pleasures. He and the others were linked to various espionage networks in Washington, either the Victor Perlo or Harold Ware cells, and the information they passed to their Soviet controls clearly assisted Soviet cryptanalysts who intercepted American diplomatic and military message traffic in the 1930s and 1940s. As Marton notes, however, their espionage often “gets lost amid the rhetorical heat of the cultural and political wars surrounding the Hiss-Chambers case” (p. 60).

At least one Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky, was familiar with some of those Russian assets buried deep in the American government. As the GRU rezident (Soviet Military Intelligence chief), Krivitsky, based in Holland, was deeply troubled by Stalin’s purge of the Red Army in the late 1930s and decided to defect rather than return to Moscow. However, his intimate knowledge of Soviet intelligence secrets marked him for assassination. Before his murder in a Washington hotel in 1940, and urged by Isaac Don Levine, a leading Soviet critic, he wrote his memoir, In Stalin’s Secret Service, published in 1939. When his book became available, Krivitsky was attacked by those on the Left until his prediction of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) came to fruition in August 1939. Later, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities before traveling to London to warn MI5, the British Security Services, that the Soviets had a mole in their ranks. Gary Kern, an expert on Russian history, provides a thorough account of Krivitsky’s story in A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror. According to Kern, Krivitsky linked Soviet espionage operations in the US to Earl Browder’s leadership of the CPUSA and encouraged Whittaker Chambers to come forward and further detail information about Russian intelligence operations in the US to American authorities after meeting with him. Chambers eventually agreed, culminating in the Chambers-Hiss confrontation in 1948. 

Krivitsky was not the only major Russian defector who fled Stalin’s terror. Another was Alexander Orlov. Unlike Krivitsky, who had detailed in his memoirs the role played by Earl Browder and American communists in conducting Soviet intelligence operations, Orlov was more controversial. After years living in hiding in the US as the FBI’s major defector, Orlov published his 1953 memoir The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes following Stalin’s death. Much like Krivitsky, Orlov, according to his own account, became disgruntled with Stalin and the Soviets, particularly their role in the Spanish Civil War. Edward Gazur, Orlov’s last FBI handler, wrote an account of Orlov’s history entitled Alexander Orlov: The FBI’s KGB General, including Orlov’s death in 1973, which Gazur believes may have been hastened by the KGB (Committee for State Security), the successor to the NKVD. Gazur also noted Orlov’s countless lies during FBI interrogations.

Earlier, John Costello, a noted British writer interested in Kim Philby and his accomplices, and Oleg Tsarev critically examined Orlov’s multivolume KGB dossier in Deadly Illusions. In their account Orlov did not defect, but rather claimed that he had actually reached a deal with Stalin, allowing his family to live. In return, Orlov would not betray more than sixty active Soviet intelligence operations against the West, including the Cambridge spies. More recently, Boris Volodarsky, another former Soviet intelligence officer who left Russia, debunked much of the earlier narratives of Orlov in Stalin’s Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov. Volodarsky’s definitive study demonstrates that Orlov deceived everyone he met, particularly in his claims to multiple intelligence agencies about recruiting the Cambridge spies. As Volodarsky notes, this singular Soviet intelligence achievement belonged instead to Dr. Arnold Deutsch, an active Soviet illegal based in Great Britain. Critically examining Orlov, it seems his clandestine career best exemplifies the sublime truth of American investigator James Jesus Angleton’s assertion that intelligence operations are a “wilderness of mirrors.”