Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951

Chapter VI: When is Suicide Murder?

Thelma Jackson, maid in the Hotel Bellevue, Washington, DC, the United States of America, was going from room to room on the fifth floor, making beds and generally tidying up. It was the morning of 10 February 1941. Around nine-thirty she came to a room that was locked, and receiving no answer to her knock on the door, she opened it. She took a few paces into the room and then stopped suddenly, for it was not after all unoccupied. On the bed was sprawled the figure of a man – but the apology she was about to utter froze on her lips at the sight of the blood. She turned and fled from the room.

The man was dead. A .38-calibre bullet had been fired at contact range into his right temple. The weapon lay near his right hand and the blood that had poured from the wound had obliterated any finger-prints. The window was without a sill, fastened from within, and there was no fire-escape outside it. The door also had been locked from the inside. Three notes written in the dead man’s handwriting and found on the table by the bed suggested that the writer had taken his own life.

All these facts plainly pointed to suicide. There was no apparent reason to suspect foul play. But...

But the dead man, registered at the hotel in the name of Walter Prokef, was in reality none other than the famous General Krivitsky, former Soviet Military Intelligence agent whose break with Stalin in October 1937 and subsequent revelations had caused a world-wide sensation. And since he had made that decision to challenge the Kremlin he had repeatedly stated that the GPU was out to silence him. He had warned his friends: ‘If ever they try to prove that I took my own life, don’t believe it.’ In view of these circumstances his violent end was bound to provoke much speculation, and raise a demand for the fullest possible investigation of all the facts surrounding the case.

Walter Krivitsky was a youngster of eighteen when he joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. He gave long and faithful service to the ideals of Socialism, which he believed the Russian Revolution was realising. In his own words:

During all the years that I served the Soviet Government I never expected anything more than the right to continue my work. I never received anything more. Long after the Soviet power had been stabilised, I was sent abroad on assignments that exposed me to the danger of death, and that twice landed me in prison. I myself, when travelling abroad, would live in moderate comfort, but did not earn enough, even as late as 1935, to keep my apartment in Moscow properly heated or to pay the price of milk for my two-year-old son. I was not in a strategic position, and I had no desire, I was too much absorbed in my work, to become one of the new privileged bureaucrats with a material stake in defending the Soviet order. I defended it because I believed it was leading the way to a new and better society. (I Was Stalin’s Agent, The Right Book Club, 1940, pp 8-9)

He was in France when the murder of his friend Ignace Reiss was made known. Suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to return to Moscow, he had no doubt of the fate that awaited him there. He was faced with the choice between the inevitable bullet in the neck in the cellars of the Lubianka or refusing to return and taking a chance of escaping the assassins who would be sent to execute him. [1]

He took the chance. Believing attack to be the best means of self-defence, he made public his break with the Soviet regime, threw himself on the protection of the French authorities and finally succeeded in reaching the United States with his wife and young son. By thus openly declaring his views he hoped to avoid the fate of Reiss, whose mistake, he felt, had been to try and conceal himself and not to rely upon the protection that might have been given him by a capitalist state. In return for the protection afforded him, Krivitsky, in a series of articles in the French and American press, revealed some of the secret machinations of the GPU. These revelations, however, made him an active and dangerous enemy of the Soviet Government. When his articles first appeared in print he was assailed by Communist Party spokesmen and fellow-travellers as a lying impostor who was no general of the Red Army at all, but one Samuel Smelka or Ginsberg, an Austrian living in Paris who had never in his whole life enjoyed the slightest acquaintance with the high-ranking Soviet personages of whom he wrote – or rather, of whom Isaac Don Levine ‘ghosted’ for him. (In passing, let us note that the same accusation was made in similar circumstances with regard to Kravchenko; even the same journalist being named as the author of I Chose Freedom.) In support of this contention, the American Daily Worker (13 December 1939) approvingly quoted the ‘anti-Soviet White Russian’ author Michael T Florinsky, who expressed the view that Krivitsky’s book I Was Stalin’s Agent had been touched up in order to bring it into conformity with later political developments; that is, it differed materially from the articles which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere. Every effort was made to pooh-pooh Krivitsky’s revelations as pure journalistic fantasies.

But when his death was announced the attitude of the Stalinists underwent a significant change; it then became a matter of a traitor who had been given his just deserts.

It was therefore inevitable that in spite of the apparently overwhelming evidence in support of the verdict that he had committed suicide, his lawyer, Louis Waldman, should immediately demand the strictest investigation.

