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Reviewed by Peter Pringle
Sunday, August 24, 2008


An American in Stalin's Secret Service

By Andrew Meier

Norton. 402 pp. $25.95

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 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's story still a mystery.

In 2000, eight years after Yeltsin released the dossier, Andrew Meier, then a Time correspondent in Moscow, began reconstructing Oggins's 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's 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. ยท

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."

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