A few years ago, I read a book by Pete Earley called “Comrade J”, the story of a very high ranking Russian KGB agent, working under cover in the New York, who defected with his wife and daughter to the United States in 2000. I found the book fascinating, both as regards the specific saga of the family of Sergei Tretyakov, the subject of the book, but also because of what it said about Russian training methods (years of training, so that an agent would fit into a different society without raising suspicion), and the structure of the Russian spy system in the United States and Canada (which was stated to be as extensive under democratic Russia as it was under the Soviet Union). The problem I had with the book is that Earley wrote it with the complete cooperation of Tretyakov, who provided the vast majority of the information contained in the book. But Tretyakov was a spy. Trained in deception. How do you know that anything in the book was true?
At the time, I wrote a brief blog post on my thoughts about the book. To my surprise, it was read by Tretyakov (Google-Alert, I assume), who wrote me a comment. He said that I was right to question the veracity of an ex-spy, but he wanted to assure me that everything he had said that had been reported in the book was true. (Should I have let that convince me?)
Sadly, a few months later, Tretyakov died. According to published reports, his wife said he suffered cardiac arrest (he was only 53). Other published reports said he had choked on a piece of meat. But there lingered the possibility that he was murdered. Even some random remarks by Vladimir Putin have been cited as “evidence” of foul play.
I don’t know.
Now I have just finished reading another book about another spy, this one a memoir by a former Soviet spy, who was active several generations before Tretyakov appeared on the scene. The book is called “All Pity Choked” (I have an English edition; it was later published in the United States under the title “I was an NKVD Agent”). [The NKVD was the predecessor agency to the KGB.]
The book was published in 1955 in England, and not until 1962 here. The author , Anatoli Granovsky, defected from the Soviet Union in 1946, first to Sweden and then to the United States. Wikipedia says that Granovsky was born in 1922. It provides no death date, and says nothing about it being unknown whether he is still alive or not. If alive, he would be 91 or 92.
But where is he? Wikipedia’s story of his life ends with his defection to Sweden. It says nothing about his eventual entry into the United States or his subsequent. It mentions the book, of course, But that’s it. Like he vanished into the woodwork. Did he go on living under the Granovsky name? Was he in some sort of witness protection program? Did he simply create a different identity and live happily ever after? Or was he in fact still a Soviet spy, someone who found a unique way to get to the United States, and spent the next decades reporting back, or recruiting agents? After all, this is what Tretyakov was trained for — how to infiltrate the west. Or is it possible that he never existed at all, and that the story was made up from whole cloth?
I did the standard Google search. Nothing outside of a brief bio which stops in 1946, and references to the book (of which there are many, some from booksellers, but many others from later authors who cite Granovsky’s book without qualification). But I see no subsequent interviews, and no corroboration of any sort. A mystery, to my mind.
The book is clearly fascinating. It tells the story of a very privileged young man, the son of a major Soviet Communist figure. He spent his early years in Berezniaki, now in the Ukraine, where his father was in charge of one of the largest chemical plants in the USSR. They then moved to Moscow, where his father was promoted and worked in the Kremlin, while the family lived in an enormous development across the river from the Kremlin, reserved for the Soviet elite. He went to school with children of the upper class; one of his friends was Stalin’s son. It was simply a privileged life, enjoyed only by the few.
In 1934, with the murder of Leningrad Communist Party chief Sergei Kirov, things began to change. One by one, fathers of his friends (and then his friends themselves and their siblings and mothers) disappeared. The Granovsky family hung on for a while, until 1937, when he was only 15, when Anatoli’s father was arrested – he never saw him again. But he was determined to find out what happened to him (by then they knew that innocence of charges was never the conclusion). He went to inquire and was told that information was unavailable. So, young Granovsky got himself arrested and sent to prison, where he hoped he could get some information about his father. He stayed in prison some months (remember, he was only 15 or 16) under terrible conditions (terrible is an understatement), was asked to sign a confession of espionage, was beaten several times, and was thrown in with prisoners much older than he. But he withstood all the punishment, refused to sign faked confessions, and, was certain he would be executed or sent to a prison camp in the gulag. Instead, he was released (something unheard of in the USSR of the 1930s) on the condition that he join the NKVD and spy on the children of the elite with whom he went to school. Not just spy on them, but actually encourage them to engage in illegal activity. His success in the NKVD would clearly be dependent on the number of his contacts who were arrested and convicted.
