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The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service

Andrew Meier, Writer-in-Residence, The New School University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center

Date & Time

Monday
Sep. 29, 2008
12:00pm – 1:00pm ET

Overview

In his new book The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service, Andrew Meier, Writer-in-Residence, The New School University, former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, traces the life and death of Isaiah "Cy" Oggins, a Columbia University student who became a Soviet spy and ultimately was "liquidated" by Stalin. At a Kennan Institute lecture, Meier explained that in relaying Oggins's experience, he has tried to tell the story of a dynamic time in the United States when people believed sincerely that at that very moment in history they were making the world anew. In describing Oggins's journey, Meier demonstrated how Oggins "paid the ultimate price for his innocence and delusion."

When Oggins graduated from Columbia University in 1920, New York was the center of radical agitation in the United States, and Oggins, noted Meier, was submerged in it. He joined the fledgling Communist Party in 1924, and in 1926, he was recruited by the Soviet Union to be a spy. Working towards a Doctorate degree, Oggins traveled to Europe for intelligence missions in the guise of an academic. Meier recounted how in the 1930s, Oggins's assignments took him to China, Japanese-controlled Manchuria, and in 1939, to Moscow. At this point, Stalin's purges were well underway, and despite his long, loyal service, Oggins was arrested and sent to the Arctic gulag of Norilsk. Fellow prisoners called him the "American Professor" from Columbia University. It was this misnomer, Meier said, which ultimately caught the attention of the U.S. government and alerted it to Oggins's situation. Even though the U.S. government knew nothing about Oggins or his activities, its efforts to get him released reached all the way to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Despite these efforts and the more intense pleas from Oggins's wife Nerma, the Soviets executed Oggins in 1947 to keep his story from getting out.

Until Meier's investigation, the real story of what had happened to Oggins had remained a mystery. To uncover it, Meier described how he interviewed gulag survivors, dug through declassified files in archives around the world—including Soviet archives, where he found a heavily censored fraction of Oggins's 162-page file—and even tracked down Oggins's son. Meier's research has produced a rich account of American communism's early years as well as the journey of an American who devoted his life to serving the Soviet Union. Different people, Meier observed, see Oggins in various ways. Many tell Meier that Oggins died a traitor's death, but Meier has tried to convey a different understanding of Oggins's story in his book. Meier explained that he was attracted to Oggins's experience because Oggins is emblematic of so many young, intelligent ingénues in New York at the time. "Oggins was just the one who crossed the line," concluded Meier.

Written by Sarah Dixon Klump

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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