Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

AGENT RED

Jeff Stein


Liberals tend to view the Patriot Act, which expanded the boundaries of permissible police and domestic intelligence activities, with a degree of hysteria. If they think the Bush era ushered in a police state, they would do well to read Andrew Meier’s The Lost Spy, which, in the course of unearthing one of the unlikelier sagas in the annals of US-Soviet espionage, is a masterful rendering of the government’s repression of left-wing political ferment during World War I. That era’s brutal crackdowns on dissent—combined with the onset of the Great Depression—would prompt thousands of Americans to embrace Soviet Russia as the last, best hope for mankind.

Most would eventually lose their ardor, especially in 1937, when the awful news of Stalin’s purges, which would liquidate millions of Russians, reached the West. But not Isaiah “Cy” Oggins and his eventual wife, the vivacious, Russian-born Nerma Berman, radicals who kept the flame alive to their bitter ends, as operatives for Soviet intelligence. Their paths to Moscow began, as did those of so many others, in the Russian Jewish diaspora in America. Oggins was the son of a “Yiddish peddler” from Willimantic, Connecticut, one of the grimy New England mill towns where police would soon be clubbing strikers in the streets. Nerma and her family arrived in New York from Russia at the turn of the century. By her late teens, she was a habitué of Greenwich Village socialist clubs.

In February 1917, Oggins, a gifted, gangly scholarship student, entered Columbia University, “a world far removed from the mills and spoolers, a realm of lofty ideas and blue blood,” Meier writes. But Oggins was poised to enter a very different world. A month after he matriculated, Russia—one of the many great powers reeling from the carnage and chaos of the First World War—experienced a decisive crisis in what would become known as the Bolshevik Revolution, with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. And a month after that, Woodrow Wilson, facing a resumption of German submarine attacks, declared war. As one of Oggins’s classmates recalled, “the world now stank of death.”

The campus roiled with protests. The breaking point approached for Oggins when two of his professors were fired, and a third resigned, for defying the university president’s order forbidding outspoken opposition to the war or the sedition laws. To Oggins and other radicals, “it sealed their belief in the futility of institutional reform in America.”

After graduation, unable to finance a doctorate, Oggins, who had recently married Nerma, tried out a variety of research and writing jobs, including at the prestigious Yale University Press. He “could be pleased with his success. He had married a genuine Communist, and each day he could stroll to work on Fifth Avenue.” But despite such blandishments, Oggins would not, or could not, turn his back on world revolution. In 1924, he joined the Communist Party, now steered by secret agents dispatched by Moscow. This proved a fateful moment, Meier writes; Oggins “was moving, by turns cautiously and recklessly, toward a new life with Nerma, a double life with no assurances.”

Within two years, Oggins was selected for the first of his missions: “a clandestine trip to Europe . . . as a courier surreptitiously bearing money, passports, or documents.” He did his job well enough to earn a second, bigger assignment, Weimar Berlin. He and Nerma lived above the store, as it were, on the top floor of a safe house where Moscow’s agents worked around the clock stealing German secrets, keeping an eye on the nascent brownshirts, and churning out false documents, including counterfeit US currency. If at one time, Cy and Nerma “may have imagined themselves volunteers on the side of the righteous,” Meier observes, they had now “joined, knowingly or not, a darker service.”

A subsequent assignment to Paris ended in 1933, with an anonymous phone call on the eve of the French Sûreté Générale’s sweep of Soviet spies. The message conveyed was ominous: “Leave Paris at once. Or you’ll regret it.” With Nerma back in the United States to raise a son, Oggins spent the next several years on a dizzying Asian tour, including Shanghai (then in the throes of civil war) and Manchuria, where the Japanese client regime of Henry Puyi, China’s “Last Emperor,” was on the brink of collapse. In 1939, the third year of Stalin’s purges, Oggins ended up in Moscow, where top party and military officials faced cursory interrogations, denunciations, and imprisonment—and, in most cases, death—in the Lubyanka.

Oggins’s fate was sadly typical—if also cloaked in the self-serving obscurity of most Stalinist proceedings. He was simply branded a counterrevolutionary; using heavily redacted documents squeezed out of latter-day Russian officials, Meier only can muster a guess as to how Oggins fell out of the Kremlin’s favor—but he has the goods on Oggins’s grisly end in a dank Lubyanka cell. Such speculation might frustrate devotees of traditional chronicles of the US-Soviet mole wars. But despite its title, The Lost Spy is not really a spy story at all. There are no furtive meetings under bridges, chalk signals on light poles, or coded radio messages—the tradecraft of espionage, and espionage books, alike.

But who needs it? Meier’s book offers something far better: a journey into the labyrinth where people lose their way, their souls, their minds, and their lives—the heart, in other words, of the best spy fiction. And by presenting Oggins’s personal struggle against its broader world-historical backdrop, Meier reminds us that, long before second-wave feminists coined the slogan, the Bolshevik era ensured that—for better or worse—the personal really was political.

Jeff Stein is national security editor of and Spytalk blogger at Congressional Quarterly.

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