A Tale of Two Venonas

A Tale of Two Venonas

A review of The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors, by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel.


If book publishing were subject to truth-in-labeling laws–a concept we should all abominate–Herbert Romerstein would be in serious trouble.

First, this book presents itself as jointly written by Romerstein, a veteran federal investigator of Soviet activities in the United States, and the late New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel. But I could find no evidence whatever of textual input by Breindel in this volume, which appears two and a half years after he died. Love him or hate him (and I am fairly certain most Nation readers fall in the latter category), Breindel was a working journalist who knew how to write. However, this production is so leaden, prosaic and perfunctory it is hard to imagine a professional scribe having had anything to do with it. It reads like a printout of several government reports, strung together.

Further, it offers very little that is new about the Venona program, a US-run interception and decryption of some 2,900 secret Soviet communications originally transmitted in the 1940s. Nearly everything important to be said about this phenomenon, from an anti-Soviet perspective, was published in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a meticulous and detailed examination by the historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, issued by Yale University Press in 1999 [see Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, "Cables Coming in From the Cold," July 5, 1999].

This is not to say there is nothing new or interesting in this book. In addition to Venona, Romerstein has trolled through other US files, as well as the "MASK" decryptions, Soviet communications captured by the British intelligence before World War II, and he has dipped into Soviet and East German archives, although in a haphazard way. But because Romerstein's approach is only thorough in certain instances, he leaves some useful items hanging, unelucidated.

One of these involves the disappearance, in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, of Mark Rein, son of the exiled Russian Menshevik Rafail Abramovich. Rein was associated with Scandinavian social democracy when he vanished in wartime Catalonia. His case is one of a short list of unsolved atrocities alleged against the Soviet secret police on Spanish Republican territory. According to Romerstein, Rein may have been betrayed to Stalin's agents by a German leftist named Paul Hagen. A footnote discloses that sources on the Rein affair may be found in the German Communist Party Archives. (Hagen is discussed in a recent work that, although self-published, is written to a high standard and is of considerable interest, Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War, by Jim Martin. For information, see flatlandbooks.com.)

But Romerstein handles this revelation–which, although significant, has very little to do with Venona–in a sloppy and incomplete way because such episodes, and indeed, Venona itself, are not what really interests him. Romerstein is a man of obsessions, and his obsessions are familiar to Nation readers. The main example in this book involves his crusade to incriminate the journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet spy.

Romerstein has previously been burned by this topic [see D.D. Guttenplan, "Izzy an Agent?" August 3/10, 1992; Romerstein's letter in response and Guttenplan's "Stone Unturned," September 28, 1992; and Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir's "Stone Miscast," November 4, 1996]. But caution and precision are not his touchstones, as his argument on Stone exemplifies.

As shown in the Venona messages, Stone rebuffed Soviet attempts to enlist him, although one Soviet report states that the journalist "would not be averse to having a supplementary income." However, there is no evidence that any money ever changed hands or that Stone was alluding to anything other than, for example, Soviet translation and publication of his work by the news agency TASS, which was the cover under which some agents in New York worked. Haynes and Klehr dealt with Stone's appearance in these messages with laudable objectivity, declaring, "There is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB."

Yet Romerstein seems determined to smear Stone whether or not he can prove his charges. According to him, an NKVD "business" relationship with Stone "worked out" when at the end of 1944 "a group of journalists, including Stone, provided [Soviet spy Vladimir] Pravdin with information" about US military plans in fighting the Germans. At the end of the paragraph, Romerstein breezily admits that the journalists in the group, aside from Stone, were not spies and did not know that Pravdin was a spy. Nor is there any indication the information they transmitted was secret.

Thus, there was nothing questionable about these American journalists briefing a Soviet colleague. Still, according to Romerstein, because "Stone knew full well" that Pravdin was a spy, the incident was "evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent." But given that so many top Soviet representatives in America were spies, and that a considerable number of intelligent people knew this or took it for granted, what difference did it make?

The remainder of Romerstein's summary case against Stone consists of some garbled gossip by Russian retired spy Oleg Kalugin, which Kalugin himself disclaimed, followed by an absurdly convoluted and arbitrary argument. Romerstein points out that Soviet agents referred to Stone by the code alias "Blin," the Russian word for pancake, from which the word "blintz" is derived. He then notes that in 1951 Stone complained in a column that he would not be surprised to be accused in the anti-Communist press of having been "smuggled in from Pinsk in a carton of blintzes." To Romerstein, this is not only a dead giveaway, it is the clincher.

He writes, "Intelligence tradecraft requires that agents not know their codenames, but as Venona revealed, in a number of cases it seems some did." He continues, apparently on no evidence whatever, "Stone was one of them. His inside joke was odd. You might talk about smuggling something from Russia in a vodka bottle or caviar jar or some other normal Soviet export, but blintzes?" Well, Izzy Stone was diminutive, but he wouldn't have fit in either a bottle of booze or a can of caviar.

