Magazine article The Spectator

'Stalin's Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov', by Boris Volodarsky - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Stalin's Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov', by Boris Volodarsky - Review

Article excerpt

Stalin's Agent: The Life and Death of Alexander Orlov Boris Volodarsky

OUP, pp.789, £30, ISBN: 9780199656585

This is not quite another story about a man who never was. But it is about a man who certainly wasn't what he said he was.

The context is Russian intelligence operations of the 1930s, especially those of the NKVD (known later as the KGB) during the Spanish civil war. In Britain we tend to see 1930s/1940s espionage through the prism of the Cambridge spies -- Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt, the so-called Ring of Five -- but, as Boris Volodarsky points out, the full picture is much wider. By 1937, he reckons, the Russians had over 100 agents and collaborators in Britain alone, with many more in other western countries. And they were ruthlessly active in Spain.

In 1938 a Russian calling himself General Alexander Orlov fled from Spain to America, where he settled, unknown to the authorities, with the modern equivalent of $1.5 million in embezzled funds. Following the death of Stalin in 1953 and the exhaustion of his funds, he sold his story to Life magazine as 'the highest-ranking Soviet intelligence defector'. Well aware of what the Russians did to defectors, he claimed to have sent a letter to his former masters promising not to reveal any secrets so long as he was left alone, but threatening that all would be revealed if anything happened to him. He then made a fortune through articles and books, convincing the FBI and CIA of his genuineness to the extent that he was taken on as an adviser and wrote a number of official publications. He presented himself as a friend of Stalin's and as the NKVD general in charge of operations in Spain during the civil war. Among many other achievements, he claimed to have recruited Philby, Maclean, Burgess and Blunt.

In fact, there was no NKVD General Orlov in Spain -- the rank did not exist until after the second world war. The man claiming to be him was Lev Lazarevich Nikolsky, a failed NKVD officer who had served in Spain and also briefly in London and Paris. He was for a while Philby's case officer but was not a success -- in both London and Paris he pretended his cover was blown in order to be withdrawn before his failures became more apparent. …

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