In Stalin’s Secret Service

Title:                      In Stalin’s Secret Service

Author:                 Walter G. Krivitsky

Krivitsky, Walter G. (1939, 1979). In Stalin’s Secret Service: An Exposé Of Russia’s Secret Policies By The Former Chief Of The Soviet Intelligence In Western Europe. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press

LCCN:    2001265969

UB271.R92 K755 2000


Date Updated:  September 27, 2016

Krivitsky first published this book in 1939. About it, Robert Gale Woolbert[1] made the following review.

This is not an easy book to appraise. The author claims to have been a high official in the Soviet secret service who—only at the end of 1937—decided to break with Stalin for personal reasons. His words are those of a renegade and his mentality that of a master spy. Under these circumstances it is probably surprising that his account is as credible as it appears to be. On the whole, Krivitsky (whose original name was Samuel Ginsburg and on whose rank of “general” doubt has been cast) seems much more reliable in reporting events which he observed at close hand than in discussing those he merely heard about at second hand, such as Soviet intervention in Spain.

The book was republished in 1967 and as recently as 2000. Obviously the material is dated, but nevertheless fascinating.

Walter Germanovich Krivitsky (1899–1941) was a Soviet intelligence officer who revealed plans of signing Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact before defecting weeks before the outbreak of World War II.

Born to Jewish parents as Samuel Ginsberg in Podwołoczyska (Pidvolochysk, then Galicia, Austria-Hungary), he adopted the name “Krivitsky” (a name based on the Slavic root for “crooked, twisted”) as a revolutionary nom de guerre when he entered the Bolshevik intelligence around 1917.

He operated as an “illegal” (agent with false name and papers) in Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy and Hungary, and rose to the rank of control officer. He is credited with stealing plans for submarines and planes, intercepting Nazi-Japanese correspondence, and recruiting many agents, including Madame Lupescu and Noel Field.

In May 1937, Krivitsky was sent to The Hague to operate as the rezident, or regional control officer, operating under cover of an antiquarian. It appears that he coordinated intelligence operations throughout Western Europe.

At that time the General Staff of the Red Army was undergoing a purge in Moscow, which Krivitsky and close friend, Ignace Reiss, both abroad, found deeply disturbing. Reiss wanted to defect, but Krivitsky repeatedly held back.

Finally Reiss did defect, which he announced in a defiant letter to Moscow. Reiss’ assassination in Switzerland in September 1937 prompted Krivitsky to defect the following month.

In Paris, Krivitsky began to write articles and made contact with Lev Sedov (Trotsky’s son) and the Trotskyists. There he also met undercover Soviet spy Mark Zborowski, known as “Etienne,” whom Sedov sent to protect him. Sedov died mysteriously in February 1938, but Krivitsky eluded attempts to kill or kidnap him while in France, including flight to Hyères.

At the end of 1938, anticipating the Nazi conquest of Europe, Krivitsky sailed from France to the United States. With the help of journalist Isaac Don Levine and literary agent Paul Wohl, he produced In Stalin’s Secret Service. his inside account of Stalin’s underhanded methods (also published as I Was Stalin’s Agent), in 1939 after appearing first as a series in the Saturday Evening Post. (Note: the title appeared as a phrase in an article written by Reiss’ wife on the first anniversary of her husband’s assassination: “Reiss… had been in Stalin’s secret service for many years and knew what fate to expect.”) The book received a tepid review by the very influential New York Times.[2]

Violently attacked by the Left in America, Krivitsky was vindicated when a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact (which he predicted) was signed in August 1939.

Caught between dedication to socialist ideals and detest of Stalin’s methods, Krivitsky believed that it was his duty to inform. This decision caused him much mental anguish, as he impressed on American defector Whittaker Chambers. Krivitsky told Chambers, “In our time, informing is a duty” (recounted by Chambers in his autobiography, Witness[3].

Krivitsky testified before the Dies Committee (later to become the House Un-American Activities Committee) in October 1939, and sailed as “Walter Thomas” to London in January 1940 to reveal secrets to British Military Intelligence, MI5. It is a matter of controversy whether he gave MI5 clues to the identity of Soviet agents Donald Maclean and Kim Philby. There is no doubt, however, that the NKVD learned of his testimony and initiated operations to silence him.

He soon returned to North America, landing in Canada. Always in trouble with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Krivitsky was not able to return to the United States until November 1940.

The August 1940 assassination of Trotsky in Mexico convinced him that he was now at the top of the NKVD hit list. His last two months in New York were filled with plans to settle in Virginia and to write, but also with doubts and dread. On February 10, 1941, at 9:30 a.m. he was found dead in the Bellevue Hotel (now The George) in Washington, DC, by a chambermaid, with three suicide notes by the bed. His body was lying in a pool of blood, caused by a single bullet wound to the right temple from a .38-caliber revolver found grasped in Krivitsky’s right hand.

