Vladimir Pravdin was a senior Soviet intelligence officer in New York and Washington, DC, during World War II. He oversaw some of the most important Soviet agents of the era, including Harry Dexter White, a senior official at the U.S. Treasury Department; Lauchlin Currie, the chief economic adviser to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt; and Judith Coplon, a U.S. Justice Department employee who provided intelligence on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Pravdin's cover in the United States was as an editor and then director of U.S. operations for the TASS news agency. In his capacity as a TASS executive, he developed relationships with numerous U.S. journalists, including Walter Lippmann. Pravdin was born in 1905 in London, and his real name was Roland Abbiate. His unusually adventurous life included serving a two-year sentence in the Atlanta penitentiary prior to his recruitment by Soviet intelligence, surveilling Leon Trotsky in Norway and Mexico, participating in the Spanish Civil War, and leading the assassination of Ignace Poretsky. His story illuminates the triumphs of Soviet intelligence in the United States during World War II, the failures of U.S. counterintelligence, and the unraveling of Soviet espionage in North America following the defections of Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley.

By the time Vladimir Pravdin left New York Harbor on the SS Sergei Kirov in March 1946, sailing with his wife and two children from a tumultuous half decade in the United States to an uncertain future in the USSR, he could look back on a career full of stark contrasts. He had dined at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, with Walter Lippmann, a highly respected U.S. journalist, but had also eaten pork and beans with murderers, thieves, and bootleggers in the grim mess hall of a federal penitentiary. Before becoming head of Soviet foreign intelligence in New York, Pravdin performed other notable tasks for the Soviet espionage service, including the debriefing of Donald Maclean, a senior British diplomat and one of the USSR's most productive spies, and the ambush and murder of a former colleague on a dark road in Switzerland. He had trained Judith Coplon, an idealistic young civil servant in the U.S. Department of Justice, to spy for the USSR but had experienced a huge setback when another agent, Elizabeth Bentley, turned against the Soviet Union. Bentley's defection ended a golden era of Soviet espionage in the United States and led to Pravdin's departure on the Kirov.

Pravdin's real name was Roland Jacques Claude Abbiate. He was born in London on 1 July 1905, the son of Louis Abbiate, a virtuoso musician from Monaco known throughout Europe as the “Paganini of the cello.” His mother was a Russian Jew named Marguerite Mandelstamm.1 After successful stints performing in London and as a soloist in Arturo Toscanini's orchestra at La Scala in Milan, in 1911 Louis Abbiate accepted a position as a professor at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, his wife's birthplace.2 Roland and his older sister, Mireille, grew up speaking French with their father and Russian with their mother; along the way they picked up fluency in English. Roland graduated from a gymnasium in 1919.3

The Russian revolution pierced the Abbiate family's gilded bubble. The atmosphere under Vladimir Lenin's rule was toxic for a foreign-born bourgeois musician who had served the aristocracy. Louis, Marguerite, and Roland fled in 1920, leaving behind Mireille and her husband, a Soviet aviator. The family arrived in Paris destitute and traumatized.

As Louis rebuilt his life in France and Monaco, Roland traveled to England, worked on a farm in Doncaster, and then moved to Monte Carlo, where from the spring of 1922 to the winter of 1925 he worked in hotels as a waiter and also served as a courier and in other roles.4 Two decades later, when police forces across Europe and in the United States had reasons to investigate his activities, they managed to ascertain his movements starting in the winter of 1925. They did not, however, shed light on his motivations.

Abbiate received a passport from the British consulate in Nice on 11 December 1925, boarded the SS Patria in Marseille on 24 December, and arrived in New York fourteen days later.5 On a cool, clear morning, like millions before and after him who crossed the Atlantic in steerage, the 20-year-old Abbiate waited in line in the cavernous Registry Hall on Ellis Island for a cursory medical examination and a brief interview with an immigration officer. When he reached Inspector William Kanzer at 9:15 AM, something about the young man who claimed to be a hotel manager but had little money, no job waiting for him, and no relatives in the United States, seemed awry. Kanzer pulled Abbiate out of the queue and ordered his detention under the suspicion that he was likely to become a public charge. Abbiate spent five days on Ellis Island, within sight of Manhattan but unsure whether he would reach it, as a guest of the U.S. government, receiving four breakfasts, five lunches and four dinners before he persuaded a board of special inquiry to allow him to enter the United States.6

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kanzer and his colleagues made a strong impression on Abbiate. On Saturday, 3 April 1926, three months after his enforced stay on Ellis Island, New York Police arrested the young immigrant, who was working as a waiter at the Hotel Astor, charging him with impersonating an immigration officer. A deportation warrant issued while he was in pretrial detention stated that he had entered the United States by means of false and misleading statements. Abbiate was convicted and served a two-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He was deported to England on 22 February 1928, having gained an intimate familiarity with the underside of American life and a stamp in his passport that barred reentry to the United States.7

Figure 1.

Official Arrest Photograph of Roland Abbiate (birth name of Vladimir Pravdin), 1926. Source: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Figure 1.

Official Arrest Photograph of Roland Abbiate (birth name of Vladimir Pravdin), 1926. Source: U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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The outlines of Abbiate's recruitment by Soviet foreign intelligence and his activities over the subsequent half decade can be pieced together from partial leaks from the operational archives of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, from British intelligence files, from records of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and—for some of the more dramatic activities—from the records of Swiss and French police forces, as shared with the British police. Glimpses of the relevant Soviet foreign intelligence files come from Vasilii Mitrokhin, a former Soviet State Security (KGB) archivist who defected to Great Britain in 1992, bringing with him a trove of documents that he had copied over decades, which have been accessible at the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University since July 2014. The second glimpse into Soviet foreign intelligence files was provided by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer who copied excerpts from the service's files as part of a book project.

The Mitrokhin and Vassiliev documents are limited by their authors’ partial access to the files and are subject to possible transcription errors. The files on which they are based contain hastily written, incomplete, and at times inconsistent information. But in the case of Abbiate, information from the Mitrokhin and Vassiliev files is fully consistent, reinforcing confidence about their accuracy. Similarly, information about Abbiate collected by European police forces over the years and assembled by British intelligence is consistent with the information in the Mitrokhin and Vassiliev records. Details in the British intelligence files about Abbiate's international travels, as well as his encounters with the immigration and law enforcement agencies in the United States, are confirmed by declassified U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, ship manifests, and immigration records.

Mitrokhin's records and Communist Party files indicate that after Abbiate was imprisoned in Atlanta and deported to Great Britain, he returned to France, securing a job at the Alhambra Hotel in Nice.8 In 1931, he was reunited with his sister Mireille, who had traveled from the Soviet Union to see her family. During her visit, she was recruited by the Soviet foreign intelligence service, which at the time was overseen by the USSR's United State Political Directorate (OGPU), the giant security apparatus. Mireille introduced her brother to OGPU officials, and they signed him up as well.9 Mireille's codename was Aviatorsha (female aviator) and his was Letchik (pilot).10 The Abbiate siblings were enlisted into “Serebryanskii's Service,” also called “Yasha's Group,” an independent unit run by Soviet intelligence operative Jacob (Yasha) Isaakovich Serebryanskii that reported directly to the chief of the OGPU.11 Its 200 agents operated in sixteen countries, specializing in dangerous and violent activities, especially hunting down, abducting, and killing “enemies of the people.”12

Roland Abbiate probably did not know what he was getting into when he signed on as a Soviet agent. He may have been motivated by a longing for adventure, an affinity for the country where he grew up, or a desire to rebel against his father. Unlike many in the West who accepted the risks associated with working for the USSR's clandestine services, Abbiate had not been a Communist party member. Two years in a U.S. prison and the Great Depression, which had jolted the French economy in 1930, could have soured him on capitalism. Abbiate may have been happy to grasp an opportunity to make a living. Or maybe he was a young man who found danger and the opportunity to live a secret life exciting. His impersonation of an immigration official in New York suggests a penchant for subterfuge and a willingness to take risks.

It is not hard to understand why the OGPU viewed the Abbiates as attractive recruits. Individuals who were comfortable sliding between cultures and languages, especially those who, like Roland, were citizens of a European country and had no obvious links to the USSR, were of immense value to an intelligence service that was battling real and imaginary enemies around the globe and needed operatives who could blend into their surroundings.

Over the next six years, Abbiate traveled extensively, living in Italy, France, Norway, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia, shifting among a series of identities.13 He spoke English, Russian, French, Italian, and Serbian fluently, and had a basic understanding of German and Spanish. Eventually, West European police forces realized that Francois Rossi, Roland Smith, Dr. Benoit, and Carroll Georges Quinn were all pseudonyms for Roland Abbiate. Through his experience working as an “illegal”—a term used by the KGB and its precursors to describe officers operating without diplomatic cover—Abbiate demonstrated his loyalty and competence to his superiors in the field and the intelligence service's senior officials in Moscow.

From the summer of 1932 to early 1935, Abbiate was based in Yugoslavia, infiltrating and spying on White Russians.14 In the aftermath of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, 50,000 Russians had fled to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, most of them settling in Belgrade, where they published anti-Soviet newspapers and plotted to overthrow the new regime. Abbiate's backstory—teenage refugee from St. Petersburg, son of a world-renowned musician, victim of Communist oppression—would have provided entrée to the Russian émigré community. Abbiate worked in a network led by Leonid Lenitskii, a Russian émigré who served as an NKVD illegal resident, or station chief, in Belgrade from 1933–1935. Lenitskii, along with several members of his network, was arrested by the Yugoslav police in December 1935, convicted of espionage-related crimes, and imprisoned.15

Abbiate avoided a second stint in jail because the OGPU had pulled him out of Belgrade in February 1935. Like many other Soviet agents in Europe, he had become enmeshed in Soviet intelligence agencies’ decade-long obsession with locating, surveilling, and assassinating the exiled Communist Leon Trotsky.16 When Abbiate briefly recounted his clandestine activities to Soviet intelligence headquarters in 1944 in a report copied by Vassiliev, he noted that in 1935 he had been “sent to Norway to determine the precise whereabouts of Old Man” and had “completed the assignment in one month.” “Old Man” was a codename for Trotsky, who spent a year-and-a-half in Norway, much of it hiding from Soviet assassins in a village 35 miles from Oslo.17

Abbiate traveled to Poland in May 1936 “to arrange an illegal cover,” according to his autobiographical memorandum. However, he was diverted to other tasks in July when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Abbiate recalled the outlines of a harrowing experience on board a ship carrying military equipment from Finland to the Republican forces in Bilbao. He wrote that in the English Channel he had “prevented the transfer of the ship to Franco's naval forces by threatening the captain with immediate execution.”18 Losing the cargo would have been a blow to the Spanish Republicans and a disaster for Abbiate, who would certainly have been imprisoned and likely would have been executed.

