Victor Kravchenko was born in Yekaterinoslav on 11th October 1905. His father, a railway worker, was a socialist who participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution. He was trained as an engineer and worked in the Donets Basin region. He joined the Communist Party in 1929.
Kravchenko was an expert in metallurgy and was placed in charge of a rolling mill at Nikopol. He was deeply shocked by the Great Famine that he witnessed in 1932-1933, that was caused by the economic policies of Joseph Stalin.
Kravchenko wrote about these experiences living in the Ukraine in his autobiography, I Choose Freedom (1947): "People dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. There was not even the consolation of inevitability to relieve the horror.... Everywhere were found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless."
In the 1930s Kravchenko became friendly with Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a member of the Politburo and Commissar for Heavy Industries. In 1936 Stalin began to question Ordzhonikidze's loyalty. Stalin was particularly upset when he discovered that Ordzhonikidze was using his influence to protect party members such as Georgy Pyatakov who were being investigated by the NKVD. Rumours began to circulate that Ordzhonikidze planned to denounce Stalin before the central Committee Plenum in February, 1937. It was therefore not surprising that Ordzhonikidze was found dead before he could make his speech. The death certificate, signed by Dr. Kaminsky, the Commissar for Health, claimed that had committed suicide. Kaminsky was himself arrested soon afterwards and executed. Kravchenko later recalled that because he was a friend of Ordzhonikidze, he was also interviewed by the Soviet secret police.
During the Second World War Kravchenko served as a Captain in the Red Army on the Eastern Front. In 1942 Joseph Stalin had ordered all former engineers and other vital industrial experts to return to concentrate on increasing military production of armaments. After being vetted by the NKVD he was posted to the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington that was involved in implementing the Lend Lease agreement in the summer of 1943. As John V. Fleming has pointed out: "The volumes of Lend-Lease shipments were so large that the Russians required for their administration what was essentially a corporate headquarters on Sixteenth Street in Washington. A large staff of military and industrial experts, technicians, accountants, purchasing agents, transportation consultants, engineers, translators, chauffeurs, police agents, and secretaries worked there." His job was of supervising and expediting the shipment of industrial products.
While in the United States he came into contact with David Dallin, a former leader of the Mensheviks who had emigrated to the country in 1940. Kravchenko later wrote: "We Russians are gregarious folk, warm and talkative and quick to kindle in friendship. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. I am no exception in this respect." Dallin also introduced Kravchenko to Isaac Don Levine, Max Eastman, Eugene Lyons and Lilia Estrin. Kravchenko also had meetings with the FBI where he had conversations about the possibility of defecting from the Soviet Union.
Kravchenko told the FBI that the Washington office of Soviet Purchasing Commission was under the control of a covert NKVD team. The author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) has pointed out: "All the executives of the commission were Communist Party members, though most, including Kravchenko, were under instructions to conceal that fact. The most important business was conducted in closed meetings attended only by Party members. In the typical pattern of domestic Soviet industries, there were secret police spies everywhere." Kravchenko also informed the FBI about illegalities and profiteering on the part of the American contractors supplying the Soviets. J. Edgar Hoover did not seem very interested in this and instead ordered that Kravchenko was investigated.
On 1st April, 1944, he sought political asylum in the United States. A few days later the New York Times reported that Kravchenko was "accusing the Soviet Government of a double-faced foreign policy with respect to its professed desire for collaboration with the United States and Great Britain and denouncing the Stalin regime for failure to grant political and civil liberties to the Russian people" The newspaper went on to add: "Mr. Kravchenko declined for patriotic reasons to discuss matters bearing on the military conduct of the war by Soviet Russia or to reveal any details bearing upon economic questions, particularly as they affect the functioning of lend-lease as handled by the Soviet Purchasing Commission and in Russia."
Kravchenko issued a statement of well over 1,000 words. He pointed out that his experience in the United States had "served to crystalize in my mind views and sentiments I had long felt in Russia". The Russian people he insisted yearned for the "four freedoms" promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt since he gained power. Kravchenko argued that during the Second World War the "Russian people have earned a new deal."
