The Magazine

Another Victim?

The mysterious death of Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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A Death in Washington

Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror

by Gary Kern

Enigma, 450 pp., $29

WALTER KRIVITSKY was one of the most notable of the Soviet defectors of the 1930s. A high-ranking Russian intelligence officer who had been growing increasingly disaffected for several years, he finally broke ranks in 1937, went into hiding in France, and then managed to enter the United States. Articles based on his insights, ghostwritten by Isaac Don Levine, created a sensation when the Saturday Evening Post published them in 1939--sufficiently so that the American Communist party led a massive campaign of defamation against him, employing crude anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Along the way, Krivitsky aided French, British, and American counterintelligence agencies, before he was found dead in a Washington hotel room where he had registered under an assumed name in 1941. The District of Columbia's police, no more competent then than now, initially treated the death as a suicide, contaminated the evidence, and mishandled the investigation. Because Krivitsky had warned friends never to believe that he would commit suicide, anti-Communists seized on several anomalies to insist that he had been murdered. His death has remained a mystery ever since, with some clues pointing to suicide and others to murder.

Krivitsky's story and his fate have figured in virtually every account of Soviet espionage over the past fifty years. He played a major role in Soviet espionage in the 1920s and 1930s, working at various times for both the NKVD and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), and had a hand in or knew about more than a few of the most important Soviet spies embedded in European nations. Many of his revelations and hints proved prescient: He accurately predicted the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in the works and gave the British clues that should have led them to uncover Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. But it is his mysterious death that has provided fodder for numerous conspiracy theories over the years. Did he really kill himself, depressed by his prospects for the future, alienated from friends, convinced he was under NKVD surveillance and tormented by his own previous crimes? Or was he murdered by the ruthless regime he had once served, whose death squads were methodically eliminating traitors and turncoats, betrayed by people he thought he could trust?

There has never been a full-scale biography of Krivitsky. His own autobiography, "In Stalin's Secret Service," originally published in 1939, is not fully revealing, glossing over many details and sanitizing others. But now, Gary Kern, an independent scholar who has written about Soviet espionage (sometimes with former KGB officers), has produced "A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror." Kern has ferreted out every available source, including some Russian archives, although he was unable to penetrate either Military Intelligence archives or see what the old KGB files held. He also had access to long-secret British intelligence reports about Krivitsky's debriefing by MI5. He carefully considers every factional nugget known about Krivitsky and evaluates different theories about his behavior and motives. "A Death in Washington" is well written, clear, and filled with stimulating insights into the issue of political defection.

Through no fault of his own, however, Kern is unable to provide the closure to the Krivitsky case that has been achieved with other espionage cases as a result of the opening of Russian and American archives. Although he parses every detail about the defector's last days and actions, he is unable to put a smoking gun definitely in either Krivitsky's hand or that of any of the individuals suspected as assassins over the years. He ends by speculating that Krivitsky's death might have been a "preemptive suicide" prompted by fear of actions directed against his family.

WALTER KRIVITSKY was one of many assumed names taken by Samuel Ginsberg, born in 1899 in Podwoloczyska, on the Austrian side of the border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, a small town populated by Poles, Austrians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews in what is now Poland. Persecuted, poor, and idealistic, young Jews from this region were often attracted to the vision of emancipation offered by communism: Krivitsky and five of his friends from this backwater became Soviet spies. (Those five friends would all end up murdered by the regime to which they devoted their lives.)