Valentine Markin, the son of a janitor, was born in Grozny, Russia, in 1903. He studied at the Sverdlov Communist University and in 1923 joined the Russian Communist Party. After working in a textile factory in Vyatka he moved to Moscow where he was elected deputy of the Moscow City Council. (1)
In 1926 Markin joined Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) and was sent as an agent to Germany. He returned to the Soviet Union and from 1930 to 1932, he was a graduate student at the Institute of World Economy and International Politics. During this period he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Youth International the youth arm of the Comintern.
In 1932 Valentine Markin joined the Foreign Department (INO), a branch of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) involved in spying and was sent to New York City. According to Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999): "Markin's major responsibility was to acquire information about U.S. foreign policy." (2) One of his first recruits was Ludwig Lore, a journalist working in the city. Lore's two most important informants were code named "Willie" and "Daniel". These government officials provided ambassadorial, consular, and military attaché reports to Markin.
In March 1934, Valentine Markin, sent a cable to NKVD headquarters about the way he saw the future of Soviet espionage in the United States: "In world politics, the U.S. is the determining factor. There are no problems, even those 'purely' European, in whose solution America does not take part because of its economic and financial strength. It plays a special role in the solution of the Far Eastern problem. That is whu America must be well informed in European and Far Eastern matters, and its intelligence service is likely to play an active role. This situation raises the following extremely important problems for our intelligence in the U.S... It is necessary that the agents we now have or intend to recruit provide us with documents and verified materials clarifying the U.S. position in the matters mentioned above and, especially, the U.S. position on the Far Eastern problem." (3)
Markin became involved in a dispute with General Yan Berzin, the head of the GRU. According to General Walter Krivitsky, head of all Soviet intelligence in Western Europe, Markin went to see Vyacheslav Molotov and exposed the incompetence of General Berzin and all his lieutenants in Military Intelligence. Gary Kern, the author of A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004), confirms this story: "Markin was a pushy egotist when sober and a slobbering sentimentalist when drunk, which was often, and he saw an opportunity to advance his career. He came back to Moscow with a report laying all the blame on the Fourth Department and with unprecedented effrontery took his case to higher-ups in the Kremlin, speaking directly with Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's right-hand man." (4) As a result of this meeting Joseph Stalin transferred military intelligence organization in America to the espionage machine of the GPU under Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the NKVD.
Another one of his recruits was Whittaker Chambers. He wrote in his autobiography, Witness (1952): "Imagine a short, sturdy figure confined in a tight-fitting, rumpled suit and elevated on high-heeled German shoes. That was Herman (Valentine Markin). Soft, brown, pitiless eyes stared out of a soft, chalky face that suggested corruption. Above that face, a stubble of hair stood up stiff and uneven as if it had been cut by a sickle. From that short figure came a bass voice of startling resonance. But what I remember best about Herman was his habit, wherever he might be, of taking from each trouser pocket a fat roll of bills which he weighed lovingly in each hand." (5)
Ignaz Reiss arranged for Hede Massing, who had been a Soviet agent in Germany, to work for Markin. She moved to the United States with her husband, Paul Massing, after Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933. "Arthur Walter (Valentine Markin) was a youngish man, with high cheekbones, bad teeth, and a brushlike mop of mud-brown hair. His complexion was gray, his eyes cold. He struck one from the very beginning as a man who, with great energy, withheld his real self from observation, who surrounded himself with a thick, impregnable veneer. He was young to hold so commanding a position. He was the personification of a Russian careerist. I met many later, but none of them was as perfectly designed as was Markin. It was a fascinating character combination, one of extreme sentimentality when drunk and relaxed, and extreme cruelty when sober and on the job. His moral and ethical standards were typical of the young Soviet man; it is not the human being who counts, but the idea!" (6)
