The Enduring Lessons of the Ukrainian Hero Who Stood Up to Soviet Russia in 1944
And the son who has spent decades trying to seal his father’s place in history
By Bill Donahue
August 17, 2022 at 11:15 a.m. EDT
When Andrew Kravchenko was a child in the 1950s, he didn’t know who his real father was. His mother, Cynthia Kuser Earle, had no trouble supporting the family on her own. A ravishing socialite and heiress who spoke eight languages, she had sufficient funds to sustain three glamorous residences for Andrew and his brother: a mansion in New Jersey, a room ata luxury hotel in Manhattan and a country home on a secluded island in New Hampshire.
Cynthia had a companion whom Andrew called Tato, and when he showed up, he’d be on the scene with Cynthia and her sons for 10 days, maybe two weeks. Then he’d jet off like a wild comet. “There were probably 27 to 30 visits, all told,” Andrew says. “That’s all, but they stayed with me. It was like seeing a woman from the window of a moving train.”
A Ukrainian emigre, Tato — whose real name was Victor Kravchenko — had flair equal to Cynthia’s. He was handsome and stocky, with thick black hair and a temper. He stayed up all night, writing and smoking, Andrew recalls, and took long insomniac walks before dawn. He cooked and let the crockery pile up on the counter. He bought Andrew a drum set.
When Victor parted from Andrew, the boy didn’t always know where the man was off to. He knew only that Victor cut a wide swath in the world. In 1946, just after he immigrated to the United States, Kravchenko’s memoir of his life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was published. “I Chose Freedom” became a bestseller in the U.S., and it was unflinching, particularly in its description of the Holodomor, a famine that killed 4 million people in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, after Stalin seized grain there. “The children,” Kravchenko wrote, “were skeletons with swollen bellies.”
Cynthia knew that in revealing Stalin’s depravity, Victor had made himself the enemy of a dangerous autocrat; in his time, Stalin killed as many as 20 million of his political opponents. That’s why, according to Kravchenko biographer Gary Kern, Cynthia never married Victor, even though he was the father of her two sons. That’s why she married a man who’d be her husband only on paper, and why she told Andrew and his older brother, Tony, that this decoy — whom they rarely saw — was their father. She didn’t want the boys to tell anyone they were linked to Victor. The Soviet secret police had a robust U.S. presence in the 1950s, and Cynthia feared these agents would kill her children.
For many years, Andrew believed the lie about his parentage. Then, when Andrew was 13, Tony discerned the truth. He told his brother that Tato was their dad, and Andrew felt betrayed, honing a teenager’s unqualified, burning fury. He ceased speaking to Tato. Indeed, in January 1966, when Victor was 60 and beset by cataracts, a double hernia, shingles and emphysema, 15-year-old Andrew ignored him, as did Tony. In a letter to Cynthia, Victor complained he “heard nothing” from his sons. “Photos, or replies to my letters?” he asked before lamenting that they “don’t write one word.”
Victor died the following month, apparently by suicide. In the 56 years since, Andrew has become obsessed with his father — with trying to figure out what Victor meant to him, yes, but also with trying to bring back into the public eye a once-renowned figure who has faded into obscurity. His efforts have intensified since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, and he feels that the Jan. 6 hearings only make Victor’s message — about the need to defend democracy and freedom — more relevant than ever. “He carried,” Andrew says, “the fighting spirit that we all need to stand up to a regime.”
Since the late 1980s, Andrew has focused exclusively on Victor. Thanks to a family inheritance, he has not worked a job. Not for a day. And now that he’s 71, time is slipping away from him, and a question shrouds his campaign: Will he ever succeed in bringing renewed attention to his father’s brave stand against tyranny?
To understand Victor Kravchenko and his role in history, we need to go back to 1932, when he was among the Ukrainian Bolsheviks dispatched to the nation’s countryside to seize the land belonging to peasants, so that the agrarian sector could be nationalized. A Soviet apparatchik, Mendel Hatayevich, told him and 80 other young Communists, “Throw out your bourgeois humanism and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. … The last weak remnants of the capitalist peasant must be uprooted at all costs.”