By early 1937, Abbiate was back on the Trotsky beat. His Soviet state security file indicates that in February 1937 he was ordered to travel to Mexico “with an assignment to liquidate Old Man,” who had arrived in Mexico City in January. For an intelligence operative embarking on a mission that would, if successful, attract the attention of the world's most efficient police forces, Abbiate did little to cover his tracks. British immigration records indicate that Abbiate arrived in Dover on 17 February, presenting a passport that had been issued in his real name in Monaco. Always attentive to his appearance, Abbiate stopped in London to buy a suit at Austin Reed, an iconic clothing store on Regent Street that counted Winston Churchill among its customers, before proceeding to Liverpool. A French citizen traveling as Etienne Charles Maxime Martignat accompanied Abbiate. They boarded the Oreposa on 18 February; the ship's manifest lists their professions as hotel keepers and indicates their intention to immigrate permanently to Mexico. The pair of supposed hoteliers disembarked in Havana.19

Abbiate traveled from Cuba to Mexico City and conducted surveillance of Trotsky, who was staying with the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in their compound, La Casa Azul. Unlike many Soviet intelligence officers who, through their accents and mannerisms stood out as eastern Europeans, Abbiate could have blended in, and if he had remained longer, might have found a way to get close to Trotsky. But Abbiate's superiors lost patience, and in May he was recalled to Paris to fulfill another assignment.20

On 18 May 1937, Abbiate arrived in Miami on a seaplane from Havana. Remarkably, he traveled under his real name, gambling that passport officers would have no clue that they were looking at a man who had been deported a decade previously and had been barred from returning to the United States. On the immigration card, Abbiate provided his real permanent address, 31 Rue de Chazelles, Paris, and indicated that he had previously visited the United States in 1925. He entered “no” next to the question, “Ever arrested and deported, or excluded from admission to the U.S.,” and listed the purpose of his visit as “pleasure.”21

Whatever assignment Abbiate's superiors had in mind for him was superseded in mid-July by a crisis that threatened to strengthen Joseph Stalin's enemies and destroy years of work in building Soviet agent networks around the world. The emergency began on 17 July when a counterintelligence officer in Paris working for the Soviet People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the organization that had succeeded the OGPU, intercepted a letter that Ignace Poretsky, a veteran Soviet intelligence officer who had been decorated for his services to the USSR, had sent to Stalin. Poretsky was a member of the first, and most talented, generation of Soviet intelligence officers, an elite group of men, and a few women, born in the late nineteenth century on the shifting edges of empires who had experienced the downfall of the Hapsburgs and eagerly participated in the destruction of the Romanovs. They shared a passionate utopian vision of Communism and, without exception, were ultimately consumed by the vicious reality of Stalinism.22 In the letter, Poretsky, revolted by Stalin's Great Purges, denounced the dictator as the “hangmen of the best representatives of the Russian worker” and pledged his allegiance to Trotsky.23

Moscow's response was immediate: the traitor must be liquidated. Poretsky's close friend and fellow intelligence officer Walter Krivitsky refused the mission, marking the beginning of the end of his career as a Soviet intelligence officer and the start of a troubled life as a defector.24 Perhaps because Abbiate was not known by Poretsky, he was assigned a leading role in the mission.

The NKVD had learned that Poretsky, who was hiding in Switzerland, was in touch with Gertrude Schildbach, a German Communist he had befriended years earlier and had set up as a low-level agent. At the time, Schildbach was managing a safehouse in Rome.25 Abbiate traveled to the Italian capital, engaged in a whirlwind courtship, seducing and convincing the much older—and according to Poretsky's wife, “particularly unattractive”—woman of his intention to marry her at the first opportunity. He also persuaded her to help him murder Poretsky, a man who had gone to great lengths to help her.

Poretsky and his wife, Elsa, were keeping a low profile in a village near Lausanne. A team that included Renata Steiner, a Swiss Communist and one of Abbiate's romantic partners, had been monitoring the Paretskys’ whereabouts. One of Steiner's tasks was to rent a car in Switzerland, which she turned over to Abbiate.26

Schildbach wrote to Poretsky and arranged to meet him on Saturday, 4 September 1937, at a café near the central train station in Lausanne. The day before, she and Abbiate, traveling as Francois Rossi, arrived in the city and checked into adjoining rooms 45 and 46 at the Hotel de la Paix.27 At about 6 p.m., Martignat, the intelligence operative who had accompanied Abbiate to Mexico in February, joined them for dinner.28

The next morning Schildbach walked about ten minutes from the hotel to the rendezvous with Poretsky, carrying a box of chocolates. Schildbach told the Poretskys that she, too, had become disillusioned with Stalin. She sought their help to escape the NKVD's grip. During the conversation, Elsa reached for the chocolates and must have been surprised when Schildbach, who knew that the contents were laced with a deadly dose of strychnine, snatched it back. Apparently, the realization that Elsa or her son might be killed caused Schildbach to balk at the last moment.29

Abbiate scrambled to put together a backup plan. He told Schildbach to arrange to meet Poretsky that evening for dinner in Chamblandes, a village on the outskirts of Lausanne. After the meal, she took her old friend for a walk, guiding him to a dark road. Suddenly a Chevrolet pulled up. Accounts of what happened next differ, but what is certain is that Abbiate, Martignat, and a Soviet submachine gun were in the car, that nine bullets were fired into Poretsky, and that he was stuffed into the car and dumped by the side of the road not far away. Poretsky's corpse was discovered the next morning with a forged passport in his pocket and a clump of Schildbach's gray hair clutched in his fist.30

The assassination had been planned hastily. Abbiate, Martignat, and Schildbach abandoned the Chevrolet, its interior stained with Poretsky's blood, and fled. Abbiate had not warned Steiner, and when she went looking for the car, Swiss police arrested her. Terrified by the prospect of being held responsible for killing Poretsky, Steiner revealed everything she knew about the plot.31

Searching Rossi's room at the Hotel de la Paix, police found the poisoned chocolates and a suit bearing a tag marked “Austin Reed, Regent Street, R. Abbiate, 17-2-37.” The label of another suit hanging in the same closet was inscribed with the name of a shop on Rue Scribe in Paris. The tailor told the French police that the suit's owner, Roland Abbiate, lived at 31 Rue de Chazelles. The search of Abbiate's hotel room also turned up a check signed by a prominent Mexican, as well as a map of Mexico City. The Swiss police and their counterparts in London and Paris had little trouble figuring out why a Soviet assassin had taken a strong interest in Mexico.32

Abbiate did not return to the Rue de Chazelles. Instead, he and his companions traveled east, to Moscow. Although lookout notices listing his five known aliases were posted to borders throughout Europe and across the British empire from Dover to Singapore, he was never caught.33

The murder of Poretsky dramatically boosted Abbiate's standing with Soviet intelligence. In November 1937, acting on the recommendation of the head of the NKVD's foreign intelligence service, Abram Slutskii, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for “self-sacrificing and successful services to the Soviet government.”34 Abbiate was also granted Soviet citizenship in 1937.35

Schildbach did not fare as well. She quickly learned that Abbiate was not madly in love with her and that the NKVD was not impressed by her decision to scuttle the plan to poison the Poretsky family. She was arrested and endured eleven months in prison in Moscow before being sent to a prison camp in Kazakhstan.36

By that time Abbiate had been working for Soviet intelligence for six years, but he had not lived in the USSR since his family fled in 1920. Now he found himself at the vortex of the Great Purges, a paroxysm of paranoia in which the most prominent Bolshevik leaders were subjected to show trials and sentenced to death. Tens of thousands, including military and CPSU leaders, were arrested, tortured, and executed for no rational reason. The Great Purges overlapped with the Great Terror, in which more than a million ordinary Soviet citizens were imprisoned and more than 800,000 executed in the space of sixteen months.

Abbiate quickly learned that, although employees of the intelligence services were the principal instruments of both Stalin's purges and the Great Terror, they were not exempt from the slaughter. In the winter of 1938, the shadow of suspicion came uncomfortably close, falling on Serebryanskii, who was recalled to Moscow from Paris. Even as Abbiate reported to work at the Lubyanka, the leader of Yasha's Group was being tortured in the basement of the same building. He cracked under the pressure, confessed to crimes he had not even contemplated, and sought to appease his captors by falsely accusing many of his agents of treason. Serebryanskii was sentenced to death but was amnestied and allowed to serve the USSR by leading sabotage operations in Europe during World War II. He was relatively fortunate; second chances were not commonly afforded to individuals once they were caught up in the purges.

Abbiate must have been unnerved to realize that no one, regardless of rank, was immune from the mayhem. Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the NKVD from 1934 to 1936, was ritually humiliated at a show trial, convicted of espionage, Trotskyism, and other crimes, and executed in March 1938. In accord with the perverse logic of the times, Yagoda's successor, Nikolai Ezhov, one of the most enthusiastic perpetrators of Stalin's terror, was arrested and shot the next year.

In the 1930s, many NKVD officers, like ordinary Soviet citizens, believed that the best way to survive was to deflect attention by making false accusations against their colleagues. This led to a climate of fear and suspicion within the intelligence community; even the slightest hint of disloyalty could result in arrest and imprisonment of officials who were absolutely loyal to Stalin and the USSR. Just as an overheard joke could land an innocent person in jail, intelligence officials working abroad could fall under suspicion if they did not convincingly simulate indignation at revelations of conspiracies they knew were absurd fabrications. In 1937 and 1938, so many NKVD officers were recalled and liquidated that some overseas residencies, as the service's foreign stations were called, had to shut down. Those that continued to operate did so with only one or two officers.37

During these years, the risk of imprisonment, torture, and execution was especially high for anyone in the Soviet Union who had traveled internationally or been in communication with someone in the West. In the intelligence services, non-Russian ancestry became a liability. Having spent most of his life outside the USSR, and as the son of a foreign father and a Russian Jewish mother, Abbiate was especially vulnerable. But it turned out that he benefited from the carnage. By eliminating many of the most experienced intelligence officers, the purges created opportunities for career advancement for survivors like Abbiate. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, fighting real enemies took precedence over persecuting imaginary enemies of the people.

At some point between Abbiate's arrival in Moscow in 1937 and May 1940, when he started a cover job as an editor at the Soviet news agency TASS, he married Olga Borisovna Manevskaya and adopted a new identity. For the rest of his life, he was known as Vladmir Sergeevich Pravdin, born in 1905 in St. Petersburg.38 The new identity allowed him to return to the scene of his past crimes. He was posted to New York, where he served as an officer in the NKVD and worked at TASS.

Pravdin and his wife, Olga Pravdina, arrived in Seattle on 19 October 1941. They had traveled with four other passengers aboard the S.S. Tbilisi, a merchant ship that had sailed from Vladivostok.39

Pravdin was not the first Soviet intelligence officer posted to the United States under journalistic cover. That distinction belonged to Vladimir Romm, a jazz-loving intellectual who served as a correspondent for Izvestiya in Washington from 1934 until he was recalled to Moscow in 1936, falsely accused of conspiring with Trotsky in a bizarre imaginary plot to overthrow Stalin, and executed.40 Despite this tragic ending, Romm's experience had demonstrated the value of journalism as a cover for espionage. Employees of Soviet news organizations were treated in the United States as unofficial government representatives, unbound by the duties and expectations imposed on diplomats, and free to travel widely, meet formally and informally with American government officials, journalists, and business leaders, and to ask them questions about almost any topic.

The Pravdins reached New York at a pivotal moment. The NKVD was rebuilding operations that had been depleted by a series of wounds, most of them self-inflicted. As with operations elsewhere, the NKVD maintained two residences in the United States: a legal residence staffed by officers operating under diplomatic cover, and an illegal residence staffed by officers who lacked diplomatic status and could be arrested and imprisoned if discovered by U.S. law enforcement agencies. The legal residence in New York had been severely reduced in the late 1930s by the purges.41

The illegal residence was in disarray because the activities of its head, Gayk Ovakimyan, a highly capable but overworked intelligence professional, had come to the attention of the FBI. The bureau's director, J. Edgar Hoover, was elated when his agents arrested the man they dubbed “the wily Armenian” in April 1941. To the FBI director's dismay, rather than prosecute him for failing to register as a foreign agent, the Justice and State Departments had allowed Ovakimyan to return to Moscow in exchange for U.S. citizens who had been imprisoned in the USSR.

