BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE LOST SPY: An American in Stalin's Secret Service, by Andrew Meier
, October 17, 2009
Betrayed by the cause he served
THE LOST SPY:
An American in Stalin's
by Andrew Meier
(New York: W.W. Norton)
Paperback: 416 pages
Rec. price: AUD$37.90
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of communism during the inter-war period and throughout the Cold War was the extent to which so many Westerners willingly undertook espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
While names such as Alger Hiss, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean are notorious, American-born Isaiah "Cy" Oggins is practically unknown.
Andrew Meier's The Lost Spy explores the career and activities of this hitherto obscure figure.
Oggins, throughout his clandestine career in the service of Moscow, believed he was working for the Communist International (Comintern) and helping spread the "workers' revolution"; but he was ultimately betrayed by the cause he served. After being arrested and tortured, he spent most of the last eight years of his life in Stalin's slave labour camps, the gulag, before being executed.
Born in the United States in 1888 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Cy Oggins first developed an interest in the conditions of working people through observing their plight in his industrial hometown of Willimantic, Connecticut. While studying at Columbia University, he became simultaneously disillusioned by the patriotic fervour accompanying America's entry into World War I and enthralled by communism.
It was in the left-wing circles in which he moved that he met Russian-born Nerma Berman, whom he married in 1924. After completing his BA, he commenced a PhD in history, which he never completed, mainly for lack of funds.
After being recruited to work for the Soviets abroad, Oggins was first sent to Germany in 1928, where he lived with his wife. He was then transferred to Paris, where it appears he spied on Trotskyites and surviving members of the Romanoff (Romanov) family.
Meier suggests that Oggins, by living with his wife and infant son Robin, born in 1931, would not have been likely to arouse any suspicion from his white Russian neighbours.
In late 1933, French counter-intelligence uncovered a Soviet espionage ring in their country and proceeded to arrest a number of members, including an American, Robert Switz.
The Oggins family thereupon left Paris in 1934 and returned to New York, before relocating to San Francisco.
In 1935, Oggins departed for China, leaving his wife and son behind. In Manchuria, he operated under spy-handler Charles Martin (aka Max Steinberg), while working as an agent for the Fiat Motor Company for cover.
Soon after the commencement in July 1937 of the Second Sino-Japanese War, both Oggins and Martin fled China separately. Oggins saw his family for the last time in Paris in 1938. It appears that, after that, he returned to the Far East.
Meier deduces that it was in February 1939, when Oggins was en route back to his family in Paris, that he was arrested. His wife Nerma and son Robin were themselves to return to the US later that year.
It seems that Cy Oggins was a victim of Stalin's paranoia that led to the Great Purge, the wave of mass arrests, show trials and political repression of the late 1930s.
Meier argues that Soviet authorities arrested him because his spy-handler, Charles Martin, under whom he had served, had defected; they would have assumed that anyone who served under Martin must also be guilty.
From the US, Nerma worked tirelessly for Cy's release, but to no avail. During this period she herself came to the attention of the FBI, who followed her movements closely.
Although American embassy officials gained access to Oggins in 1942 and again in 1943, the Soviet Union refused to release him. Tragically, in 1947, just when he was supposedly due for release from prison, he was injected with the lethal poison curare, chosen because it leaves no trace in the body.
Oggins was liquidated, says Meier, because he knew too much about the gulag camps, and about how Soviet intelligence operated, which he could have revealed to US authorities upon his repatriation.
What strikes the reader are the difficulties that Meier, a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine, faced in piecing together the facts of Cy Oggins's life, with the assistance of his son Robin. For example, Robin, as the next of kin, was able to obtain material from Soviet archives, but even then, for example, only 22 pages of at least 162 pages of an NKVD dossier.
Despite Meier's extensive research over many years, Cy Oggins's life arguably raises more questions than it provides answers. (References throughout the study to the challenging task of assembling the information make particularly interesting reading).
While the nature of Oggins's clandestine work in Paris can be inferred from various sources, there remains the question of what precise information he was supposed to have collected and passed on to Soviet authorities.
The Lost Spy is a fascinating insight into Soviet subversive activity in the interwar period.
Meier intersperses his study of Oggins's life and career with an account of the tragic period of his life following his arrest. This illustrates to what extent he was ultimately destroyed by the cause he had idealistically served.