When the uprooting work took Kravchenko to tiny Podgorodnoye, Ukraine, he observed the cruelty of one fellow Communist. “This beast drags the peasants out of their houses in the middle of the night, cursing and threatening them with his Mauser,” Kravchenko would later write, referencing a semiautomatic rifle.
But Kravchenko stifled his outrage. He rose in the Communist ranks, and in 1943, as the Soviet Union and the United States allied in the war against Hitler, he came to Washington to serve as a Red Army captain.
When he first arrived in Washington, he did not make an impression. His fellow residents at a Park Road NW boardinghouse would remember him as a quiet non-English speaker awaiting the stateside arrival of his wife. But on April 1, 1944, without authorization from his Soviet bosses, he stole off to Washington’s Union Station clutching two suitcases. On the lookout for “dangers and omens,” he would later write, he took the train north to Manhattan. Amid a freak April snowstorm, he hosted a news conference at which he resigned from his job and lambasted the Soviet government for its failure to “grant political and civil liberties.” The U.S.S.R., he said, was subjecting citizens to “unspeakable oppression and cruelties, while the NKVD” — the Soviet secret police — “acting through its thousands of spies, continues to wield its unbridled domination over the people of Russia.”
Kravchenko’s story ran on the front page of the New York Times and in myriad other newspapers. It shocked America. At the time, bad-mouthing the Soviet Union was almost verboten. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Americans to regard Stalin warmly, as “Uncle Joe,” and while it was clear that Kravchenko needed amnesty — returning to the Soviet Union would have been suicide — it wasn’t clear that the president would grant it. So Kravchenko brought into the American lexicon a new phrase. He told reporters that he was placing himself under “the protection of American public opinion.”
A man without a country, pursued by NKVD operatives, Kravchenko spent several months on the lam, hiding out in a succession of friends’ New York apartments, writing all the while. In 1946, the publishing house Scribner released “I Chose Freedom.” The book is a gripping narrative of Soviet treachery that the defector shaped in collaboration with the American writer Eugene Lyons, and it is perhaps best remembered for its discussion of Stalin’s gulags. “Prisons and concentration camps were filled with ‘enemies of the people,’ ” Kravchenko writes before describing one camp: “Behind the barbed wire, I could see a long row of barracks with tiny barred windows. Guardians paced before them, accompanied by huge, fierce-looking dogs.” The prisoners are gaunt. “Never,” he recalled, “have I seen such degraded human beings.”
Stalin was an early reader of “I Chose Freedom,” and after the book was published he made sure that Kravchenko’s family suffered.
Stalin was an early reader of “I Chose Freedom”; one of his spies managed to secure a draft. And after the book became a global sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, he made sure that Kravchenko’s family suffered. Both his parents, as well as his brother, were sent to concentration camps. His mother died there, and his father died shortly after he was released.
In the United States, Kravchenko was obliged to move about under an assumed name: Peter Martin. As the NKVD kept Kravchenko in its sights, phalanxes of FBI agents joined in pursuing him. Kravchenko’s FBI file reveals that, despite his anti-Stalinist rhetoric, the bureau felt there was a “strong possibility” he was an NKVD agent. Of course, both secret agencies knew all about Victor’s romance with Cynthia.
The defector met the heiress on a cold evening in 1946, at a Manhattan party to celebrate the release of “I Chose Freedom.” Cynthia Kuser was married at the time, but she had already conducted affairs with the Spanish matador Manolete and the CEO of General Motors. She found Victor exotic, beguiling. Late that night, speaking in Russian, she inveigled him to her palatial New Jersey manse, Faircourt. “At the landing of the ornate staircase, he reached for her, held her against him,” Andrew Kravchenko writes in “The Glamorous Stranger,” an unpublished 350-page memoir, finished this year. “He kissed her mouth, neck, vigorous in her warmth.”
Perhaps it was Victor’s gusto that spoke most to Andrew. He contends that he and Victor had a primordial connection. In his memoir, he zeroes in on a childhood visit that father and son made to the monkey cage in New York’s Central Park Zoo. “Some kids came in yelling, taunting, heckling,” Andrew writes. The monkeys were “agitated, swinging frantically, screeching about,” and Andrew felt a pained solidarity with them.