However, Bernard Thompson, chief of the Washington detective bureau, could not do other than conclude, on the basis of the material facts, that it was a clear case of suicide. There were no finger-prints on the gun; if there had been any they had been washed off by the blood from the wound. As has been already noted, both window and door had been locked from within, and moreover there was no fire-escape by means of which an intruder might have gained entry to the room in which the body was found. It was true that someone might have been able to enter the room with a pass-key, but unless Krivitsky had been a very sound sleeper he would surely have awakened. Yet there were absolutely no signs of a struggle. Krivitsky lay on the bed with his coat and shoes off, the blood-soaked gun near his right hand, the room undisturbed. And how account then for the suicide notes, demonstrably written by Krivitsky?

The first of these letters, written in Russian, was addressed to the dead man’s wife and seven-year-old son. Any suicide note is a tragic document, but here the pathos is heightened by the historic setting: this little individual tragedy was played out upon a vast stage, sombre with the brutalities of our time that overshadowed it, and yet brought it into sharp relief as the epitome of this age – the little man caught in the wheels of the machine he himself had helped to construct.

This letter ran:

Dear Tanya and Alek

It is very difficult and I want to live very badly. But it is impossible. I love you, my only one. It is difficult to write, but think about me and you will understand that I have to go. Don’t tell Alek yet where his father is going. I believe that in time you will tell him, because it will be best for him. Forgive, it is very hard to write. Take care of him and be a good mother to him and be always quiet and never get angry with him. He is very good and always very pale. Good people will help you, but not enemies. I think my sins are big. I see you, Tanya and Alek. I embrace you.



PS: I wrote this yesterday on Dobertov’s farm, for I did not have strength in New York. I had no business in Washington. I went to see Dobertov, because that is the only place I could get the firearms.

Krivitsky’s widow refused to accept this letter as evidence of suicide. She knew him well enough to know, she declared, that he would never have written in that way of his own free will. His friends likewise were not prepared to accept it as conclusive. Had not he himself warned: ‘If ever they try to prove that I took my own life, don’t believe it.’ It would take much more than a letter to offset the effect on them of those oft-repeated words.

In this letter Krivitsky says that he ‘had no business in Washington’. This seems strange because he had ostensibly gone there in order to try and speed up the granting of American citizenship, his application for which had been made some time before. He had also told friends that he was trying to move out of New York, where he felt himself in the greatest danger from the GPU, and settle in Virginia. These would seem to be adequate reasons for his trip to Washington, but he writes that he went there only in order to obtain a gun. At the same time he mentions by name the man who apparently helped him to get the gun. There does not seem to be any logical need for this postscript. In fact, if Dobertov had indeed helped him to get a gun, there would seem to be every reason why he should not have involved him by mentioning his name in this connection.

The police established that Krivitsky had bought the gun himself and this finally clinched the matter for them. Charles Henshaw, hardware store assistant, identified the weapon found near the body as a pistol bought together with fifty soft-nosed bullets by a man giving the name of Walter Paref, of Barboursville, Virginia, and he identified the corpse as that of this Walter Paref. This evidence settled the matter so far as the official police investigation was concerned. Krivitsky had never before carried a weapon or made any attempt to secure one, in spite of his conviction that he was a marked man.

There were two other letters left by Krivitsky. To his lawyer he had written in English:

Dear Mr Walden

My wife and boy will need your help. Please do what you can for them – Walter Krivitsky.

PS: I went to Virginia because I knew I could get a gun there. If my friends should have any trouble please help them, they did not know why I bought a gun.

And to a close friend, Suzanne La Follette, he wrote:

I trust that you are well. I am dying with the hope that you will help Tanya and my poor boy. You were a friend – Yours, Walter. PS: I also think about your brother and Dorothy.

Yet in spite of everything his friends were still unconvinced. One of them, Boris Shub, expressed the following opinion of Krivitsky’s character: ‘I have worked with him and I know his temperament. He was too convinced of his own importance to consider suicide. Besides, he was a fatalist. He felt that the GPU would eventually get him. He was resigned to it.’ This summed up the views on his character of those who knew him well. He was in their opinion not the suicidal type; he was on the point of becoming a naturalised American citizen; and he had no financial worries of any kind, since his writings had brought him enough to live on in comparative comfort for some years. What possible reason could there be for a man who had risked his life for so many years in the secret service of Soviet Military Intelligence to take his life at such a time? It was simply not in keeping with the calibre of a man who had joined the Bolsheviks at the age of eighteen, risked torture and death a hundred times in those early days of bloody conflict, shown all his life a fatalistic indifference to his own fate and such ability and devotion to the cause that he had been awarded the high Order of the Red Flag.

