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Book Review

John Holmes on 'The Lost Spy'

John Holmes
Reviewer
John Holmes is a former labor activist in the newspaper and printing industry in the San Francisco Bay Area who has received a Master's degree in American history at San Francisco State University and a Ph.D.…
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.

book cover

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

By Andrew Meier

W.W. Norton, 304 pages

Buy the book

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. 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. Meier’s depiction of Oggins’ Soviet prison ordeal is excellent. He captures the sights, smells and sounds of the Lubyanka and the Gulag with perfect pitch. While Cy Oggins was wearily fending off Soviet inquisitors, Nerma was living in fear of hounding by the FBI in New York. Cy Oggins’ son Robin, who would become a distinguished historian of the Middle Ages, believed for decades that the American government bore part of the responsibility for his father’s fate. Meier discovered that this was not the case.

Oggins was a man who, as Meier puts it, “fell prey to his own blind faith” in “a realm of harmony and justice, not a world ruled, as he and his comrades saw it, by the lust for profit and violence.” “The Lost Spy” stands as a cautionary tale of faith misplaced and idealism crushed.

book cover

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

By Andrew Meier

W.W. Norton, 304 pages

Buy the book

John Holmes is completing a book on the life and times of Noah London, a principal leader of the Jewish communist movement in America and later a prominent Soviet industrial manager who was executed in Moscow in 1937.

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