“I rushed one of the boys,” he continues, “hitting him in the face, pummeling him.” Next, the assaulted child’s father gets angry at Victor for letting this happen. Victor slaps the man in the face. When the man seems poised to rejoinder with punches of his own, Victor opens up his overcoat so that a hidden pistol becomes visible. The man and his sons then retreat, and, Andrew writes, “Tato picked me up, I burrowed my head close to his chest, dried my tears on his shirt. … I could hear his heartbeat. He did not say anything.”
Victor was not a family man, however. He was a political animal, and in the wake of his book’s publication, he focused his contempt on France, where, in the 1946 legislative election, the Communist Party won over 28 percent of the vote. Leading intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre were so devotedly red that they encouraged others to downplay the horrors of Stalin’s gulags. As independent historian and Russian translator Gary Kern recounts in his 700-page biography published in 2007, “The Kravchenko Case: One Man’s War on Stalin,” the French Communist press was relentless in smearing Kravchenko. In November 1947, Les Lettres Françaises, a Paris paper,ran a front-page headline reading, “How Kravchenko Was Fabricated.”
The fictional tale that followed leaned heavily on an unnamed source, a “garçon,” or young man, who worked for a World War II-era U.S. intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and allegedly helped Kravchenko defect. The story claimed that Kravchenko was an alcoholic who’d failed when he tried to write a book, scratching out a mere 60 pages that were “virtually illegible and practically unusable.” It contended that shadowy anti-Communist operatives had written every word in “I Chose Freedom.”
The riff about false authorship was particularly rich since, as Princeton professor John V. Fleming recounts in his 2009 book, “The Anti-Communist Manifestos,”Kravchenko had driven his editors at Scribner bonkers with his manic engagement in the book’s production. After Lyons, his co-writer, rendered each passage in English, Kravchenko insisted that the words be orally translated into Russian, so he could make changes. As the book progressed, Kravchenko’s English improved. Gamely, he revisited supposedly finished passages, making new changes. His publisher told him the edits were “far in excess of what we usually permit.”
Kravchenko sued Les Lettres Françaises for libel, and the ensuing 10-week trial, which took place in Paris in 1949, was such a sensation that many European newspapers ran daily transcripts of the proceedings. In essence, the court asked whether “I Chose Freedom” wasan accurate depiction of Soviet life.
Kravchenko and his French attorney answered yes by marshaling devastating testimony from gulag survivors who spoke in detail of the inhumanities they had endured. Margarete Buber-Neumann, a German intellectual and ex-Communist, had spent time in both Hitler’s and Stalin’s concentration camps, and she suggested that Stalin’s were worse. Of her two years in Siberia, she said, “We were given 600 grams of damp black bread with a thin watery soup and sometimes a small salted fish in return for carrying out backbreaking work in the fields from dawn till dusk every day.”
The trial’s protagonist, however, was Kravchenko. Nattily dressed in black suits and afforded far more leeway than a plaintiff would be in a U.S. courtroom, he leaped frequently from his seat. He berated the defense’s witnesses, an array of Soviet lackeys flown in by Stalin to discredit him. He lapsed into tantrums, shouting and rattling his fists so that Buber-Neumann, the witness, is said to have described him as a “Neanderthal man.”
When cerebral French Communists testified that gulags actually didn’t exist, they seemed, in comparison to Kravchenko, anemic and hollow. Kravchenko ultimately prevailed — striking, Fleming writes, “a devastating blow against the pretensions of Western Communist propagandists. He had done so on his own initiative, expending many of his own resources, and calling upon his own indomitable courage. His was a major Cold War victory.”
Victor’s triumph in Paris only deepened Stalin’s hatred for the defector, and Andrew’s mother, Cynthia, would eventually write, “I lived in terror for years.” Even after Stalin died in 1953, she remained scared, and in 1956 she decided to find a hiding spot. She and her two sons moved, without Victor, to a crumbling adobe house in the dry, sparsely populated ranch country northeast of Phoenix. This is where Andrew grew up, wealthy, cared for largely by a Venezuelan nanny, but in the mix with other, less privileged desert kids. Then known as Andrew Earle, he attended a one-room school. He became a decent bareback bronc rider, and he developed a reputation as a renegade, an indifferent student and a prankster. Once, after a motorist drove too close to him and his friend, Steve Carson, on a lonely dirt road, they took vengeance: “We filled up the front seat of his car with cacti,” recalls Carson, now a home builder in New Mexico.