Ambassador Joseph E. Davies appealed to Roosevelt directly on behalf of Joseph Stalin to have Kravchenko returned to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt rejected this idea and he was allowed to live under a pseudonym. However, it has been pointed out: "A Soviet defector at that time was not a triumph but a potential embarrassment. The vital thing for the U.S. policy was to keep the Red Army on its remorseless offensive against the Germans." Harry L. Hopkins suggested that it "just plain sense to return a deserter to an ally who was helping to fight Hitler." As Ted Morgan, the author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America (2004): "He (Hopkins) took it up with FDR in whom the desire to help the Russians was tempered by a sense of the brutality of the regime. It was an election year, with the President running for an unprecedented fourth term. Turning a much publicized defector over to his jailers would generate unfavorable publicity. FDR told Hopkins that politically, it would be easier to send him back if the Russians promised not to shoot him. Hopkins replied that once in Russian hands no one would know if he was shot or not. FDR was unmoved by this argument, and Kravchenko escaped extradition."
Kravchenko met Cynthia Kuser at a publisher's party in November 1946. According to John V. Fleming, the author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) has pointed out: "Cynthia Kuser was beautiful and she was brilliant. She had every advantage of education and foreign travel, and she was a remarkable linguist. She had independent political views - indeed, independent views of every kind. Furthermore, both her parents had been dead since the early 1930s. She shared with her dreadful brother a vast fortune. She was the kind of sex goddess men dream of, but who show up mainly in James Bond novels." Although they never married, Cynthia and Victor entered into a long-term, secretive relationship, which produced two sons, Anthony and Andrew.
Max Eastman arranged for Kravchenko to receive a $15,000 advance from Cosmopolitan magazine for a series of articles. With the help of anti-communist journalist, Eugene Lyons, who was now his literary agent, Kravchenko also began work on a book about his experiences. A publishing deal was agreed with Charles Scribner's Sons and Lyons agreed to accept 40% of the royalties. Kravchenko later wrote: "I worked on it month after month under harrowing conditions of persecution and threats against my life. I was obliged to wander from city to city, continually changing hotels and private residences, living under assumed names and assumed nationalities, finding safe hide-outs in the homes of Americans or my own country-men."
Kravchenko's autobiography, I Choose Freedom, was published in 1946. Kravchenko insisted that he had the final say about what went into the book. Charles Scribner III later recalled: "Mr. Kravchenko's editing of the galley proofs and the ensuing alterations were far in excess of what we usually permit and we received from him a sum of money in payment for this." Joseph Stalin was furious about the book's publication and the Soviet government retaliated by claiming that Kravchenko had been recalled to military service and that he had asked for political asylum in the "cowardly fear of which had inspired his libels and his treasons".
Victor Kravchenko was also attacked by pro-communist magazines. Raymond Arthur Davies argued in Soviet Russia Today, a journal published by the American Communist Party that Kravchenko "chose freedom... to advocate war against his country". He also made reference to the help provided by Eugene Lyons and Isaac Don Levine in writing the book: "Isaac Don Lyons Kravchenko has done his usual kind of job." Walter Kerr, who had worked for the New York Herald Tribune in the Soviet Union, described Kravchenko claims about people dropping dead of starvation in the streets of Moscow as preposterous. A number of American academics signed a public statement attacking "the fantastic lie that the USSR and the totalitarian states are basically alike."
In 1947 I Choose Freedom was published in France and sold nearly 500,000 copies. At the time the French Communist Party was a part of a coalition government and its leader, Maurice Thorez, was deputy prime minister. On 13th November, 1947, the communist weekly, Les Lettres Françaises, launched a savage attack on Kravchenko. It included the claim that the book had been written by American intelligence officers and that the FBI had forced Kravchenko to take part in this work of propaganda. Kravchenko was also "a drunk, a coward, a braggart, a lecher, an embezzler, and a liar."
