Walter Krivitsky (real name Samuel Ginsberg) was born into a Jewish family living in Podwoloczyska, on 28th June, 1899. At the age of thirteen he joined the radical youth movement. He later recalled "the plaintive melodies of my suffering race mingled with new songs of freedom." His friend, Ignaz Reiss, was also a member: He described Krivitsky as a tall and gentle boy, with dark hair and very pale blue eyes.
Krivitsky joined the Bolshevik Party and became an underground political organizer: "In 1917 I was a youngster of eighteen, and the Bolshevik Revolution came to me as an absolute solution to all problems of poverty; inequality and justice... I joined the Bolshevik Party with my whole soul. I seized the Marxist and Leninist faith as a weapon with which to assault the wrongs against which I had instinctively rebelled."
After the Russian Revolution he worked briefly as a journalist before he joined the Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). During the Russian Civil War he operated behind the lines of the White Army. "In 1920... I was attached to the Soviet military intelligence for the Western Front which had its headquarters in Smolensk. As the Red Armies of General Tukhachevsky moved toward Warsaw it was the function of our department to operate secretly behind the Polish lines, to create diversions, to sabotage the shipment of munitions, to shatter the morale of the Polish army by propaganda and to furnish the general staff of the Red Army with military and political information."
Krivitsky's work involved undermining the war effort of the enemy. He wrote in I Was Stalin's Agent (1939): "We organized a strike in Danzig to prevent the landing of French munitions for the Polish army. I traveled to Warsaw, Cracow, Lemberg, German and Czech Silesia and to Vienna, organizing strikes to stop arms shipments. I organized a successful railroad strike in the Czech railroad junction of Oderberg, persuading the Czech trainmen to walk out, rather than handle Skoda munitions for the Poland of Joseph Pilsudski." Krivitsky wrote one leaflet that stated: "Railroad workers! You are transporting on your line guns to slaughter your Russian working-class brothers."
When French forces occupied the Ruhr Valley in the summer of 1923, Krivitsky and six other officers were sent to the area to encourage resistance. This involved working with the German Communist Party. They created "small units of men whose function was to shatter the morale of the Reichswehr and the police." Krivitsky was involved in forming assassination units who "struck swiftly and effectively in various parts of Germany, picking off police officers and other enemies of the Communist cause".
Lenin saw the opportunity to ferment a communist revolution in Germany. He ordered Gregory Zinoviev to organise an uprising. Some senior figures, including Karl Radek, Nickolai Bukharin and Yuri Piatakov hurried to Germany to get military units in strategic locations ready for a nationwide revolt, which would be launched at the command of Moscow. Zinoviev proposed an uprising in Hamburg. Communists in the city, believing themselves backed by a national uprising, took to the streets, attacked the police station and occupied major facilities. However, they did not receive support from other working-class groups and the rebellion was crushed in three days. Krivitsky commented: "When we saw the collapse of the Comintern's efforts... we took the best men developed by our Party Intelligence... and incorporated them into the Soviet military intelligence."
Over the next couple of years Krivitsky taught classes on espionage at the military academy. On 15th May 1926 he married Antonina Portfirieva. Soon afterwards he was sent to Vienna but had difficulty obtaining permission for his wife to go with him. Gary Kern, the author of A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004): "intelligence work, and indeed private life, would be complicated for the Krivitsky by the fact that she was legal and he was illegal. During the first years of their marriage, they were forced to live separately when abroad, Walter in hotels and Tonia near the embassy in Vienna, each with a cover spouse who also worked for military intelligence. They had to avoid being seen together. Their conjugal conjugations were clandestine." Ignaz Reiss was one of the agents Krivitsky worked with during this period.
