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

Andrew Meier
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012
One day, Isa­iah (Cy) Oggins qui­et­ly dis­ap­peared into the gulag, leav­ing few traces that he had ever exist­ed. For more than fifty years, his son knew vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing about his father’s life until Andrew Meier pro­ceed­ed to dis­cov­er who Cy Oggins was. The book that emerged reveals Oggins’ life and his role as the casu­al­ty in a shame­ful slice of Cold War his­to­ry. 

The Lost Spy is more than a biog­ra­phy. It is also a cau­tion­ary tale of mis­guid­ed ide­al­ism and the con­se­quences of trea­son. Cy is an ordi­nary man caught in the vor­tex of his­to­ry, a Mac­beth­like fig­ure whose con­ver­sion to Com­mu­nism com­ple­ment­ed the mil­i­tan­cy of his wife, Ner­ma, and her devo­tion to rad­i­cal ideology.

Meier describes the banal­i­ty of espi­onage. The read­er learns how deeply embed­ded through­out Europe were such clan­des­tine activ­i­ties as coun­ter­feit­ing and safe hous­es (yav­ki, or des­ig­nat­ed res­i­dences where agents could meet and work) and mul­ti­ple pass­ports and hushed meet­ings in pub­lic spaces. Net­works of spies were seem­ing­ly every­where, as they bur­rowed into gov­ern­ment posi­tions and trav­elled freely as busi­ness­men. As Meier writes, As a well to do Amer­i­can con­nois­seur (of objets d’art), Cy could now take short trips at a moment’s notice…He could also car­ry large sums of cash in an assort­ment of cur­ren­cies with­out arous­ing suspicion.” 

But sud­den­ly, after Ner­ma and their son, Robin, by now three years old, had returned to the Unit­ed States, Oggins was arrest­ed. The year was 1939, almost a decade after Cy and Ner­ma began their Euro­pean adven­ture. Con­signed to the prison camp at Noril­sk in Siberia on uncon­firmed” charges of espi­onage and trea­son, Cy was sen­tenced nonethe­less to an eight year term, and mur­dered in 1947, appar­ent­ly on Josef Stalin’s per­son­al orders. The rea­son? Pos­si­bly because his han­dler, Max Stein­berg, had defect­ed, and when­ev­er a Sovi­et intel­li­gence offi­cer was tripped up — or switched sides — the Cen­ter went after every agent in his con­trol group.” Or, per­haps out of fear that upon his release and return to the Unit­ed States, Cy might reveal secrets about the prison camps or the world-wide Sovi­et espi­onage net­work. But if it was this fear that led to Cy’s state-spon­sored mur­der,” it was iron­ic that Ner­ma had remained faith­ful to com­mu­nism to the end of her life. Even after try­ing to pur­chase a pass­port to enable Cy to be released, Sovi­et intran­si­gence led to the return of her check for a mere $420, yet she main­tained her silence. Copies of archival documents.
Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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