Andrew saw Victor less frequently after he started first grade. The visits came mostly on summer break, in New York and in New Hampshire, and Victor was tired. In 1950, with his prodigious earnings from “I Chose Freedom,” he’d launched a new enterprise. He’d begun spending large stretches of time in Peru, opening up iron mines and paying locals handsomely to work for him. It was his goal to help sprout a humane new Peru governed by socialist principles. But his mining caper was a failure. Peru’s corruption overwhelmed him, and he struggled to breathe when he visited mines high in the Andes. A lifelong chain smoker, he contracted emphysema before he was 50.
Meanwhile, Stalin terrorized him. According to Kern, Kravchenko claimed that, in 1949, Soviet agents sneaked into his apartment and left a single bullet on a table without explanation. In 1956, according to a contemporaneous New York Times report, two men knocked on the door of his Manhattan apartment, then began beating him. Kravchenko shot and seriously injured one of the intruders.
Under stress, Victor’s health spiraled downward. By the mid-1960s, Kern writes, he was too fragile to live in his own apartment. He stayed nearby with a friend, a Russian translator named Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood, and mixed whiskey and sleeping pills to ward off the creeping anxiety he felt after mining-related failures that cut him, he wrote Cynthia, “like a knife in the heart.” He spoke in low tones, fearful that Hapgood’s apartment was “wired.” Hapgood wrote Cynthia, “He has been talking of suicide.”
On Feb. 25, 1966, he was found lying in his apartment with a bullet hole in his temple. Blood was gushing from his mouth. He died on the way to the hospital.
By now, Andrew was wild in ways that Victor might never have imagined. He and his friends developed a taste for slipping across Arizona’s southern border, into Mexico, to buy amphetamines. “We were,” Andrew writes in his memoir, “liquor-binging, peyote-eating, mushroom-consuming potheads.”
Cynthia shipped Andrew to the East Coast, to find sanctuary at a boarding school, but, he told me, he dropped out of one school, then another. When he was 18, his brother, Tony, died suddenly, of a pulmonary edema, at age 22. Andrew bypassed college to work as a painter’s apprentice in Spain. Then, in his late 20s, he rented an apartment in Lower Manhattan, in a now legendary six-story brick building. The Mudd Club, a punk-rock venue, was on the ground floor, playing host to bands like X and the B-52s. Actor Dan Aykroyd, of “Saturday Night Live” fame, was one story up. Andrew was a full-time artist now but hardly a starving one. Having inherited wealth from his mother, he had no need to grovel for commercial success. When a West Broadway gallery offered him what would have been his first major show, he decided to hold out for a more prestigious SoHo gallery. Was this just a matter of a well-heeled young man being choosy? Or was Andrew, in saying no, manifesting the same uncompromising bravado as his father?
As it turned out, Andrew never got a show in SoHo. And other facets of Victor’s bequest ate at him. There was the pain of being lied to and the confusion he’d felt concerning his origins. His brother’s death also proved haunting. In his memoir, Andrew writes, “I held a darkness that I could neither fully comprehend nor know how to cure. I started shooting up speedballs, a mixture of heroin and cocaine. … I would continue getting high for months.”
Today, Andrew Kravchenko lives outside Phoenix once again, in a gated community in the city’s rapidly expanding northern suburbs. He is poised and lean, with stylish shoes and a gracious, urbane manner.
He says he hasn’t touched any drugs, including alcohol, since the late 1980s. He swims almost daily and takes walks in the desert. With his partner of 22 years, a Hungarian emigre and visual artist named Livia Kovats, he leads a quiet, contemplative life almost separate, it seems, from the outside world.
Andrew changed his last name to Kravchenko in 1981, and he has, over the past three decades, exercised an almost monk-like devotion to his filial mission of resurrecting Victor’s story. He spent seven years writing “The Glamorous Stranger,” battling dyslexia along the way and teaching himself how to craft narrative prose. Andrew has been shopping the manuscript to literary agents for several months. As we talk about this, I can’t help but focus on the high stacks of numbered, acid-free cardboard boxes tucked into corners throughout his house. These are the Victor A. Kravchenko Archives.
