Cold War Exiles and the CIA: Plotting to Free Russia 
by Benjamin Tromly.
Oxford, 329 pp., £75, September 2019, 978 0 19 884040 4
Show More
The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-90 
by Peter Reddaway.
Brookings, 337 pp., £25.50, February, 978 0 8157 3773 5
Show More
Show More

‘The  moment​  the door opens, Russians escape to the West.’ That was the lesson the American anti-communist Soviet-watcher Louis Fischer drew in 1949 from observation of Soviet ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) in Europe after the Second World War. In the context of the burgeoning Cold War, his analysis made sense to a lot of people in the West. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens who had been brought to Germany as prisoners of war and forced labourers refused repatriation after the war ended, despite intensive Soviet efforts to force and persuade them. This was taken as a sign that the Soviet Union was so awful that nobody could bear to live there, and that any Soviet citizen was likely to ‘choose freedom’ (that is, life in the West) if given the chance. In a society apparently so alienated from its government, it seemed that a small well-placed shove from the outside might bring the whole regime tumbling down.

There were a couple of flaws in this argument. The one Benjamin Tromly focuses on is the fact that the Russians eager to stay in the West were not democracy-lovers who had ‘chosen freedom’ but rather, for the most part, involuntary wartime border-crossers, many of whom had then made the best of their situation by collaborating with the Germans, including fighting the Allies under German command. The scale of collaboration, mainly via recruitment to the German armed forces from POW camps, is mind-boggling: Tromly cites a figure of 1.6 million Russians and other Soviet citizens joining German army and police organs (though this seems to include ‘first-wave’ Russian émigrés, in Europe as refugees since the Revolution of October 1917, as well as Soviet citizens).

The other flaw (not mentioned by Tromly) was the assumption that DPs’ political attitudes could be taken as representative of the Soviet population. They couldn’t, because the DP group was weighted towards the western border regions – in particular, those that had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939-40 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The incorporation automatically turned citizens of the formerly independent Baltic states – as well as West Ukrainians and West Belorussians, who had been citizens of Poland before the war – into Soviet citizens; and the majority of these newly incorporated citizens were nationalist and anti-communist. They did not wish to be repatriated to what they saw as an illegitimate and oppressive occupying power. The Soviet Union’s dogged refusal to admit any distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Soviet citizens with regard to repatriation left it with no way of explaining why so many of its citizens refused to return.

Tromly’s book is about the de facto postwar alliance between émigré Russians in Germany and the CIA in the cause of liberating Russia from Soviet rule. Without the presence in Central Europe of large numbers of Soviet DPs who refused repatriation – almost half a million of them, according to Soviet calculations, the largest contingents being Ukrainian or from the Baltic states but also including a substantial number of Russians – this alliance would never have come into being. Some of the émigré political organisations involved, notably those of the Vlasovites (former Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans during the war who subsequently fought on the German side), belonged to the DP or ‘second wave’ of Russian emigration. But others, including the organisations of monarchists, White Army veterans and ‘Solidarists’, had their roots in the first-wave emigration that had left Russia after the Revolution. First-wave émigrés – more comfortably settled than the DPs into an anti-communist stance, and, above all, savvy veterans of the shadowy world of international intelligence networks – usually assumed leadership roles in postwar dealings with the Americans.

Collaboration with the Nazis was part of the wartime history of all these émigré organisations. The Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, taken prisoner by the Germans after the army under his command was surrounded in 1942, subsequently recruited large numbers of Soviet soldiers held in POW camps in Germany for his projected Russian Liberation Army, which the Germans supported in principle, though in the event they denied it any real military role until very late in the war. The Vlasov movement, which attracted some first-wave émigrés too, had a political wing, the Committee for Liberation of Peoples of Russia, which survived the German defeat, as Vlasov himself did not: he was captured by the Soviets at the end of the war and executed as a traitor in 1946. In its postwar iteration, the committee was led by a first-wave émigré, Konstantin Kromiadi.

