Title: Stalin’s Romeo Spy
Author: Emil Draitser
Draitser, Emil (2010). Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise And Fall of The KGB’s Most Daring Operative: The True Life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press
Date Posted: September 27, 2016
- Bystrolëtov, D. A. (Dmitriĭ Aleksandrovich), 1901-1975.
- Intelligence officers–Soviet Union–Biography.
- Political prisoners–Soviet Union–Biography.
- Intelligence service–Soviet Union–History.
Date Posted: August 25, 2016
Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).
Reviewed by Joshua Rubenstein
In 1935 Adolf Hitler renounced the limits on German militarization that had been imposed by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Hitler publicly introduced conscription to vastly increase the size of the German army; more secretly he launched a massive rearmament program. An alarmed Soviet Union, desperate to learn the plans of this potential enemy, dispatched an intelligence officer, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Berlin. Bystrolyotov had already proved himself a deft operative, one particularly skilled at seducing women who had access to valuable information. But as Emil Draitser shows in Stalin’s Romeo Spy, Bystrolyotov’s latest assignment tested even his vaunted skills.
The agent’s target was a female SS officer whose face had been disfigured by fire in a childhood car accident. Dorothea Müller was “embittered and unpleasant to deal with,” Mr. Draitser says, and she was a fanatical Nazi Party member who had been entrusted with the safekeeping of military-industrial secrets. Flattering her appearance was out of the question, so Bystrolyotov embarked on a campaign to flatter Müller’s devotion to the Führer. Posing as a dashing, dissolute Hungarian count, he engineered a series of encounters with Müller, astonished her with his ignorance of the Nazis’ glorious policies and became her eager student.
A romance began, and when at last Müller “was completely under his power as a lover,” Mr. Draitser says, the count proposed marriage. But a complication stood in the way: An aunt who had (supposedly) subsidized his life in Berlin was cutting him off. Marriage was out of the question, he said, until his finances were secure. Then a solution surfaced: A friend of the count’s said that there was a lot of money to be made on the stock market if Müller would provide them with inside information about military industrial orders. She agreed; the hook was set.
Bystrolyotov’s seduction of the disfigured SS officer is just one in a bounty of improbable tales recounted in Stalin’s Romeo Spy. Mr. Draitser has consulted Russian, British, French, Czech and American archives in his research, and he has seen Bystrolyotov’s partially declassified KGB file. But the author has also relied on the spy’s own unpublished memoirs, which seem to have been responsible for some of the more credibility-straining elements of the story. There is no doubt, though, that Bystrolyotov was a remarkable spy even by the standards of an era when much of the world was crawling with intelligence agents.
Handsome, fluent in several languages, fortified with false passports, Bystrolyotov moved effortlessly through tense capitals, stealing secrets and sending them back to Moscow. Somehow romance seemed to play a role in his missions even when his target wasn’t a woman with information he needed. When he once “handled” a British Foreign Office clerk—who knew secret codes but who was also constantly drunk and in a crumbling marriage—Bystrolyotov kept “Charlie” on track by bedding the man’s unhappy wife, cheering her up. Another time, Bystrolyotov arranged for his estranged wife, who had worked alongside him, to begin an affair with a French intelligence officer in Locarno, Switzerland, and then even to marry him, ensuring that Bystrolyotov would have regular access to the house—and to the safe where the Frenchman kept sensitive cables.
Of course, being a productive contributor to the Soviet cause offered no protection from Stalin’s purges—as Bystrolyotov learned first-hand in 1938, when he was arrested in Moscow. After severe beatings he confessed, falsely, to committing treason against the Soviet state and was sentenced to 20 years in the gulag. He was later offered the possibility of early release, but he insisted on having his case reopened so that he could prove his innocence. For that audacity he was repaid with the most brutal treatment of his time in prison. He was finally freed in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. “Now he was an old man,” Mr. Draitser writes, “totally unemployable and incurably ill.”
Mr. Draitser, who worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union before being blacklisted and moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, met Bystrolyotov in 1973—the year before his death. The old spy regaled him with anecdotes from his life and recalled his fruitless efforts to publish his memoirs. The editor of a literary quarterly scolded him for lines such as “I drew my pistol,” telling Bystrolyotov: “You can’t write that. A Soviet intelligence officer acts only in a humane way.” In the U.S., Mr. Draitser taught Russian and continued to write, but he never forgot, as he puts it, “the most remarkable man I had ever met.”
In the glasnost era and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bystrolyotov—who had been expunged from Soviet history—became known again, at least in Russia. Mr. Draitser resolved in 2002 to write his biography. As the work progressed, Mr. Draitser says, he became convinced that telling the spy’s story was “an urgent order of the day. While I was doing my research, an ex-KGB officer”—Vladimir Putin—”became the country’s president,” and Russia began “sliding back to its Stalinist past.” One feature of the regression: “the revision of history and attempts to whitewash the KGB’s bloody role in it.” Dmitri Bystrolyotov, to Mr. Draitser’s amazement, has in recent years been resurrected as a Stalinist wartime hero—with no reference to his imprisonment or to his disillusion with the Soviet dream.
It is impossible to read “Stalin’s Romeo Spy” without reflecting on the cruel and capricious nature of totalitarian regimes and without noting that, however good a spy may be, espionage is only as effective as the ability of political leaders to sort through the information they are handed. Bystrolyotov did his part to keep his country abreast of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the European powers. But in June 1941, when equally adept Soviet spies alerted the Kremlin to the likelihood of a German invasion, Stalin ignored their warnings. The rest was a miserable history.
 On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance—at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]
 Rubenstein, Joshua. “The Rake’s Progress: A virtuoso ladies’ man and stealer of secrets. The skills were related.” The Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2010). Downloaded September 27, 2016. Mr. Rubenstein is the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and the author of Rubenstein, Joshua (1999). Tangled Loyalties: The Life And Times of Ilya Ehrenburg. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. [LCCN: 98040775]