The Magazine

He Knew Too Much

The killing of Stalin's American-born agent.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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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
was taken to an NKVD medical laboratory in Moscow in 1947 and injected with
curare. The Yeltsin government discovered a memo from KGB chief Victor Abakumov to Stalin and Molotov recommending he be liquidated; Pavel Sudoplatov, a longtime KGB officer imprisoned for 15 years after a purge of the intelligence services in 1953, recounted in his memoirs his belief that Oggins was actually a double agent and that Nerma had cooperated with the FBI in 1942 after she learned about his imprisonment. Meier justifiably treats that self-serving story as fiction, but puts forward an even more improbable explanation for his execution.

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.