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Arts and Culture

John Holmes on ‘The Lost Spy’

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Posted on Oct 3, 2008
book cover

By John Holmes

(Page 2)

There is no doubt, however, that not long after Cy Oggins joined the Communist Party, he abandoned his ambition of becoming a historian and, together with his new wife, rather abruptly left for Germany, where he became an office employee of the International Liaison Department of the Communist International, Lenin’s “general staff of the world revolution.” Meier paints an exciting portrait of the communist movement in what he calls the “revolutionary paradise” of Weimar Germany, struggling for a workers’ revolution and battling the brownshirt plague about to wash over the country and puncture the Soviet dream of world revolution. But Meier, unable to find records of what the Ogginses were actually up to, is forced to fill the gap with speculation. And here the Cold War conventions of the spy genre are unhelpful. Meier assumes that this was the beginning of Oggins’ career as a spy. This is unlikely. In the 1920s, the purpose of the Communist International was revolution, not the spy trade.

No doubt there was some overlap between Soviet spy rings and the underground communist apparatus even that early. But it was not until after Hitler seized power in 1933 and crushed German communism that the world communism movement became an adjunct of Soviet foreign policy. Cy Oggins’ work in Berlin, whatever it was, was for the actual organizational embodiment of the “worldwide communist conspiracy,” not for Soviet intelligence. This is a distinction with a difference that is lost on Meier, alas.

In 1930, the Ogginses left Berlin for Paris, where they indeed began working for Soviet intelligence. Their assignment was apparently to spy on some minor Romanovs. While Meier entertains the reader with gossip about the lives of the Russian rich and famous who had fled the Bolsheviks for exile in Paris, he misses the likely reason the Ogginses were given this chore. It was almost certainly because they were Jewish communists. The Romanov dynasty was indelibly linked to anti-Semitism and pogroms. The Romanovs were the rallying cry for the Whites, who sought essentially to restore Tsarist rule and bathed Ukraine in Jewish blood during the Russian civil war. They participated in what was probably the greatest Jewish massacre in history—until the Holocaust. The Ogginses would have easily made the transition from working for world revolution to working as Soviet spies against the Romanovs.

 

book cover

 

The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service

 

By Andrew Meier

 

W.W. Norton, 304 pages

 

Buy the book

 

In 1934, the Ogginses returned to America, spending some time in San Francisco in the aftermath of the San Francisco General Strike, the proudest moment of the American Communist Party in the U.S. labor movement. Cy Oggins now moved up to the big time, spying on imperial Japan, a major power in the anti-Soviet “axis of evil.” He evidently was convinced that defending the Stalinist regime was the only barrier to fascism’s march toward world domination.

The spy mission Oggins performed in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo was a failure. Whereas other Soviet spy missions uncovered troves of German and Japanese secrets, the Oggins mission served mainly to get Italian bombers into the hands of the Japanese air force—and to make Oggins’ controller a rich man. Soviet suspicions were aroused. Given the atmosphere of the Great Terror, the remarkable thing is not that Oggins was arrested in 1939, but that, unlike literally hundreds of thousands of Soviet and foreign communists, he was not shot right away. According to his interrogation file, “the investigation yielded no evidence to confirm the guilt of the accused.” Many other prisoners were tortured until they confessed, but not Oggins. Why? Perhaps because he was an American citizen. The United States was, after all, one of the few countries with which the Soviet Union had fairly good relations at the time. Also, whereas any communist who had ever shown any signs of independent thought was doomed during the Great Terror, nothing in his file indicated that Oggins had ever harbored any doubts. His record was clean because he really was a disciple of Stalin and not an independent thinker.

The true merit of “The Lost Spy” is less Meier’s portrayal of Oggins than his portrait of the world Oggins inhabited. Oggins was far from its only inhabitant to meet a tragic fate: Tim Tzouliadis in his recent book, “The Forsaken,” tells the terrible tale of the thousands of American communists who emigrated to the Soviet Union. A few of them would die under mysterious circumstances after breaking with Stalin. Meier also describes the fate of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who, unlike Oggins, was a genuinely important figure in Jewish communism and garment radicalism in America. She also, it seems, became a Soviet agent, and was apparently murdered after expressing dissent.


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By jackpine savage, October 5, 2008 at 9:09 pm Link to this comment

Thanks, this one will find itself on my winter reading list.

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