According to David Dallin, the author of Soviet Espionage (1955), was found in late August, 1934, at the Luxor Baths on 46th Street in New York City "with an ugly head wound in a 52nd Street hallway in New York; he died the next day." (7) Whittaker Chambers was told by one of his agents that "Herman (Valentine Markin) had been drinking heavily. Late at night, he went, alone, into a cheap bar somewhere in midtown Manhattan. He drank more and flashed a big roll of bills. Two toughs followed him out of the saloon, and, on the deserted street, beat him up, robbed him and left him lying in the gutter. Herman died in a hospital of a fractured skull complicated by pneumonia." (8)
General Walter Krivitsky was initially told that Valentine Markin "had been slain in a New York nightclub by gangsters." However, in May, 1937, Abram Slutsky, the head of the Foreign Department of NKVD, told Krivitsky that Markin had been murdered because of his support of Leon Trotsky: "You know, it turned out that your friend, Valentine Markin, who was killed in New York three years ago, was a Trotzkyite, and filled the GPU services in the United States with Trotzkyites." (9)
Arthur Walter (Valentine Markin) was a youngish man, with high cheekbones, bad teeth, and a brushlike mop of mud-brown hair. His complexion was gray, his eyes cold. He struck one from the very beginning as a man who, with great energy, withheld his real self from observation, who surrounded himself with a thick, impregnable veneer. He was young to hold so commanding a position. He was the personification of a Russian careerist. I met many later, but none of them was as perfectly designed as was Markin. It was a fascinating character combination, one of extreme sentimentality when drunk and relaxed, and extreme cruelty when sober and on the job. His moral and ethical standards were typical of the young Soviet man; it is not the human being who counts, but the idea! He was disliked and feared by all his co-workers, and was puzzled and amused because I was not afraid of him. He made several attempts to form some sort of friendship with Paul and me; Paul felt pity for him, and I, contempt.
Valentine Markin was, in fact, the head of all GPU activities in the United States, nominated for the post by Vyacheslav Molotov himself, according to Walter Krivitsky. He had maneuvered himself into this position by going home to Russia and waging a fight against General Berzin and all his lieutenants in the Military Intelligence. Armed with full information as to the mess which Nick Dozenberg and Dr. Burtan had created in the States at a time when Moscow was doing all it could to gain American recognition, he went over the heads of his superiors to present his case directly to Premier Molotov. This was a daring and unheard of act for a young Communist, and it caused a lot of commotion in the inner circles. Markin was successful. He won the battle. He got authority to transfer the whole military intelligence organization in America to the espionage machine of the GPU under Yagoda. He made a great many enemies and he knew it. Later, in Paris, when I mentioned the fact that he was my superior to Ludwig and Felik, and that I had direct dealings with him, they tried to caution me against him as best they could without committing themselves. When we were alone, Ludwig even went as far as to say that I should stay away from Valentine Markin as much as I could.
By way of occupational cover, Walter had a partnership in a small cosmetics company, the other half of the firm being owned by an American comrade named Hart. It was in this company that the bleached blonde woman, who was his girl friend, worked. Though she was a timid, sad little thing, she looked like someone he had picked up on Broadway and I never shall forget the day he brought her to our house, unannounced.
By this, and by other things, I was led to believe that Walter had just reached this country. My feeling, however, was that he had been here before. His English, while limited, was too American for one newly arrived.
As I have said, there was always this split personality in Walter; Walter sober and Walter drunk. They seemed hardly related. In sober intervals he was officious and businesslike. We met at prearranged places and took all the precautions for secrecy.
But between meetings I had the other Walter on my hands, the dipsomaniac, caution thrown to the winds. It was during the time when Paul was away teaching and I lived in the nightclub section of New York, within easy reach for him. He would come to my apartment without warning, already well primed, and often pass out on the living-room floor. In his liquored state the officious mask fell off. He was weak and scared. It was during such hours of ranting that I learned about his son of seven who was afflicted with infantile paralysis and was confined to a wheelchair. He considered this condition for some reason, a black mark against himself. He described, while crying real tears, how his little boy had to be driven to school in a car, how he had to be helped out by two people. "This is my son!" he would wail. "My son!" Then he would go on, "How can people respect me? They must think of me as a cripple! I cannot even produce a healthy child! No wonder my wife does not want another! Can you blame her?"