After a few years of this, he joined the army during World War II as a cover, but continued his counterspy activities, in effect holding two jobs. He was parachuted behind the German lines, where he was involved with all sorts of adventures (he seemed to be one of the few who got through this period unscathed, evidencing extraordinary bravery and ruthlessness). He was also trained to infiltrate the west (presumably in the same manner as Tretyakov would be), and even to increase his sexual prowess (both in terms of seduction and performance) so he could go on be sent on missions involving the seduction of oppositional women. (He did wind up with a beautiful, talented, brave girl friend, also an NKVD agent although he did not know it at first; she, of course, was killed in an anti-German maneuver during the war) He was eventually assigned to Prague and then to a position on a Soviet ship, where he was to be the counter intelligence presence aboard. When the ship docked at Stockholm, he was able to get away from the ship and to request asylum from the Swedish authorities. He was arrested at first, presumably so his story could be checked, and then given permission to stay and to, eventually come to America.
That’s the basic outline of the story. Does it sound plausible to you? I am not convinced although I will say that no one that I came across in my Google research had questioned the story. Yet how many people were arrested and then released without a trial, without being exiled to Siberia, etc? Not many, I don’t believe. Could he have been the only one?
The interesting part of the book is not related to the defection, which is almost anti-climatic (although not without the need for a little luck). I thought that one of the most fascinating aspects of the book was its description of the life of a member of the upper levels of Soviet society – their living conditions, their education, their socializing. The Granovsky family had large, fully furnished homes and apartments, and servants, and abundant food, and even automobiles, all at no cost to them. According to Granovsky, in Moscow, the typical high level Kremlin worker was picked up at the apartment complex between 9 and 11 in the morning, most worked through the day (some coming home for lunch around 2), getting home for supper about 8 at night, but then returning to their work until midnight or one a.m. They had a lot to do, of course, running a big country, but this does seem excessive.
He talks about their vacations – up to six weeks at luxurious resorts near Sochi, where all recreational facilities were first class, and where the elite could hob nob with the elite.
Then how his father was arrested, after a 4 a.m. knock on the door, and how his family is immediately taken from their luxurious apartment and put temporarily in one room of a shared apartment in the same complex, and then farmed out elsewhere in living conditions opposite those to which they were used.
And of course, his time in the army, his time with his girl friend, his counter espionage training.
One more thing. Granovsky had a mother and two brothers (one of whom was killed during the war). One of the reasons that defections were so rare from the Soviet Union is that the defector’s family members would be punished – they would either be killed or sent to Siberia. This was on Granovsky’s mind, he says, when he decided to defect. Yet there is nothing in the book, or again anywhere else, to make it appear that any retribution was taken against his mother or brother.
The whole thing just does not smell right to me.
But then again, neither did the Tretyakov story.
(I should add one more fact, that does argue against my belief that, perhaps, Granovsky didn’t ever exist, or that he lived under a false name. My copy of the book is actually signed and inscribed by Granovsky, on February 17, 1958, in Rio de Janeiro, perhaps showing that he had the ability to travel freely and without fear. More than that, the inscription reads to American actor Van Heflin and his wife [Heflin died a few years later of a heart attack at age 60]; I find this perhaps most intriguing of all.]
P.S. I just saw that a copy of this book is being offered by a dealer in Sweden. Also inscribed by Granovsky in 1958, also in Rio de Janeiro. Here, Granovsky has given his address, which apparently is at a university where he might have been teaching, or studying………