The ‘Solidarists’ of NTS (the Narodno-Trudovoi Soyuz or People’s Labour Alliance), founded in the early 1930s as a conspiratorial anti-Soviet organisation, came mainly from the younger generation of émigrés who were looking for something tougher and more modern in spirit than their fathers’ backward-looking monarchism. The NTS ideology, embracing a version of corporatism (‘solidarism’), nationalism of a quasi-imperial ‘Great Russian’ kind, antisemitism and the cult of action, was clearly influenced by contemporary fascism. NTS members sought to undermine the Soviet Union by crossing the border illegally to set up cells and distribute propaganda, and from the start they looked to various international intelligence agencies, from Polish to Japanese, to help them achieve their aims. Early NTS efforts to gain support from Nazi Germany were unsuccessful, but after the outbreak of war German military intelligence and the SS became more interested, sending NTS activists into occupied Soviet territories to spread propaganda, fight the partisans and in some cases participate in mass killing of Jews. There were always potential strains in the relations between NTS and the Nazis, however, since the primary objective of NTS (and other Russian émigré groups) was to defeat the Soviets, not to promote German victory. These tensions led the Germans in the last two years of the war to arrest about a hundred NTS activists, though others were left at liberty. A setback at the time, in the long run this became an advantage, since it lent credibility to NTS’s postwar defence against charges of collaboration: their sole aim, they said, had always been to fight the Soviets.

With the end of the war, Vlasovites, NTS and other military collaborators scrambled to shed their German connections and establish relations with the Allies. Their chief facilitator was Reinhard Gehlen, the wartime head of an agency of the German Army that collected intelligence on the Soviet Union, who had extensive connections with the Russian exiles’ organisations and transferred them, along with his files, to the US military in 1945. Konstantin Boldyrev, NTS’s main contact person with the Americans, was briefly arrested as a collaborator but released after the intervention of American intelligence patrons, who also enabled him to set up his own NTS-dominated DP camp at Mönchehof near Kassel. The Vlasovites had their base in the Schleissheim DP camp outside Munich. Still, during the early postwar years, ex-collaborators – formally disbarred from the care and maintenance of the international refugee organisations running the DP camps – kept a low profile.

The anti-communist exiles’ prospects improved with the advent of the Cold War, which in effect redefined DPs as victims of communism rather than of war and fascism, and the formation in 1947 of the CIA, whose Office of Policy Co-ordination dealt with psychological warfare and paramilitary action. In 1950, the OPC set up a front organisation, the American Committee for Liberation for the Peoples of Russia (Amcomlib), to co-ordinate the exiles’ anti-Soviet activities. The CIA was an eclectic patron, acting in some respects more like a philanthropic than an intelligence organisation, distributing largesse to any group that made a plausible case for funding, with minimal oversight. NTS and the Vlasovites were both major beneficiaries.

The American policy-world consensus, articulated most notably by George Kennan and his State Department colleague Robert F. Kelley but shared by Amcomlib officers, combined Soviet phobia with an element of Russophilia. The Americans saw the Russians as good people, oppressed by a bad government that was not of their choosing. They believed, in the words of Eugene Lyons, an Amcomlib member, that ‘behind the Soviet façade there existed “another Russia”, which awaited an opportune moment to assert itself, weapons in hand if necessary, in the name of national freedom’ – and that ‘supporting it should be a major goal of US foreign policy.’

Another tenet generally accepted in the American policy world was that émigrés were the appropriate tools to set Soviet liberation in motion. This reflected the bias of American Russia specialists like Kennan and Kelley who had received their prewar area training from first-wave émigrés. In the postwar context, however, the argument for using émigrés was often couched in terms of the second wave, thought to be both tougher and inherently more democratic, given their varied social origins, than the aristocratic early exiles. George Fischer (son of Louis Fischer) was instrumental in publicising a view of Vlasov not as a traitor to his country but as a brave Soviet resistance fighter who had sought to bring American-style democracy to Russia. NTS, with its fascist and antisemitic past and conspiratorial instincts, was perhaps a harder sell as a standard-bearer of democracy. But, blatantly exaggerating its contacts and ‘secret cells’ within the Soviet Union, it appealed to the CIA because it seemed to have operational and information-gathering potential.