His mask was off. That was his problem. Strange as it might sound, even in his great distress he was not able to evoke pity or warmth from me. He was a lost soul. A thoroughly unattractive lost soul.
I had the feeling that for mere variation he bewailed at times the fate of his Trotzkyite friends "liquidated over there." That point I followed up just once when he was sober, to get an astonished shrug of the shoulder and, "You must have misunderstood me."
He had a morbid premonition of death. Possibly it was something more tangible than a premonition. The thought of his wife and crippled child in Moscow was the focus of his worst fears. "What will happen to them when I'm gone?" he would weep.
When we met again on business, it was as if those heartbreaking scenes had never occurred. He questioned me with professional precision about my connections in Washington and even suggested that I move to the capital. I convinced him, however, that I could operate with less risk of detection from New York.
To move to the capital would have incorporated me more and more as a fixture of the apparatus which I desired to leave. Paul kept reminding me in his letters to raise the issue with Walter. And one day, when he seemed in a more mellow mood and yet not quite drunk, I did. The reaction was amazing. As if I had insulted him, personally! Why did I want to leave the most important work a revolutionary could perform? Why? Did I not like working with him? Ah, he was not as good as Ludwig! That was the reason? Well, why the hell did I not go back to Ludwig? Ranting on like that, he stopped suddenly, came slowly to my face and in a quiet, low tone said, "Don't you know that nobody leaves the apparatus? Has Ludwig failed to tell you that?" He took his hat, turned, and left.
I did not see him for a few weeks. Berman took over. I gave him my written reports. Berman seemed to know that I had "upset the boss." He did not ask questions.
I was terribly weary of those two gentlemen. On the other hand, my work in Washington did interest me. I seemed to be gaining ground and still believed that I was doing something good in a humanitarian cause. I decided to speak to Ludwig, when I saw him next, about leaving the apparatus and all the problems connected with it.
The waste of time, the waiting, the repetitious reporting had already struck me and made me wonder while I was working with Ludwig in Germany. But talking and being with Ludwig was always rewarding. When I started meeting Berman and later, Bill Grinke, regularly, the senselessness of our activities seemed unbearable at times. The stupidity of a man like Bill was revolting, the boredom that emanated from him and took possession of me was overwhelming. But I was to learn that it did not matter how stupid a Russian official is, what he stood for was the important thing. What he represented gave him access to this pool of voluntary co-operation that he could draw from at random. Stupid or shrewd, calculating or straightforward, the Russian official got results in spite of the waste that irritated me so.
I was connected with the Russian apparatus several years but when I start recounting my activities they seem meager. And still I was considered a successful and active member of the group. When I started telling my story to Gene Lyons, he would say, "Is that all you did?" He was very disappointed. Naturally, for how can anybody understand and follow this strange routine of reporting and reporting about everything and everybody, this sifting and sifting of people, without explanation, without an obvious reason? The Russian in such a group is at an advantage to the "foreigner" like myself. He is trained to do things he does not understand. He does not wait, he does not need an explanation for what he does. The waste, the boredom is not his concern; everything is decided for him and even his emotions are directed and utilized.
Sometimes I would report and see a person as often as a dozen times; make special trips, dine and wine him, learn his history as far back as the third and fourth generation only to be told to drop him, and never learning why. It took me a long time to adjust to all this. As a matter of fact, I never really did.
Markin was a pushy egotist when sober and a slobbbering sentimentalist when drunk, which was often, and he saw an opportunity to advance his career. He came back to Moscow with a report laying all the blame on the Fourth Department and with unprecedented efforntery took his case to higher-ups in the Kremlin, speaking directly with Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's right-hand man.
A few days later, I told The Doctor: "Herman is back." "I know that," he said. "And I know what you don't know. Herman is very sick. He is in a hospital." Soon he told me: "Herman is dead." "What happened?" I asked.
"Pneumonia," said Dr. Rosenbliett. I was sure, from something in the Doctor's manner, that Herman had not died of pneumonia. Herman (Valentine Markin) had, in fact, been murdered.