According to many sources, (including Krivitsky himself) he was murdered by Soviet intelligence, but the official investigation, unaware of the NKVD manhunt, concluded that Krivitsky committed suicide.

Chambers recounted his memoirs:

One night one of my close friends burst into my office at Time. He was holding a yellow tear-off that had just come over the teletype.

“They have murdered the General,” he said . “Krivitsky has been killed.”

Krivitsky’s body had been found in a room in a small Washington hotel a few blocks from the Capitol . He had a room permanently reserved at a large downtown hotel where he had always stayed when he was in Washington. He had never stayed at the small hotel before. Why had he gone there?

He had been shot through the head and there was evidence that he had shot himself. At whose command? 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. Who had forced my friend to write the letter? I remembered the saying: “Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit a good natural death.”…

Krivitsky also told me something else that night. A few days before, he had taken off the revolver that he usually carried and placed it in a bureau drawer. His seven-year-old son watched him.

“Why do you put away the revolver?” he asked. “In America,” said Krivitsky, “nobody carries a revolver.” “Papa,” said the child, “carry the revolver.”[See Witness, n. 2.]

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[4]

The subtitle is “An Expose of Russia’s Secret Policies by the Former Chief of the Soviet Intelligence in Western Europe.” New facts, alternative views, and the perspective of time have shown that this memoir by a famous Soviet military intelligence defector is of mixed quality. Some of what Krivitsky wrote has been confirmed, some questioned, some challenged. In retrospect, his chapter on the Soviet trials of the 1930s and his version of the role of both the Germans and Stalin in the Tukhachevsky affair stand up well. As for his account of his own intelligence activity, it is relatively brief. He mentions only two major Soviet military operations in which he was involved, and his version of one has been contested by one of his detractors. We know now that what he reveals here of Comintern and intelligence-organization espionage and covert action in the United States and the West is not all he knew. Flora Lewis states that in his stream of revealed secrets there are many half-truths and many omissions. Elisabeth Poretsky, the widow of Ignace Reiss, Krivitsky’s old friend and colleague in Soviet intelligence, is the most specific and passionate attacker of Krivitsky and of his revelations. In her story of her husband and his friends, Our Own People[5], she levels many charges and criticisms against him and his book. According to her, he had only the rank of captain; Soviet intelligence never had a centralized control post for Europe, as he claimed; he took credit for operations with which he had nothing to do; and he claimed knowledge of operations to which he was not privy. It is true that Krivitsky was not a general and was not chief of intelligence for Western Europe. He does not even give his true service (the NKVD) at the time of defection. He never gives the full story of what he knew, and he makes errors of fact. For this, blame must be put on some of the private Americans who advised him on what he should say; Krivitsky realized too late that he had followed bad guidance. Researchers should keep in mind that the main thrust of the book is correct even though details may not be. Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors[6] contains material on Krivitsky’s purported revelations of Soviet espionage that is not mentioned in this book.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[7]

Krivitsky served in various departments of Soviet military intelligence, commencing in 1920. He had risen to the position of chief of Soviet military intelligence for Western Europe when, in 1937, he defected to the West. In his book, Krivitsky discusses various aspects of Stalin’s domestic and foreign policies, and describes that work of Soviet intelligence (including the Comintern) with which he was personally familiar. Krivitsky had made his way to the United States when, in 1941, his body was found in a locked hotel room in Washington, D.C. All obvious evidence pointed to a suicide, and the case was immediately closed by the police on that basis. Later information gives every indication that he was murdered at Soviet instigation.

See also:

U.S. CONGRESS. HOUSE. SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES. Hearings. Testimony of Walter G. Krivitsky.11 October 1939. pp. 5719-5742.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[8]

An important memoir by one of the highest-ranking Soviet defectors. The author was the chief of the Western European division of the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) agency’s foreign directorate. A fairly reliable historical source on intelligence operations prior to the Soviet purges of the late thirties. The author was apparently assassinated later in Washington, D .C. Should be read in conjunction with a later memoir by Elisabeth Poretsky, Our Own People[9] (see below in Blackstock).

[1] Robert Gale Woolbert, Foreign Affairs (April 1940).

[2] See The New York Times and Joseph Stalin at

[3] See Chambers, Whittaker (1952, 1997). Witness. New York: Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., pp. 27, 36, 47, 59, 317–318, 381, 402, 436fn, 457, 459–463; informing 463; murder 207, 337, 485–486; fate of family 486–487.

[4] George C. Constantinides in Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press (1983), pp.

[5] Poretsky, Elisabeth K. (1969, 1970). Our Own People: A Memoir of “Ignace Reiss” and His Friends. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press

[6] Martin, David C. (1980) Wilderness of Mirrors. New York: Harper & Row

[7] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 39

[8] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 152

[9] Poretsky, Elizabeth K. (1969, 1970). Our Own People: A Memoir of “Ignace Reiss” and His Friends. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press


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4 Responses to In Stalin’s Secret Service

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