His friends continued to be haunted by those words of his that now seemed invested with a prophetic significance: ‘If ever they try to prove that I took my own life, don’t believe it.’

These words were more than a warning and a prophecy. They, in addition, confirmed his fatalistic acceptance of an inevitable violent end and also pointed to the method by which his death would be accomplished. Himself formerly a leading member of an international organisation with its own laws above those of the countries in which it operated – not excluding Soviet Russia itself – he had no illusions about the lengths to which his former comrades were prepared to go. They would, of course, seek to conceal or disguise his death if possible. And what better concealment could there be than to make it look like suicide? He had already publicly charged that Koutiepov [Kutepov], Miller, Navachine [Navashin], Reiss, Klement, Sedov, Nin, Rein, Trotsky had been done to death by the GPU. All these men, in spite of their different political viewpoints, had had one thing in common – they had all been Stalin’s enemies: as he was also. What further trick would the GPU pull out of its bag in order to cover up their work when they settled with him? It would have to be made to look like suicide, otherwise his death would be all too obviously the handiwork of his former colleagues. Krivitsky knew from experience how resourceful the GPU was in such matters.

Louis Waldman, his lawyer, disclosed that in January 1941 Krivitsky had received warning of the appearance in New York of a man named ‘Hans’. The following letter had been written to Suzanne La Follette by Paul Wohl, who had for a time collaborated with Krivitsky in writing an exposure of Stalin’s secret agents abroad, and who had later fallen out with him. Wohl had written:

My dear Miss La Follette

Will you please inform your honourable friend K, that an ominous person is in New York: Hans. This letter is addressed to you since K hides from me... His devious practices hardly justify this warning. I hesitate to send it. It might be better to let the rats devour each other.

Yours truly

Paul Wohl

The bitter tone of this note shows that Wohl was hostile to Krivitsky. Yet in spite of this he felt it was his duty to warn him against a danger that appeared to him to be very real. In Wohl’s opinion the appearance of ‘Hans’ meant that the GPU net was tightening round Krivitsky.

After Krivitsky’s death Waldman demanded to know:

What is ‘Hans’, a foreign agent, doing in the United States? How did he get in? Who are his associates? Where and how does he function? Aren’t these matters for the FBI to investigate? Failure on its part to act in this case will leave the inference that anyone exposing foreign espionage in our country and giving the government information about GPU affairs does so at his own peril.

The purpose of this agent’s trip from Belgium to the United States may have had no direct connection with the Krivitsky case. But this man was well known to Krivitsky as a GPU agent, a former aide of his who had once expressed doubts as to the correctness of Stalin’s policy and then later had tried to persuade him to return to Moscow. In France, after Krivitsky had broken with the GPU, this man had been surprised shadowing him, and Krivitsky and his police escort had unsuccessfully given chase. That this man should now turn up in New York would naturally alarm Krivitsky. Whether his presence there did actually have any connection with the pursuit of Krivitsky remains unknown, but it is also interesting as an illustration of the ease with which GPU agents are able to move from one end of the world to the other.

In support of those who declined to accept the suicide theory, Trotsky’s widow, Natalie, telegraphed the following comment from Mexico: ‘Stalinists long used disguised suicides to conceal their killings.’

Bearing in mind all the circumstances of this case it is impossible to dismiss this statement as simply dictated by prejudice. One recalls the many opponents of Stalin in Russia who ‘committed suicide’. Even his own wife, Alleluieva, was officially reported to have put a bullet through her brain.

But the police investigation was concerned only with the material evidence, and on this basis there was but one verdict possible. Krivitsky had taken his own life. So far as the police were concerned the case was closed.

Yet was there really no other verdict possible? His voice still rings insistently in one’s ears: ‘Don’t believe it! Don’t believe it!’

If a man takes a gun and puts it to his temple and sends a bullet through his brain – isn’t that suicide?

Yes, it is suicide... and still – it may not be suicide.

What is the answer to this paradox?

It is not so difficult a problem after all. The simple solution was given by Krivitsky’s widow. She wrote:

I am convinced that my husband was forced to write the notes he left behind. Hans was a frequent visitor to our home. He knew a great many details of our life. I see his hand in the notes my husband was forced to write. His note to me, in particular, certainly does not sound like him. Walter had utter contempt for suicide and would never have killed himself willingly. They forced him to write those notes and then they forced him to kill himself. He made a deal with them to save me and our boy.

