May 21, 2013
John Holmes on ‘The Lost Spy’
Posted on Oct 3, 2008
By John Holmes
In the troubled times we live in, spy novels and movies are a pleasant escape from unpleasant daily reality. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is a favorite field for this form of entertainment. Journalists and historians alike have also mined this rich lode. The latest journalist to do so is Andrew Meier, the former Moscow correspondent of Time magazine. His new book, “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service,” stands out in this genre, both for the excellent quality of its prose and for the historical and moral issues it poses. Meier has unearthed the previously unknown story of Cy Oggins, an American Jewish communist who became a Soviet spy and was, for his troubles, executed in Moscow in 1947 just as the Cold War began.
Who was Cy Oggins? Oggins, like many of his generation who came of age during the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, dived headlong into the 20th-century caldron of war, revolution, destruction and social transformation. He was, by turns, a Jewish radical in America, an operative for the Communist International in Germany, a Soviet spy working in France and China during the run-up to the Second World War—and, finally, a victim of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. He yearned for more than a ringside seat to the three-way conflict between German fascism, Soviet communism and American liberal democracy that dominated the first half of the century. He wanted to make history by doing everything he could to strengthen the socialist cause. Like many of his comrades, he saw a radiant future for humanity as synonymous with the security of the Soviet Union. Meier’s book shines a revealing light on the iniquities of Stalinism, and fits perfectly into the classic Cold War narrative of American virtue and Soviet perfidy. But Meier, fortunately, does not limit himself to beating the dead horse of Stalinist brutality.
Because the evidence is scant, much about Oggins remains unknown and unknowable. Although Meier calls him a “cipher,” Oggins inhabited a world of fascinating personalities, ranging from the historian Charles Beard to the ex-Marxist philosopher Sidney Hook, which forms the basis for much of Meier’s speculation about Oggins and his milieu. His story, however elusive, is a kind of footnote to history, one which nevertheless provides a vivid entry into largely forgotten realms of Jewish and labor radicalism in America as well as social revolution in Europe and China in the early part of the 20th century. Of all of the crimes of Stalinism, perhaps its greatest crime was its destructive impact on movements for social change. Radicals and rebels were destroyed—physically in the Soviet Union, morally elsewhere. Cy Oggins fell victim to both fates.
That Cy Oggins was a Jewish radical is a key element of the story Meier tells. Many Jews played a central role in the drama of radical dissent in the period. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 are prime examples. Radicalized by the oppression of Tsarist Russia, they embraced socialism, communism and revolution. Anti-Semitism, they felt, was an instrument of reaction and counterrevolution, in Russia, in Germany and all over the world, including in America. Jewish emigrants from the Tsarist empire, like Oggins’ family, formed a human bridge between America and Russia. Their radical outlook did not diminish when they came to America.
The Ogginses, unlike most pre-WWI Russian-Jewish immigrants, were an upwardly mobile middle-class family, not toilers in garment sweatshops. Meier engagingly depicts how Cy Oggins was nonetheless introduced to labor radicalism at the age of 13, in 1912, by a dramatic rebellion of immigrant textile workers in his home town of Willimantic in northeastern Connecticut. He was a pioneer of the post-WWI path of Jewish upward mobility through education. In 1917, he was admitted to Columbia University despite Ivy League anti-Semitism. He was further radicalized there under the impact of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution and the great postwar Red Scare, during which troublemakers were subjected to a level of repression that not even the later McCarthy era would equal. The Bolshevik Revolution captured the imagination of a whole generation of rebels and dissenters. Oggins’ own activism during his college years was apparently limited, but Meier’s account of life at Columbia University portrays American student radicalism at its inception.
Oggins would go on to marry Nerma Berman, a Lower East Side garment worker who was a Jewish communist and labor activist. The role of Jewish garment radicalism in the labor movement in the “lean years” of the Roaring ’20s has been largely forgotten, and Meier gives it only a cursory introduction. Berman, in Meier’s account, was a feisty enthusiast who quickly found a place in the effort to establish the American Communist Party. How significant her role actually was is questionable.
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