He Knew Too Much
The killing of Stalin's American-born agent.
Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By HARVEY KLEHR
The Lost Spy
The collapse of the Soviet Union and release of snippets of information from its voluminous espionage files has brought back to life a number of long-forgotten, and sometimes never-known, spies whose exploits and antics have reminded us that truth is sometimes stranger than any fiction John Le Carré could invent. This newest entry in the genre exhibits both the benefits flowing from these excavations and the shortcomings perhaps inevitably associated with them.
Isaiah (Cy) Oggins was one of the earliest Soviet agents recruited in the United States. Born in Willimantic, Connecticut, in 1898 to Russian emigres, he worked for Soviet intelligence from the mid-1920s until his arrest in Moscow in 1939. Remarkably, he became the subject of an official American government inquiry during World War II and was actually interviewed by American diplomats before Soviet officials decided it was too risky to allow further contact or to release him. He was murdered in prison in 1947. His case briefly came to public attention in the 1990s, when the Yeltsin government investigated the Soviet murders of American citizens and possible imprisonment of Vietnam POWs.
Meier, a Moscow-based journalist, first became interested in Oggins in 2000 while interviewing survivors of the Gulag. Learning that an American had been kept in Norilsk, a remote camp in Siberia, he eventually uncovered his name and was able to locate and befriend his son, Robin Oggins, a medieval historian at SUNY Binghamton. Obtaining some of Oggins's KGB file, Meier has also scoured American diplomatic files and received materials under the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a fascinating story of an idealist marching to his own ruin, but one that suffers from enough major gaps to frustrate readers, and forces Meier to resort to speculation rather than evidence to fill in details of Oggins's life and exploits.
Oggins was converted to radicalism while a student at Columbia during World War I. After briefly teaching in New York City he returned to Columbia to work on a dissertation, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons in 1922. He met his future wife, Nerma, at the Rand School, a center for socialist education. She was a fiery Yiddish-speaking Communist functionary under whose influence he joined the Communist party in 1924, one year before his Columbia acquaintance, Whittaker Chambers.
Recruited for Soviet espionage sometime in the mid-20s, Oggins made his first trip as a courier to Europe in 1926; by 1928 he and his wife were working out of a safe house in Berlin, where Oggins posed as a dealer in art objects. An unexpected encounter with old friends from New York-Sidney Hook and his first wife, later memorialized in Hook's autobiography-suggested that Oggins was already nervous about his new career, confessing to being both tired and lonely.
The couple left Berlin in 1930 for
Posing as a dealer in Asian antiquities, and later as the American representative of an Italian company, he lived in Darien, Connecticut. Meier calls it "the height of his espionage career." Oggins returned to Paris via Moscow in the spring of 1938, but quickly returned to the Soviet capital for unexplained reasons and was arrested in February 1939. Convicted the following year, despite denying he had committed treason, Cy Oggins vanished into the Gulag.
Trying to reconstruct the life of a spy can be like squeezing assumptions and might-have-beens into hard facts, and Andrew Meier cannot avoid the trap. Although he suggests that Oggins was employed by the GRU, Soviet Military Intelligence, he also believes he was an agent of the Communist International, and later has him working for the OGPU, the regular intelligence service. Agents were sometimes switched from one Soviet intelligence apparatus to another, but it is a sign of how little is known of Oggins's activities that even his immediate employer is unclear.
More problematically, Meier speculates that the safe house in Berlin may have been used to manufacture fake passports or to copy stolen documents. Then he suggests it could have been used in a counterfeiting scheme orchestrated by two Latvian-born Soviet assets, Nicholas Dozenberg and Alfred Tilton. The lack of evidence leads to speculation even Meier calls "unlikely." Oggins, he claims, must have known the two, even though "the evidence is scant, but it is difficult to imagine how Cy could not have encountered both men."
He tries to connect Oggins to all kinds of major Soviet intelligence operations with claims that he "must have" or "should have" been involved with, or known, to other spies, but there is simply no documented or oral evidence. He believes that the Oggins must have known Max and Grace Granich, Soviet operatives in China, but there is no evidence. Nor did Whittaker Chambers ever mention him, despite assertions that he must have known about his activities.
Returning to the United States in 1939, Nerma may have continued to work with the Communist underground, although the evidence is, again, thin. As a loyal Communist, she remained silent about her missing husband. The Oggins saga, however, soon entered the documentary record. Remarkably, the United States government undertook an effort to free him. A former Polish POW who had crossed paths with Oggins in a labor camp informed Polish authorities about him, and in February 1942 the State Department learned that an American citizen was in the Gulag.
American authorities in Russia demanded to meet with Oggins, as provided for in the agreement establishing diplomatic relations in 1933. After a six-month delay, so Soviet authorities could allow him to put on weight and partially recover his health, Oggins met with American diplomats in a Moscow prison. He told them he had not had a lawyer at his trial or pleaded guilty, but admitted he had used a false passport to enter the Soviet Union. He mentioned nothing of spying and asked to come home, warning that he would not long survive. The NKVD representative monitoring the meeting agreed to provide photographs so the U.S. government could verify his citizenship, which it soon did.
While an investigation quickly established that Oggins was, indeed, an American citizen, the State Department and FBI also concluded that he was a Soviet spy as well. Despite that, the State Department was willing to lend his wife nearly $1,200 to pay for his trip home. Although Nerma later told her son that it was the United States which prevented his father from returning home, Meier has documented that it was, instead, the Soviet Union which concluded that it was too risky to allow Oggins to come back to America with his knowledge of Soviet agents and operations.
Returned to the Gulag, Cy Oggins
Cy Oggins's superior in China, Max Steinberg, a mysterious Soviet operative who defected to Switzerland in the late 1930s, returned to the Soviet Union in 1956 and was imprisoned a year later. Meier concludes, not unreasonably, that Steinberg's defection had triggered Oggins's arrest. But he then claims that Oggins "was killed because of HUAC"-The House Unamerican Activities Committee. The red scare in Washington meant that, if he returned, Oggins could be forced to testify and expose important Soviet spy rings.
That explanation, however, begs the question of why Oggins was not just left to rot in the Gulag, and whether he had any more knowledge of unknown Soviet spy rings than Chambers, Igor Gouzenko, Elizabeth Bentley, and Louis Budenz, all of whom had already exposed Soviet sources.
Informed by the State Department that her husband had died in prison in 1947, Nerma Oggins survived until 1995, dying at the age of 97. Her son explained to Meier that she had been consumed by guilt, but had never acknowledged what she and her husband had done to destroy their lives.
Harvey Klehr is the Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory. His latest book, with John Earl Haynes, is In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.