Tromly’s account focuses on Germany, where virtually all the White Russians were anti-communist as well as anti-socialist. But an intriguing subplot involves Russian émigré socialists from America: Mensheviks (the Bolsheviks’ old opponents in the Marxist revolutionary movement) such as Boris Nikolaevsky, David Dalin and Rafael Abramovich – and Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Russian Provisional government overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917. When Nikolaevsky and Dalin visited the DP camps in Germany, Russian DPs anxiously waiting for US visas saw them as ‘emissaries of the American superpower’, and the Vlasovites were quick to adopt a new ‘democratic-republican’ platform – a matter of ‘strategic calculation’, Tromly thinks, rather than ideological conversion. But the love affair between New York socialists and Russian DPs was short-lived. The socialists were too Jewish for the DPs’ liking; and, despite their connections with the New York intelligentsia, they lacked access to the large handouts of American government funding – the negotiation of which, as Tromly points out, constituted the ‘hidden transcripts’ of the CIA/exile alliance.

Tromly’s account of the machinations and factionalism of the émigré organisations as they competed for CIA largesse makes dismal, though at times risible, reading. The émigrés used all sorts of unscrupulous tricks to do one another down and monopolise American handouts, denouncing rivals as Soviet agents (which some of them evidently were) while lying brazenly about their contacts in the current Soviet Union and operationally achieving next to nothing. Of course all émigré groups are prone to demoralisation and trivial sectarian conflicts. What Tromly sees as the distinctive feature in this case was the connection between Russian anti-communist politics in the DP camps and the intelligence world, an ‘intertwining of politics and espionage’ that ‘gave émigré political activism its byzantine and unpredictable character’.

American support for the liberation of the Soviet Union through the agency of émigrés might seem to have reached its apogee with the creation of Radio Liberation (later Radio Liberty) in early 1953. But in Tromly’s story this was also the beginning of the end. Stalin’s death and uncertainty about the intentions of his successors led the newly elected President Eisenhower to sideline some of Washington’s liberation enthusiasts, despite his bellicose stance during the election campaign. Radio Liberation’s own research into the response of its Soviet audience to its liberationist message disclosed many negative reactions, as well as some positive, suggesting that something was awry with the premise of a people solidly arrayed against their government. By 1956, Charles Bohlen, US ambassador to the USSR, was arguing that Soviet citizens, now relatively satisfied with their political and social system, knew little about émigré groups abroad and didn’t much like what they knew. Even NTS was becoming discouraged, as it sought to spread the Solidarist gospel to Soviet visitors to Europe and found them not only uninterested and Soviet-minded but also distastefully philistine and consumerist. Scandals within the NTS lent credence to rumours that the organisation had been penetrated by Soviet operatives. Inside Amcomlib, the Ukrainians and other national minorities were arguing vociferously that their liberation should have top priority, and moreover that the Russian exiles were imperialist chauvinists. The British withdrew support from NTS, followed later by the CIA, which cut subsidies to the exiles in 1953.

Tromly emphasises that his purpose is not to do a hatchet job on the CIA but rather to understand them ‘in the context of their time’. Similarly, he ‘rejects one-sided approaches that would present exiles as either anti-communist heroes or cynical mercenaries, instead positing that both anti-communist ideas and self-interest shaped the émigré enterprise’. Certainly it would be hard to find a real anti-communist hero in either group from Tromly’s portrayal. The NTS comes out particularly badly: ‘relentlessly deceptive, associated with fascism and collaborationism, and penetrated by Soviet agents to some extent – a less desirable client for US intelligence in the Cold War … is hard to imagine.’