In 1929 Joseph Stalin asked Yan Berzin, the chief of the Red Army's Fourth Bureau (military intelligence) to develop a plan to obtain foreign currency and to undermine capitalism. They selected a team of expert forgers led by a German engraver who had been manufacturing false passprts for the Comintern in Berlin. He produced plates for the $100 United States Federal Reserve banknote that not only reproduced perfectly the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, but placed an individual serial number on each bill. The bills were printed on excellent paper and flawless to the naked eye. Krivitsky was involved in this conspiracy that involved printing counterfeit $100 bills and using them in Europe, Asia and America to buy what the Soviet Union needed as part of the Five Year Plan with the clean currency. One way that Krivitsky did this was to buy chips with them in a casino, play a while and lose a bit, then cash in the chips remaining for good bills.
Alexander Orlov was another NKVD agent who was involved in this plot. He argued that no more than a million dollars could have been passed before the authorities would discovery the fraud. He later told a Senate Committee twenty-eight years later that Stalin insisted that the agents went ahead with the plan because he was "ninety per cent a criminal and ten per cent a politician." The conspiracy was discovered when one agent, Franz Fischer, had passed $19,000 at the Sass & Martini Bank in Berlin. One reason for the discovery was that the U.S. Treasury issued new $100 notes that were slightly smaller than the forgeries.
In 1931 Yan Berzin awarded Krivitsky the Order of the Red Banner for "exploits in battle, outstanding personal initiative and boundless dedication to the interests of the proletariat, demonstrated in exceptionally difficult and dangerous circumstances." The decoration was signed by Mikhail Kalinin, the President of the Soviet Union. His biographer, Gary Kern, claims that the "award brought not only glory and status within the Special Services, but normally included material benefits, such as the title to an apartment in Moscow, free for life and transmittable to off-spring."
As well as working for Military Intelligence, Krivitsky also did work for NKVD. According to Viktor Suvorov, of the two intelligence agencies, the military was the most secretive, being virtually unknown to the public both inside and outside the country. Each of the agencies considered itself the more elite of the two. Elsa Poretsky has claimed that the NKVD was "very short of able people, was jealous of the Fourth and never let a chance go by to undermine its prestige. They were also very keen on recruiting people away from the military and watched with great interest all the internal difficulties of their rival."
In July 1933 Kritvitsky was transferred to Rotterdam as director of intelligence with liaison responsibilities for other European countries. According to Krivitsky he was now "Chief of the Soviet Military Intelligence for Western Europe". This time he was able to travel and live with his wife. By this stage the NKVD had realised that marriage makes a good cover for illicit activities. The couple moved to a townhouse at 32 Celebesstraat, The Hague. Krivitsky took the identity of Dr. Martin Lessner, who sold art books.
Krivitsky's main objective was to build spy networks in Europe. His agents organized groups of dedicated Communists prepared to assist the Soviet Union if war broke out. The plan was for these units to disrupt communications, wreck machinery and blow up munitions depots. Krivitsky also recruited journalists, politicians, artists and government officials. Some he paid with money, others were willing to work for free as they believed in communism. Probably his most important agent was Pierre Cot, the Air Minister, in the government of Léon Blum.
Krivitsky later claimed that Military Intelligence never stole classified documents outright, but borrowed them long enough to photograph them and then returned them to their original places. All its officers and most of its agents were trained in the use of a Lecia camera. According to Gary Kern, the author of A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004): "For remote locations, they used a little suitcase containing all the necessary equipment. Krivitsky wrote his reports by hand, photographed them and sent the undeveloped film to Moscow through the embassy. The rolls of film containing the purloined material went the same way. The service had mailing canisters for film that would self-destruct if opened improperly, but these were used only in emergency or war situations."
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Krivitsky immediately sent two of his agents into the country. Two days later he received a message from headquarters: "Extend your operations immediately to cover Spanish civil war. Mobilize all available agents and facilities for prompt creation of a system to purchase and transport arms to Spain. A special agent is being dispatched to Paris to aid you in this work. He will report to you there and work under your supervision."
Krivitsky also went to Spain. He joined with Alexander Orlov, the Soviet Politburo adviser to the Popular Front government. His official assignment was to organize intelligence and counterintelligence activities and guerrilla warfare in the territory under the control of General Francisco Franco. He later claimed that around 3,000 guerrillas had been trained for this work over the next two years. General Yan Berzin was also in Spain as chief military advisor to the Republican Army.
