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In the New World of Spies

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Sergei Milashov
Dmitri Bystrolyotov, who was recruited by the Soviet secret services in the 1920s, on a reconnaissance mission in Bellinzona, Switzerland, circa 1934

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.

Fast forward seventy years: if the life story of Isaiah Oggins will surprise those who identify spies with the cold war and the cold war imagination, the life story of Andrei Bezrukov, alias Donald Howard Heathfield, will come as an even bigger shock. The stories of Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, alias Tracey Lee Ann Foley, are brilliantly told in Deception, Edward Lucas’s book on contemporary Russian spies. Like his predecessors in Manchukuo, Bezrukov was an illegal, operating under deep cover. “Donald Heathfield” was the name of a dead Canadian child whose passport he used and whose identity he stole. But as with all of the most effective illegals, much else about Bezrukov was genuine. Arriving in Canada in 1992, he really had studied international economics at York University in Toronto as his website declared, and he really had earned a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard. He had also really worked as a management consultant, sold a decision-making software system called “FutureMap,” and wrote an academic paper for an Oxford colloquium on “Future Studies.” He really had a son at Georgetown University. His wife worked as a real estate broker in Cambridge; on her website she wrote of her “ability to ensure quality service, honesty and integrity.”

Just as their Italian airplane company gave Oggins and Steinberg an insider’s view of wartime Japan, Bezrukov’s management consulting company gave him an insider’s view of what Lucas calls the “the think-tank world: the soft under-belly of the American security and intelligence community, where retired officials, those hoping for jobs, and those taking a break from government mix and mingle with outsiders.” Once he had been accepted in Cambridge and Washington, Bezrukov assiduously promoted his software to companies with international and defense links, attempting to cultivate relationships with people like Leon Fuerth, Al Gore’s former national security adviser. He developed professional ties in Europe and Asia as well, and though he exaggerated his professional successes, he was hired as a consultant by at least one French company.

He might have gone even farther—he was trying to persuade several companies to install his software, perhaps in order to insert spyware into their clients’ systems—but in June 2010 Bezrukov/Heathfield and his wife were arrested, along with eight other Russians illegals. Some had been living for many years in the United States, buried deep in suburbia and doing very average-sounding, even inconsequential jobs. At the time, they were ridiculed, particularly when one of the illegals, Anna Chapman—maiden name Anna Khushchyenko—turned out to be an unusually attractive redhead with a fluffy-sounding career in “international real estate.”

Lucas points out that this was deliberate: “Spies need to seem as boring and inconspicuous as possible, to develop the capabilities that their real jobs require.” Some need jobs—in international real estate, perhaps—that allow them to meet a wide range of people without attracting suspicion. Others, like Bezrukov, a man whose “striking quality was blandness,” had labored for many years to acquire more solid professional credentials, hoping eventually to gain access to people with real power.

Lucas traced the activities of these modern spies with the same kind of attention to detail as Meier used to uncover the activities of Oggins. He discovered that the apparently silly Anna Chapman was entangled, along with her ex-KGB father, in what seems to have been a complicated effort to launder money in Zimbabwe—a scheme involving a British-registered company with a phantom owner and several cases of identity theft. Bezrukov/Heathfield, as noted, had made himself into a plausible “consultant.” Another member of the group, Mikhail Semenko, was touting his genuine academic credentials—he spoke Mandarin and Spanish as well as English and Russian—in an effort to get a job at a think tank.

Some of these spies shared certain qualities with their 1930s predecessors. Espionage still attracts “a certain kind of person, often flawed or troubled,” who is willing to “shed the social mores that hamper deceiving, cheating and manipulating people.” But none of them appears at all motivated by the kind of ideological conviction that sent someone like Isaiah Oggins to Paris and Berlin, or that led Ignace Reiss to write an anguished letter to Stalin, accusing his Politburo of having betrayed the Russian worker.