Thereare other ways of telling the story. To turn to Peter Reddaway’s memoir of his work with the dissidents is to move not only in time – his story starts in the 1960s and runs through to 1991 – but also to another emotional register, one of high idealism on the part of altruistic Westerners. To be sure, the Westerners’ motives are already familiar from Tromly’s study: belief in the goodness of the Russian people and their hatred of their alien Soviet rulers, and a consequent desire to help them free themselves from this oppression. If Tromly’s book gave us Part One of the liberation story, Reddaway’s gives us Part Two – this time through the agency of dissidents within the Soviet Union rather than émigrés outside it. But the two books belong to quite different genres. Reddaway’s is an optimistic story of success (the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union), told from an insider’s perspective with boosterism and good cheer, whereas Tromly’s is a story of failure, told from the perspective of a critical outsider who has read the archives with all their dirty secrets. Tromly’s ‘hidden transcripts’ – the role of competition for funding and intelligence contacts – are almost completely absent in Reddaway’s story. Absent also is any mention of the Cold War: it doesn’t appear in the index and I didn’t see a single mention of it in the text. The dissidents in Reddaway’s story aren’t operating in the context of a bipolar Cold War, negotiating on its perimeters to achieve their own ends. They and their generous Western supporters are simply acting out of moral conviction to defend the just cause of the Russian (Soviet) people against a tyrannical Soviet government.

Reddaway, the son of a Cambridge economics professor, acquired a sympathy for ‘victims of Stalin and his successors’ after hearing a talk by a Hungarian refugee in 1957. Having studied Russian at Cambridge, he got an early taste of Soviet life when he and four university friends drove a Land Rover emblazoned with Cambridge colours from Leningrad to Tbilisi, cheerfully teasing the KGB and breaking the rules by changing currency on the black market, selling their old clothes – and in Reddaway’s case distributing a few Bibles. When in due course Reddaway decided to become an academic specialising in the Soviet Union, his activist interests were at least as strong as his scholarly ones. He wanted to understand the Soviet system, but ‘I also wanted to be useful to any Soviet citizen who might seek my help,’ and, apropos of the Bibles, ‘to help out good people in the USSR whom the regime deprived of necessities, in this case religious ones’.

A stint at Harvard was followed by a year on the British student exchange in the Soviet Union in 1963-64. Shortly before he was due to leave for Moscow, Reddaway’s friend Martin Dewhirst took him to meet someone from NTS, a nice man, like most of the people Reddaway meets, who asked him to act on NTS’s behalf in the Soviet Union. Reddaway wouldn’t agree to that, though he promised to ‘write via a secure channel to Martin, who could pass on anything of special interest’. (The secure channel, set up through an old friend at the British embassy, was the diplomatic bag, generally not accessible to exchange students.) As it turned out, Reddaway ran into trouble with the Soviet authorities anyway, as a result of a visit to the wife of a defector he had met in Cambridge, and to his great chagrin was ‘arbitrarily expelled’ from the Soviet Union in May 1964 and not readmitted for 24 years.

I met Peter a few months after this, shortly after my own arrival as a raw graduate student from Australia. He was very kind to me. He told me that all Russians have two faces, the conformist one you first see, which is a false face, and the dissident one underneath, which is the true one. I was interested, but even then inclined to think that people often have more than two faces, and don’t necessarily know which is the true one. Peter was then a tall, rosy-cheeked young man with blond hair flopping over his forehead, like an overgrown schoolboy, and I thought if I had been a Russian I would have been inclined to show him my dissident face, if only to avoid disappointing him. His expulsion from the Soviet Union at first seemed to him like a tragedy, cutting him off from his new Russian friends and sources of information, but over time he ‘began to see that my expellee status conferred a certain compensating advantage on me: I could write freely on this subject without having to temper my views to avoid being put on a Soviet blacklist.’ In his polite way, Peter always tended to convey that the rest of us were indeed tempering our views, which was annoying: I personally saw myself as boldly pitting my wits against the Soviet authorities to find out the things they wanted to keep hidden – and to make up my own mind about them. No doubt this was as romantic as Peter’s embrace of the dissident cause.

After Moscow, Reddaway went to the LSE to write a PhD under Leonard Schapiro; in 1965 he was appointed a junior lecturer in political science, working closely with his mentor. It was at this point that he began to pay close attention to the new phenomenon of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and soon became one of their most energetic publicists and disseminators of their samizdat productions. Unlike Tromly’s émigrés in the 1950s, his focus wasn’t so much on introducing foreign subversive materials into the Soviet Union as on enabling subversive materials written inside to reach an audience beyond.