In 1989, the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote to Andrew, encouraging him to “collect” and “secure” Victor’s papers. Andrew then spent years transforming a jumble of yellowing newspaper clips, personal correspondence and documents in Russian, English, French and Ukrainian into a neatly categorized 60-box collection that was appraised in 2001. Willis Van Devanter, who’d previously appraised the papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and composer Irving Berlin, valued the Kravchenko archives at $2.75 million.
Andrew has been trying to sell the collection for over 20 years. But as he and I sip cool drinks on his front porch, he tells me that the campaign hasn’t yielded a match. “One library said that they wanted it,” he says, “but I didn’t feel that proper care would be given.”
Soon, we’re talking about how visitors to the archives might use its contents, and I suggest that a playwright might find gold in Victor and Cynthia’s story. “I’ve written their story,” he rejoinders. “There’s nothing left to write on Victor, or on my mother. What are people going to write? And if they do a play, how do they not infringe on my copyright?”
“So you’re not open source?” I ask him.
“F--- open source,” he says.
We’ve arrived at the first tense moment in a largely genial interview, and I’m reminded of the fierce, insistent Victor Kravchenko who leaped to his feet in the courtroom in Paris, dead certain that he was right. Andrew isn’t unaware that he’s like his father. “I have an insistence on every goddamned thing that I do,” he says. “Where do you think I got it?”
In 1994, Andrew joined forces with Gary Kern, the biographer, to spend six years in a legal fight with the FBI, which refused to release Victor’s file, citing national security. The duo won access to 2,000 pages and 27 notebooks — most of the file, Kern believes — and the historian used the highly redacted papers as he wrote his book.
Kern’s biography is serious and thoroughly researched, and its prose is fluid — musical at times, even. But “The Kravchenko Case” is so hefty a volume, and so fine-grained, that it has reached few casual readers. Published by the now defunct Enigma Books, it is out of print.
In his campaign to bring his father back into the limelight, Andrew has so far fallen miles short of, say, Dhani Harrison, the son of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who last year released a monumental remastered box set of his father’s 1970 masterwork, “All Things Must Pass.” But in 2005, a vaunted documentary filmmaker — Mark Jonathan Harris, who had won an Oscar for a movie about the smuggling of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany — embarked on a film about Victor Kravchenko.
In 2007, Harris brought his one-hour 23-minute Kravchenko film, “The Defector,” to within inches of the finish line. In Arizona, Andrew gives me a password so I can savor a near final cut on Vimeo. I watch the film in my hotel room, and it’s very good. It’s moving. It’s a sort of world tour, with stops in Victor’s New York City, in Arizona and Paris. It alights in Red Square outside the Kremlin, where a police officer shouts, “Stop! Filming is forbidden here!” and in a forest outside Kyiv, Ukraine, where, during the famine of the early 1930s, Bolshevik soldiers buried thousands who’d perished from starvation.
Andrew is the film’s main presence, playing journalist as he interviews his old Arizona neighbors as well as historians and Holodomor survivors. Suavely wrapped in a navy scarf against the Manhattan chill, he is unhurried and focused, intent in his listening. In the end, as I watch him cast his father’s ashes into the Dnieper River in Ukraine, there are tears welling in my eyes.
Yet “The Defector” has never seen distribution. Andrew, a co-producer who also held the underlying rights to the film, decided, amid a creative squabble with Harris, to squelch it. “It seemed cutesy,” he told me. “The woman who played my mother in voice-over, she had a squeaky Americana voice.”
Andrew’s biggest issue is with the film’s opening. When viewers of “The Defector” first encounter Andrew, he is standing on a Lower Manhattan sidewalk, peering up toward a bay window on the second floor of a tall building. “This was Victor’s apartment,” Andrew says. “This is where he shot himself.”
When Andrew first saw that Harris had used the footage, he stormed out of a screening. In recent years, he has become increasingly unsure that Victor died by suicide, even though most historians, Kern among them, believe that he did. In the 1990s, Andrew obtained a vintage Soviet document noting — ominously, he believes — that just three months before Victor’s death, in November 1965, the Soviet secret police proposed opening a criminal case against him for being a “traitor to the motherland.” Was this a mere coincidence? And what to make of how Victor’s pistol sat in his suit-jacket pocket as he was rushed to the hospital, post-shooting?
