Monday, March 15, 2010
The Dark Lord of Mordor
Andrew Meier's The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service reminds us that the Soviet Union's battle with its capitalist enemies had important clandestine dimensions. The story of Cy Oggins, an American spy entangled (along with his wife) in the clash of ideologies, illuminates a great deal about interwar espionage, radical politics in America, and the ties that bound American and Soviet strands of communism together.
Oggins' story begins right before the First World War. At that time, many American workers as well as Ivy League intellectuals, immigrants, and pacifists were irresistibly drawn to radical politics. Cy Oggins' journey to the extreme left of American life wasn't all that unusual. Soviet Russia filled many of his countrymen with rapture. Wasn't it extraordinary that a regime had chosen land and peace over war and colonialism, chosen a red flag, the symbol of the workers' struggle, or selected a revolutionary national anthem, the Internationale? As Maier points out, many Americans were so inspired that they actually supported a new form of Russian tourism for those who wished to see what the future looked like. Or, to put matters the way Meier does, this was an epoch in which the theories behind great 19th century economic treatises were "spilling out onto the streets."
Oggins had plenty of reasons to be inspired by Russia, and plenty of other reasons to be repulsed by Russia's capitalist opponents. In addition to the general complaints about bourgeois exploitation of American workers (and indeed Cuban and Philippine ones), the Left had reason to complain about the way America's ruling class abused its power in undemocratic, illegal actions against worker-supported parties and movements. This was the age of the Wobblies, Emma Goldman and anarchists, Maurice Hindus, war resisters, Beard and Dewey, etc. And overseas, this was also the age of the Comintern, when the Soviet Union was, at least theoretically, only the nexus of an international strategy to liberate working people everywhere. Indeed, Meier reminds us that even in Russia ordinary Communists waited from one day to the next for the German Revolution that Marx had promised.
And all this Left-wing excitement existed even before the Great Depression, when capitalism seemed be collapsing even from the perspective of its greatest proponents in Washington and on Wall Street.
The Lost Spy does a wonderful job of showing readers why communism was so exciting. It also explains how international spy networks functioned, and how valuable so-called "traitors" could be to Moscow, euphemistically called The Center by its various agents abroad. Oggins ended up tracking White Russians and Trotskyites in France, and Japanese militarism in Shanghai and the Far East puppet state of Manchukuo. The book also tracks the hazards of working for Stalin. Many of the Oggins' friends were executed in Stalin's Great Purges. Most others were at least forced to confront some bitter truths about the Great Leader, as Stalin was sometimes known, including the fact that he eventually chose to ally himself with Nazi Germany. Oggins himself ended up in Lubyanka, one of the most infamous prisons in Russia, before being sent to a concentration camp in the distant north, where he inevitably died.
Ultimately, The Lost Spy elucidates the strange interplay between the ordinary and extraordinary in the secret life of spies. One minute the book is about a traveling man's sad inability to spend time with his seven year son; the next minute the book is about how a single spy could be of value to the Generalissimo as he sought to come to grips with Trotsky's Fourth Internationale or indeed the Empire of Japan. But as interesting as Meier makes his spies seem, Stalin is even more interesting. In this book, Stalin is Souron from the Lord of the Rings, searching out resisters across the world with a roving eye, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous. In this world, Trotsky's apparently futile resistance, takes on new significance. Even as his son and closest supporters fall to the rising tide of evil, Trotsky's hobbit-like opposition continued to occupy the thoughts of the Dark Lord of Mordor right up until an ice pick put an end to him.
Postscript: Cy Oggins was survived by his wife by 50 years. Ms. Oggins died at the age of 97, a fervent believer in the Communist ideal until the end. Cy died at the hands of Russian Mengelee, a mad Soviet scientist who performed medical experiments on gulag prisoners for Beria and his henchmen. Cy was killed by means of an insidious poison which paralyzed him even as he remained conscious. In the end, the author concluded that Cy was imprisoned because his spymaster had attempted to flee from the Soviet underground. Whenever a spy attempted to defect, it was a routine matter to "roll up" anybody connected to him. In these circumstances, Cy couldn't be released. It wasn't that he would betray the secrets of the gulag. Many in the West already knew about then. It was that he had the ability to betray the entire Soviet system of espionage. Oggins' case came up again the Yeltsin era, with the historian Volkogonov wrongly insisting that Oggins was an innocent man, unconnected with any underground activity for either side, who had been killed in cold blood by the criminal Soviet regime.