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The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Serviceby Andrew Meier
Synopses & Reviews
For half a century, the case of Isaiah Oggins, a 1920s New York intellectual brutally murdered in 1947 on Stalin's orders, remained hidden in the secret files of the KGB and the FBI--a footnote buried in the rubble of the Cold War. Then, in 1992, it surfaced briefly, when Boris Yeltsin handed over a deeply censored dossier to the White House. at last reveals the truth: Oggins was one of the first Americans to spy for the Soviets.Based on six years of international sleuthing, traces Oggins's rise in beguiling detail--a brilliant Columbia University graduate sent to run a safe house in Berlin and spy on the Romanovs in Paris and the Japanese in Manchuria--and his fall: death by poisoning in a KGB laboratory. As harrowing as and as tragic as is one of the great nonfiction detective stories of our time.
For a brief, intoxicating moment after the fall of communism, Soviet archives were opened to outsiders. Western academics and journalists pored over long-secret files. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin personally handed over one dossier to U.S. diplomats. It concerned an American, Isaiah "Cy" Oggins, who died in Stalin's gulag. The gift of the Oggins file, even with censored paragraphs, was meant to show that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the new Russia would be open, laying bare the dark crimes of the past. Oggins had been arrested in 1939. He disappeared until 1942, when U.S. diplomats, acting at the request of his wife, Nerma, saw him in a Moscow prison and pressed for his release. The request was denied, and in 1948 the Russians informed the U.S. Embassy that Oggins had died of heart failure. It was a lie. Yeltsin's dossier revealed that Oggins had been "liquidated," his murder (by poison injection, apparently) personally approved by Stalin. In testimony before the U.S. Senate, Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, a Soviet army historian, said Oggins was killed because "he had seen too much": Stalin did not want him telling about the horrors he had witnessed in prison. In 1994, Oggins was labeled a Soviet spy by Pavel Sudoplatov, one of Stalin's most ruthless executioners. Sudoplatov charged in a memoir that Oggins had been an agent in China and the Far East, and that Nerma had worked for Soviet intelligence, too. But Sudoplatov was a brazen self-publicist who also accused the atomic physicists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Niels Bohr of working for the Soviets. His memoir was vigorously contested, leaving his credibility in doubt and Oggins' story still a mystery. In 2000, eight years after Yeltsin released the dossier, Andrew Meier, then a Time correspondent in Moscow, began reconstructing Oggins' life. There was an officially approved way into the archives of Stalin's terror — through a direct relative. So Meier looked on the Web for the name Oggins. Up came Robin Oggins, a professor of history at the State University of New York in Binghamton. He was Cy's 70-year-old son. "This is the call I've been waiting for my whole life," Robin said when Meier telephoned. His father had left no diary or papers, however. There was only a shoebox of mementos with a few faded photos, precious little from which to piece the story together. Meier arranged for Robin to file a request for his father's complete dossier from the FSB, the new name for the KGB. And he started digging into FBI files. A picture emerged of a nomadic "believer" in Soviet communism, as Robin describes his father. Oggins joined the party in the United States, offered his services to Moscow and went to Europe, posing as an art collector. He and Nerma, another true believer, moved through safe houses in Berlin and Paris. After 1930, Oggins sailed to China and Manchuria. But was he an important spy for Moscow? Oggins' links with espionage cells are tantalizing; Meier surmises that in Europe Oggins and Nerma "had proven their worth" to Moscow, and that Oggins was at "the height of his espionage career" in China. How can we be sure of this? Only Putin's FSB could provide the answer, but Putin is not Yeltsin. The FSB released just 39 of what appeared to be 162 pages of the Oggins file. It would not even fill in the blanks of Yeltsin's 1992 dossier. "The Lost Spy" is a valiant effort, a well-written and rewarding romp through the international communist movement of the 1920s and '30s. The book's jacket suggests that it "will rewrite the history of Soviet intelligence in the West." There are too many blanks for that, but Meier reaches an intriguing conclusion: Oggins was arrested because his minder tried to quit. His cell was "rolled up," as spies say, and Oggins was murdered because he knew too much about Soviet spy rings abroad. It seems the most plausible explanation. But for all Meier's dogged sleuthing (and I look forward to his next casebook), the full story of this lost spy remains in the shadows. Peter Pringle's latest book is "The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century." Reviewed by Peter Pringle, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Filled with dramatic revelations, may be the most important American spy story to come along in a generation.
For half a century, the case of Isaiah Oggins, a 1920s New York intellectual brutally murdered in 1947 on Stalin"s orders, remained hidden in the secret files of the Soviet and American intelligence services'"a footnote buried in the rubble of the Cold War. It surfaced briefly in 1992, when Boris Yeltsin handed over a dossier to the White House, but the full story of what happened remained a mystery. After eight years of international sleuthing, Andrew Meier at last reveals the truth in The Lost Spy: Oggins was one of the first Americans to spy for the Soviets.
About the Author
Andrew Meier, the author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall, is a recent Fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers and currently a writer-in-residence at the New School University. He lives in New York City.
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