Krivitsky later wrote in I Was Stalin's Agent (1939): "Stalin's intervention in Spain had one primary aim - and this was common knowledge among us who served him - namely, to include Spain in the sphere of the Kremlin's influence... The world believed that Stalin's actions were in some way connected with world revolution. But this is not true. The problem of world revolution had long before that ceased to be real to Stalin... He was also moved however, by the need of some answer to the foreign friends of the Soviet Union who would be disaffected by the great purge. His failure to defend the Spanish Republic, combined with the shock of the great purge, might have lost him their support."
Alexander Orlov and his NKVD agents had the unofficial task of eliminating the supporters of Leon Trotsky fighting for the Republican Army and the International Brigades. This included the arrest and execution of leaders of the Worker's Party (POUM), National Confederation of Trabajo (CNT) and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996) has pointed out: "Stalin had a secret and extremely important aim in Spain: to eliminate the supporters of Trotsky who had gathered from all over the world to fight for the Spanish revolution. NKVD men, and Comintern agents loyal to Stalin, accused the Trotskyists of espionage and ruthlessly executed them." Orlov later claimed that "the decision to perform an execution abroad, a rather risky affair, was up to Stalin personally. If he ordered it, a so-called mobile brigade was dispatched to carry it out. It was too dangerous to operate through local agents who might deviate later and start to talk."
According to the authors of Deadly Illusions (1993) in March 1937 General Yan Berzin had sent a confidential report to War Commissar Kliment Voroshilov "reporting resentment and protests he had received about the NKVD's repressive operations from high Republican officials. It stated that the NKVD agents were compromising Soviet authority by their excessive interference and espionage in Government quarters. They were treating Spain like a colony. The ranking Red Army General concluded his report with a demand that Orlov be recalled from Spain at once." Abram Slutsky, the head of the Foreign Department of NKVD, told Krivitsky. "Berzin is absolutely right our men were behaving in Spain as if they were in a colony, treating even Spanish leaders as colonists handle natives".
Krivitsky admitted: "Already in December 1936, the terror was sweeping Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. The OGPU had its own special prisons. Its units carried out assassinations and kidnappings. It filled hidden dungeons and made flying raids. It functioned, of course, independent of the Loyalist government. The Ministry of Justice had no authority over the OGPU, which was an empire within an empire. It was a power before which even some of the highest officers in the Caballero government trembled. The Soviet Union seemed to have a grip on Loyalist Spain, as if it were already a Soviet possession."
Antony Beevor, the author of The Spanish Civil War (1982), has argued: "The persistent trouble in the Brigades also stemmed from the fact that the volunteers, to whom no length of service had ever been mentioned, assumed that they were free to leave after a certain time. Their passports had been taken away on enlistment. Krivitsky claimed that these were sent to Moscow by diplomatic bag for use by NKVD agents abroad. Brigade leaders who became so alarmed by the stories of unrest filtering home imposed increasingly stringent measures of discipline. Letters were censored and anyone who criticized the competence of the Party leadership faced prison camps, or even firing squads. Leave was often cancelled, and some volunteers who, without authorization, took a few of the days owing to them, were shot for desertion when they returned to their unit. The feeling of being trapped by an organization with which they had lost sympathy made a few volunteers even cross the lines to the Nationalists. Others tried such unoriginal devices as putting a bullet through their own foot when cleaning a rifle (10 volunteers were executed for self-inflicted wounds)."
Walter Krivitsky, confirmed the story about the use of passports: "Several times while I was in Moscow in the spring of 1937, I saw this mail in the offices of the Foreign Division of the OGPU. One day a batch of about a hundred passports arrived, half of them American. They belonged to dead soldiers. That was a great haul, a cause for celebration. The passports of the dead, after some weeks of inquiry into the family histories of their original owners, are easily adapted to their new bearers, the OGPU agents."
Meanwhile, back in the Soviet Union, Nikolai Yezhov established a new section of the NKVD named the Administration of Special Tasks (AST). It contained about 300 of his own trusted men from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Yezhov's intention was complete control of the NKVD by using men who could be expected to carry out sensitive assignments without any reservations. The new AST operatives would have no allegiance to any members of the old NKVD and would therefore have no reason not to carry out an assignment against any of one of them. The AST was used to remove all those who had knowledge of the conspiracy to destroy Stalin's rivals. One of the first to be arrested was Genrikh Yagoda, the former head of the NKVD.
Within the administration of the ADT, a clandestine unit called the Mobile Group had been created to deal with the ever increasing problem of possible NKVD defectors, as officers serving abroad were beginning to see that the arrest of people like Yagoda, their former chief, would mean that they might be next in line. The head of the Mobile Group was Mikhail Shpiegelglass. By the summer of 1937, over forty intelligence agents serving abroad were summoned back to the Soviet Union.
Krivitsky realised that his life was in danger. Alexander Orlov, who was based in Spain, had a meeting with fellow NKVD officer, Theodore Maly, in Paris, who had just been recalled to the Soviet Union. He explained his concern as he had heard stories of other senior NKVD officers who had been recalled and then seemed to have disappeared. He feared being executed but after discussing the matter he decided to return and take up this offer of a post in the Foreign Department in Moscow. General Yan Berzin and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, were also recalled. Maly, Antonov-Ovseenko and Berzen were all executed.
Krivitsky's old friend, Ignaz Reiss, was beginning to have great doubts about the truth of the Show Trials. His wife, Elsa Poretsky, had visited Moscow in early 1937. She noted that: "The Soviet citizen does not rejoice in the splendor, he does not marvel at the blood trials, he hunches down deeper, hoping only perhaps to escape ruin. Before every Party member the dread of the purge. Over every Party member and non-Party member the lash of Stalin. Lack of initiative it's called, then lack of vigilance - counter-revolution, sabotage, Trotskyism. Terrified to death, the Soviet man hastens to sign resolutions. He swallows everything, says yea to everything. He has become a clod. He knows no sympathy, no solidarity. He knows only fear."
Ignaz Reiss met with Krivitsky and suggested that they should both defect in protest as a united demonstration against the purge of leading Bolsheviks. Krivitsky rejected the idea. He suggested that the Spanish Civil War would probably revive the old revolutionary spirit, empower the Comintern and ultimately drive Stalin from power. Krivitsky also made the point that that there was no one to whom they could turn. Going over to Western intelligence services would betray their ideals, while approaching Leon Trotsky and his group would only confirm Soviet propaganda, and besides, the Trotskists would probably not trust them.
In July 1937 Ignaz Reiss was warned that if he did not go back to Moscow at once he would be "treated as a traitor and punished accordingly". Reiss responded by sending a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Paris explaining his decision to break with the Soviet Union because he no longer supported the views of Stalin's counter-revolution and wanted to return to the freedom and teachings of Lenin. "Up to this moment I marched alongside you. Now I will not take another step. Our paths diverge! He who now keeps quiet becomes Stalin's accomplice, betrays the working class, betrays socialism. I have been fighting for socialism since my twentieth year. Now on the threshold of my fortieth I do not want to live off the favours of a Yezhov. I have sixteen years of illegal work behind me. That is not little, but I have enough strength left to begin everything all over again to save socialism. ... No, I cannot stand it any longer. I take my freedom of action. I return to Lenin, to his doctrine, to his acts."
According to Edward P. Gazur, the author of Alexander Orlov: The FBI's KGB General (2001): "On learning that Reiss had disobeyed the order to return and intended to defect, an enraged Stalin ordered that an example be made of his case so as to warn other KGB officers against taking steps in the same direction. Stalin reasoned that any betrayal by KGB officers would not only expose the entire operation, but would succeed in placing the most dangerous secrets of the KGB's spy networks in the hands of the enemy's intelligence services. Stalin ordered Yezhov to dispatch a Mobile Group to find and assassinate Reiss and his family in a manner that would be sure to send an unmistakable message to any KGB officer considering Reiss's route."
Reiss was found hiding in a village near Lausanne, Switzerland. It was claimed by Alexander Orlov that a trusted Reiss family friend, Gertrude Schildback, lured Reiss to a rendezvous, where the Mobile Group killed Reiss with machine-gun fire on the evening of 4th September 1937. Schildback was arrested by the local police and at the hotel was a box of chocolates containing strychnine. It is believed these were intended for Reiss's wife and daughter.
Krivitsky decided to defect and managed to escape to Canada where he lived under the cover name of Walter Thomas. Krivitsky eventually contacted the FBI and gave details of 61 agents working in Britain. Krivitsky also provided an insight into Stalin's thinking. John V. Fleming, the author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009): "Krivitsky was sufficiently privy to the thinking within the Kremlin to be able to predict to his absolutely unbelieving auditors that Stalin was more interested in finding an accommodation with Hitler than in countering him in Spain or elsewhere.... Then, in late August, the Germans and the Russians jointly announced the pact that Krivitsky had predicted."
In 1939 Krivitsky was brought to London to be interviewed by Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5. Krivitsky did not know the names of these agents but described one as being a journalist who had worked for a British newspaper during the Spanish Civil War. Another was described as "a Scotsman of good family, educated at Eton and Oxford, and an idealist who worked for the Russians without payment." These descriptions fitted Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. However, White and Liddle were not convinced by Krivitsky's testimony and his leads were not followed up.
Later that year Krivitsky moved to New York City where he collaborated with the journalist, Isaac Don Levine, for a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post, exposing what was going on in the Soviet Union. One night, Krivitsky met Whittaker Chambers. He recorded the meeting in his book, Witness (1952): "But one night, when I was at Levine's apartment in New York, Krivitsky telephoned that he was coming over. There presently walked into the room a tidy little man about five feet six with a somewhat lined gray face out of which peered pale blue eyes. They were professionally distrustful eyes, but oddly appealing and wistful, like a child whom life has forced to find out about the world, but who has never made his peace with it. By way of handshake, Krivitsky touched my hand. Then he sat down at the far end of the couch on which I also was sitting. His feet barely reached the floor."
Krivitsky said that he turned against communism after the Kronstadt Uprising: "Krivitsky meant that by the decision to destroy the Kronstadt sailors, and by its cold-blooded action in doing so, Communism had made the choice that changed it from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism. Today, I could not answer, yes, to Krivitsky's challenge. The fascist character of Communism was inherent in it from the beginning. Kronstadt changed the fate of millions of Russians. It changed nothing about Communism. It merely disclosed its character."
In 1939, Krivitsky, with the help of Isaac Don Levine, published I Was Stalin's Agent. One of the most powerful sections of the book was an account of Stalin's involvement in the Spanish Civil War. "Stalin's intervention in Spain had one primary aim... namely, to include Spain in the sphere of the Kremlin's influence... The world believed that Stalin's actions were in some way connected with world revolution. But this is not true. The problem of world revolution had long before that ceased to be real to Stalin... He was also moved however, by the need of some answer to the foreign friends of the Soviet Union who would be disaffected by the great purge. His failure to defend the Spanish Republic, combined with the shock of the great purge, might have lost him their support." Krivitsky also appeared before Martin Dies and the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in October, 1939.
Walter Krivitsky was found dead in the Bellevue Hotel in Washington on 10th February, 1941. At first it was claimed that Krivitsky had committed suicide. However, others claimed his hiding place had been disclosed by a Soviet mole working for MI5 and had been murdered by Soviet agents. Whittaker Chambers definitely believed that he had been killed by the NKVD: "He had left a letter in which he gave his wife and children the unlikely advice that the Soviet Government and people were their best friends. Previously he had warned them that, if he were found dead, never under any circumstances to believe that he had committed suicide." Krivitsky once told Chambers: "Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit a good natural death."