To those who met them in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1935, the Swiss businessman Charles Emile Martin and his American partner, Cy Oggins, must have seemed an enigmatic pair. Oggins was a distinguished-looking man with craggy features, well-made suits, and a penchant for silver-topped walking sticks. He seemed to know a great deal about Oriental antiquities, and sometimes described himself as an art dealer. Martin was more discreet, preferring plain neckties and gabardine overcoats, though his wife Elsa was fond of elegant handbags and furs. Both men were polyglots, with a wide if vague range of European connections. Working in concert with a Milanese businessman, they had come to Manchukuo to sell Fiat cars and airplanes to the Japanese.
At the time, Mussolini was courting the Japanese regime—he had just sent an “Italian Fascist Goodwill Mission” to Manchuria—and the business seems to have been a success. At the end of 1937, the Japanese imperial government bought seventy-two Italian planes. The Japanese military attaché in Rome reported the deal with approval. It was, he declared with satisfaction, “equal to three heavy bomber regiments.” As Fiat’s representatives in Manchukuo, Martin and Oggins surely shared some of the credit. But by the time the sale went through, both Martin and Oggins had disappeared.
The deal was real enough. But the salesman had not been quite what they seemed. Charles Emile Martin—alias George Wilmer, Lorenz, Laurenz, or Dubois—had been named Max Steinberg at birth. Though he spoke fluent German and French with a Marseilles accent, Steinberg was born not in Switzerland but in Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, a Ukrainian port town on the northern coast of the Black Sea. He had obtained a genuine Swiss passport through the use of fraudulent identity documents. Oggins’s surname was authentic, as was his American passport, but his persona was not. Before living in Manchuria, he also passed some time in Paris, living innocuously next door to one of the last members of the Romanov dynasty—an excellent place from which to keep a close watch on the White Russian diaspora—as well as Berlin. Those who had once known him as Isaiah Oggins, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper in the Connecticut mill town of Willimantic, would have been astonished by his aristocratic demeanor. Those who had known him as a Columbia graduate student dabbling in radical politics would have been even more surprised.
Steinberg and Oggins looked and acted like wealthy businessmen, but in fact they were Soviet spies, operating not as diplomats but as “illegals,” under false identities and beneath deep cover. “Charles Martin and Co.” may have been a real business, but as Andrew Meier discovered while writing The Lost Spy, his meticulously researched and beautifully written biography of Oggins, the company also provided its “owners” with a reason to be in Manchukuo in 1935. From this unusual vantage point, they were able to observe not only Axis politics but also, again, the large White Russian community that had emigrated to Harbin after the Russian Revolution. They abandoned the effort only because the war between China and Japan was intensifying. There is no record that they were ever exposed.
Their success was not unusual at the time. Nowadays, we tend to place spies into a cold war narrative: East vs. West, intrigue around the Berlin Wall, Graham Greene’s Vienna, and George Smiley’s London. But the first and most successful Soviet spies emerged much earlier. As Robert Service observes in Spies and Commissars, his equally colorful history of the Bolsheviks’ early relationships with the West, the first Soviet espionage efforts were amateurish: “on this as on other practical matters, Marx and Engels had left no handbook of instruction behind.” Most of the Bolsheviks’ knowledge of intelligence and counterintelligence came from their own experiences with the Okhrana, the tsarist security police, who had often used double agents to infiltrate the revolutionary movements in Russia. A young protégé of Lenin was among these agents, as the Bolsheviks discovered when they opened the Okhrana files, and some have always thought Stalin himself may have been as well.
But the new spies learned fast—so much so that the 1930s, W.H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” became a period of extraordinarily creative skulduggery for Soviet espionage. In this era, Soviet agents recruited Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and (probably) John Cairncross, the infamous “Cambridge Five.” In the US they recruited Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. At the same time, the NKVD also trained a group of men who later became known as the “Great Illegals,” Russian spies who were or pretended to be foreign nationals and who lived under deep cover. They took their tradecraft to such high levels that CIA officers once studied their exploits as a part of basic training. “Before the war the Soviets ran circles around us,” a retired CIA officer told Meier. “The twenties, the thirties—that was their heyday.”
Members of this generation of illegals included Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy who spoke fluent German from childhood—his mother was Russian, his father was German—and who penetrated the German embassy in Tokyo by posing as a Nazi reporter. Among other things, Sorge sent Stalin advance warning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, though Stalin chose to ignore him. Ignace Poretsky, alias Ignace Reiss, was another leading figure of the era. Based in Paris for many years, well known to Communists across Europe, Reiss was murdered by NKVD agents in Switzerland in 1937, after he objected to Stalin’s policies and tried to defect. His death set off a chain of other events, among other things convincing Whittaker Chambers to abandon his own career as a Soviet agent.