Pravdin was the first of a cohort of NKVD staff sent to rebuild the NKVD's operations in the United States. As the Pravdins were sailing across the Pacific, Stalin summoned a veteran intelligence officer, Vasilii Zarubin, to the Kremlin and appointed him chief of intelligence operations in the United States. Zarubin and his wife began their journey from Moscow the day after the Pravdins arrived on the West Coast, traveling via Hong Kong, Manila, and California, and arriving in New York in early January 1942.42

At about the same time, another experienced officer, Itskhak Akhmerov, arrived in New York to take charge of the illegal residence. Like Zarubin, Akhmerov had previously been posted in the United States. He quickly moved to Baltimore, a base that brought him closer to a growing cohort of agents in Washington.43

Zarubin, Akhmerov, and Pravdin walked into an extraordinary situation. Although the NKVD had been thin on the ground for years, the number and quality of its agents in the United States, consisting of highly motivated Communists and Communist sympathizers, was remarkable. Reliance on members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), however, was a two-edged sword. During and immediately after World War II the tactic provided access to a treasure trove of secrets, from information about the nuclear bomb, radar, and other military technologies to briefings on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's communications with Churchill, U.S. foreign policy, the activities of British intelligence in the United States, and much more.

There were, however, drawbacks. Even though U.S. personnel working for Soviet espionage agencies produced an immense volume of intelligence, they tended to be careless and undisciplined. Pravdin and his comrades could see that many of their operatives were woven into the same pieces of cloth, and that the FBI, if it tugged hard enough at the exposed threads, would unravel the whole garment. Pravdin spent much of his tenure in the United States managing intelligence collection by CPUSA members and trying to instill professionalism in networks of enthusiastic amateurs.

Many of the NKVD's most valuable U.S. agents had been recruited or were managed by Jacob Golos, a charismatic revolutionary. Born in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), Golos participated in the failed revolution of 1905 as a teenager, was exiled to Siberia, escaped through China and Japan, and built a life in the United States. Starting in 1919, he was active in the Communist Party, and in 1930 he began collaborating with Soviet intelligence. By 1938, at the height of the Great Purges, Golos had made himself indispensable, meeting three or four times a day with hapless officers posted from Moscow to New York who relied on him to select, vet, and recruit agents, procure false passports, launder money, and perform other activities. Although Golos was for a time the de facto head of Soviet intelligence in the United States, he was an unpaid volunteer who played by his own rules and divided his loyalty between the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and the United States. By the end of the 1930s, concerns were mounting in Moscow that Golos was operating too brazenly.

In 1939, debates among Soviet intelligence officers about whether Golos posed an unacceptable security risk came to a head after World Tourists, the travel agency he ran as a cover for espionage, passport fraud, and money laundering, was raided and Golos was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Underlining the gravity of the situation, Lavrentii Beria, who had succeeded Ezhov as head of the NKVD, briefed Stalin about the situation on 5 March 1940.44 Ten days later, Golos pled guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent, paid a $500 fine, and received a suspended sentence.

Unbeknownst to the NKVD, FBI agents had, during their surveillance of Ovakimyan, seen Golos behaving in a manner that clearly indicated he was part of an intelligence operation. On 17 February 1941, they tailed Ovakimyan as he hailed a taxi outside the Soviet consulate in New York and traveled to Schraffts Restaurant at 62 West 23rd Street. Golos walked in soon after Ovakimyan arrived. “Both persons were observed with packages upon their entering the restaurant,” and when they left, Golos no longer had anything in his hands. FBI agents observed the two men meet four more times over the next three weeks, each time in a cheap restaurant or cafeteria, and each time Golos was observed handing envelopes or documents to Ovakimyan.45 The FBI, which had been keeping tabs on him since 1919, inexplicably dropped its surveillance of Golos after a few months.

If the FBI had been more competent, or the NKVD more skittish, the conviction would have been the end of Golos's intelligence career. Remarkably, the FBI failed to pursue the matter, and Soviet intelligence decided, correctly, that although Golos should be more circumspect, he could safely resume covert activities. Even after Golos had practically draped an “I am a Soviet spy” sign around his neck, he was able to continue his work for Soviet intelligence. He recruited agents, including Julius Rosenberg, and stayed in touch with a sprawling network of operatives in Washington for years after he had been publicly identified as a key representative of the Soviet government.

Golos learned in the spring of 1942 that one of the most important agents he was handling, Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, a mid-level civil servant and leader of a network that had infiltrated the White House, the U.S. Treasury Department, and a host of other federal agencies, had come under suspicion from U.S. counterintelligence. On the night of 26 March, Harry Dexter White, a senior Treasury Department official who had been supplying secrets to Soviet intelligence periodically for about a decade, told Silvermaster that the Secret Service knew Silvermaster was the leader of a Communist espionage group composed of civil servants.46

An asthmatic, Russian-born intellectual, Silvermaster was hardly secret about his pro-Soviet sympathies. He had written his Ph.D. thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, on “Lenin's Contributions to Economic Thought Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.” In 1922 the FBI was notified about Silvermaster's Communist proclivities as a student, and in 1930 the bureau received a report indicating that he was an OGPU agent.47

Silvermaster believed in 1942 that, like previous accusations against him, White's warning could be safely ignored. Higher-level NKVD officials, however, were worried that Silvermaster would run into trouble. Akhmerov, who had been assigned the task of making Silvermaster's ring of spies more secure and productive, broke off contact with them. Golos was barred from continuing his monthly trips to meet Silvermaster in Washington, as well as their more frequent meetings in New York. Instead, Elizabeth Bentley, Golos's assistant and lover, was instructed to travel periodically to Washington to collect material from Silvermaster and pass it to a Russian woman in New York whom she knew as “Margaret.” Margaret was Olga Pravdina. She passed Silvermaster's materials to an NKVD operative who brought them to the Soviet consulate.48

Pravdina was employed at Amtorg, a Soviet trading company that provided cover for intelligence operatives. The FBI took an interest in Pravdina but learned little about her beyond descriptions of her appearance. She was “stocky” and had “large feet,” according to an FBI report. In an interview conducted after she had left the United States, a doorman at 125 Riverside Drive, where the Pravdins lived, reported that Pravdina was “well proportioned, liked to drink and carouse,” and occasionally came home drunk.49 The family's former maid recalled Pravdina spoke English fluently, with a very slight accent, even less than Pravdin's, which raises questions about her provenance. Few Russians learn to speak unaccented English as adults; like her husband, Pravdina may have previously lived in the United States. The couple told everyone, whether from the United States or the USSR, to call them by Americanized nicknames. He was Bob, and she went by Lucy.50 Lucy was also Pravdina's codename in NKVD communications.51

In December 1941, when Pravdin arrived for his cover job at the TASS offices at 50 Rockefeller Plazaa ten-minute walk from the Astor Hotel where he had been a waiter in 1926he was one of three in his 29-person office who had ties to the USSR. The operation was run by U.S. citizens who were sympathetic to Soviet Communism but were kept at arm's length from the Soviet government and had no connections to its intelligence services. In 1941, TASS required that any of its employees who were CPUSA members resign from the party. Knowledge of Russian was not a requirement for working there, and U.S. employees were discouraged from learning the language.52 They spent a great deal of time collecting what today would be called open-source intelligence, but there is no evidence that U.S. personnel at the TASS headquarters in New York or its Washington, DC, bureau before Pravdin's arrival were involved in espionage. The same cannot be said about its staff from the USSR.

One of Pravdin's two Soviet colleagues at the New York TASS bureau was Nicholas I. Zheivinov, an NKVD officer who benefited little from his cover working at a Soviet news agency. His sour demeanor and perpetual frown caused many to assume he was a spy.53 Soon after Pravdin's arrival in New York, Zheivinov was posted to the TASS bureau in Ottawa, where his cover was blown during an investigation prompted by the defection of Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk in the Soviet embassy who brought out reams of information.54

NKVD messages decrypted as part of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service's Venona project, along with notes from KGB files made by Vassiliev, provide insight into Pravdin's activities in 1942 and 1943 as he built up his cover and started recruiting agents. In June 1942 Pravdin attended a speech by Pierre Cot, a pro-Soviet French politician who had served as air minister in several cabinets prior to the war and was an ardent foe of the Vichy regime. Cot had arrived in New York in 1940 after Charles de Gaulle spurned his offer to join the Free French Forces.55 In a message that was passed to Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Earl Browder, the leader of the CPUSA, reported that Cot had expressed “his willingness to perform whatever mission we might choose.” After the speech, Pravdin met with Cot, and a month later the New York NKVD station informed Moscow that the French politician had been recruited.56

Starting in the winter of 1941, the NKVD's top priority in the United States was obtaining detailed intelligence about “Enormoz” the service's codename for the secret U.S. effort to build a nuclear bomb.57 Zarubin and his staff had not made any progress when, out of the blue, in early 1942 an émigré from Imperial Russia named Boris Podolsky contacted the Soviet embassy in Washington with an offer to travel to the USSR to conduct nuclear research. Podolsky was a highly regarded scientist who had published a seminal article on quantum electrodynamics in 1932 and had subsequently coauthored an influential paper on quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein.

In May 1943, Podolsky was invited to a meeting at the Amtorg office in Manhattan as part of a ruse intended to flatter him and find out what kind of information he could provide. He was introduced to someone he thought was Vasilii Ivanovich Ognev, an official who, he was told, had traveled from Moscow to meet him. “Ognev” was in fact Pravdin, and he had traveled from the nearby TASS bureau. When Podolsky was informed that it would be impossible to send him to the Soviet Union, he demanded to speak with the Soviet ambassador but eventually settled for a meeting with a lesser official in Washington. He handed over a technical paper describing the gaseous diffusion process for separating uranium, an important step in making a nuclear bomb. Podolsky did not reveal where he had obtained the paper, and in subsequent months he did not provide any additional nuclear intelligence. The NKVD broke off contact with him in November 1943.58

The TASS cover gave Pravdin access to journalists and press officers working for foreign governments. It was already clear that control of Eastern Europe would be in contention after the Nazis were defeated. Considerations of the postwar order were behind Pravdin's recruitment of men like Jan Fierlinger, the information officer at the New York consulate of the government of Czechoslovakia. In July 1943 the Czechoslovak diplomat told Pravdin he was “delighted at the opportunity” to provide information to Soviet intelligence, including about a U.S. intelligence organization that was trying to recruit him.59 The connection to Moscow seems to have paid off for Fierlinger, who enjoyed a successful career as a Czechoslovak diplomat after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948.60

Capitalizing on his time in Belgrade, Pravdin recruited Anton Ivančić, a Yugoslav who had arrived in New York in 1940 and was elected president of the Yugoslav Seamen's Union in 1944. Sava N. Kosanović, a Yugoslav politician who was Nikolai Tesla's nephew, was another of Pravdin's recruits.

In the fall of 1943 Pravdin was informed that he would be leaving New York to attend the Tehran conference, a summit meeting of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, ostensibly as a representative of TASS. In preparation for his departure, his most valuable contacts, including the Yugoslavs, were turned over to other NKVD officers. En route to Tehran, he arrived in Moscow in the second week of September. On 25 November, Thanksgiving Day, the U.S. embassy stamped a new visa into Pravdin's Soviet passport.61 Pravdin took advantage of his time in Moscow to gain candidate membership in the Soviet Communist party, a step that was crucial for his professional advancement.62 A few days later he traveled to Tehran. Pravdin's responsibilities at the summit are not known.63 He may have been involved in drafting a TASS report on the meeting that was published on 4 December, creating consternation in London and Washington, which had hoped to enforce a news blackout.64

After the conference, Pravdin returned to the United States via Cairo and South America, catching a ride on a U.S. Army plane from Natal in Brazil to Miami on 15 January 1943, and proceeding to New York.65 He had been promoted in both his official and his covert lives. Pravdin was now director of TASS in the United States, replacing Kenneth Durant, the last American to run the Soviet news agency in the United States.66 Pravdin had also been appointed deputy director of the NKVD's New York station.

