Spying for Stalin: An American’s deadly game

Special to The Times

On the night of Feb. 20, 1939, three Soviet secret policemen knocked on a door at the Hotel Moskva in the Russian capital, asked to see the (fake) passport of its occupant, gave him a few minutes to gather some belongings and whisked him away to the notorious Lubyanka prison. Charged with espionage, he was questioned for almost a year before being sentenced to eight years in Norilsk, a mining center hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle and one of the bleakest islands in the Gulag Archipelago.

So far, so routine. Something like this occurred to millions of Russians during Stalin’s paranoid regime. But this arrestee was different. He was an American citizen named Isaiah Oggins. And he was not spying for his native land. Since the 1920s, he had been a Russian spy, working in several countries, including his own. Andrew Meier’s “The Lost Spy,” a biography of Oggins, is, necessarily, a little vague on those matters. Putting it mildly, it is not in the nature of a secret agent’s work to leave an easily documented record of his clandestine activities.

Nevertheless, “The Lost Spy” is utterly fascinating, a sad and sinuous study of true belief carried beyond all reason by a man who committed himself to the labyrinthine way without once, so far as Meier can determine, openly discussing what motivated him or offering an ideological rationale. That makes him, in some sense, a perfect spy, a guy who took his secrets with him to his unmarked grave.

In retrospect, it is easy to imagine Cy -- the name he formally adopted -- Oggins leading an entirely different life. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born in Willimantic, Conn., where his father was a shopkeeper. Meier speculates that his radicalization may have begun when the Industrial Workers of the World attempted to organize the American Thread Co., Willimantic’s dominant employer, during the radical agitations that preceded America’s entry into World War I. Maybe so, but Cy entered Columbia University in 1917 intent upon becoming a historian. He probably supported the antiwar movement that preceded the U.S. declaration of war, and he was certainly influenced by the oppressive campaign against radicals in the postwar years, but one suspects it was his courtship and marriage to Nerma Berman, a tiny, noisy, radical firebrand, that completed his conversion to communism. Still, for a time he pursued his doctorate at Columbia, while Nerma worked and studied at the Rand Institute, then the nation’s most famous leftist school. When his money ran out, he took an editorial job at the Yale University Press. By 1928, the couple were in Berlin, working for the Soviets.


There, they rented a house the Russians used as its headquarters for decoding and disseminating stolen documents. Later, they were in Paris, keeping an eye on a Romanov relative active in resistance to the Soviets. Still later, Cy was in Manchuria, helping to manage a rather wonky aircraft business but actually keeping an eye on Japanese expansion in the region. Much of this time, Cy pretended to be a dealer in art and antiquities. This provided him cover for his work as a Soviet courier and with a reason for carrying large sums of money meant to finance the activities of other secret agents. It was very hush-hush but quite low-level.

It’s hard to see what of import Cy accomplished in these posts. Indeed, it’s hard to determine what any spy did that changed the world in those years. They may have played a sometimes deadly game, but it was largely a feckless one. Cy Oggins was, to borrow a phrase, a “man without qualities,” for whom dull, if secretive, commitment became a substitute for personality.

Espionage, however, seems almost incidental to Meier’s book. What it offers that is more interesting is a tour of the more public world of left-wing intellectuals at the time. At Columbia, Cy knew Charles Beard (he of the Constitution’s economic interpretation) and Whittaker Chambers. At Rand, Scott Nearing, the golden throat of American radicalism, twitterpated Nerma. The couple were close with Sidney Hook, beginning his famous, journey from left to right in these years, and in Meier’s account as in others, he is a man of charismatic civility. He had the clearest, earliest eye for the monstrousness that lay behind Soviet propaganda. Later, Oggins’ life at least briefly touched those of “grand illegals” such as Walter Krivitsky, master spies whose deeds (and defections) made their way into more general histories, and such “grand legals” as Chip Bohlen, the American diplomat who played a role in trying to return Oggins to the U.S.

Still, this was a gray little life lived in a deeply shadowed world, where even the politicians and public intellectuals largely prated nonsense, befuddled as they were by the contrast between the party line and the horrors many of them had to know lay behind it in the Soviet police state. One suspects that even Cy Oggins finally accepted the uselessness of his life. In the gulag, he liked to be called “The Professor,” pretending that he actually had been one a couple of decades earlier in New York.

Despite the stumbling efforts of the State Department to secure his release, it never happened. By 1947, when his prison term was up, the Russians suspected, possibly rightly, that he would spill such secrets as he had to McCarthy and his burgeoning ilk. They executed Oggins in a particularly painful manner, by lethal injection, thus bringing to an end what is, if I may borrow another literary phrase, “the saddest story I know” -- or at least one of them.

One wishes that Meier might have found more eyewitnesses to this story, more revelatory documents, for there are times when his “must have, might have” constructions irritate. Still, he’s done what he can. The history of Communist Russia is one of huge, sickening and infinitely deadly betrayals, so perhaps Cy Oggins’ story is only a minor one. Or perhaps not. You could as well argue that it tells us all we really need to know about how the totalitarian spirit perfected itself in the middle of the 20th century.


Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including “Elia Kazan: A Biography.” His forthcoming “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story” will be published to coincide with his five-hour documentary about the studio airing next month on PBS.