Kravchenko responded by suing the publishers, Claude Morgan and André Wurmser, and the author of the article, Sim Thomas, for libel in a French court and proceedings began on 24th January, 1949. One of the witnesses was Kravchenko's former wife, Zanaida Gorlova. She testified that Kravchenko was "a drunkard, a pathological liar, and a wife beater" and "no act of dishonor or cowardice lay outside his normal routine". Many years later, Kravchenko's Russian son, Constantine, confirmed that his mother's testimony had been written by the NKVD and was untrue.
During the trial Morgan argued that only the "foulest villain" could work in the service of the despotism described in the book: "There are no two ways about it. Either Kravchenko is a liar or he is contemptible." Kravchenko responded that while he was fighting on the Eastern Front the leaders of the French Communist Party like Maurice Thorez were living safely in Moscow.
In his book Kravchenko had written about the harshness of Stalin's prison camps. Sim Thomas had argued this information had been fabricated. Kravchenko lawyers were able to find several people who had been in these camps. This had included those who had been recruited into the Red Army but had escaped to the West at the end of the Second World War. Their detailed testimony had a major impact on the jury.
It has been argued that Kravchenko's most important witness was Margarete Buber-Neumann. In the 1930s she was married to Heinz Neumann. Both were members of the German Communist Party, and after Adolf Hitler took power they fled to the Soviet Union. However, they were both critical of Joseph Stalin and they were eventually arrested and sent to the Gulag. Neumann was executed on 27th November, 1937, whereas Margarete was handed over to the Nazi government in 1940. She was imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp but was released at the end of the war.
During the trial Buber-Neumann gave evidence that supported Kravchenko description of the prison camps in I Choose Freedom. "The inmates of these punitive camps had to work from dawn till sunset. They worked in the fields and received the worst possible food. The system in Soviet concentration camps is to exert pressure on the prisoners by making their food dependent on the amount of work effected. That is why inmates of the punitive camps get the worst food of any." Buber-Neumann also testified that women prisoners were forced into prostitution and that they were treated very harshly by the guards. Buber-Neumann also said that Stalin's labour camps were worse than Hitler's concentration camps.
Kravchenko won his case and was awarded 50,000 francs in damages. A higher French court upheld the verdict but reduced the fine to 3 francs, on the grounds that trial publicity had helped Kravchenko sell books. However, John V. Fleming has pointed out: "The truth is that Kravchenko had struck a devastating blow against the pretensions of Western Communist propagandists. He had done so on his own initiative, expending many of his own resources, and calling upon his own indomitable courage. His was a major Cold War victory. Rarely has a single individual achieved so large a premeditated goal." In 1950 Kravchenko published his account of the trial, I Chose Justice.
Inspired by the court-case won by Kravchenko, David Rousset took out a two-page advertisement in Le Figaro. It was an appeal addressed to all former political prisoners who, like himself, had been confined in Nazi concentration camps. It asked their support in establishing an International Committee Against Concentration Camps to look into the question of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.
Louis Aragon commissioned Pierre Daix to write an article for the French Communist Party weekly, Les Lettres Françaises, on Rousset. Daix later recalled the attack consisted of: "(1) that Rousset falsely maintained that Soviet citizens could be condemned to forced labour by administrative organs; and (2) that the alleged eyewitness accounts of Soviet concentration camps were nothing more nor less recycled Nazi propaganda." As a result of the article, Rousset sued André Wurmser, Aragon and Daix.
The court-case began in November, 1950. Several witnesses who managed to escape gave evidence in support of David Rousset. This included Elinor Lipper, the author of Eleven Years in Soviet Prisons and Concentration Camps (1950) and Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, the author of The Conspiracy of Silence (1950). Józef Czapski, the author of The Inhuman Land (1951) gave testimony about his time in the internment camp in Starobilsk. He praised Rousset's attempts to discover the truth about the labour camps. He also reported on his investigation of the Katyn Massacre. The defence lawyer, Joë Nordmann, accused Czapski of "rehashing old Nazi propaganda" that had been invented by Joseph Goebbels.
