“The American Professor”
This is an improbable but true tale. It is also an attempt to resurrect a man's life, one lived on the frontiers of the twentieth century's longest war.
Isaiah Oggins was one of the first Americans to spy for the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, beginning in 1928, he served in Joseph Stalin's espionage networks in Europe, Asia, and America. At each station along his odyssey, Oggins gained greater responsibility in the underground and greater respect in Moscow. At the time of his arrest in the Soviet capital during the endless winter of 1939, few Americans—if any—had served longer or climbed higher in Stalin's spy world.
This is also the story of a man who did everything possible to cover his tracks. Devout and methodical, even when the chaos of the times rose high above his head, Oggins traded identities and addresses with ease. No diaries or last-minute confession survived him—just one notebook, a handful of telegrams and handwritten notes, and a single letter.
For half a century, Oggins's life remained a mystery without an investigator. In exploring it, I discovered a man of astonishing faith and innocence, and a story of desire and dedication nearly impossible to imagine today. As I searched across three continents, the discoveries began to accrete. In time, curiosity bred a quest. After six years, the research filled a dozen large boxes; interviews, State Department dispatches and memos, declassified files from the KGB and the FBI, survivors' memoirs, and even postage stamps revealed a remarkable journey.
Both an Everyman and a singular exception, Oggins was born into the proverbial American Dream. He attained success early in life, only to abandon it. Oggins sought to climb higher, daring to believe that he could remake the world. He envisioned a utopia on earth, a realm of harmony and justice, not a world ruled, as he and his comrades saw it, by the lust for profit and violence. He imagined himself an American Robin Hood among the Bolsheviks, and he risked all for the good fight. In doing so, however, he crossed a line, and in the end fell prey to his own blind faith.
Isaiah Oggins belonged to the generation of intellectuals betrayed by “the God that failed.” He forsook everything, only to find himself forsaken. In the light of history, some may forgive him. Others may not. Now, at least, his story, obscured for so long both by his own design and by the political forces that long outlived him, is no longer hidden.
I was still living in Moscow, working as a reporter, when i began my search: I was looking for anyone with the surname Oggins.
Robin Oggins I found by pure luck. A half-dozen Web pages formed a rough résumé: Robin S. Oggins, professor of history at the State University of New York in Binghamton, author of a pair of pictorial histories (the cathedrals and castles of Europe) and an authority on the royal sport and business of medieval English falconry.
At once, from Moscow, I sent him an e-mail message. “Are you or do you know anyone who is related to Isaiah Oggins, also known as Cyrus?” I asked.
By nightfall I had my reply:
Dear Mr. Meier:
I am Cy (short for Ysai, never, to the best of my knowledge, Cyrus) Oggins' only child—and son. I doubt if I can help you very much but am willing to try.
It was the winter of 2001. Robin had just turned seventy, and after four decades of teaching was nearing a long-awaited retirement. He lived on a rural road, in a small house at the end of a long driveway. When I called him the following Sunday morning, he answered on the first ring. His voice was measured, quiet but firm.
“This is the call I've been waiting for my whole life,” he said.
Upstate had been snowed in. Robin was working at home, down in the basement in a dark study ringed with leather-bound books and metal filing cabinets. He was revising the last of several hundred footnotes, references pertaining to young men holding falcons in the medieval illustrations of the ages of man.
To his joy, Robin had nearly completed his “life's work,” The Kings and Their Hawks, a meticulous study of medieval English falconry. He had begun it back in Chicago as a graduate student in the 1950s. But so much had gotten in the way—first the jobs, then marriage, kids, teaching. He had always had to work, to provide. Now, for the first time in years, Robin had time on his hands. Time, he told me during that first telephone call, to listen to inconvenient questions, file requests for documents, and help me reassemble the broken pieces of his father's life.
For me, the journey had begun in Norilsk, that Pompeii of Stalinism in Russia's far north. Hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle, Norilsk is a place of permafrost, precious metals, and, for ten months of the year, little but the frozen white desert of the tundra. For generations, ever since its founding in the 1930s as an island in Stalin's archipelago of labor camps, the city has loomed in the Russian imagination as one of the most remote and forbidding corners of the country.
In the summer of 2000, I traveled to Norilsk as a reporter to learn about the gulag from the survivors, a few dozen men and women, then in their eighties and nineties, who had stayed on, even decades after the camps had closed. At its height, the gulag had held prisoners from more than thirty countries. In Norilsk, there were Poles and Germans, Swedes and Koreans, even Afghans. Had the camps held any Americans? I asked in interview after interview, spurred solely by curiosity. Over and over, the old-timers shook their heads. But at last, on the afternoon before I left town, the large round eyes of a small birdlike woman lit up with a look of recognition.
