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Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov (Leiba Lazarevich Felbing) (21 August 1895–25 March 1973) was a Soviet espionage administrator. He defected to the U.S. in 1938. He warned Leon Trotsky of his impending assassination. His expertise made him an obvious candidate for the OGPU, the political police that preceded the NKVD.
He was born in the Byelorussian town of Bobruysk on 21 August 1895 in a Jewish family. He further entered the Lazarevsky Institute in Moscow, but left it after two semesters to enroll in the Faculty of Law of Moscow University. His study, however, was cut short when he was drafted into the Tsarist army.
When the Civil War erupted in 1918, Orlov joined the Red Army and became a junior counterintelligence officer on the Polish front in the vicinity of Kiev. He personally led and directed sabotage missions into enemy territory. He later served with the OGPU Border Guards in Archangel. In 1921 he retired from the Red Army and returned to Moscow to resumed his study of law at the Law School at Moscow University. Orlov worked for several years at the Bolshevik High Tribunal under the tutelage of Nikolai Krylenko. In May 1924 his cousin, Zinoviy Katznelson, who was chief of the OGPU Economic Department (EKU), invited Lev Nikolsky (his official name since 1920) to join the secret police as an officer of the financial section 6.
Career in Russian spy agencies
When his cousin was moved to supervise the Transcaucasian Border Troops of the OGPU, he offered to Nikolsky and his wife to move to Tiflis as chief of the Border Guard unit there, which he accepted. There their daughter contracted the rheumatic fever infection and he asked his friend and former colleague Artur Artuzov to give him an assignment abroad as he had to bring his daughter to doctors in Europe. Therefore, in 1926 Nikolsky was transferred to the INO, the branch of the NKVD responsible for overseas operations, now headed by Artuzov, and sent to Paris under a legal cover of the Soviet Trade Delegation official.
After one year in France Nikolsky, who operated on a fraudulent Soviet passport in the name of Léon Nikolaeff, was transferred to the similar position to Berlin. He returned to Moscow in late 1930. Two years later he was sent to the USA to establish relations with his relatives there and obtain a genuine American passport that allowed free travel in Europe. "Leon L. Nikolaev" (Nikolsky-Orlov) arrived in the USA aboard the SS Europe on 22 September 1932 sailing from Bremen. After getting a passport in the name of William Goldin, he departed on 30 November 1932 on the SS Bremen back to Germany. In Moscow Nikolsky again asked for a foreign assignment as he wanted to show his sick daughter to Dr. Karl Noorden in Vienna. This was granted and together with his wife and daughter he arrived in Vienna in May 1933 (as Nikolaev) and settled in Hinterbrühl a few kilometres away from the capital. After three months he went to Prague, changed his Soviet passport to the American and left for Geneva. Nikolsky's group, which operated against the French 2° Bureau, included Alexander Korotkov, a young illegal, Korotkov's wife Maria, and a courier Arnold Finkelberg. Their operation, codenamed EXPRESS, was unsuccessful and in May 1934 Nikolsky joined his family in Vienna. From here he was ordered to go to Copenhagen to serve as assistant to rezidents Theodor Maly (Paris) and Ignace Reif (Copenhagen). In June 1935 Nikolsky (William Goldin) himself became a rezident in London. He had nothing to do with the recruitment of Philby or any other member of the Magnificent Five, and deserted his post in October 1935 coming back to Moscow. Here he was dismissed from the Foreign Service and put into a lowly position of deputy chief of the Transport Department (TO) of the NKVD, successor of the OGPU.
Work during the Spanish Civil War
Orlov was appointed NKVD adviser to the Spanish Republican government on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 arriving in Madrin on 15 September 1936. In this position he supervised guerrilla activity behind nationalist lines, organized by his senior NKVD colleague Sergey Syroezhkin, and acted as a liaison of the Stalin political police to the Republican Ministry of Interior. Documents recently released from the Soviet archives reveal that Orlov was responsible for the fabricating of evidence which led to the arrest and Stalinist purge of the leaders of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The evidence also suggests he was involved in the kidnaping and execution of Andres Nin, and the death of other Trotsky supporters and opponents of the Moscow-backed Spanish Republican government. Orlov persistently denied involvement in "wet affairs" in Spain.
In November 1936 Orlov was placed in command of the operation which moved the Spanish treasury from Madrid to Moscow. The Republican government had agreed to use this horde of bullion as an advance payment for Soviet military supplies. Orlov did a commendable job of managing the logistics of this enormous treasure heist. It took four nights for truck convoys, driven by Soviet tankmen, to bring the 510 tons of gold from its hiding place in the mountains to the port of Cartagena. There, under threat of German bombing raids, it was loaded on four different Russian steamers bound for Odessa. None of the gold returned to Spain.
