The Magazine

He Knew Too Much

The killing of Stalin's American-born agent.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Lost Spy

An American in Stalin's Secret Service

by Andrew Meier

Norton, 304 pp., $25.95

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
Paris, where their assignment seems to have been spying on various White Russian exiles, particularly Romanovs, and where their son, Robin, was born in 1931. Following a French crackdown on Soviet operations in 1933, Oggins traveled to Spain and the United States before undertaking an assignment in China where he apparently was used to spy on the

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.