In Stalin’s Romeo Spy, Emil Draitser tells the life story of yet another Great Illegal, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, the inventor of the modern “honey trap.” Bystrolyotov, the bastard son of a member of the aristocratic Tolstoy family (or so he claimed), was recruited by the nascent Soviet secret services while living abroad in the 1920s. Encouraged by his superiors in Moscow, he obtained a fake Greek passport from a crooked consul in Danzig, started a cloth-trading company in Poland, and then moved to Berlin, where he embarked on a career seducing secretaries, countesses, and diplomat’s wives. At one point he married his own wife off to a French intelligence officer in the hopes of obtaining even more information.
Like so many spies, Bystrolyotov’s attraction to intelligence work grew out of his psychology: Draitser points out that “by his own admission, he ‘reveled in it, despite the danger; a new world opened for [him].’” As Meier writes, many of the other Great Illegals were also “masters of seduction” who could “ingratiate themselves in any company, whether their interlocutor was a visiting ambassador or a train-station prostitute.” Those attracted to the deepest levels of clandestine work had to love disguises, secrets, deception, and pretense. They had to be able to memorize new identities, new biographies, and complicated cover stories. In practice, they had to get some pleasure out of doing so as well.
Yet in this era, many spies were drawn to serve the USSR for more than mere love of secrets. Certainly Steinberg, Oggins, Bystrolyotov, Sorge, and—until their defection—Reiss and Chambers all intitially served the USSR out of profound ideological conviction. The roots of Oggins’s loyalty to the Communist Party ran deep into his mill town childhood. Bystrolyotov’s mother had been a convinced progressive, a radical feminist who had deliberately given birth to him out of wedlock.
The economics and the politics of the time also led many into collaboration with the USSR. Chambers himself later described the appeal of communism in Witness, his autobiography: “The vision inspires. The crisis impels.” To an extent not appreciated now, both Europeans and Americans were deeply disappointed by the failures of capitalism and liberal democracy in the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. Many came to feel that their choices were limited to fascism on the one hand or Marxism on the other, a polarized view of the world that was promoted and encouraged by people on both sides. Nor, among many leftists, was there a stigma, as there would be in later years, in taking “Moscow Gold.” To the truly dedicated, the goals of the international proletariat and the Soviet secret police would have seemed equally laudable and utterly interchangeable.
The feelings were not always mutual. From the beginning, the Soviet Union deployed foreign spies—but from the beginning, the Soviet elite never trusted those spies either. Anybody willing to go abroad and live among capitalists, even for the sake of the regime, always lived under a cloud of suspicion upon his return. In its earliest incarnation, the Cheka, the Soviet secret police (later renamed the OGPU, the NKVD, and then the KGB), were considered to be above the law, as were their foreign agents. This meant, however, that they could be controlled—and eliminated—by extralegal measures too. They often were.
Soviet spies also had to cope with Lenin’s ambivalent approach to international relations. Immediately after the revolution, as Service describes, the Bolsheviks began plotting the downfall of regimes all across Europe, the better to hasten the international revolution that they were certain would come. At the same time, they sought diplomatic recognition and trade links. Although the revolutionary impulse cooled after Stalin declared that it was possible to have “socialism in one country,” Soviet agents were always interested, at least theoretically, in the eventual collapse of capitalism and democracy as well as in the furthering of Soviet national interests. To put it differently, this generation of Soviet spies and Soviet diplomats was expected to be active revolutionaries on the one hand and representatives of a sovereign state on the other, often pursuing directly contradictory goals.
Their heyday was a short one. By the end of the 1930s, this generation of spies-by-conviction had almost entirely disappeared. Some fell victim to the Great Terror. Bystrolyotov was arrested in 1938 and spent sixteen years in the Gulag. Oggins disappeared into the camps in 1939. Unusually, the American government took an interest in his case—most Americans arrested in the USSR at that time were ignored—but this unusual concern may have hastened his death. When he was due to be released from the camps in 1947, Soviet secret police decided that it was too dangerous to set him free. He was injected with poison in a Moscow prison, and died on the spot.
Many others left the secret service because they had lost their faith. The arrests of their comrades, the spectacle of the Moscow show trials, and above all Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939 convinced many that they had made the wrong choice. Chambers was only one of several Soviet agents in the United States to “defect”—and to reveal his contacts to the US government. By 1940 the Soviet Union’s American network had fallen apart and its networks in Europe were much weakened. They never really recovered. Contrary to popular assumptions, the cold war era that followed was not the apex of Soviet espionage. Although the postwar Soviet foreign espionage services were more professional, better funded, and better organized, they never again had so many friends in so many high places.