All this goes far beyond stretching the truth in the interest of ideology. One could say that when inquisitors like Romerstein are reduced to deconstructing wisecracks, Marx's famous transition from tragedy to farce has come into full effect. But the overall enterprise pursued by Romerstein remains both historically meretricious and socially evil, in that it obstructs meaningful debate on meaningful issues, of which the activities of Soviet secret agents in the West is certainly one.

One might also dismiss Romerstein as a McCarthyite, but that would be a mistake. Romerstein is not a McCarthy–that is, a hysteric lashing out at perceived enemies. He is something worse: a Stalinist who changed sides and joined the West, without changing his essential mindset. The fabrication of arguments like those presented against I.F. Stone, based on attempts to read nonexistent significance into trivial details, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Soviet demonization of Trotskyists, Mensheviks, anarchists and other alleged counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, this method is typically visible in the hallucinated documents of the Moscow trials, in Chinese denunciations during the Cultural Revolution, in the interrogations practiced under Pol Pot in Cambodia, in American conspiracy literature and, in the KGB canon, in the writings of Herbert Romerstein.

Haynes and Klehr showed that Venona represents a documentary resource that historians of the twentieth-century left can ignore only at considerable risk. Venona materials interpreted as referring to the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss cannot be dismissed. More, the attempt by some historians to discredit the Venona communications as bragging and exaggeration by Soviet operatives runs up against a notable aspect of Soviet intelligence history. The Russian security organs, unlike the US and British agencies, underwent a series of purges in the late 1930s that can only be described as wholesale massacres.

The ferocity of these murderous campaigns impelled the most important defectors from Soviet service in the 1930s to flee their fellow agents or "go private," in the parlance of the secret police. These included Ignacy Porecki, a k a Reiss, murdered within three months of his break with Stalin in 1937, and Lev Lazarevich Feldbin, alias Aleksandr Orlov, who escaped to the United States and remained underground for more than a decade. The "renegacy" of Whittaker Chambers was driven by physical fear, at the height of the purges, that he would be kidnapped and taken to Moscow for execution. Other cases included that of the legendary Bolshevik diplomat and operative Fyodor Raskolnikov, who jumped, fell or was thrown from a window to his death in France soon after his break, and, of course, the well-known Samuel Ginsberg, or Walter Krivitsky.

Krivitsky, who had been a comrade of Reiss and Orlov, died in a Washington hotel room in 1941, allegedly a suicide. The case remains mysterious, and Haynes and Klehr employ great care in their comment on it: "There were some puzzling aspects to his death that suggested murder." But once again, Romerstein knows no hesitancy; he writes, offering no substantiation, "Krivitsky was murdered."

Given the fate of individuals like Reiss, emblematic of the thousands of agents purged and executed within Russia in the late 1930s, the suggestion that any Soviet operative would have engaged in false reporting, which would have excited fatal suspicions in the higher ranks, is untenable if not surrealistic.

However, there is a major lesson to be drawn from Venona that for political reasons has been somewhat underestimated by historians of both the right and the left. It involves the extraordinary energy Soviet agents all over the globe dedicated to the pursuit and persecution of dissident leftists, both Russian and foreign, American as well as Spanish, German and other.

The extent of these obsessions is revealed in Venona not only by messages describing infiltration and manipulation of the American Trotskyist movement but even more so by those attesting to Soviet surveillance of various political targets on Mexican soil. The long list of enemies is eloquently presented in a Venona communication from Moscow to Mexico City dated June 11, 1945, a few days before a massive victory parade scheduled in Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II. This communiqué, sent simultaneously to KGB stations in Algiers, Bogotá, Brussels, London, Montevideo, New York, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Washington and Zagreb, prohibits the issuance of visas to any nondiplomatic foreigner for a period of eleven days from June 15 to June 25.

The communiqué additionally demands special vigilance to make sure that none of the following elements might utilize the occasion of the victory celebration to infiltrate the Soviet Union "on terrorist missions": White Russian émigrés, nationalists (that is, Ukrainians or Armenians), Trotskyists, Zionists, priests, veterans of the "national legions" (presumably, foreign anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian civil war), Mensheviks, Russian Constitutional Democrats and monarchists. A later message demands a survey and analysis of the presence in Mexico City (no doubt extremely marginal) of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Armenians, Georgians, mountain folk from the northern Caucasus, Central Asians and Balts who might have emigrated from the USSR. One can only add that the life of a northern Caucasian mountaineer, say a Chechen or Daghestani, in Mexico City in 1945, is a topic to which only literature, and that of a high imaginative order, could possibly do justice.

That the majority of these "anti-Soviet elements," such as Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Constitutional Democrats and monarchists, were, at that time, politically and organizationally on the edge of extinction, and that they had little or no presence in Mexico, to say nothing of Bogotá or Montevideo, seems to have been irrelevant to the KGB bosses in Moscow. In any case, thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union had attempted to remain in Western Europe, and some must have escaped to the Western Hemisphere. Polish exiles in Mexico were followed and surveilled to gauge the utility of clandestine operations against them. Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Moscow regarding such minuscule groups must appear absurdly exaggerated. As an additional example, on February 21, 1945, Moscow commanded that the KGB in Mexico City report on "the reaction in Armenian circles," presumably in the capital, to a synod of the Armenian Orthodox Church that had been held in the monastery of Echmiadzin in Armenia.

The irrational character of KGB orders is especially obvious in the continued tracking of Natalya Ivanovna Sedova, the isolated and psychologically bereft widow of the murdered Trotsky. After the 1940 slaying, Sedova lived for twenty more years just outside Mexico City on Calle Viena in the little house (a narrow and somewhat claustrophobic space that's more like a stone cabin) that had been inhabited by the couple for a year and a half before the killing. Her circle was small. Apart from Trotskyist militants like the Mexican writer Manuel Fernández Grandizo (G. Munis) and other exiles like Victor Serge, Sedova received few visitors and none of influence in the outside world. Even so, the KGB maintained a rigorous scrutiny over her activities.

In general, few who have examined KGB history have grasped how crucial the harassment of dissident leftists was to its mission. For the pro-Washington faction, only treason to the Stars and Stripes is important; to their critics, it is replying to the accusation of lack of patriotism in the American Communist milieu. In addition, the perception of KGB assassins hunting down Trotskyists and social democrats clashes with the sentimental idea of "the family of the left."

Romerstein has grasped some of the irony of this situation, but he applies to it his usual sloppiness. He asserts that aside from Sedova and their son, Leon Sedov, who was murdered in Paris in 1938, "the rest of Trotsky's family, with the exception of his young grandson, had all been killed or forced to commit suicide in Stalin's USSR." This is inaccurate, as anyone knowledgeable about post-Gorbachev Russian journalism and historiography should know.

One of Trotsky's grandchildren, who lives in Mexico today under the name Esteban Volkov, but who was born Vsevolod and is also known as Seva, had a sister, Alexandra, who remained in Russia and died of cancer in 1988. They were children of Trotsky's elder daughter, Zinaida, who committed suicide in Berlin, not in Russia, after a nervous breakdown. But they also had two cousins, the offspring of Trotsky's other daughter, Nina, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1928. None of this third generation are known to have "been killed or forced to commit suicide." Numerous similar gaffes appear in this book.

Trotskyists were "polecats" in the Venona code vocabulary. This was not the only example of such insults; Zionists were referred to as "rats." This is unpleasant enough; but once again Romerstein ups the ante. On the dust jacket and in the book's text and footnotes, it is asserted that "the code word 'Rats' was used by NKVD both for Jews, generally, and for the Zionists…. They considered all Jews 'Jewish nationalists,' i.e., Zionists, and even distrusted the small group of Jewish Communists."

Unfortunately for Romerstein, there is not a single example in Venona that I'm aware of–and I've reviewed much of the material for books and articles of my own–of the use of "rat" to refer to Jews in general. And regardless of how few Communists were Jewish in the longer run of history, the roster of KGB agents of Jewish origin speaking to one another in Venona is, sadly, pretty long. They include, among a great many others, Gen. Naum Eitingon, organizer of the attack on Trotsky ("Tom"); Grigory Kheifitz ("Kharon"), who was KGB "rezident" (local chief) in San Francisco; and one of the most assiduous and deadly of all Soviet spies, Mark Zborowski ("Tulip"). An accomplice in the murder of Ignacy Reiss, betrayer of Leon Sedov and co-conspirator in numerous other crimes, Zborowski reinvented himself in America as a medical anthropologist. It is difficult to imagine Moscow referring to any of these valuable assets as "rats," even though many of them were purged under Khrushchev and imprisoned after the elimination of their master, Lavrenti Beria.

Stalinism remains among the most horrifying features of the twentieth century. Millions of innocents were killed, and millions of idealists were used and destroyed–the original, honorable socialist and labor movements were often profoundly undermined and in certain cases wrecked. Some of the countries that lived under Stalinist regimes may not recover for generations. To distort and exploit this tragedy for any ideological goal, either leftist or rightist, is as distasteful as it is in the case of the Jewish Holocaust. Herbert Romerstein, like David Horowitz and others of their cohort, is, to recall a phrase from the 1960s, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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