A distant relative of mine was a general in the KGB. ‘As long as I live,’ Stalin said of him, ‘not a hair of his head shall be touched.’ Stalin didn’t keep his word – which can’t have been wholly surprising even then. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, my relative wasn’t shot: he was beaten and tortured and kept in prison for 12 years. He died in 1981 with – I’ve been told – a portrait of Stalin by his bed.
[*] Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness – A Soviet Spymaster by Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerrold and Leona Schecter. Little Brown, 509 pp., £18.99, 19 April, 0 316 91217 4.
Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994
I was so totally engrossed in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s account of her NKVD forebear (LRB, 4 August) that I almost missed the far-too-casual reference to the outrageous mugging of R.W. Johnson by a gang of ten-year-olds in Gorky Street, Moscow. At first sight this might appear to be a case of random violence against foreigners, but I doubt that this was so. R.W. Johnson is a distinguished intellectual with impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials. A relative of Leonid Eitingon should have realised instinctively what was going on here. This was not an instance of freemarket violence. The whole affair smacks of an old-style KGB operation. How could it have escaped Mary-Kay Wilmers that R.W. Johnson was attacked by hoodlums acting under the instructions of ANC veteran Joe Slovo? The ANC High Command wanted to punish Johnson for his courageous articles defending Chief Buthelezi and Inkatha. It would have been too obvious to attack him in South Africa. Hence the attack in Moscow.
Trinity College, Dublin
Mary-Kay Wilmers writes: Has Terry Kelly got a summer job at Bandung Productions (prop: Tariq Ali)? The provenance of his fax suggests so.
Vol. 16 No. 18 · 22 September 1994
When I first heard of a book which claimed that Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Robert Oppenheimer were Soviet spies, my first reaction was to ignore this as inherently improbable. However, after the experience of finding that Klaus Fuchs, a colleague and collaborator, and, I thought, my friend, was a Soviet spy, I could no longer regard anything as impossible. So one had to look at these things and see what evidence, if any, there was for them.
The book in question, discussed in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary (LRB, 4 August), is called Special Tasks, the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, a former senior official of the KGB, written with the assistance of his son and two American journalists, Gerrold and Leona Schecter. The book is mostly about the history and the internal quarrels of the KGB and might be of interest to historians. It is in Chapter Seven, devoted to atomic energy – which rumour says was added after the completion of the rest of the book, to increase its public appeal – that we find the strange claims. Nowhere in this chapter is there evidence for these claims, nor documentation, nor verbatim quotations of statements by the people involved. The reader depends entirely on the memory of the senior author.
To examine the case a little more closely let us start with Niels Bohr, the most famous and most respected of the alleged spies. After the end of World War Two, when Bohr had returned to Copenhagen, the Soviet atomic energy project sent an agent to ask him questions about points on which the Soviet project had difficulty at the time. The agent was not, as one might imagine, one of Bohr’s old friends, such as Kapitza or Landau (they probably were not trusted), but an intelligence agent, Terletsky, with no particular reputation in physics. He approached Bohr through the Soviet Embassy with a request for a private conversation, and was refused. But Bohr invited him to visit his institute, as he did other physicists. Bohr’s son, Aage, was present throughout the meeting with Terletsky and we have his description of the conversation. After some general talk about common friends, Terletsky started to raise questions about the reactor design. Bohr immediately told him that he had no knowledge or details of reactor design, but gave him a copy of the just published Smyth Report of the US Government, which released what was now declassified information.
This account of the interview agrees with the recollection of Terletsky, who was really disappointed at this failure of his mission. However, it strongly disagrees with the account given to Beria in a letter by Kurchatov. This letter claims that Bohr answered the relevant questions and in fact put his finger on the point which was giving the Soviets difficulty; this claim is repeated in a letter from Beria to Stalin, and it was the basis of the statement about Bohr in Sudoplatov’s book. We are therefore not dealing with lack of evidence, but with statements contrary to well-documented evidence.
Next, let us look at the case of Leo Szilard, which in a sense is even easier. The book claims that Szilard conspired at Los Alamos to transmit information to the Russians about his work on weapons. The facts are that Szilard never set foot in Los Alamos and that he did not work on weapons but on reactors.
About Fermi and Oppenheimer there are no such glaring contradictions in the book, but of course no positive evidence either. The authors have said in interview that Oppenheimer liked to leave secret documents lying around in his office so that moles could copy them at night. This naive story ignores two facts: that the security people made a careful search of offices at night, to find any forgotten documents; and also that Oppenheimer as Director of Los Alamos had opportunities to see anybody he wanted privately and give them whatever documents he wished.
I do not think it is worth trying to add to this list to demonstrate the completely baseless accusations in this book. There do, however, remain some interesting questions. Why was the reaction to it so different on the two sides of the Atlantic? The appearance of Special Tasks caused an uproar among American scientists and innumerable newspaper pages have been filled with refutations and attacks on the book. In the UK, on the other hand, there has been a much more muted response. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that the alleged spies are American folk heroes, in a way they are perhaps not in this country. And perhaps in the United States the shock was increased by the fact that normally reputable news organisations, such as the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, or Time Magazine, appear to have been taken in by the allegations. Whatever the answers, it is clear that the sooner this lamentable piece of pseudo-history is forgotten the better.