In Arizona, Andrew tells me that he has film footage that captures forensic investigator Michael Baden, who testified in the O.J. Simpson trial, suggesting Victor was killed. But he is hesitant to release an outtake from “The Defector,” and when I speak to Baden, who’s still a frequent presence on TV, at age 88, he takes issue with Andrew’s characterization of his views. He tells me that he was working in the medical examiner’s office in Manhattan in 1966 and that he was involved in Victor’s autopsy — and in concluding that Victor had killed himself. “The cause of death,” he says flatly, “was suicide.”
Victor Kravchenko somehow managed to rattle the world’s most egregious living dictator by elbowing editors and courtroom bailiffs out of the way so he could tell his story of tyranny exactly as he saw it. Is Andrew’s bid to thrust Victor back into the public eye going to tank simply because he’s enacting his father’s stubborn, micromanaging ways?
When I speak to Andrew’s friend Richard Mayol, a retired political consultant, he says: “Andrew is a perfectionist, and sometimes this has gotten in his way. Unless things are exactly the way he wants them to be, he’s not going to move forward on a project. Several people have helped him, but it’s been hard for him to find someone who sees things as exactly as he does, so the project” — Andrew’s decades-long efforts to deliver Victor’s message to a mass audience — “will kind of plateau. Then another year will go by, and he’ll take it up to another plateau.”
In Arizona, Andrew tells me that with the war in Ukraine, he’s trying to put aside his qualms with the documentary. “Mark and I are talking again,” he says, speaking with warmth of the director. “We want to release the film.”
In the days that follow, Andrew’s lawyer sends Harris a contract stipulating terms for a creative reunion for the movie. Andrew, meanwhile, keeps sending me emails, suggesting that Harris is on the cusp of signing the contract. “We should have this thing wrapped in a couple of days,” he writes on April 19. “Done. Done.”
Nobody likes to wait around for other people to sign contracts. But there may be a deeper issue at work here, too. In his many decades of promoting Victor, Andrew has brought his father precious few new admirers. He’s published translations of “I Chose Freedom” in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary, and in July he met an aspiration he’d harbored for decades, republishing the book in Victor’s native Ukraine. But the Victor A. Kravchenko Archives remain unsold. So far, book publishers are not warming to his memoir. In an email to me, he blames this on the “narrowness of the publishing world” and its taste for memoirs “dominated by politicians, dysfunctional starlets, BLM and LGBTQ.”
Harris signs the contract, finally, in early May, but when I call him, he hasn’t forgotten Andrew’s fiery opinions. “He threatened to get an injunction to stop the film,” Harris tells me. “Andrew can be very litigious.”
Still, Harris expresses cautious optimism and hopes to sell the film to a streaming service such as Netflix or HBO. It’s not a stretch. Over the past five decades, he’s brought six documentaries to audiences in theaters. He’s aiming for an autumn release.
But eventually I realize that it would be wrong to regard the film’s success as a litmus test. Just because Victor Kravchenko changed the world, we can’t expect his son to do the same. And Andrew has done something meaningful with his life: In promoting his father, he has communed with an icon of freedom who should never be forgotten. I appreciated this my first day at his house when he handed me a bound volume of photos from Victor’s 1949 trial in Paris. The pictures were black-and-white and dramatically lit, with matter-of-fact captions like “Kravchenko takes a stroll along the Seine with his bodyguards.” Andrew stood back, not speaking, as I slowly flipped through the stiff, musty pages, fixing on the physical force Victor brought to his courtroom war against tyranny.
The entire volume seemed somehow quite relevant. Today we again live in a world awash in tyranny. Truth and civil discourse are now under attack in our country. Every day demands that we stand up for what’s right, as Victor Kravchenko did. Looking at those pictures, I realized that I needed the pure focus that they carry, the insistent idealism. I needed their jolt. And it is quite possible that you need their jolt, too.
Bill Donahue has written for Outside, Bloomberg, Wired and the Atavist.