“Yes, there was someone here,” she said. “ 'The American,' they called him. 'The American professor.' ”
A few months later, I traveled to Paris to see a French survivor of Norilsk. Jacques Rossi, at ninety-one, was something of a celebrity among camp veterans. His Gulag Handbook, an encyclopedia of camp life, was a landmark in the canon of Soviet persecution. I went to see Jacques because I knew he had spent years in Norilsk. Yet when I knocked on his door, I had no idea that he knew the answer to the question that had seized me in the Arctic.
Jacques seemed to have shrunk inside his body. His bones jutted against his thin checked shirt, but he was still a force, animated and ardent. Only now, like so many once-zealous followers, he reserved his passion for his hatred of communism.
Jacques, too, had been a spy. From the late 1920s into the 1930s, he had lived and worked in the Soviet underground. He had served first as an agent of the Comintern, the Communist International, before being pulled deeper, into military intelligence, the espionage arm of the Red Army.
Jacques lived on his own, visited by the Polish nuns of a nearby convent. The apartment resembled a monastic cell, two rooms filled with little but books, on the rue de la Resistance in Montreuil, the suburb on Paris's eastern edge. The working-class district remained defiantly left-wing. Across the way, a park housed a museum dedicated to the French socialist and workers' movements. Jacques, however, had found a new calling in Paris. He was one of the favored witnesses of the French right wing, called upon regularly to testify to the evils of communism.
Like hundreds of fellow believers, Jacques had worked longest as a courier, crisscrossing Europe with clandestine messages. “Microfilms in heels,” he said, tapping a shoe. “That's how we carried Moscow's secrets.” Agents would travel nonstop. “Paris, Venice, Prague, Istanbul, Oslo” were routine destinations. Side trips to Moscow, for training, debriefings, and shipments, were normal. In the spring of 1937, at twenty-eight, Jacques was sent to Franco's Spain. The civil war raged. The Nationalists were sweeping the north, but Guernica had not yet been bombed. “The Center,” as agents called the headquarters of Soviet intelligence in Moscow, had lent him a party “wife” and a collapsible radio transmitter. At night Jacques blacked out the windows with cloth and tapped out the news gleaned from informants.
One night he took down a message that would break his life in two: Rentrer au village, “Return to the village.” He wrote down the letters, knowing the village was Moscow. In 1937 he walked into the Comintern headquarters on Mokhovaya Street, the grand building across from the Kremlin, and was arrested. He would not leave the USSR until twenty-four years later, in the spring of 1961.
Jacques Rossi had known the American professor. But he seemed surprised by the question. It was as if no one had ever asked him. Jacques said he had served with the American in the Norilsk camps. He could not remember the precise years, though he was certain they had met “before the war”—before Hitler launched Barbarossa and set 3 million men against the Soviet Union in the third week of June 1941.
“His name was Oggins,” he said. “Cyrus Oggins.”
It was the first time I had heard the name—either the first name or the last.
Jacques knew few details of Oggins's life before the gulag. They had never spoken of it, but Jacques was certain that the American had also been a spy. “You never asked,” he said. “You had to trust your senses. It was not unlike hunting. Like a fox, you had to smell the rabbit.”
Years after Jacques finally left the USSR, he visited New York. He tried to track down his friend from the gulag. He found nothing—no home, no relatives, and no news. The absence haunted him. One memory, however, remained close. Oggins, Jacques said, was in fact a professor. “A professor of history, at the Columbia University in the city of New York,” he said, drawing out each word, as if to summon a spirit. “At least, that is what he said he was.”
In the fall of 2001, on a chill October Friday weeks after the terror struck in New York City and Washington, D.C., I rented a car and drove to see Robin.
He and his wife, Ginny, lived in a modest wooden house perched on a steep hillside overlooking a pastoral stretch of the Susquehanna River in upstate New York. The house was warm, and the kitchen, lined with pine cabinets, dominated. Robin and Ginny had lived half a lifetime on the hill. They had raised their three children here, yet the house retained the feel of a cabin. The woods—white birches and red maples—filled the windows, and beyond them, down below, the river turned gently through the valley. Outside the kitchen, goldfinches, titmice, and nuthatches dipped into a pair of birdfeeders. Wild turkeys and deer were also known to come close, and in early spring and late fall even the occasional bear.
Robin had last seen his father when he was seven years old. It had been in Paris, in the anxious year of 1938. On the telephone, he had told me that somewhere in the back of his mind—“ever since I can remember”—he had hoped someone might appear on his doorstep. “It wasn't a fixed thing,” he said. “Just a thought—that someone, someday, would pick this thing up and follow it.”