Is that quite beyond belief? In Soviet Russia, are not the sins of the father visited upon his family? They are. It is even laid down in legal form in Paragraph 3 of the Decree of 8 June 1934:

In the event of flight or escape abroad of a military person, the adult members of his family, if they have in any way assisted the preparations or the commitments of the act of treason, or even if they have known about it without bringing it to the knowledge of the authorities, will be punished with five to ten years’ imprisonment with the confiscation of their property. The other adult members of the traitor’s family, living with him or being his dependants at the time of treason, are deprived of their electoral rights and deported for five years to the remote regions of Siberia.

Difficult as it may be, let the reader try for one moment to put himself in Krivitsky’s position. Suppose he had been told by the GPU that unless he did as they wanted, his wife and child would be kidnapped, taken to the Soviet Union, and there... Would he have laughed at such a threat? Would he have really believed them incapable of carrying it out?

Krivitsky, you are a renegade and a traitor. No one does what you have done and gets away with it. If you go unpunished your example is a threat to the entire organisation. On top of that, you know too much. Right now people don’t take you too seriously; but the situation may change. We have a little proposition to make you – a compromise by which we shall both gain something. A compromise is when both sides give a little and both sides gain a little, isn’t it? Give us your life and we’ll give you the lives of your wife and child. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? More reasonable than you’ve a right to expect. We won’t want any unnecessary bother; we could, of course, take you any time we like; but we want to do things quietly, without any fuss if possible. But one way or another we’ll do it. It’s up to you. You help us – and we’ll help you. Otherwise – well, you know we don’t make idle threats.

It may well have gone something like that.

Remember that Krivitsky and his family were still legally Soviet citizens. If the reader still thinks all this is far fetched, let us recall the case of Madame Kasenkina. Oksana Stepanovna Kasenkina was a Russian school-teacher employed by the Soviet Embassy in New York. Ordered to return to Moscow, she took refuge with the Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, hoping to be able to stay in the United States and begin a new life. Her place of hiding was soon discovered, however, and she was forcibly removed by Soviet officials. The Soviet Consul-General, Yakov Lomakin, stated that Madame Kasenkina had returned to the Embassy of her own free will and wished to go back to the Soviet Union. Madame Kasenkina herself confirmed this in the presence of numerous newspaper reporters. A few days later (8 August 1948) she threw herself from the third-floor window of the Russian Consulate, escaping death by a miracle, and by this act of desperation gave the lie direct to the Russian Ambassador, who with a great show of indignation had repudiated the charge that Kasenkina was being held against her will, and who declared that such action by Soviet officials was unthinkable. And this case concerned no former Soviet Military Intelligence agent of high rank, but a simple school-teacher employed to teach the children of Soviet officials. Yet the Russian Ambassador came forward in person to cover up the kidnapping! What more striking illustration could there be of the lengths to which these men are compelled to go in order just to prevent the world from learning something of the life of the people under the Soviet regime.

If such strong measures could be taken against a relatively unimportant person like Kasenkina, how much stronger would be the measures taken against a Krivitsky! Krivitsky himself must have been fully conscious of this. The possibility that the bargain suggested was actually made between him and the GPU, not only cannot be ruled out of consideration, but is the only explanation of his strange death that squares with all the facts of his psychology, his personal position and the political considerations bearing on the case.

The Krivitsky affair did not long occupy the headlines. The impression left is that those who mould public opinion felt that, all said and done, this was not really their concern but an internal affair of the Soviet Government. Higher political considerations also served to obscure its importance. An indication of this fact is seen in the press reports during the same month in which he met his death, when it was stated that the administrative officials in the United States were growing alarmed in case the matter should lead to diplomatic complications at a time when relations with the Soviet Government were particularly delicate. It was also suggested that further unnecessary suspicion had been aroused by the fact that the police had taken no photographs of the room before moving the body and had permitted the maid to clean up without looking for fingerprints. However, when the Nazi offensive against Russia was launched in June of that year, the Krivitsky case had already been more or less forgotten.

Yet it ought not to be forgotten. It belongs to the history of our time.


1. Alexander Barmine [Barmin], one-time Chargé d’Affaires of the Soviet Legation in Athens, nineteen years in the service of the Soviet Government, author of One Who Survived (New York, 1945) addressed the following appeal to the Central Committee of the League for the Defence of the Rights of Man on 7 December 1937, shortly after he resigned his post and turned his back on Stalin: ‘I think of my friends who are at their posts in other countries of Europe, America and Asia: each day they are threatened with a similar fate and placed in a tragic dilemma – either to return to Russia to a certain death or, abandoning hope of again seeing their country, to risk the bullets of the foreign agents of the Secret Police, agents who have just recently been following my every step.’