In his stint as an editor, and especially as head of TASS, Pravdin became acquainted with leading figures in U.S. journalism. He met with the editors-in-chief of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune and was welcome in the offices of the heads of the United Press and Associated Press and the owner of The Washington Post.67 Pravdin forged a close bond with Johannes Steel, a journalist and German immigrant famous for his prescience—he wrote a book in 1934 titled The Second World War and predicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in a column published in November 1941—and well known for his left-wing politics.68 Pravdin was also friendly with two journalists at Time, the Russian-born Andre Visson and Richard Lauterbach, the magazine's Moscow correspondent during World War II. Lauterbach concealed his membership in the CPUSA but not his admiration of Stalin, which led him to fend off attempts by Whittaker Chambers to infuse the magazine's coverage with an anti-Soviet perspective.69

Pravdin mingled with international reporters at the Foreign Press Association and with U.S. journalists and writers at the Lotos Club, a prestigious literary and art gathering-place in New York. On trips to Washington, he took advantage of membership in the National Press Club, where he could hear reporters discussing news the censors kept out of the newspapers and gossip their editors would never agree to print.70 At a time when few Soviet government officials had lived in or even visited the United States, informal contact with U.S. reporters gave Pravdin a grasp of American society and politics that few Stalin-era officials possessed.

Between managing TASS, recruiting and running agents in New York and Washington, meeting with U.S. reporters, and preparing reports for Moscow about his activities, Pravdin was stretched thin. Despite the long hours, hard work, and stress, he enjoyed a lifestyle that would have seemed unimaginably opulent to anyone living in the Soviet Union at the time. In New York, the Pravdins lived in a comfortable apartment on Riverside Drive, served by a maid who took their children, Victoria born in 1941 and Boris, born four years later, for summer vacations at a rented bungalow in Rye, New York. Single hotel rooms were hard to come by in wartime Washington, and so when Pravdin went on monthly trips to the U.S. capital that lasted from a day to a week, he stayed in suites at the luxurious Willard Hotel across the street from the Press Building, or at the posh Raleigh Hotel at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Walking out of the Raleigh in the morning, he would have had a magnificent view of the Capitol to his left. On his right was the U.S. Justice Department, home to the FBI's headquarters, three blocks away from the Press Building.

During the brief periods he spent at the TASS office on these visits, Pravdin impressed his U.S. staff as a “very able newspaperman” who “appeared to be more intelligent, [more] competent, and better trained in newspaper work than the majority of the Russians at TASS,” one of the bureau's staff told the FBI in 1950.71

Although the NKVD enthusiastically recruited U.S. journalists as covert operatives—in 1941, 22 of the NKVD's agents in the United States were journalists, second as an occupation only to engineers—Pravdin also obtained valuable information from reporters and editors who met with him openly.72 As one of the few Soviet officials who possessed the autonomy and confidence to meet privately with U.S. reporters, he was treated as a valuable source of information about a country that was of vital importance to the war effort. Reporters in turn trusted him with candid observations, political insights, and tidbits of confidential information.

Worldly, knowledgeable, and well-mannered, Pravdin in his demeanor fit his cover as head of TASS and conformed to the romanticized image many leftists had of a model Soviet citizen. His well-tailored appearance, rimless glasses, and soft-spoken manner were nothing like the stereotypical image of a Stalinist spy. Stomach ulcers that forced him to adhere to a bland diet and even his average height made Pravdin seem an unlikely villain. For many of the reporters who bantered with Pravdin, accounts of the sacrifices of the Soviet people and the bravery of the Red Army had erased the stain of Stalin's 1939 pact with Adolf Hitler, causing them to dismiss reports about Stalinist executions and repression as the exaggerations of red-baiters.

The Roosevelt administration's friendly attitude toward the Soviet government extended to its representatives in the United States, including Pravdin, who exchanged views on policy issues with cabinet members. On 25 January 1945, he met with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and then spent half an hour in conversation with Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston discussing the Soviet Union's perspective on postwar Germany. Gaston later reported to Morgenthau that “Pravdin's concept of the Russian ideas with respect to the treatment of Germany in the economic sphere checks very closely with yours.” He also concluded that Pravdin “seemed to be thoroughly sincere” when he said that the “Russians were very anxious to maintain continuing close and friendly relations with the United States and in maintaining an effective and continuing organization of the United Nations.”73

Pravdin forged a surprisingly cordial relationship with Walter Lippmann, a man who, like Pravdin, straddled the worlds of journalism and diplomacy. A pillar of the establishment and the most influential U.S. journalist of the era, Lippmann was a confidant of presidents, prime ministers, senators, generals, and, above all, the diplomats and officials who made and executed U.S. foreign policy.

Lippmann also had admirers in Moscow. In 1941, Soviet intelligence paid him the compliment of planting a CPUSA member, Mary Price, as a secretary in his office. From Price, NKVD analysts received copies of Lippmann's correspondence, reports of his confidential conversations, and extracts from his files for two years until she quit.74

Under the cover name “Sergey,” Pravdin is mentioned about 70 times in the Venona files. Information about Pravdin in the Venona decrypts dovetails with disclosures about him from Vassiliev and Mitrokhin. A memorandum dated 31 March 1944 from the NKVD's New York station to Moscow Center (the term used by NKVD officers in the field to refer to the agency headquarters) described the unlikely success Pravdin had in cultivating Lippmann, whose codename was “Imperialist.”

Contrary to all expectations, the person with whom “Sergey” succeeded in achieving the biggest results in the task of establishing a good relationship was with “Imperialist.” The primary reason for this is the fact that “Imperialist” himself obviously was seeking to have connections with responsible representatives of our circles in the [United States]. He views the acquaintance with “Sergey” precisely in this light, and naturally he is attempting to use the acquaintance with him to determine our viewpoint on various issues of international politics. He is doing this, of course, very subtly, with the utmost tact. It should be recognized that, by attempting to draw “Sergey” into making candid comments, “Imperialist” is sharing his own information with him.75

They met so regularly that, in reports to Moscow, Pravdin referred to his “usual talks” with Lippmann. Lippmann, a man never known for humility, must have thought he was in control of the situation.

Reports the two men filed in confidence after one of their long, chatty meetings in May 1944 illuminate their relationship. After lunch, Lippmann called Joseph Grew, a State Department official, to pass on information he had acquired from Pravdin. The USSR, Lippman told Grew, had territorial ambitions in Port Arthur, and Soviet policymakers were concerned about how the United States would perceive Soviet support for Communists in China.76

Pravdin's report to Moscow about the same lunch indicates that he got much more out of the conversation. Lippmann had told him that U.S. military commanders were confident about the success of the coming invasion of Europe and that officials in Washington had assured General Dwight D. Eisenhower that sufficient trained reserves were available to ensure reinforcement of the invading forces. Lippmann described Anglo-American relations, reporting to his Soviet acquaintance that Undersecretary of State Edward Stettinius had told him that Churchill initially opposed the U.S. invasion plans but had come around to supporting them. Lippmann conveyed U.S. policymakers’ views on Soviet-Polish relations, advising that the Soviet Union give up its claims to eastern Poland; described confidential information he had received from U.S. Ambassador to the USSR W. Averell Harriman about the Soviet Union's entry into the war with Japan; and reported that the United States expected to seize the Philippines, Formosa, and Singapore by the end of the year.77

In December 1944 Lippmann told Pravdin about his private conversations in Europe with Eisenhower about U.S. military plans. The U.S. Army, Lippmann said, was planning a “breakthrough onto the left bank of the Rhine in the middle of January” and assumed it would coincide with a Soviet offensive in Poland heading toward Kraków.78

Pravdin and Lippman met openly as two well-connected journalists, but Pravdin approached other U.S. journalists to recruit them as covert sources. He started in his own backyard, with Samuel Krafsur, an CPUSA member who was working in the TASS New York bureau. Before joining TASS, Krafsur had proven his loyalty as a volunteer member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Pravdin informed his superiors in Moscow that Krafsur was “absolutely devoted to the USSR” and that his “extensive connections will give opportunities for obtaining valuable information and also of studying individual subjects for signing on” as agents. He had already provided a list of more than 20 potential recruits.79

In the spring of 1944, Pravdin transferred Krafsur to the TASS Washington bureau, a small office on the top floor of the National Press Building where U.S. journalists banged stories into typewriters under stern photos of Lenin and Stalin. Although TASS had operated in the Press Building since 1933, Krafsur was the first Soviet intelligence operative to use the Washington bureau as a cover for espionage. He joined a small staff overseen by Lawrence Todd, one of the smartest and best-liked reporters in Washington, a welcome and familiar face in the State Department press room and at the Press Club bar. Todd was close to numerous Communists who were working covertly for Soviet intelligence services, and he had been around the CPUSA long enough to have heard rumors of mysterious requests for party members to perform “special” assignments. Todd must have been aware of Soviet espionage, but there is no evidence that he participated in any way.

Krafsur circulated widely among U.S. reporters and passed on what he learned to Pravdin. In the summer of 1944 Krafsur conveyed information he had received from David Karr, who at the time was working for the most formidable muckraker in Washington, Drew Pearson.80 Krafsur was also responsible for spotting and in some cases contacting potential recruits. In September 1944, acting on Pravdin's instructions, Krafsur approached I.F. Stone, at the time one of the most prominent journalists in the United States. The NKVD was not trying to recruit Stone; it was trying to re-recruit him. The leftist muckraker had served as a talent spotter and courier for Soviet intelligence starting in April 1936, when he was an editorial writer for The New York Post. During this time, his editorials helped convince readers of the legitimacy of Stalin's show trials and undermined confidence in reports about Soviet repression. At some point after the fall of 1938 his work for the USSR stopped, probably as a result of the deterioration of Soviet intelligence networks during the purges.

Soviet intelligence believed that Stone could again be a valuable agent. An NKVD cable sent in September 1943 suggests that he was viewed as an agent of influence and as a spotter of potential recruits, noting that he “occupies a very prominent position in the journalistic world and has vast connections.”81 Stone, who at the time was working in Washington for The Nation, brushed off Krafsur and ducked Pravdin three times.82 In October 1944, after several attempts, Pravdin finally met face-to-face with Stone and asked him to resume his relationship with the NKVD. According to Pravdin's account of the conversation, Stone said he would like to help and that he had been avoiding Soviet officials only because their approaches were not sufficiently discreet. Stone indicated that he would welcome extra compensation to add to the salary he earned from The Nation. Pravdin requested resources from Moscow to facilitate the “establishment of business contact” with Stone.83

The information that has leaked from the KGB's files is insufficient to determine whether Stone was put back on the NKVD payroll, but it is certain that he stayed in touch with Pravdin, who he knew was a Soviet intelligence officer seeking secret information. Washington's loudest whistleblower, a man who dedicated his career to ferreting out malfeasance and hypocrisy, felt no need to inform his readers that he had secretly worked for Stalin and that the Soviet Union was recruiting U.S. journalists as spies and agents of influence.84

Through conversations with Lippman, Stone, and other journalists, Pravdin gained a solid understanding of U.S. politics. Soon after the 1944 election, he sent a memorandum to Moscow regarding the outlook for U.S. domestic and foreign policies that was sophisticated and, as it turned out, prescient. He pointed out that the war and the rise of the United States as a global superpower had fundamentally changed U.S. politics. “Foreign policy isolationism has ceased to exist,” and those who espoused the doctrine prior to World War II were destined to become the most ardent supporters of a muscular anti-Soviet foreign policy in the postwar period.