Valentín González was one of the three generals in the Spanish Communist Party that fought in the Spanish Civil War. He claimed that the communists "had established a reign of crime and terror in the Republican zone, both at the front and behind it". This supported what George Orwell had recorded in his book, Homage to Catalonia (1938). González said he discovered that during the war Soviet communism was "fascism with a red flag". After the defeat of the Popular Front government González escaped to the Soviet Union. However, he came to regret this decision as he would have "preferred ten years of incarceration in France to five years of freedom in Moscow".
González was considered to be an "unreliable" supporter of Joseph Stalin and was sent to the Vorkuta labour camp in Siberia where he was forced to work in a coal mine. González managed to escape during the Ashgabat Earthquake in 1948. González testified that in the camps he was in "a small minority of hard-core criminals - murderers, rapists, armed robbers, united in their depravity and their bond of thieves' honor - exercised an internal reign of terror over the much larger population of politicals." He added that the guards had the right to rape any woman in the camp they desired.
David Rousset won support from François Mauriac who argued in Le Figaro that: "David Rousset has already won... We don't need any other proof beyond the maladroit attempt of the Stalinists to keep the witnesses from appearing. You see, André Wurmser, he (Stalin) should have killed them all. Your masters are still too humane, for a few victims escaped." The court agreed and the judge awarded Rousset 100,000 francs.
Kravchenko remained a socialist and this alienated him from people like Eugene Lyons and Max Eastman who supported McCarthyism. He invested the profits from I Choose Freedom in an attempt to organize poor farmers into new collectives in Bolivia and Peru. It has been suggested by Gary Woodward Kern, the author of The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War Against Stalin (2007), that the KGB might have played a role in this venture being a failure.
Kravchenko continued to take an interest in politics and was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. According to John V. Fleming: "Kravchenko was greatly distressed by the world situation, and in particular by the American prosecution of the war in Vietnam. He continued to fear the world triumph of Bolshevism. From our retrospective viewpoint today, that worry will seem unfounded. From the prospective viewpoint of the early 1960s, it was considerably more plausible."
Victor Kravchenko died from a gunshot wound in New York City on 25th February 1966. Officially his death was recorded as a suicide. However, his son Andrew believes he was the victim of a Soviet assassination. President Lyndon B. Johnson took a strong interest in Kravchenko's suicide and had demanded that the FBI determine if his suicide note was authentic or a Soviet fabrication.
If the American presence in wartime Russia was modest and equivocal, the Russian presence in wartime America was large and confident. The volumes of Lend-Lease shipments were so large that the Russians required for their administration what was essentially a corporate headquarters on Sixteenth Street in Washington. A large staff of military and industrial experts, technicians, accountants, purchasing agents, transportation consultants, engineers, translators, chauffeurs, police agents, and secretaries worked there. One of the executives was a Ukrainian named Victor Andreyevich Kravchenko, a man in his late thirties, an engineer by training, an executive by experience, a captain in the Red Army by rank, and a metallurgist by specialist expertise. One final category must be mentioned: he became the first Soviet duly certified "defector."
Kravchenko arrived in North America in the summer of 1943, already planning his escape. His work-supervising and expediting the shipment of industrial products within his spheres of expertise-was taxing, and it took him to several centers of American heavy industry. He developed a minimal ability to function in English and to use the transportation system. On April 1, 1944, a Friday and the end of a work week, he slipped away from Washington to New York. To the extent he could, he had made careful preparations to leave his work in transparent order, for he planned never to return to it. On Monday, April 4, as his Soviet colleagues were beginning to wonder about his whereabouts, Kravchenko was making a dramatic statement at a carefully prepared press conference at the New York Times. Two years later he would publish an autobiography, I Chose Freedom, destined to play a crucial role in the formation of Western public opinion as the Cold War intensified.
Accusing the Soviet Government of a "double-faced" foreign policy with respect to its professed desire for collaboration with the United States and Great Britain and denouncing the Stalin regime for failure to grant political and civil liberties to the Russian people, Victor A. Kravchenko, an official of the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington, announced his resignation yesterday and placed himself "under the protection of American public opinion"...