Instead, they were attracted to the opportunities and the material goods available to them in the West. Their missives back and forth to Moscow concerned not the ideals of the revolution, but the houses they felt they had to buy or the private schools they felt their children had to attend—in order to maintain their cover, of course. Life in a New Jersey suburb had clear advantages over life in Tomsk, the original home of one of the couples. Chapman is said to have wept “buckets” when she learned that her British passport had been revoked—she obtained it through a short-lived marriage—and that she would never be able to return to the US or the UK. Bezrukov appeared deeply attached to his phony consultant’s career, and has apparently tried to continue the same line of work in Moscow.

The attitude of the Russian state toward its foreign agents has also changed. At least in public, spies are no longer figures of suspicion. Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, is himself a former spy, and espionage is a part of his biography that he chooses to celebrate. Upon returning to Russia, the expelled American illegals were duly lionized by the Russian media as heroes who had been cruelly evicted by vicious traitors and the wicked FBI. Chapman became a national icon, with her own column and television show, even joining a youth group linked to the Russian president. Paradoxically, she was lauded as a symbol of upward mobility and success—success in London and New York, of course, not Moscow. But that is precisely the kind of success many Russians want. Unlike their Soviet predecessors, Russia’s contemporary elite openly craves the material goods of the West, and openly admires those who get them.

The feeling is not mutual, which is why Russia will always have an advantage over the West in the deployment of illegals. Clever and educated Russians will compete hard to become long-term (and heavily subsidized) residents of the American suburbs, and once they arrive they find it easy to fit in. Nowadays, there’s nothing at all unusual about a Russian accent in New Jersey. Some of the recent batch of spies, Chapman included, never even bothered to change their names. But the reverse is much harder to imagine: How many Americans would agree to spend twenty years in suburban Tomsk, living under deep cover (or even light cover), and how many could convincingly pretend to be Russian for that length of time? Historically, Western intelligence agencies don’t have a great track record for this sort of thing. Lucas has a chapter in his book dedicated to a famously disastrous British-American attempt to parachute anti-Communist illegals into the Baltic states after World War II. The plan was revealed before it was enacted to Soviet counterintelligence by Kim Philby himself, and never had a chance of success; the “partisans” who greeted the men as they dropped into Lithuanian and Estonian villages were all employees of the KGB.

Somewhat lost in the amused publicity that surrounded the more recent espionage scandal was the question of what the new generation spies were actually doing in the United States, and how great a threat they really posed. “Russian Spies Too Useless, Sexy to Prosecute” was the headline in New York magazine. Lucas vehemently disagrees with this “oddly complacent” attitude, arguing that Russia “uses its intelligence agencies as part of a broad and malevolent effort to penetrate our society and skew our decision-making.” Though many reviewers have disagreed with his analysis—after all, none of the illegals, at least the ones we know about, ever did get close to anyone remotely important—it is also true that, when seen in the longer light of Russian, Soviet, and KGB history, his view gains strength.

Modern Russian foreign policy—like Soviet foreign policy before it—often has mutually contradictory goals. On the one hand, the Russian ruling class, dominated as it is by former members of the KGB, genuinely wants stable and open relationships with the West. Russian businessmen want to trade, to travel, and to live abroad, and they don’t want to jeopardize their access. But at the same time, this same Russian ruling class would very much like to skew Western institutions—banks, think tanks, the media, government bureaucracies—so as to make the West more comfortable for themselves.

To put it differently, the members of the Russian elite may no longer aspire to launch international Communist revolution, as they did in the 1930s. But they do aspire to change the Western norms and behavior that they see as standing in their way: they want to make Americans and European less interested in human rights, more accepting of corruption, and perhaps more amenable to Russian investment and Russian oligarchs. To some degree, they can try to do so openly. Their money buys them the services of retired Western officials, including a former German chancellor, as well as access to public relations firms, advertising agencies, and lawyers.

But there may be times when they need some clandestine means to pursue these goals as well. Even if Anna Chapman, “Donald Heathfield,” and the others never got very far in their bid to penetrate elite America, they were in a position to handle illegal money, pass along information, and generally do and say the kinds of things the Russian government prefers not to do and say openly. Besides, a great deal of time and money were invested in their education, their living expenses, their travel. Someone cared a good deal about creating and maintaining their cover stories—and that alone is evidence that someone thought they were important.

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