The social maelstrom of early 20th-century America had many by-products. Mass strikes in Massachusetts mill towns; thousands of workers rallying in Union Square, New York; and a generation of idealistic young intellectuals, among whom was one Isaiah, or Cy, Oggins.
Like the great American reporter John Reed, Oggins looked east for a way out of the brutal injustice and exploitation around him, to where the Bolsheviks were, in his eyes, building the world’s first workers’ state. The vision was so attractive that Cy became one of the first US citizens to spy for the Soviets.
Years of journalistic detective work by Andrew Meier, a former Time Moscow correspondent, have gone into a haunting new book that tells how Oggins and his fiery wife, Nerma Berman, spent the decade from 1928 onwards criss-crossing Europe as spies for the nascent Communist regime – before falling victim to Stalin’s Terror themselves.
Like so many on the US left at that time, Oggins came from an eastern European Jewish immigrant family that scraped a living to invest in the children’s education. On a scholarship to Columbia University, young Oggins got caught up in New York’s fevered atmosphere of progressive politics. He gained his spurs in the anti-war movement of 1916, graduating with Nerma to the leftist circles of Greenwich Village, fighting the anti-red backlash and surfing the wave of worker militancy that swept across the States during the winter of 1919-20. By 1924 J Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation had driven many activists of Cy and Nerma’s type underground. Perhaps it seemed a logical next step to adopt the clandestine life of a spy.
Cy and Nerma’s spying career took them all over a continent beset by economic crisis and political upheaval. In Berlin, Oggins posed as a wealthy antiques dealer to run a strategic safe house of communist militants. In Paris he spied on the surviving Romanovs; while in Manchuria, he sent secret despatches on the Japanese occupying army and its puppet emperor, Pu Yi.
But the revolution was already beginning to devour its own. As Stalin turned his attention to the threat to his ambitions posed by Trotsky and his followers, Oggins stayed loyal to the party. Although still “true communist believers”, Cy and Nerma were already trapped by the unyielding logic of the party machine.
In February 1939, like so many of the million men and women killed during Stalin’s purges, Cy was accused of treason and anti-Soviet activities. Fortunately, Nerma had already returned to New York with their son, Robin.
In the dreaded Lubyanka, Prisoner 568 was questioned by interrogators using the disorientating techniques of the Spanish Inquisition to elicit admissions of “guilt” and “remorse” for crimes of which the accused had no knowledge, let alone being culpable of them. He was then sent to the Siberian slave labour camp Norilsk. In 1947, Oggins was executed at Laboratory Number One in Moscow with an injection of poison. His fate remained secret for decades. Was Stalin ashamed of his treatment of his brightest foreign spy, or would the death of a US citizen at his hands have been too awkward for both sides in the new Cold War?
For Cy and Nerma’s son, the tragedy was to lose an intelligent, loving father. In the process, the US left lost two flowers of activism who volunteered to serve the Soviet state just as it turned the Bolshevik party and its supporters worldwide into instruments of the Stalinist bureaucracy. By the time they became spies, Cy and Nerma were no longer participants in their own drama, but mere stage extras in the increasingly bitter competition between two embryonic superpowers.
“The Lost Spy: an American in Stalin’s Secret Service” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)
Patrick Sawer is a senior reporter for the Sunday Telegraph