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.)

Krivitsky joined the Communist youth movement in 1912 and by 1920 was a member of Soviet Military Intelligence. His first assignment was to undermine the Polish government on behalf of the USSR. He worked to foment a German revolution in 1923. For much of the 1920s and 1930s he supervised an extensive military intelligence network in Western Europe; among his employees was Margaret Browder, sister of the head of the American Communist party, and Pierre Cot, a French cabinet minister. During the Spanish Civil War he helped spirit the Spanish Republican government's gold supply to Moscow. And he killed one of his own agents, whom he suspected of being an informer.

Ultimately, Krivitsky's loyalty to one of his childhood friends, Ignace Poretsky, also known as Reiss, led to his defection. Poretsky was preparing to defect from Soviet intelligence as a protest against Stalin; he urged Krivitsky to join him. Unable to agree to such a drastic course, Krivitsky tried to warn Poretsky that assassination squads were tracking him but failed to save his old comrade, whose bullet-riddled body was found alongside a road in Switzerland in September 1937. When Krivitsky was then ordered to kill Poretsky's widow in October, he went into hiding, used connections to obtain French papers, and in November 1938 came to the United States.

The American government was not particularly welcoming. The Immigration and Naturalization Service grudgingly admitted him on a visitor's visa. It kept trying to deport him as a dangerous Communist who had entered America under false pretenses, even as it extended the visa of Australian-born Communist labor leader Harry Bridges, who lied about his ties to the CPUSA. Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York, himself on the Soviet payroll, tried to get him deported. J. Edgar Hoover was angered that Krivitsky had not first come to the FBI and was, furthermore, embarrassed by his revelations about NKVD espionage in America. Communist thugs shadowed and threatened him, and party periodicals denounced him as a fraud.

KRIVITSKY was not the only Soviet defector whose bona fides were questioned, not just by local Communists, but also by Western governments. Former spies do not make the most reliable-sounding witnesses. Accustomed to lying and prevaricating as a matter of course, they find it difficult to speak freely and fully about what they know. Like Whittaker Chambers and General Alexander Orlov, with whom he worked in Spain (and both of whom left communism in the same period), Krivitsky retained a sense of loyalty to his old comrades that made him reluctant to expose some of those with whom he worked. Just as Chambers tried to protect Alger Hiss (and in so doing told lies that came back to haunt him), so Krivitsky sometimes shaded the truth or avoided full disclosure.

It was not just concern for former spies that constrained the defectors of the time. Usually, all they brought with them from the Soviet Union was the information in their heads. Orlov absconded with enough cash to live frugally in hiding for more than a decade. But he was an exception. The only thing of value most defectors had was information that had to be rationed out carefully, lest its full disclosure leave the individual without any chips left to bargain for financial support. The pressure to invent new revelations or embellish old ones could be intense. Krivitsky died before he had to face the difficulty of earning a living once the money from his articles and book had been spent.

Just as disconcerting was the fate of family and friends. Orlov sent a private letter to Stalin warning that if his relatives were harmed he would expose such important Soviet spies as Philby, Burgess, and Maclean. Spared Stalin's wrath, he made good on his promise and took his knowledge of their treachery to his grave, despite exposing numerous other spies. Whittaker Chambers warned Soviet spymasters that he was prepared to identify Soviet spies if he or his family was harmed. Not until the Nazi-Soviet alliance did he go to American authorities, and even then he was careful about what he said. Krivitsky and his old comrade Poretsky went public with their defection; both died, and so did Krivitsky's wife's brother. Krivitsky himself was suspicious of everyone he met, often with good reason. Convinced that he was in Stalin's cross-hairs, he alienated friends with his suspicions and moods.

It seems appropriate, as Kern notes, that the name "Krivitsky" means crooked, twisted, or awry in Russian. He jumped on board one of the most destructive political movements ever invented and was crushed when he jumped off. Perhaps someday the complete records will reveal whether that movement murdered him or just drove him to suicide. In the meantime, "A Death in Washington" records his travels and travails with as much detail as we can hope for.

Harvey Klehr is Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.