In From the Cold
Lev Lazarevich Feldbin, alias Alexander Orlov, was the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect to the West. Born in 1895, Orlov had been head of the Soviet secret police in Republican Spain, during the civil war in that country. He fled to the United States in 1938, claiming to have abandoned his duties out of fear of the Stalinist purge machine. He adopted an underground existence in the U.S. from which he did not emerge until Stalin was safely dead. He then published a book, “The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes,” and became a leading informant for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Yet the nature of Orlov’s defection has always been controversial. As it happens, Orlov told the CIA very little about Soviet intelligence operations in the West. Two decades after his death in 1973, the book “Deadly Illusions” by John Costello, an English writer, and Oleg Tsarev, a KGB officer, argued that Orlov’s passing to the side of the West had never been sincere. That book was widely considered a disinformation product from Moscow intended to demoralize U.S. intelligence functionaries by showing them up as naive fools. Edward P. Gazur was Orlov’s FBI control agent, and Gazur’s “Alexander Orlov: The FBI’s KGB General” is a response to Tsarev and Costello’s book, defending the defector’s honesty in joining the Western cause and the U.S. intelligence agencies’ handling of him.
But Gazur’s book also runs up against another controversy entirely. From the moment he went public in the 1950s, questions were asked about Orlov’s role as head of the KGB Rezidentura in Republican Spain, in the suppression of the anti-Stalinist Partit Obrer d’Unificacio Marxista, known as POUM and based in Catalonia. This was the party in whose militia George Orwell served during the Spanish war. In particular, that movement’s veterans wanted to know the details of Orlov’s involvement in the murder of their party’s leader, Andres Nin, the Catalan literary essayist, translator, labor organizer and theoretician of national independence.
Orlov was tetchy about this matter, flatly denying any complicity. Nobody among the Spanish anti-Stalinist exiles--anarchists, syndicalists, socialists and liberals as well as party members who left their native land at the end of the war in 1939--believed him for a second. Burnett Bolloten, author of “The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution” and widely recognized as the greatest historian of the Spanish war, did not believe Orlov. Nor did Bertram Wolfe, the former American Communist leader who went to Spain during the civil war.
Indeed, any claims of innocence for Orlov in the attacks on Nin and his movement would seem to have been thoroughly demolished by the publication of “Deadly Illusions,” which included a convincing discussion of the Nin murder. The same year in which that book was published, a striking documentary on the Nin affair appeared on prime-time television in Barcelona, “Operacio Nikolai.” Both “Deadly Illusions” and “Operacio Nikolai” benefited from the opening of KGB archives in Moscow. These primary sources showed that Orlov directly supervising the murder of Nin and his burial in June 1937. Gazur’s book, although it swipes at the Costello-Tsarev project, does not offer a detailed analysis of their various errors or their claims about Orlov’s disputed loyalties. However, Gazur has inexplicably sprung to the impassioned defense of Orlov, in the matter of the POUM, its persecution and the martyrdom of Nin.
It would be hard to imagine a more outrageous, nightmarish development in the historiography of the Spanish Civil War: an FBI agent attempting to vindicate the Stalinist butcher who sought to kill Orwell and his comrades. Gazur seems to have realized that he could not exculpate Orlov by answering the citations on Nin in “Deadly Illusions,” and he never heard of the Catalan TV documentary. Instead, Dick Tracy-style, Gazur set out to “investigate” the role of the movement and Nin in the war. After some hasty reading of secondary sources, he adopted as his own the infamous Stalinist slanders issued against the anarchists and POUM in Barcelona in 1937 and refuted in Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia.” Gazur declares that Nin was killed at the insistence of the Spanish Communists out of personal spite, with the Soviets, including Orlov, uninvolved. Such an argument runs against the whole of the Soviet documentation on the war, not just the KGB files on Orlov.
The wider materials on this episode were surveyed in recent books published by Yale University Press, including “Spain Betrayed,” edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck and Grigory Sevastianov, and “Enemies at the Gates,” edited by William J. Chase. The weight of the Soviet archives unequivocally sustains the charge that the suppression of the anti-Stalinist party, the pursuit of Orwell and the murder of Nin were ordered by Moscow and carried out by its agents, under Orlov’s supervision. Gazur’s whitewash of a Stalinist terrorist, only because after he committed his crimes he collaborated with the West, is truly shameful. The publication of “Alexander Orlov: The FBI’s KGB General” should embarrass Gazur and his former employers.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of “Intellectuals and Assassins” and the coauthor, with Victor Alba, of “Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.