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Commie Dearest

The tangled web of the KGB and the Eitingon clan.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Eitingons

Commie Dearest

Freud and his coterie (1922). Max Eitingon, standing second from right.

Photo Credit: Getty

A Twentieth-Century Story
by Mary-Kay Wilmers
Verso, 496 pp., $34.95

The history of Soviet communism resembles a hall of mirrors. The juxtaposition of the real horrors of the gulag and the common entertainment of the circus and funhouse may seem provocative, but it’s appropriate. You have to look into Communist history knowing that much is distorted, much is hidden. If you have a past of active involvement with communism—as I confess to have had—you will perceive personalities in its chronicles both familiar and unexpectedly strange. Yet the mirrors convey truth, even when their images are deformed and shocking. The dictators of Communist Russia and, especially, the heads of its domestic and foreign spy services, understood this convoluted reality, and exploited it to their maximum advantage. They mastered the art of disinformation.

That sense of a hall of mirrors came into full play for me when I learned that a certain Mary-Kay Wilmers had published The Eitingons

You could say that the story of this book begins with a 1988 article I wrote for the New York Times Book Review entitled “Intellectuals and Assassins: Annals of Stalin’s Killerati.” In it I described how, in the latter half of the 1930s, a gang of killers appeared in Western Europe whose accumulated crimes—considering their impact on history—are perhaps unequaled in the annals of homicide. They were agents of the Soviet secret police—then called the NKVD, later the KGB—operating in a special “mobile unit” dedicated to terrorism. 

The unit’s existence became known through a series of sensational incidents almost 75 years ago, including the 1937 assassination in Switzerland of Ignacy Poretsky-Reiss, a KGB defector, and the kidnapping from the Paris streets of an anti-Communist White Russian general, Yevgeni Karlovich Miller, only weeks after Reiss’s death. In 1940, a leading member of the terror group, Soviet secret police general Naum Eitingon—known as “Leonid” Eitingon and generally as “Tom” in secret police communications—directed the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The unit’s activities involved a remarkable assortment of individuals, none of whom resemble the typical denizen of crime stories. Many of the key figures were intellectuals—poets, artists, and psychiatrists—and they were talent-spotters, agents of influence, and sleepers.

Probably the most just comment on the series of killings in which Poretsky-Reiss and Miller were victims was delivered in 1999, when Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin wrote, in the The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, that “many otherwise admirable studies of the Stalin era fail to mention the relentless secret pursuit of ‘enemies of the people’ in Western Europe.” Known agents in the hunting and slaying by the special unit included another anti-Communist White Russian general, Nikolai Skoblin, his wife Nadyezhda Plevitskaya, a famous folk singer, and Sergei Efron, husband of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

But John J. Dziak, a historian who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, called attention to an incredible chapter in this history—largely forgotten before him, although notorious when it transpired. In Chekisty: A History of the KGB (the subject of my Times review), Dziak reported that one of the group’s key agents in the kidnapping of General Miller was a close personal associate of Sigmund Freud and pillar of the psychoanalytic movement, Dr. Max Eitingon, a relative of the aforementioned General Naum Eitingon. 

Early in 1937 Ignacy Poretsky-Reiss defected from the KGB and went underground. He was tracked down near Lausanne and assassinated on September 4, 1937. An accomplice of the murderers was caught by Swiss police, and the conspiracy began to unravel. On September 22, news of the kidnapping of General Miller swept Paris. He had left a letter behind, stating that he was to meet with General Skoblin. Working with the Swiss, the French police discovered that someone named Vadim Kondratiev, complicit in the murder of Reiss, was a subordinate and friend of Skoblin. Skoblin disappeared immediately. His wife Plevitskaya was arrested and sentenced by a French court for complicity in the kidnapping of Miller. She died in a French prison during World War II, and it was through the Skoblin-Plevitskaya case that the revelations about Freud’s colleague, Max Eitingon, were made. 

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