When Robin and I met, I had already seen a photograph of Cy Oggins. Robin had sent it to me in the mail. Over the years that followed, I would gather other photographs of his father, but this was the first—and the earliest.
Cy is already a young man in the portrait. It was taken in a photographer's studio, it seemed, on the eve of his high school graduation. He wears a tight double-breasted suit with leather buttons that glisten, and a white shirt bound by a white tie. His face, caught in the flash, is pearly white, nearly porcelain. His hair is ink black, trimmed and pomaded for the occasion. His head is torqued, twisted a quarter-turn for the formal moment, leaving one ear visible, white and outsized. His nose is aquiline and straight, lips broad, and eyebrows dark and rounded. The flash, reflected in one eye, casts a shadow on the wall behind him. It is a dramatic portrait, an apt image of a young man on a precipice.
Robin seemed to have none of his father's taste for drama, and little of his passion. He was fond of flannel shirts and workman's trousers. He did, though, inherit his looks—the penetrating brown eyes, broad, flat cheekbones, and sharp jaw. Yet unlike his father, Robin was short. As a child he had suffered a string of accidents and illnesses, and a broken hip had left him with a limp. But he spoke with authority, and his presence filled a space. It was as if the secret history, the weight of his father's mystery, had lent him a hidden strength.
Father and son, whether by blood, chance, or fate, had stretched across the years and formed a bond. When we first met, Robin had a sense that he shared his father's first love and his first profession. He had heard that his father had also been a professor. But he had never known whether the stories were true.
“There's just so much I don't know,” Robin said. “I was never told—or not told the truth.” He had no control of his memories. “I can remember details of eighteenth-century London better than my own past,” he said. He had heard so many stories, often contradictory, more often vague, that he now had trouble sorting fact from fiction. There were so many dark holes, he said. Things he did not know. Or did not trust. Or did not want to know. There was so much uncertainty in his mind about his father's life.
“Why did my parents go over to Europe?” he asked himself. “I don't really know. At one time I was told they were students. At another, that Dad worked for American Express. That he had a job and was working there. They both spoke a lot of languages, visited many countries. They loved travel.”
Robin yearned, even now, to hold on to any excuse. It was hard, though, not to hear the doubt in his voice. He had a file of clippings, newspaper articles about his father's case that had appeared in the first years after the Soviet collapse. Boris Yeltsin, hero of the new Russian revolution, one of the articles said, had even handed over documents on the case. A memoir, too, had come out, a confessional by a Soviet spymaster, a favorite of Stalin's. Robin had not read it. But he knew of “a book in the local library” that his son had come across. It had said “something about Dad's case.” Just what, he had never asked.
One thing Robin did know for certain. The gaps in the family history far outnumbered the moments of clarity or logic. Whenever Robin dove back in time, trying to retrieve the memories, he would stop short, falling silent in midsentence. Over time, in these silences I sensed another presence—the witness who had kept his father's secrets.
Nerma Oggins had died in 1995. Robin had never heard much about his father from his mother. “She didn't want to dredge the memories,” he said. But without fail, in his telling of the past, Nerma would reappear, as if rearranging the fragments of her son's recollection, camouflaging his memories. At first I could imagine her only faintly. Later, as Robin traced his steps through an itinerant and bewildering childhood, Nerma emerged clearly, casting and recasting the past.
Robin was far keener to speak of his father. He wanted to learn the truth about the man he always just called “Dad,” to have some answers to the questions that had haunted him since childhood.
He had, however, made one discovery. It was a terrible find, stumbled on by accident in the 1940s. Robin was still a teenager when one day he unearthed a stack of letters “squirreled away in an old steamer trunk.” The details were sketchy, half hidden in the bureaucratic language of official government letters. It was a convoluted story, but to Robin the nightmare was clear. The truth seemed unavoidable: the U.S. government had helped kill his father.
Robin and I talked often in the years that followed. We compared notes on the telephone, and when enough questions or answers accumulated, we met at the house upstate. In time I assembled boxes of documents culled from archives around the world. We would sit together at the kitchen table and try to sift the facts out of the paper trail. It was not easy to wade through decades of Soviet and post-Soviet falsification. Nor was it easy to rob a man of his illusions. It was not easy to tell Robin how his father had died and how his mother had deceived him.
Toward the end of my first visit, Robin invited me to see the woods beyond his house. We went for a walk. On the ground, wet leaves, copper and gold, spread out around us. He had one more thing he wanted to say. He wanted to thank me.
“It'll be a gift,” he said, “to know the truth at last.”
I did not know what to say. “You may not like where this leads,” I told him.
Robin stopped and looked at me hard.
“I don't care where it goes,” he said. “I'm a historian. Remember that. If it's out there, find it.”