Mr. Kravchenko declined for patriotic reasons to discuss matters bearing on the military conduct of the war by Soviet Russia or to reveal any details bearing upon economic questions, particularly as they affect the functioning of lend-lease as handled by the Soviet Purchasing Commission and in Russia.
The greatest embarrassment for the Soviets, however, came in April 1944, when one of its Washington-based purchasing commission engineers defected. Victor Kravchenko had arrived in August 1943 and soon saw, as he put it, that "espionage was one of the most common assignments for Soviet representatives abroad." He worked in the Purchasing Commission offices at 3355 16th Street. The KGB office was on the seventh floor, behind an iron gate. Kravchenko told the FBI that on March 30, 1944, General Rudenko, the SGPC boss. had boasted that his office safe contained secret information on tank engines, navigational instruments, and plane devices. Kravchenko said Stalin was better informed on American firms than the U.S. government. "Who cared what we took," he said. "Had we taken the Empire State Building and put it on a ship, nobody would have cared."
Kravchenko had seen what happened to deserters. He decided to defect with fanfare. On April 3, 1944, he held a news conference and placed himself "under the protection of American public opinion." The Soviet embassy in Washington demanded his extradition as a Red Army deserter. Harry Hopkins, who bent over backward to give the Russians everything they wanted, felt that it made "just plain sense to return a deserter to an ally who was helping to fight Hitler." He took it up with FDR in whom the desire to help the Russians was tempered by a sense of the brutality of the regime. It was an election year, with the President running for an unprecedented fourth term. Turning a much publicized defector over to his jailers would generate unfavorable publicity. FDR told Hopkins that politically, it would be easier to send him back if the Russians promised not to shoot him. Hopkins replied that once in Russian hands no one would know if he was shot or not. FDR was unmoved by this argument, and Kravchenko escaped extradition.
People dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. There was not even the consolation of inevitability to relieve the horror.... Everywhere were found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless.
The ripples from Kravchenko's book gradually subsided in volume and force; and when the water was again still for a moment, the man quickly faded from the American public consciousness. Living as he did a withdrawn and disguised life, with a furtive intermittent and weird family life, he never really put down roots in the United States. As the Cold War rapidly intensified, he became more and more Yesterday's Man. The year 1948 came and went with its own major events: the Hiss case; the fizzle of the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace and his supporters in an imagined popular front; the heretical independence of Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Senator McCarthy came and went. Joseph Stalin died.
There was the Korean War, the workers' revolt in East Germany, the abortive Hungarian Revolution. The number of Soviet defectors grew to platoon size, and only the most recent defector was in the news. Soon World War II seemed a long time ago.
Kravchenko did not seek publicity, but he did seek existential meaning. He had been an engineer and a metallurgist, so that the last venture of his life, while amazing, is not without its logic. He invested heavily in mining operations in South America. The investment began with the commitment of his money, but it did not end there. He became involved in the execution of the actual mining operations. He had to some degree in his youth mastered the semicriminality of socialist industry. The semicriminality of industrial life in Peru, where bribes and kickbacks might appear as lines in operating budgets, defeated him. Kravchenko got in way over his head.
To the headaches of business ruin were added dramatic health problems. He had never done much to maintain his body, but he had done much to degrade it. In particular, he was a chronic heavy smoker. Already by the time he was fifty he was beginning to suffer from emphysema; by the time he was sixty, his lungs were as ruined as his business prospects. He was greatly distressed by the world situation, and in particular by the American prosecution of the war in Vietnam. He continued to fear the world triumph of Bolshevism. From our retrospective viewpoint today, that worry will seem unfounded. From the prospective viewpoint of the early 1960s, it was considerably more plausible.
In I Chose Freedom, Kravchenko several times mentions feelings of despair that led him to ponder his own self-destruction. Now he was a prematurely old man, terminally ill, financially ruined. His life was a tangle of masquerades, secrets, and pseudonyms. He had no religious faith and practically no family intimacy. On February 25, 1966, Victor Kravchenko, alone in his apartment, killed himself by a gunshot to the head.