However, Orlov's main task in Spain remained fighting the Trotskyites and other enemies of Stalin. He also took part in several clandestine assassinations in France normally acting as cover for the Moscow-sent operatives. This includes the kidnapping of General Miller, head of the anti-Bolshevik ROVS. Orlov personally assisted Gen. Skoblin, an NKVD agent at the side of gen. Miller, to escape to Spain where he was killed by the NKVD (Orlov and Spiegelglass). As the chief NKVD rezident in Spain from mid-1937, Orlov was personally responsible for the deaths of many anti-Stalinist literniks in Spain among whom were Marc Rhein, Kurt Landau and others.
In 1938, the Great Purge was in full swing back in the Soviet Union as Stalin sought to clear away the last vestiges of the old guard who had survived the 1917 revolution. Orlov watched from afar as close associates and friends were rounded up and shot one by one. He decided that his turn came when he was invited to meet an unnamed NKVD chief of the on board a Soviet vessel in Antwerp. Instead of going to this meeting, Orlov stole $60,000 in operational funds from the NKVD safe and fled with his wife and daughter to Canada. It is possible that he took direct part, again acting as a diplomatic cover, in the assassination of Rudolf Klement in Paris on 13 July 1938 - the day he left Paris for Quebec.
While in Canada, Orlov composed a blackmail letter which he sent to the NKVD chief Yezhov. He told his boss he would reveal everything he knew about Soviet intelligence operations if agents are sent to kill him or a member of his family. On the back of the letter, Orlov listed the codenames of several illegals and moles operating in the West. He also sent a letter to Trotsky alerting him to the presence of an NKVD agent in the entourage of his son Lev Sedov. Trotsky dismissed this letter as a provocation. Then Orlov traveled with his family to the United States and went underground. The NKVD, presumably on orders from Stalin, did not try to locate him until 1969.
The Secret History
Shortly after the death of Stalin in March 1953, and exactly fifteen years after his own defection, Orlov resurfaced and published The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes. This work, like its similarly titled precursor by Procopius, presents a number of previously unpublished anecdotes about the murderous underside of life in Lubyanka during the terror. It is an unofficial history, written without reference to primary sources or documents, sometimes based upon gossip heard at the NKVD water-cooler or at a French cafe, and frequently quoting dialogue. At the time of its publication most of the tales were unverifiable because nearly all the witnesses had been liquidated. The problem, of course, is that the era it depicts is one of such thuggish criminality and duplicity, of such unparalleled despotism, that even the most precarious whispers can be true while nearly all the sworn statements are abjectly false.
Because of the lack of first-hand evidence or reliable sources, the book has gained the authority of a primary source as its stories have been picked up and repeated in subsequent monographs. Many historians believe there is the ring of truth to the tales, though they are told second-hand and Orlov himself was deliberately dishonest about his own complicity in Stalin's crimes. Still Orlov had an eye for idiosyncratic detail and an ear for character dialogue which lends the anecdotes a certain poignancy.
Man without a country
After the publication of The Secret History, Orlov was forced to come in from the cold. Both the CIA and FBI were embarrassed by the revelation that a high ranking NKVD officer (Orlov was a Major of State Security, equal to an army colonel) had been living underground in the United States for fifteen years without their knowledge. Orlov was interrogated by the FBI and twice appeared before Senate Sub-Committees, but he always diminished his role in events and continued to conceal the names of Soviet agents in the West. In 1956 he wrote an article for LIFE magazine entitled, The Sensational Secret Behind the Damnation of Stalin. This fantastic story held that NKVD agents had discovered papers in the Tsarist archives which proved Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent, and, on the basis of this knowledge, the NKVD had conspired with the leaders of the Red Army to overthrow Stalin. The plot had been betrayed and this was Stalin's true motive behind the secret trial and execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the purge of the Red Army.
Orlov and his wife continued to live secretly and modestly in the United States. His paranoid fear of assassination kept him from ever owning or driving an autombile. In 1963 the CIA helped him publish another book, The Handbook of Counter-Intelligence and Guerilla Warfare, and helped him obtain a job as a researcher at the Law School of the University of Michigan. He moved to Cleveland where first his wife died and then he followed her on 25 March 1973. In the end, this lonely man never waivered in either his contempt for Stalin or his adherence to Leninist-Marxist doctrine. Orlov's last book, The March of Time, was published in the USA in 2004 by his loyal follower, former FBI Special Agent, Ed Gazur. It is a similar collection of anecdotes and fantasies as the previous two books by Orlov.
- "The Retiring Spy" Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 2001.
- "Alexander Orlov" on Spartacus International. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/SPorlov.htm
- Alexander Orlov, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes. Random House, 1953.
- John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions: The KGB Orlov Dossier. Crown, 1993.
- Alexander Orlov, The Handbook of Intelligence and Guerrilla Warfare, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1963.
- Edward Gazur, Secret Assignment: the FBI's KGB General, St Ermin's Press, 2002
- Alexander Orlov, The March of Time, St Ermin's Press, 2004
- Boris Volodarsky with Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Orlov: Exegi Monumentum (in preparation), 2006.