As a campaign aimed at the Western liberal public, as well as at Western governments, Reddaway’s was one of the most spectacular successes in the history of 20th-century publicity. The list he provides of diplomats, journalists, academics, students and tourists who helped smuggle samizdat out of the Soviet Union is astonishing. Journalists ‘who quietly helped smuggle out samizdat and reported seriously from Moscow on dissidents’, and who ‘in some cases wrote relevant books on them’, included David Bonavia of the Times in London, Anthony Astrachan and Hedrick Smith of the New York Times, Robert Kaiser and Kevin Klose of the Washington Post, David Satter of the Financial Times and the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Denis Blakeley. Reading the list, I found myself mentally running through the names of noted Moscow correspondents of the era to see who, if anyone, had not been enlisted in the campaign to publicise dissident writing and activity in the West. The only scruples about pro-dissident bias mentioned by Reddaway came from the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele (a Cambridge friend and one of the Land Rover group back in 1961), who, in public debate with Reddaway in 1975, suggested that ‘reporters should not be either propagandists for a government point of view or for a minority dissident point of view.’

While Reddaway devotes a chapter to ‘Two Early Giants of Soviet Dissent’ (Anatoly Marchenko and Petr Grigorenko), and unfailingly writes of individual dissidents with respectful admiration, his book is not so much a celebration of them as of the Westerners who selflessly took up their cause. Reddaway himself, working on his own time out of his LSE office, is of course chief among them. Although his account is characteristically modest, he does lay claim to having invented a role, something ‘nobody else did on a regular basis: reporting on and disseminating as rapidly as possible the dissident information of various kinds that I obtained, through my own channels’. As a sideline, he also helped other groups involved in putting out anti-Soviet material – including NTS, which he ‘quietly supported … by anonymously editing its magazine, the Bell’ after his expulsion from the Soviet Union.

Reddaway’s career as a dissident promoter started with Chronicle of Current Events, a survey of repressive Soviet actions prepared by anonymous dissidents in the Soviet Union, which he edited, translated and disseminated from 1968, at first on his own account and later under the auspices of Amnesty International. Then he took up the cause of national dissidents – Crimean Tatars, Jews, Ukrainians and others. Psychiatric abuse entered the agenda from the early 1970s, when Reddaway joined forces with the psychiatrist Sidney Bloch to set up something called the Working Group on Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes. With respect to religious dissent, his main collaborator was the Anglican priest Michael Bordeaux, who in 1970 helped to establish Keston College, whose mission was to publicise religious persecution in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Alongside his own mailing list, Reddaway established a chain system involving well-wishers with their own lists of regular recipients: Martin Dewhirst passed on samizdat documents from Reddaway to the NTS’s publishing house in Frankfurt, while Stephen Cohen of Princeton, persona non grata with the Soviets because his research topic was the Bolshevik Oppositionist Nikolai Bukharin, passed materials on to Valery Chalidze, who helped found the Moscow Human Rights Committee in 1970. Peter Dornan at Radio Liberty and Karel van het Reve at the Alexander Herzen Foundation in Amsterdam were trusted collaborators.

Translators​ such as Manya Harari and Max Hayward, who together translated Dr Zhivago, played an important role. Reddaway quotes with approval Patricia Blake’s line that Hayward acted as ‘custodian of Russia’s literature until such time as it could be restored to its people’. I’m not sure that the sense of moral entitlement implied by this notion of custodianship really fits Hayward (who had moral passion but not a sense of entitlement), but it does perhaps capture something about Reddaway.

In 1967, Reddaway wrote that the emergence of public dissent might ‘put in jeopardy [the regime’s] chances of ever celebrating its centenary’. So he wasn’t surprised by the Soviet Union’s collapse or, for that matter, by any of the twists and turns of Soviet policy and fortunes over the previous thirty years related in his memoir. Good was bound to win out in the conflict with evil. Joshua blew his trumpet bravely for a few decades, and finally the walls came tumbling down. The collapse of the Soviet Union was – apparently – a victory for the dissident cause.

