The Magazine

Another Victim?

The mysterious death of Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.