The old isolationists will turn into expansionists and will initiate a policy of adventures and aggression. In lieu of a policy of international cooperation they will seek to establish American domination in the world, and their policy will be directed above all against the USSR.85

In addition to recruiting a TASS employee as an NKVD agent, Pravdin in May 1945 hired a long-time agent to work for the news agency. One of the rare admonishments of Pravdin in communications that have leaked out of the KGB's files involves his decision to give William E. Dodd, Jr., a job as a reporter in the Washington bureau, apparently without seeking permission from Moscow.86 Soviet intelligence had recruited Dodd as an agent in 1936 with the help of Stone.87 Dodd, the son of the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, and brother of Martha Dodd, also a Soviet intelligence agent, attracted attention to the TASS office, especially because in 1943 he had vowed in sworn testimony to Congress that he was not a Communist. Moscow Center was informed in June 1945 that former vice President Henry Wallace, commenting on Dodd's job at TASS, asked Martha “how it happened that her brother had turned into a red.”88 Pravdin fired Dodd in July 1945.

In addition to overt and covert relationships with U.S. reporters, Pravdin cultivated reporters and diplomats from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. In October 1944 he recruited Charles Davila, who had served as Romanian ambassador to the United States from 1929 to 1939. In the spring and early summer of 1944, Roman Mosczulski, director of the Polish Telegraph Agency, sought out Pravdin, seeking to forge ties between the Polish government-in-exile and a representative of the USSR. Pravdin was wary but agreed to meet him after the journalist Steel vouched for Mosczulski's anti-fascist and pro-Soviet attitudes. When speaking with Mosczulski, Pravdin dropped all pretense that he was simply the director of a news service. At a brief introductory meeting, he instructed the Pole to set up a follow-up meeting by calling Circle 5-4250, the TASS bureau's number, and asking for him under a pseudonym. When Mosczulski called, Pravdin instructed him to wait at a certain time on the corner of Park Avenue and 75th Street. Pravdin drove to the site and conducted the meeting while driving, requesting a list of pro-Soviet Poles in the United States.

Pravdin told Mosczulski that Poland should deal solely with the USSR because the Red Army would reach Polish territory before the United States did. Mosczulski arranged for Pravdin to meet Jan Karski, a courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Polish underground army. In 1943, Karski had delivered first-hand reports to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and President Roosevelt detailing the horrors of Nazi extermination camps and requesting that they act to rescue Jews.89 The British and U.S. leaders rebuffed the demands, arguing that defeating the German army was the best way to help European Jews.

The Polish Telegraph Agency's Mosczulski was not alone in guessing that Pravdin's role in the United States went beyond managing TASS. On 20 April 1944, J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI's New York field office to investigate Pravdin.90 By the spring of 1944 Hoover had many reasons to be suspicious of the TASS director. A year earlier, FBI agents had caught Zarubin paying a CPUSA official in California to infiltrate the defense industry. In August 1943 the FBI had received an anonymous letter in Russian identifying eleven Soviet intelligence operatives based in the United States, including Zarubin. The letter, written by Vasilii Mironov, a mentally unstable NKVD officer assigned to the Washington residence, did not mention Pravdin, but it provided enough information to raise suspicions about any Soviet official operating in the United States. Hoover's memorandum initiating the investigation of Pravdin stated,

This investigation should be conducted in a discreet manner but adequate coverage should be provided so that the Bureau will be fully advised of Pravdin’ s background and activities, his connections and associations with official Soviet representatives, Communist leaders or sympathizers and Communist organizations.91

Someone, probably Hoover, had underlined the words “discreet manner.” Discretion was required because the Roosevelt administration was anxious to avoid antagonizing Stalin. “The inquiries concerning Pravdin,” Hoover instructed,

are to be conducted primarily from an internal security standpoint so that the Bureau will be fully cognizant of his activities. If there is any indication of a violation of any Federal statute within the Bureau's jurisdiction, this should be fully developed.92

The FBI obtained records of telephone calls to and from Pravdin's apartment, his entrances and exits from the United States, and copies of telegrams sent to him at his office and home.93 Nothing unusual turned up. A week before Hoover launched the investigation of Pravdin, the FBI received another anonymous letter with lists of Soviet operatives. The letter, which had been forwarded from the White House, identified “members of [an] underground Communist group in Washington, D.C.” Silvermaster and members of his network, including Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie, an economic adviser to President Roosevelt, were listed. The FBI determined that the author was Katherine Perlo, the estranged, divorced wife of Victor Perlo, an economist whose World War II positions included heading the aviation section of the Bureau of Programs and Statistics at the War Production Board, a position that gave him access to information of value to the USSR. Perlo, who had close ties to Silvermaster, led a group of secret Communists in the federal bureaucracy who were sending information to the NKVD.94

The FBI agents who interviewed Katherine Perlo noted that she was “mentally unstable,” which may explain why no action was taken at the time to investigate the completely accurate information she provided. The lapse was one of many opportunities the FBI failed to exploit that could have shut down Soviet espionage in the United States. Tragically, whatever real mental health problems Perlo suffered from were exacerbated by psychiatrists who insisted that her stories about Soviet espionage were delusions.

In addition to investigating Pravdin, the FBI started reviewing old Soviet espionage cases, including the disappearance of Roland Abbiate. On 25 October 1944, M. Joseph Lynch, the FBI's representative in the U.S. embassy in London, wrote a memorandum to Roger Hollis, a senior official at the British domestic intelligence service, MI5, about Abbiate. Lynch reported, incorrectly, that Abbiate had been “arrested by French police in conjunction with Charles Maxime Martignet for taking part in the murder” of Poretsky. He forwarded a memorandum describing Abbiate's arrest in New York in 1926, as well as information the Swiss police had provided in connection with the investigation of Poretsky's murder.

British police, immigration, and intelligence services circulated memoranda about Abbiate in 1945 and 1946, debating whether his name should be retained on lookout lists at borders, as well as on a postwar black list of individuals who were to be denied entry to Great Britain.95

In August 1945, an MI5 officer wrote to his counterpart at MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, indicating that he had been asked to decide whether Abbiate and another Soviet operative suspected of involvement in the murder or Poretsky should be included on the black list. “Both seem to have disappeared from human ken since they were involved in the murder of [Poretsky] in 1937, and it seems doubtful whether any useful purpose would be served by including their names on the List.”96 The busy MI6 officer sent a terse response: “We have no later traces of these people and have no objection to their names being taken off the Black List.” The memo was signed by someone who had his own reasons for halting the search for Abbiate: Kim Philby.97 Philby, a Soviet intelligence agent, had finagled his way into being appointed head of Soviet counterintelligence at MI6. The fox was guarding the hen house.

There is no evidence that Pravdin and Philby crossed paths, although it is possible they met in Moscow in the 1960s after Philby's defection. Pravdin probably crossed paths with another member of the Cambridge spy ring, Guy Burgess, who was employed at the publishing company in Moscow where Pravdin had worked. Pravdin certainly interacted with Philby's comrade and fellow member of the Cambridge spy ring Donald Maclean. They met twice in New York in the summer of 1944 when Maclean was serving as first secretary in the British embassy in Washington. Pravdin reported that Maclean

gives the impression of a person of strong initiative who does not need to be prodded in his work. It is also obvious that he is very well oriented on the international situation, and he understands what issues are of the greatest interest to us. One does not sense that he wants to avoid working with us. On the contrary, he feels that overly infrequent meetings prevent him from passing along current information in a timely manner.98

Soviet intelligence officers in the United States operated under tremendous pressure: to produce valuable information, recruit agents, and, above all, to avoid detection. By the middle of 1944, the pressure was taking a toll. The NKVD's U.S. operation was starting to come apart.

Mironov, the NKVD officer who had written anonymously to the FBI, signed his name to a similar letter addressed to Stalin. As a result, Moscow Center recalled Zarubin and Mironov in August 1944 and appointed Stepan Apresyan chief of the New York NKVD station. This was Apresyan's first posting abroad, and from the beginning his subordinates could see that he was not up to it. An abrasive personal style that alienated his staff and U.S. agents was part of the problem. Pravdin, who had years of experience operating in the field, spoke English fluently, understood U.S. society, and mixed easily with Americans, deeply resented having to report to Apresyan.

In an attempt to compensate for Apresyan's ineptitude, Pavel Fitin, the head of NKVD foreign intelligence, promoted Pravdin, making him a co-head of the New York residence. As could be predicted by anyone who has worked in an organization in which two rivals have been given equal powers and told to cooperate for the common good, the environment in the New York residence quickly turned toxic.99

Before long, Apresyan and Pravdin were sending messages to Moscow behind each other's backs. In addition to illuminating the two men's mutual antipathy, the cables reveal the tension between officers in the field and their superiors at headquarters that is common across intelligence services.

On 10 October 1944, Apresyan wrote that Pravdin had “made no real progress” in the United States because he believed that assistance from the CPUSA was the key to successful operations and that cooperation from the party's head, Browder, was essential. Apresyan recommended transferring Pravdin to Washington and concluded with a note of condescension: “I hope that we will not have to engage in the ‘theoretical’ education of [Pravdin] after all these years.”100

The next day Pravdin sent his side of the story, reporting to Fitin that after six months on the job, Apresyan had demonstrated that “he is incapable of coping with the tasks that are set for him.” Pravdin felt he was unable to make up for Apresyan's failings, in part because of “enormous pressure” to maintain his cover and manage the operations of the TASS office. Well-liked and respected by his Soviet colleagues and U.S. employees, Pravdin said his rival was “utterly without the knack of dealing” with people.101 When Pravdin learned in November 1944 that he had been awarded the Order of the Red Star, an accolade presented for extraordinary valor in defense of the Soviet Union, he must have taken it as a signal that he was prevailing in the conflict.102

Unlike Apresyan, who spent most of his time holed up in the consulate, Pravdin was in constant motion, meeting with agents and sources, attending social functions, seeing and being seen. Based on his conversations with some of the best-informed journalists in the United States, as well as information provided covertly by senior government officials, Pravdin sent reports to Moscow Center accurately predicting that the wartime alliance with the USSR would quickly dissolve into hostility.103 Whether these reports influenced Soviet policy decisions is hard to say, but Pravdin was involved in at least one political intelligence-gathering operation that probably did have an impact on decisions made in the Kremlin: uncovering the U.S. negotiating positions for the treaty establishing the United Nations (UN).

On 3 March 1945, Fitin sent an encrypted telegram to the NKVD's New York residence with instructions for Akhmerov to work with Silvermaster to gather as much information as possible about the upcoming conference in San Francisco at which a treaty to form the UN would be finalized.104 The pressure on Fitin to deliver for the NKVD was acute because the agency's chief bureaucratic rival in the USSR, the military intelligence directorate (GRU) of the Red Army, was delivering solid information to the Kremlin about preparations for the UN. A senior U.S. diplomat and longtime GRU agent, Alger Hiss, served as a technical adviser to the U.S. delegation at the Yalta Conference in early 1945, where the leaders of the Allies agreed on key issues related to the UN. Hiss was also the secretary of the U.S. negotiating team and executive secretary for meetings between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, that ended in tentative agreements about the structure of the UN.

Following the Dumbarton Oaks meetings, however, several important issues remained unresolved. “We did not settle the voting of the Security Council—the issue of the veto,” Hiss remembered later in an oral history interview.105 The parties also had not come to agreement on Stalin's demands that individual Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and newly annexed Estonia, be admitted as independent voting members of the UN.

Pravdin, accompanied by TASS editor Harry Freeman, took advantage of his cover job to obtain credentials as a reporter on the San Francisco conference. The two men moved into a suite in the Palace Hotel on 23 April and stayed until 14 May. During this time, Pravdin met with White, a delegate to the conference who was fully briefed on the U.S. negotiating position. White gave the NKVD detailed information about the U.S. government's negotiating strategy. He reported that President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Stettinius “want to achieve the success of the conference at any price,” and suggested ways Soviet diplomats could exploit U.S. policymakers’ eagerness. He corroborated assurances Hiss had made to the GRU that the United States favored the security council veto and responded to a series of questions Pravdin had received from Moscow.106

Moscow Center was pleased with Pravdin's performance, writing in a cable to New York that he had demonstrated that, with “skillful guidance,” White's reluctance to provide political information could be overcome.107 Soon after the conference, Pravdin was promoted. He was given sole responsibility for the New York residence, and Apresyan was transferred to San Francisco.

The promotion allowed Pravdin to probe more deeply into the NKVD's networks of U.S. agents. He learned that the situation was worse than he and Moscow Center had been led to believe. The recruitment of CPUSA members and sympathizers, a tactic that had enabled the USSR to collect extraordinary amounts of valuable intelligence in a short time, had also created major vulnerabilities.

This was especially true in Washington, where men and women loyal to the Soviet Union were providing secret information from the White House, the Departments of Treasury and State, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Army, and other federal agencies. Despite U.S. counterintelligence efforts to weed out Communists from the ranks of the civil service, CPUSA members and sympathizers easily evaded lax security measures, in part by vouching for one another. Two decades of “red scares” and false accusations of disloyalty leveled at liberals had numbed many in government to the possibility that some of their colleagues were willing to provide highly sensitive information to Stalin's intelligence services.108

In addition to agent networks in Washington, DC, Pravdin oversaw productive, high-risk agents in New York. These included Julius Rosenberg and the group of engineers he had recruited who were conducting espionage on an industrial scale, sending secret information about radars, the proximity fuse, aircraft technology, and analog computer systems that controlled anti-aircraft weapons.

The NKVD knew it could not count on indefinite success. The need to make the agency's U.S. networks more secure, and a desire to understand its agents better, had prompted Moscow Center to request that CPUSA members who were handling agents in Washington and elsewhere turn them over to professionals. For years, Golos had fiercely resisted demands to transfer control over U.S. agents to Soviet intelligence officers, arguing that most of the agents believed or pretended to believe that their information was going to the CPUSA and that “Russians” lacked the tact and cultural understanding required to handle Americans. Akhmerov, a Russian-born Tatar who convincingly portrayed himself as a U.S. citizen, also predicted disaster if NKVD officers tried to manage U.S. agents.109

After Golos's death on Thanksgiving Day, 1943, Bentley tried to maintain her position as liaison between the NKVD and the agents she had been managing for her lover and confidant. However, she was forced to turn over Silvermaster, as well as other agents in Washington and New York, to professional intelligence officers from the Soviet Union.

Pravdin, who presented himself as a Russian, proved that a Soviet intelligence officer could handle U.S. agents and that it was not always necessary to maintain the fiction that information was being collected for the benefit of the CPUSA. Key figures in the NKVD's Washington networks were happy to report directly to Pravdin, as were some newly recruited agents. If he had been made responsible for Bentley, the NKVD might have avoided a great deal of trouble.

In a decade of spying for the Soviet Union, Silvermaster had been one of the most productive assets and had interacted with Golos, Bentley, Akhmerov, and his wife, Helen Lowry, who was Earl Browder's niece. Although Silvermaster was delighted that he was finally in touch with a representative of the Soviet government, Pravdin had mixed feelings after his meetings with Silvermaster.

Silvermaster had recruited an impressive cohort of New Deal officials to participate in an underground Communist Party cell that doubled as a hub for receiving and processing purloined information and passing it on to Soviet intelligence. On the other hand, as Akhmerov had reported to Pravdin and Moscow Center, Silvermaster was “insubordinate, obstinate, full of confidence in his own superiority to everyone.” He treated other U.S. agents “like some dictator or ‘Fuhrer’” and bullied and blackmailed members of his network, humiliating them in their offices and in front of their families, and did not believe in taking elaborate security precautions. On 25 February 1945, Moscow Center warned the New York residence it was “widely known” among CPUSA members that members of Silvermaster's group were providing information to Soviet intelligence.110

As Pravdin began to meet directly with Silvermaster and other U.S. agents, he quickly realized that they lacked training in the basic elements of tradecraft, were undisciplined, and, from the point of view of professional intelligence officers, were extremely reckless. Akhmerov had been responsible for taking control of Silvermaster's group, but Pravdin reported to Moscow Center in April 1945 that Akhmerov “did not live up to the expectations that had been set for him.” Instead of becoming Silvermaster's handler, Akhmerov had “succumbed to his influence.” Because of these failings, Moscow Center “was missing a number of vital facts about members of the group, its structure, and its working methods.” The instructions Akhmerov had been given for “improving the work of the group, implementing konspiratsiya, etc. were, as a rule, not put into effect.” Silvermaster, feeling his power slipping away, was furious that Pravdin had met directly with White.111

Violating a cardinal rule of covert intelligence, many of the Soviet spies in Washington knew the names of other U.S. personnel who were providing information to Soviet intelligence. They socialized with one another, told their wives about their own and their comrades’ espionage activities, and were members of the same underground CPUSA cells.

Pravdin spent the better part of two days in the first week of October 1945 in conversation with George Silverman, a government official who had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1933. He called Silvermaster a “petty tyrant” and said he “treats the members of his group as his dependents, rudely coercing them and refusing to tolerate objections of any kind.” Of greatest concern to Pravdin, Silverman emphasized that Silvermaster “completely ignores the most basic precautions in our work and attracts the attention of surrounding people with his behavior.”

Silverman explained that during the war he and other Communists were willing to tolerate Silvermaster, but “from now on I want to live in dignity, without having to endure the harassment of a madman like [Silvermaster].” All of Silvermaster's agents except William Ullman, who lived with the Silvermasters, had abandoned him. White, Silverman, Frank Coe (an economist who had held influential positions at the National Defense Council, Treasury Department, and Board of Economic Warfare), and other men with the potential to provide valuable information had all drifted away, unwilling to tolerate Silvermaster's bullying.112

In contrast to the position Golos and Akhmerov had taken, Silverman said the decision to avoid direct connections between U.S. agents and Soviet officers had been a mistake. Summing up the conversation, Pravdin wrote that Silverman's view was that, because of the

absence of a live connection between us and them, our probationers [agents] were left on their own and had not been educated in a spirit of understanding that they were a component of our organization. They thought they were temporarily helping us in a difficult time of war, but that subsequently nothing would be expected of them.113

Like Silverman and Silvermaster, White was flattered to be in direct contact with a Soviet intelligence officer. In July and August 1945, White told Pravdin he was barely on speaking terms with Silvermaster and reported that the new secretary of the Treasury, Frederick Vinson, was “treating him well” but was not sharing important information as his predecessor, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., had. When Pravdin told White that the NKVD wanted him to stay at the Treasury Department, White asked whether this instruction came from Moscow. Pravdin replied that it had, and White was “flattered by the clarification that on such important matters as his work we always consult the Center and ask for special instructions.”114

During World War II Soviet intelligence infiltrated or recruited agents in almost every U.S. federal agency and office of interest to Moscow, but it could not penetrate the FBI. Pravdin played a pivotal role in the handling of an agent who was the next best thing: Judith Coplon, a Justice Department employee with access to FBI counterintelligence files.

Coplon was first recruited by a college friend who worked for Soviet intelligence and had persuaded Coplon to provide copies of documents from her job at the Economic Section of the War Department in New York. Pravdin met Coplon, codenamed “Sima,” on 4 January 1945 and was favorably impressed. The 23-year-old was, he told Moscow Center, a “very serious, modest, thoughtful young woman who is ideologically close to us.” He concluded that there is “no question about the sincerity of her desire to work with us.” Like White, she was exhilarated by the opportunity to speak directly with a Soviet intelligence officer. Coplon “stressed how much she appreciates the trust placed in her and that, knowing whom she is working for, from now on she will redouble her efforts.”115

Although Coplon had been told that the information from her workplace was going to the CPUSA, she had quickly surmised that the real destination was Moscow. Pravdin's confirmation thrilled Coplon, who said “she had hoped that she was working specifically for us because she considered it the greatest honor to receive an opportunity to give us her modest assistance.”116 In addition to expressing complete loyalty to the USSR, Coplon told Pravdin that she was being transferred to Washington for a job at the foreign agents registration office in the Department of Justice in which she “will be able to carry out very important work for us in throwing light on the activities of the Hut.”117 The “Hut” was a cover name for the FBI.

Prior to Coplon's departure from New York, Pravdin gave her rudimentary advice on tradecraft, cautioning her to start slowly. He specifically told her to keep her eyes and ears open but not to take any documents out of her office until she was sure she was trusted. “Unfortunately,” Pravdin reported to Moscow Center on 1 March after meeting Coplon in New York,

Sima didn't follow this instruction and at the first opportunity carried out secret materials from her workplace. According to her, the institution doesn't conduct any surveillance of office employees, and many materials lie around without any record-keeping on the shelves and in the boxes of the archives.

Coplon reported that although her office was supposed to track foreign agents regardless of political affiliation, its main focus in fact was on Soviet institutions and members of the CPUSA. She also noted that the office had “abundant archives and a card catalog” compiled from the Justice Department, OSS, and military intelligence agencies.118

In a message to Moscow Center in July 1945, Pravdin reported that Coplon “treats our assignments very seriously and conscientiously and considers our work the main job in her life.” She took the job so seriously that she backed out of “marrying her former fiancé because otherwise she would not have been able to continue working with us.” The message also noted that although Coplon was working in the French section, she might be transferred to the section dealing with “Russians and Communists.”119

Pravdin's confidence in Coplon paid off on 9 October when she warned that the FBI was investigating a Russian-American, Alexander Portnoff. Portnoff was a friend of Silvermaster's, and Silvermaster had often stayed at Portnoff's house in Philadelphia and rented a beach house from him. As a result of Coplon's tip, the NKVD instructed Silvermaster to stay away from Portnoff.120

A week later Coplon turned over copies of FBI memoranda describinginvestigations of Soviet institutions, the CPUSA, Trotskyists, and White Russians. The document dump was a revelation to Pravdin, who wrote to Moscow Center that it is

obvious from the materials what a meticulous record is made of the tiniest facts from discussions, correspondence, and phone conversations conducted by our organizations, individual representatives, and operatives in the country. What is notable is large numbers of Hut personnel who are engaged in the above investigations.121

Later, Coplon turned over files showing that in 1941 the FBI had tapped the phone of the physicist and future leader of the Manhattan project J. Robert Oppenheimer and his friend Haakon Chevalier, a secret Communist.122

The information provided by Coplon convinced Pravdin that he and his colleagues could no longer assume that the FBI would be easy to thwart. Nothing she learned, however, prepared the NKVD for the blow it received in November 1945 when Bentley walked into an FBI field office and began to take her revenge on the intelligence service she believed had driven her lover to his death and removed her from a role that had given her life meaning and excitement.

FBI Director Hoover quickly recognized the significance of Bentley's disclosures and mobilized one of the largest operations in the bureau's history. Hundreds of agents were assigned to keep close track of the individuals she identified, tapping their phones and bugging their homes and offices. Hoover inadvertently undermined all of this work by informing William Stephenson, the head of British Security Coordination, of Bentley's defection. Word quickly reached Kim Philby, the Soviet double agent who was in charge of Soviet counterintelligence for MI6. Philby alerted Moscow, which immediately flipped a circuit breaker, shutting down all espionage operations in the United States that had not already been paused in the wake of Gouzenko's defection a month earlier.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1945, Pravdin received an encrypted message from Moscow Center indicating that Bentley “has betrayed us.” The alert came while the FBI was wrapping up its initial debrief of Bentley, eight days before she completed and signed a lengthy statement identifying her former comrades and well before she agreed to serve as a double agent.123 Pravdin was instructed to “take the appropriate precautionary measures,” such as establishing passwords and methods of contact for the future, then breaking off contact with all US. agents.124 As a result of Philby's tip, an investigation that could have convinced the American people that the Soviet Union had been a duplicitous ally, and would have served as a monument to Hoover's competence, turned to dust.

As part of the debriefing of Bentley, FBI agents showed her photographs of Pravdin. She did not recognize him, but she identified his wife as the contact she had known as “Margaret.” The FBI put Pravdina under surveillance, but if she had undertaken any covert assignments other than meeting with Bentley, she had stopped as soon as word of Bentley's defection reached New York.

Moscow Center knew that the FBI and possibly other counterintelligence organizations were monitoring clandestine communications to and from Soviet organizations in the United States. The NKVD believed—incorrectly as it turned out—that the messages could never be decrypted, but it was concerned that a dramatic decrease in the volume of communications from specific offices or individuals would provide the United States with clues about Soviet covert activities. Pravdin and another NKVD officer were thus instructed on 5 March 1946 in a cable from Moscow Center that “for the purposes of disorienting [U.S. agencies], it is essential to organize our work in such a way that the compulsory interruption in our work with agents will not have too great an effect on the amount of correspondence between your bureau and the Center.”125

Rather than try to recruit agents, Soviet foreign intelligence officers were told to file reports based on information gleaned from newspapers and magazines. In the space of just a few months an intelligence service that had penetrated the most sensitive, closely guarded offices, laboratories, and factories in the United States had been reduced to a news clipping service.

Pravdin, with his cover blown, was ordered to return to Moscow. On 11 March 1946, a car from the Soviet consulate drove him, his wife, and their two children to the Claremont Terminal in New Jersey, where they boarded the SS Kirov. Passengers on the ship had a clear view of the Statute of Liberty and Ellis Island on the way out of New York Harbor—the same view Pravdin had witnessed as a young man when he was deported in 1928.

During Pravdin's return journey to the Soviet Union, one of the periodic bureaucratic reshufflings of Soviet intelligence agencies was being finalized. Upon his arrival in the USSR, he found he had become an employee of the renamed Ministry of State Security (MGB). In 1946 he joined the Communist Party (see Figure 2), a prerequisite for holding a position of responsibility in the Soviet Union, and settled into an apartment at Lyalin Lane, a prestigious address in central Moscow. Even though Pravdin's identity as a Soviet intelligence operative had been exposed in the United States, he was posted to Berlin in January 1947, using positions as a TASS correspondent and bureau chief as cover. Illness, possibly a flare up of the ulcers that had plagued him New York, forced him to return to Moscow three months later.126

Figure 2.

Pravdin's Soviet Communist Party membership card, June 1946. Source: RGASPI, F. 17, Op. 100, 189664, L. 1.

Figure 2.

Pravdin's Soviet Communist Party membership card, June 1946. Source: RGASPI, F. 17, Op. 100, 189664, L. 1.

Close modal

In 1948, bureaucratic alignments were shuffled again, and the MGB was temporarily merged with the Soviet military intelligence agency, the GRU, and became the Committee of Information (KI) under the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Although Pravdin was not responsible for Bentley's defection or the defections of other Soviet intelligence operatives in the United States, he was tainted by association with an epic debacle. In 1948, Anatolii Gorskii, a Soviet intelligence officer who had headed Soviet intelligence in the United States from 1944 to 1947, conducted a review of sources and networks in the United States that had been exposed by Bentley, Whittaker Chambers (a GRU agent), and other defectors. Gorskii's memorandum listing U.S. personnel who wittingly cooperated with Soviet intelligence identified 44 individuals who were connected directly or indirectly to Bentley and Golos. Among them were the Pravdins, a veteran agent and agent handler named Joseph Katz, five employees of the OSS, a British intelligence officer, two State Department employees, and Lauchlin Currie at the White House. Gorskii also mentioned two other agents whom Pravdin handled, White and Silverman, placing them not in the Bentley/Golos group but in a network that included Chambers, where they had been originally recruited in the 1930s.127

Pravdin was fired shortly after the KI was formed. His file notes that he was given no explanation for his dismissal and that “it was a terrible blow for him.” He may have been blamed for the disastrous collapse of Soviet intelligence in the United States caused by Bentley's defection. Or his foreign Jewish ancestry, which is recorded in the file, may have finally caught up with him at a time when Stalin was shifting in a virulently anti-Semitic direction.128

Meanwhile, back in the United States, a collaboration between the FBI and Army codebreakers who had discovered ways to decrypt some Soviet wartime intelligence cables was starting to illuminate Pravdin's activities. In December 1948, the FBI learned that a Soviet agent was working in the Justice Department and had access to FBI counterintelligence files. By January 1949, the FBI was trying to identify a Soviet intelligence officer codenamed “Sergey,” and in November it was fairly confident that Sergey was Pravdin.129

Pravdin would likely have had access to U.S. newspapers and would have known that Judith Coplon had been arrested in March 1949. His name did not surface in any of the public accounts of her three trials.

After leaving the Soviet foreign intelligence service, Pravdin was named editor-in-chief of the Foreign Language Publishing House, a position that came with an exceedingly generous salary of 2,800 rubles per month, about four times the average for a highly educated worker. He was responsible for a large number of foreigners. The publishing house's archives include an order Pravdin signed in 1948 authorizing Russian lessons for 25 staffers.130

Pravdin's foreign employees included one of the most famous spies of the era, Tat'yana Moiseenko, better known by one of her many pseudonyms, Gertrude Noulens. She and her husband, Yakov Rudnik, had been arrested in Shanghai in 1931 with passports from half a dozen European countries and evidence that they were conveying funds from the USSR to Chinese Communist revolutionaries. The Chinese Nationalist government sentenced the couple to death. An international campaign that foreshadowed the effort to spare the Rosenbergs in the early 1950s was launched, with Albert Einstein, H. G. Wells, and other celebrities demanding their release. Rudnik and Moiseenko were released in September 1937 and eventually made their way to Moscow.131

Pravdin's new position may have seemed like a sinecure, but in the summer of 1952 it became one of the most perilous assignments of his career. He was given the task of editing translations of the works of Stalin into English, an extraordinarily prestigious job, but one fraught with danger. A single word or phrase that offended Stalin could have landed everyone associated with the translation project in prison or an unmarked grave. Somehow, after a few months, he persuaded the publishing house's director to relieve him of the duty, limiting his responsibilities to overseeing translations of the classics of Marxism-Leninism.132

In June 1953, Pravdin returned to intelligence, working in the sabotage department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. After two months, he was fired as part of a house-cleaning that followed the downfall of Beria in late June.133 However, unlike other Beria acolytes, Pravdin was not executed or imprisoned. Nor was he even removed from the Soviet Communist Party (see Figure 3). He found work in March 1954 in Moscow as an editor at a scientific journal.134 He died in 1962 by suicide, according to Mitrokhin's files.135

Figure 3.

Pravdin's Soviet Communist Party membership card, 20 April 1954. Source: RGASPI, F. 17, Op. 100, 189664, L. 2.

Figure 3.

Pravdin's Soviet Communist Party membership card, 20 April 1954. Source: RGASPI, F. 17, Op. 100, 189664, L. 2.

Close modal

By the time of Pravdin's death, Western intelligence services had pieced together the Abbiate and Pravdin identities. The revelation that they were the same person may have come from the KGB defector Anatolii Golitsyn; the name Abbiate appears in FBI files soon after the CIA began debriefing Golitsyn. Decades later, disclosures by Mitrokhin and Vassiliev confirmed the information.

Pravdin's story is fascinating because it sheds new light on the historical events he touched, from the hunt for Trotsky and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to nuclear espionage, the Tehran summit, and the founding of the UN. His participation in the stunning successes of Soviet intelligence in the United States—its compromise of high ranks of U.S. government and business circles, its penetration of the Manhattan Project, and its acquisition of other information that could be of interest to the Lubyanka and the Kremlin—is important because it provides vivid examples of the failure of U.S. counterintelligence to comprehend or respond to the Soviet threat. If the FBI had been diligent about following up on the information it had in its files about Golos, Bentley, Silvermaster, Perlo, Rosenberg, and many other Soviet agents, it would have been impossible for Pravdin and his colleagues to have operated in the United States with impunity throughout World War II. The FBI even bungled the event that brought Pravdin's tenure in the United States, and the golden era of Soviet espionage in America, to a close. If Hoover had ensured that knowledge of Bentley's defection had been held more tightly for a month or two, the FBI could have developed incontrovertible evidence that scores of government officials were secretly supplying information to the USSR. Decades of controversy over the guilt of Hiss, White, the Rosenbergs, and many others could have been avoided.

Pravdin's story is also compelling on a personal level, as the odyssey of an outsider, a foreigner, who climbed to a high level in the insular culture of Soviet espionage. Pravdin's success in the United States, especially his ability to build relationships with journalists like Lippmann and the U.S. citizens who worked at TASS, and especially with U.S. agents like Silvermaster and White, was facilitated by the fact that he had lived most of his life outside the USSR. The role that distrust of individuals with strong ties to the world outside the borders of the Soviet Union, and of Jews, had in Pravdin's dismissal from the intelligence services and in his subsequent life in the USSR may be revealed in the future if and when new information emerges from Russian archives.


England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837–1915 [on-line database] (Lehi, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, 2006), https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8912; Peter Huber and Daniel Kunzi, “Paris dans les années 30: Sur Serge Efron et quelques agents du NKVD,” Cahiers du monde Russe et Soviétique, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1991), pp. 285–310; Abbiate-Mandelstamm marriage certificate No. 60, 23 January 1900, in Paris 8th, Paris Archives online, available at https://archives.paris.fr/; and Hollis to Lynch, n.d., in Olga Borisovna PRAVDINA (alias Margaret) and Vladimir Sergeevich PRAVDIN (alias Roland Abbiate), KV 2/2389, The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNAUK).


Abbiate-Mandelstamm marriage certificate No. 60. One of the witnesses listed on the certificate is “Valentin Mandelstamm, a French screenwriter born in 1876, who was the brother of Abbiate's wife. See also “Louis Abbiate: Composer, Cellist, Pianist,” Lonely Peaks Records, n.d., available online at https://www.lonelypeaksrecords.com/library/louis-abbiate-biography.


CPSU membership card no. 00179727, 16 December 1946, in RGASPI, Fond (F.) 17, Opis’ (Op.) 100, Delo (D.) 189664, L. 1.




Lynch to Hollis, 25 October 1944, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK; and Passenger manifest SS Patria, 22 December 1925, Ancestry Library Edition.


Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, SS Patria, 9 January 1926, Ancestry Library Edition.


Lynch to Hollis, 25 October 1944.


CPSU membership card no. 00179727.


Ibid.; and Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 75.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 229.


Ibid., p. 217.


Boris Volodarsky, Stalin's Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 294; and Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 238.


“From the Chief of the Service of Police Charged with the Direction of Security Police, Lausanne to the Commissioner of Police, New Scotland Yard,” 5 December 1937, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” 2009, pp. 61–62. All citations here from the eleven notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev can be found in History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Alexander Vassiliev Papers, Manuscript Division, U.S. Library of Congress.


Alexey Timofeev, Splintered Wind: Russians and the Second World War in Yugoslavia, trans. by Vojin Majstorović, 2013 (Moscow: Modest Kolerov), p. 198.


Rita T. Kronenbitter, “Leon Trotsky, Dupe of the NKVD,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1996), pp. 15–61.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” pp. 61–62. The memorandum states that Abbiate traveled to Norway in February 1935. Because Trotsky arrived in Norway in September 1935, Abbiate either misremembered the date or Vassiliev, the former KGB officer who copied the memorandum from the KGB archives, made a transcription error.


Ibid. Vassiliev's notes state that Pravdin reported that the incident occurred in August 1936, but the first Soviet shipments of arms to Spain did not occur until October 1936. It is likely that Pravdin, who wrote the report in 1944, misremembered the date.


Holderness to Fell, 12 April 1938, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK; Statement of Witness, 23 December 1937, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK; and UK and Ireland, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890–1960 [on-line database], (Lehi, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, 2012), https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/2997.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” pp. 61–62.


Immigration Card, Port of Miami, 18 May 1937, Serial No. 1932/32, Ancestry Library Edition.


Steven T. Usdin, Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections between Espionage and Journalism in Washington (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2018), p. 31.


Walter G. Krivitsky, In Stalin's Secret Service (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 2000), pp. 220–222; and Gary Kern, A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (New York: Enigma Books, 2008), pp. 118–119.


Kern, A Death in Washington, pp. 118–119.


Ibid., p. 117.


Ibid., pp. 128–129.


Statement of Witness, 23 December 1937.


From the Chief of the Service of Police Charged with the Direction of Security Police, Lausanne to the Commissioner of Police, New Scotland Yard, 5 December 1937, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


Kern, A Death in Washington, p. 129.


Ibid., pp. 130–131.




Lynch to Hollis, 25 October 1944; Elisabeth K. Poretsky, Our Own People: A Memoir of “Ignace Reiss” and His Friends (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), p. 239; and Volodarsky, Stalin's Agent, p. 294.


Case No. 14, 3 September 1938, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


The resolution that awarded the Order of the Red Banner to Pravdin also conferred the same award on Pavel Sudoplatov, an NKVD operative who later became acting director of the Foreign Department of the NKVD; and Boris Manoilovich Afanas'ev, an OGPU operative who was involved in the Poretsky assassination. See Resolution of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, 13 November 1937, in archives of International Human Rights Society Memorial; and Volodarsky, Stalin's Agent, p. 297.


V. Pravdin autobiography, 29 December 1947, in RGASPI, F. 17, Op. 100, D. 189664, Ll. 4-7.


Kern, A Death in Washington, p. 130.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, pp. 235–236.


Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, 19 April 1944, FBI 100-60703; and CPSU membership card no. 00179727. All declassified documents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cited here are stored in the FBI History Office vault.


Tbilisi manifest, 19 October 1941, Ancestry Library Edition; Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, 19 April 1944, FBI 100-60703; and G. T. D. Paterson to Director General, 12 February 1951, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


Usdin, Bureau of Spies, pp. 28–47.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 301.


Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad (London: Hachette UK, 2019), p. 56; and Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 307.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 310.


Interestingly, on this same date, Beria sent Stalin a memorandum recommending the mass execution of more than 20,000 military personnel and civilians in eastern Poland, which the Soviet Union had invaded and occupied in September 1939.


Letter to the Director, 31 January 1947, FBI NY 65-14603.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 1–2.


Re: Gregory Nathan Silvermaster, Alias Gregory Masters, 16 November 1945, FBI 65-56403-108.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 44; “Vassiliev White Notebook No. 2,” p. 1; and Re: Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, with Alias Bob Pravdin, 2 November 1949, FBI NY 100-60703.


Re: Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, with Alias Bob Pravdin, 2 November 1949, FBI NY 100-60703.


Unknown Subject, wa. Sergey (Sovme), 25 May 1950, FBI NY 100-60703.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 79.


“TASS: Its Role, Structure and Operations,” 1 June 1959, in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Electronic Reading Room (ERR), CIA-RDP78-02771R000100330004-8.


“Poker Playing Russian Had Ace Up His Sleeve,” Windsor (ON) Daily Star, 14 April 1954, p. 26.


Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication by the Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of Foreign Power (Taschereau-Kellock Report) (Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, 1946), p. 699.


Venona, KGB New York to Moscow, 26 June 1942, in Venona Project Records, U.S. Library of Congress, and “Vichy Adds Two More to ‘Interned’ Roster,” The New York Times, 2 October 1940, p. 2. All Venona decryptions cited here were released publicly by the CIA and the U.S. National Security Agency in 1995-1996 and are available on numerous websites, including CIA-ERR.


Venona, KGB Moscow to New York, 1 July 1942; and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 212.


“Vassiliev Yellow Notebook No. 1,” p. 1.


John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 73–75; “Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 106; and Venona, New York KGB, 21 June 1943, 22–23 June 1943, and 27 August 1943.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 7 July 1943; and Venona, New York to Moscow, 22 July 1943.


By 1952, Fierlinger was chief of the USSR Section of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Trade, and he continued to serve in diplomatic posts well into the 1960s. One of his many siblings was the prominent Czechoslovak official Zdeněk Fierlinger, who was Czechoslovakia's chief envoy to the Soviet Union from 1937 to 1945 (and was seen as highly sympathetic to Stalin) and then served as prime minister and in other senior posts both before and after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia.


FBI Miami to New York, 5 February 1944, FBI file 100-50703.


Pravdin autobiography, 29 December 1947.


Unknown Subject, FBI New York, 9 November 1949, FBI file 100-50703.


The President's Secretary (Early) to the President's Special Assistant (Hopkins), 4 Decembr 1943, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, special volume on Diplomatic Papers, 1943—The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961), p. 643.


FBI Miami to New York, 5 February 1944, FBI file 100-50703; and Unknown Subject, FBI Washington, DC, 1 May 1950, FBI file 100-50703.


Re: Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, with Alias Bob Pravdin, 2 November 1949, FBI file 100-50703.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 60.


“Johnnes Steel, 80, Commentator,” The New York Times, 3 December 1988, p. A33.


Unknown Subject, FBI New York, 9 November 1949, FBI file 100-50703.


Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, 12 January 1945, New York, FBI file 100-50703; Unknown Subject, FBI New York, 9 November 1949, FBI file 100-50703; and Unknown Subject, Washington, DC, 17 November 1950, FBI file 100-50703.


Unknown Subject, Washington, DC, 17 November 1950, FBI file 100-50703.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” pp. 172–173.


Gaston to Morgenthau, 25 January 25, 1945, in U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Collection FDR-MORGEN: Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Papers, Series: Diaries of Henry Morgenthau, Jr.


Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pp. 174–175.


“Vassiliev White Notebook no. 1,” p. 60.


Dayna L. Barnes, Architects of Occupation: American Experts and Planning for Postwar Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), p. 180.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 16 May 1944.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 23 December 1944.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 17 May 1944.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 15 July 1944.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 13 September 1944.




Venona, New York to Moscow, 23 October 1944; and Max Holland, “I. F. Stone: Encounters with Soviet Intelligence,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 2009), pp. 144–205; and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, “I. F. Stone, Soviet Agent—Case Closed,” Commentary Magazine, May 2009, pp. 40–44.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” pp. 23–24, 101; “Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 56; “Vassiliev White Notebook No. 3,” pp. 73, 76; “Vassiliev Yellow Notebook No. 2,” pp. 40–41; and Venona, New York KGB, 13 September 1944, 23 October 1944, 23 December 1944.


“Vassiliev Yellow Notebook No. 4,” p. 116.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 53.


Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, p. 179.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 52.


Extract from FBI Report on Soviet Intelligence, n.d., in KV 2/2389, TNAUK; and Venona, New York, 24–25 July 1944.


Hoover to SAC, Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, Internal Security—R, 20 April 1944, FBI 100-50703-2.


Ibid., emphasis in original.




E. E. Conroy to New York Telephone Co., 12 December 1944, FBI 100-50703; and Hoover to Censorship Unit, 15 December 1944, FBI 100-50703.


File memorandum on Harry Dexter White, 9 December 1945, FBI 65-56402-26x2.


Case No. 14, 3 September 1938.


H. Shillito to H. A. R. Philby, 10 August 1945, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


H. A. R. Philby to H. Shillito, 25 August 1945, in KV 2/2389, TNAUK.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 60; and Venona, New York to Moscow, 28 June 1944.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 345.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 10 October 1944.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 11 October 1944.


CPSU membership card no. 00179727.


Venona, New York to Moscow, 25 May 1945.


Venona, Moscow to New York, 3 March 1945.


James S. Sutterlin, “Interview with Alger Hiss,” 1990, in United Nations Digital Library System, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/474711/files/?ln=en.


Ibid.; and Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, p. 260.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 65.


For example, Harry Dexter White was the subject of an FBI investigation in 1942 because the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities had tagged him as a security threat as a result of his membership in the Washington Committee for Democratic Action. The investigation revealed that he was not a member of the committee, and he denied membership in the Communist Party. See Ladd to Hoover, 26 November 1945, FBI file 65-560402-26x1. Not until 1950, two years after White's death of a heart attack, did the FBI obtain conclusive evidence from the Venona decryptions that he had been a Soviet spy.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 69.


Venona, Moscow to New York, 25 February 1945.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 3,” pp. 29–32, 42.


Ibid., pp. 33–36.


Ibid., p. 36.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 69.


Ibid., p. 77.




Venona, New York to Moscow, 8 January 1945.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 78.




“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 3,” pp. 28, 33.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 1,” p. 79.


“Vassiliev Yellow Notebook No. 1,” p. 24.


“Vassiliev White Notebook No. 2,” p. 30.


Ibid., p. 31.


“Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 58.


V. Pravdin autobiography, 29 December 1947.


Anatolii Gorskii, “Failures in the USA (1938–48),” December 1948, KGB file 43173, in Alexander Vassiliev and Frank Cass & Co Ltd, High Court of Justice QB Division Claim No. HQ1X03222, pp. 49–55; and “Vassiliev Black Notebook,” pp. 77–79.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 190.


FBI teletype message New York to Washington, 31 January 1949, FBI NY 100-60703; Hoover to Hottel, Unknown Subject, wa [sic, here and elsewhere should be “was”] (Sergey) (Sovme), 17 February 1949, FBI NY 100-60703; and Re: Vladimir Sergeevich Pravdin, with Alias Bob Pravdin, 2 November 1949, FBI NY 100-60703.


Orders No. 1-331 of the director of the publishing house—production and personnel, May to December 1948, in State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), F. R9590. Op. 1, D. 126, Ll. 17-23.


Heather Streets-Salter, “The Noulens Affair in East and Southeast Asia: International Communism in the Interwar Period,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Vol. 21, No. 4 (November 2014), pp. 394–414; and Frederick S. Litten, “The Noulens Affair,” The China Quarterly, No. 138, (June 1994), pp. 492–512.


Letter from Pravdin, 12 August 1952, in GARF, F. R9590, Op. 1, D. 160, L. 151.


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 391.


CPSU membership card no. 00179727, 12 March 1954,


Andrew and Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield, p. 391.