That moment, 1991, is indeed the right one for Reddaway’s memoir to end on. Carry the narrative any further – to 2001, 2011 or even in prospect to 2021 – and it would have to stop being a story of dissident triumph and become yet another story of defeat, given the virtual obliteration of the dissident cause and even memory in the post-Soviet Russian Federation. But then again, does that really matter? Perhaps Soviet dissent was always less remarkable as an actual political movement in the domestic context than for the magnified reflection it gained in international media. As a focus of moral outrage outside the Soviet Union, a trump card in the Cold War, a milestone in the development of the human rights movement, it can be seen as a peculiarly Western phenomenon – which, come to think of it, is just the way Reddaway (perhaps unintentionally) portrays it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

Sheila Fitzpatrick describes my book The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-90 as ‘an optimistic story of success (the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union)’, told with ‘boosterism and good cheer’ (LRB, 6 February). It is, she goes on, ‘not so much a celebration of [individual dissidents] as of the Westerners who selflessly took up their cause’. In reality, however, the book features much by way of awful suffering, including the travails of no fewer than 42 dissidents.

Fitzpatrick claims that my campaign to disseminate dissident writing in the West ‘was one of the most spectacular successes in the history of 20th-century publicity’. Yet only two books of mine, published in 1972 and 1977, came out in significant numbers. And the Western journalists who wrote about dissidents did so only occasionally. In similar vein, Fitzpatrick writes that ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was – apparently – a victory for the dissident cause.’ Here she distorts my conclusion that while the dissidents contributed to the collapse, its outcome was not a victory for them, or for democracy or freedom of speech. As I say in the book, in December 1990 I reported after a trip to Moscow that ‘everyone seemed to agree that the current political and economic situation presented no hope for improvement, only for further decline.’ I also quoted – with approval – remarks made by the liberal economist Leonid Abalkin in September 1991: ‘This country hasn’t changed. The people remain the same as they were a month ago, with the same culture and the same psychology … It will take decades, or at least a generation.’

Fitzpatrick then projects her view of the political impotence of the dissidents beyond 1991, where the book ends, suggesting that if I too had carried the narrative further, it would have been ‘yet another story of defeat, given the virtual obliteration of the dissident cause and even memory’ in post-Soviet Russia. Here she overlooks the fact that I never claimed that the dissidents had political power, and she exaggerates their plight today. Despite heavy pressure, Memorial in particular is very much alive as a group. Finally, she seems to ignore my summary chapter, where I argue that the dissidents’ prospects are not good for the foreseeable future, because ‘Russia is far from being pregnant with a new order.’

Peter Reddaway
George Washington University

Vol. 42 No. 8 · 16 April 2020

I have long admired the work of Peter Reddaway, so was disappointed with his mistaken assertion that ‘the Western journalists [in Moscow] who wrote about dissidents did so only occasionally’ (Letters, 5 March). He should know better. It is true that the correspondents for some of the major American and European newspapers hadn’t much of an appetite for reporting on dissidents. But that was hardly the case for all Western journalists. During the four years I spent in Moscow (1970-74), we in the AP bureau consistently covered dissident news, as did the Reuters bureau and the Scandinavian news agency. How could we not? It was one of the most important and revealing stories of the day.

Our sources were sometimes samizdat accounts of official abuses, including the Chronicle of Current Events, which Reddaway was to memorialise faithfully in Uncensored Russia. Usually we relied on the dissidents themselves: for example, the tragic Pyotr Yakir, the surprisingly accessible Andrei Sakharov, the troubled Vladimir Bukovsky, the enigmatic nationalist Vladimir Osipov, and the distant Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These were just a few of the people with whom we were in contact who dared challenge the values of the Soviet system. There were also outspoken refuseniks, Jews who faced momentary persecution, as it turned out, because they had applied to emigrate to Israel.

Stephens Broening
Baltimore, Maryland

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences