The Man Behind the Rosenbergs

the-man-behindThis is a fascinating book written by retired KGB agent Alexander Feklisov with Sergei Kostin. The book begins with an interesting description of Feklisov’s life in the Soviet Union as a youngster and his eventual acceptance into the INO, or Soviet Foreign Intelligence. He is sent to the United States early in World War II and spends four years sending and receiving messages without being involved in espionage. He is a capable and loyal employee and he eventually enters the world of the “illegals” with the assignment of recruiting spies from the many Americans who sympathized with the Communism and the Soviet cause. I found it interesting that Feklisov ardently defended his contacts as being “anti-fascist activists” and not Communist spies.

Feklisov’s advancement in Soviet intelligence was enhanced by the remarkable fact there were few older agents when he began his training. Feklisov was surprised there “…was only one older officer in our section…” He “…later learned that the Stalinist purges had not spared the intelligence services. The leadership of the INO had been decimated as much as the Red Army by the end of the 1930s.” It is difficult to understand Feklisov’s dedicated loyalty to the Stalinist system after such a revelation.

Feklisov was almost prohibited from receiving a foreign assignment because he wasn’t married. He was told, “How can you recruit any agents if you can’t even recruit a wife?” His immediate supervisor praised his abilities and recommended him for an overseas assignment. He even complimented him with the comment, “If you want my opinion, it’s rather good that he didn’t get married on command. It goes to prove he’s a serious sort of fellow.” That and the fact the NKVD was short of people in the United States led to his assignment in New York as a communication specialist.

He became Alexander Fomin with the code name “Kalistrat” and was assigned to establish a clandestine radio link. The announcement of the Nazi attack on the USSR revealed some attitudes that disturbed Feklisov, or Fomin. Senator Harry Truman announced that Russia should be helped if the Germans were winning or the Germans should be helped if the Russians were winning. “The first prize for bluntness would go to the New York Daily News, which published a cartoon depicting the USSR and Germany as two snakes fighting each other. The caption read, ‘Let’s let them eat each other!’” Feklisov felt Roosevelt was fairer in his assessment. “His attitude toward the USSR in general, now that it was bearing the brunt of the war effort was favorable.” (My reading of history says that FDR’s attitude went far beyond “favorable.)

Feklisov openly admits and details the massive amounts of secret information his networks passed to the Soviets, but defends it as work performed by civilian partisans who deserved the same respect as the militant partisans fighting the Nazis in the Soviet Union. He eventually goes so far as to say that the theft of the atomic bomb secrets which allowed the detonation of “Joe-1,” the first Soviet atomic test, undoubtedly saved the world from destruction. He believed Harry Truman would have launched an atomic attack against the Soviet Union if the Soviets had not ended the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons. It is strange to read passages of bragging about how effective his spies were and how the Rosenberg network was most effective will defending that the Rosenbergs were heros.

Feklisov was asked after the war whether his conscience was bothered by his activities. He answered that average Americans were anti-fascists like the Soviets. The government had a different attitude. “The long-promised second front didn’t come in 1942 nor in 1943 but during the summer of 1944 when the Red Army’s victory was no longer in doubt. The time saved and paid in the millions of my compatriots and other fighters in Europe, was doubly useful to the United States. First, the weaker Soviet Union would be at the end of the war, the easier it would be for the United States to mold the world to suit its purpose. On the other hand, and this was even more sordid, every day of fighting that passed produced immense profits for American industrialists.”  Feklisov observed “…when you know you are being taken advantage of you have the right to be clever.”  Feklisov felt strongly that it was unjust that that the Soviet Union should fight the German war machine alone. (A note points out that the author neglects to recognize Allied operations in the Pacific, South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Sicily, and Italy and the bombing of Germany. He also fails to mention France and Britain had been fighting the Nazis while the USSR was allied with Germany in the Non-Aggression Pact.)

Feklisov gives a much different picture of the effectiveness of the FBI than I have read in other accounts. He mentions that many of his leaders “…were quickly identified by the FBI and forced to leave the United State. He mentions the FBI numerous times in the book, and indicates those agents often made it quite difficult for Feklisov and his network of spies to perform without extreme care. “The priority for the FBI was to locate and destroy enemy espionage networks, and in a few short months the Americans arrested hundreds of spies and sent many foreign nationals into internment camps.” They had also managed to place monitoring devices in the phones of Feklisov and many others that allowed them to hear anything said in the room.

The book discusses in detail Feklisov’s relationship with Julius Rosenberg, who he described as a good friend and the leader of a very effective network of agents. Feklisov eventually was moved to England where he became the handler of Klaus Fuchs who had also returned to England from the Manhattan Project. Fuchs is described as the source of information that allowed the Soviets to replicate Fat Man. The greatest prize Rosenberg provided was a working proximity fuse that allowed anti-aircraft shells to hone in on and explode near airplanes. One was used to shoot down Powers in his U-2 flying over the Soviet Union. According to Keklisov, Rosenberg knew nothing about the Manhattan Project and supplied no information about the atomic bomb. David Greenglass was a member of what was called the “Rosenberg Ring,” and provided a one-dimensional sketch (characterized by Feklisov as “childish) of the explosive lens for the implosion weapon.

The author writes that the Rosenberg trial and conviction was a miscarriage of justice. He claims their lead lawyer was taking directions from the government and that the other spies were fed false stories to tell about the Rosenbergs in return for a reduction in the severity of their sentences. He says he met Julius fifty times to ask for and receive secret information, but he never met Ethel. He also says at least some of the notes he received from Julius were hand written contrary to the charge that Ethel typed his notes before they were handed over. He believes the only think Ethel’s only guilt was being a dedicated communist who knew and approved what her husband was doing.

There is a section on the Cuban Missile Crisis and how Feklisov and John Scali, foreign news correspondent for ABC, helped with back channel discussions that ended the crisis. There was a plaque placed over the table of the restaurant where they held a discussion and documentaries made about their actions. I admit I wasn’t that interested in that part of the book, but it probably would be of much more interest to others.

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