Agent of his Own Downfall

The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Service by Andrew Meier

Books Communism Espionage History North America Russia

Cy Oggins was born in 1898 to Russian-Jewish parents who had emigrated to America. He became a communist and worked as an undercover agent firstly for the Comintern, the body tasked with spreading revolution abroad, then for the Russian security and intelligence service, later better known as the KGB. Arrested in Moscow in 1938 on trumped-up charges during one of Stalin’s purges (by this time Oggins presumably knew too much), he served eight years in the Arctic Gulag under the usual, scarcely credible, conditions. Then, when he should have been released, he was taken to Moscow and gruesomely liquidated – the official word for it – as one of the medical experiments conducted by the Russian equivalent of Hitler’s Dr Mengele.

Oggins was a footnote to the Cold War but his fate was symbolic enough to resurface in 1992 when Boris Yeltsin made details of the case available to the US Government. But not all details. The mystery as to who exactly this American who spied for the Russians really was, what he did and what happened to him, intrigued Andrew Meier sufficiently to spend eight years researching it. Oggins could hardly have hoped for a better qualified obituarist. As a meticulous investigative journalist, a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and an admired writer on Russia, Meier knows whereof he writes, though he could not have known quite where his journey would take him.

That began in the Connecticut cotton town where Oggins grew up and where poverty and industrial unrest soon tipped him leftwards on the political spectrum. At Columbia University, where debate over US participation in the First World War was the big issue, he anglicised his name and sided with the anti-interventionist radicals. Leaving Columbia, he became more deeply involved in political activism and married another activist, a four feet, eight inches tall firebrand called Nerma. Meier paints a brief but vivid picture of early 1920s radical socialism and political violence in New York.

In 1924 Oggins discreetly joined the Workers Party of America, in reality the American Communist Party, and two years later was sent to Europe on his first clandestine mission-probably as a courier, bearing money, passports and other documents. Nerma sensibly severed her party ties – perhaps under instructions – and in 1928 they left for their first joint sojourn in Europe. During the next decade, they were to spend more time in Germany and France than in America. Again, Meier effectively evokes the political ferment in Berlin and Paris, linking it with developments at “home” – as devout communists tried to think of it – in Russia. Later, Oggins was sent on solo missions to China and Manchuria.

Throughout those years, the Ogginses loyally performed whatever the Centre demanded, including aborting Nerma’s first pregnancy (a child would have been operationally inconvenient at the time). Their tasks included the provision of safe houses and secret communications, spying on the Romanoffs in France and possibly helping with the massive Russian operation to forge millions of US banknotes. Oggins usually posed as a researcher, a dealer in objets d’art or a businessman.

Although little is known in detail of what they did, Meier is good on the political and intelligence background of their various missions, usefully charting the secret mayhem of Stalin’s Moscow. He also conveys something of the ideological delusion that led so many otherwise decent human beings to blind themselves to what they saw and accept that political necessity justified all. Less appealing is the book’s structure, which resembles a dramatised documentary with flashbacks and forwards, and conjecture sometimes presented as fact. Also, Meier’s accounts of his research interviews – clearly important to him – are frustrating. Oggins is the story we want to know about, not Meier’s quest.

The book is at its most vivid, however, when conveying the sparse but gripping details of Oggins’s heroic refusal to confess during a year of interrogation in the Lubyanka prison, the months of his horrifying journey to the frozen camp at Norilsk and his time in what must surely be one of the nadirs of human misery. And then the end, in the white room in the building which now houses the exclusive medical centre for the KGB’s successor.

Oggins was told it was a standard pre-release medical examination. Instead, it was an injection by Professor Mairanovsky of curare, a resin used by South American tribes to paralyse their prey. Death was excruciating and took 10-15 minutes, with the victim conscious but unable to shout or move. The purpose was to see whether the poison was traceable after death. It wasn’t, so the experiment was a success.

Which is more than can be said for the other experiment to which Oggins devoted his life. Loyal to the end, he deserved better of his masters as did the millions of others oppressed by the cause he served. Yet it is hard to feel great sympathy for him; blindness can be culpable.

In some ways, this book represents the non-fictional counterpart to Arthur Koestler’s seminal novel of the period, Darkness at Noon.