I have heard four versions of Herman's death. I heard the first from Dr. Rosenbliett some time after he had told me that Herman died of pneumonia. I heard the second from Ludwig Lore, the former editor of the Volkszeitung. Later on, in my underground days, I met and dealt with Lore when he was writing "Behind the Cables" as a columnist on the New York Evening Post. It was Lore who first told me that Herman was also known as "Oskar."
Colonel Bykov also knew Herman as Oskar. He gave me a third version of his death. General Walter Krivitsky first told me that Herman's real name was Valentine Markin. He gave me the fourth version.
Dr. Philip Rosenbliett's final version was this. Herman had been drinking heavily. Late at night, he went, alone, into a cheap bar somewhere in midtown Manhattan. He drank more and flashed a big roll of bills. Two toughs followed him out of the saloon, and, on the deserted street, beat him up, robbed him and left him lying in the gutter. Herman died in a hospital of a fractured skull complicated by pneumonia.
Ludwig Lore's version, richer in detail, was substantially the same as Dr. Rosenbliett's. Lore, a generous man, had been Herman's close friend. It had fallen to him to hush up the story, to cover up the curious discrepancies in Herman's identification papers and, finally, to see that he was quietly buried in a Brooklyn cemetery.
Colonel Bykov's version was very different. I had never discussed Herman with Bykov. But one night that nervous man suddenly denly asked me: 'What happened to the Oskar?" I told him that he had been killed while drunk. "Who killed him?" he asked. "Two hoodlums," I said. "No," said Bykov slyly, "the Oskar was killed by the American secret police." At the time, I thought that this was merely another amusing example of Colonel Bykov's obsession. He believed that "the American secret police" were omnipresent and operated by the same methods as the Russian secret police. But Russians are masters of confusion and one favorite tactic is to shift the blame for something they have done to their opposite numbers elsewhere. I now believe that Colonel Bykov knew the story that General Krivitsky was later to tell me, and that he deliberately shifted the blame from the Russians to the American police.
Walter Krivitsky, too, denied, that Herman had been killed for his money. His version went back to the time when Herman appealed to Molotov against the Fourth Section. The supreme head of the Fourth Section, General Berzin, an old Bolshevik who had once saved Lenin's life, had been enraged. When Molotov sent Herman back to the United States, Berzin saw to it that he did not go alone. He sent two of his killers, who caught up with Herman in New York. They knew his habits. They waited for a favorable chance. They followed him into the little midtown bar and out of it. On the quiet street they broke his skull.
It is all but impossible not to be affected by a melodrama working itself out so close at hand, among half a dozen people intimately known, in familiar rooms and streets, in a shared darkness and secrecy.
I did not think often or actively about Herman's life and death. But, for several years, his memory floated just below the surface of my mind, like a corpse constantly ejected by a whirlpool. I could not quite dismiss the question he raised: Is this the new man that Communism is breeding? I managed not to answer it until Colonel Bykov, who in some ways resembled the dead man, answered it for me. 317-318
When Paul (Massing) came back from his teaching job, we took a cottage for the summer in Cos Cob, Connecticut, near some Communist friends. Paul was finishing his book and I was glad to put some distance between Walter and us.
But in his drunken condition, Walter was capable of indiscretions which alarmed me for myself, as well as for the safety of the apparatus. He came out to visit us. It was the last place the top GPU agent should have been seen. Yet he arrived one day by car and rented a cottage in our midst, in obvious hunger for human. company. As I feared, several of the American comrades were soon favored with his drunken attacks. It was hard to explain him. I grew worried and forced him to leave.
Twice Walter again dispatched me as a courier to Paris. Both times I carried a small, round, elongated packet, about one by three inches, with the warning, amounting to a threat, to protect it with my life. Under these conditions, I discovered, a tiny package can seem big as a house. I carried it with me day and night, changed it from one handbag to another, and it weighed me down. The happy moment when I got rid of it! It was easy enough to surmise that it again contained microfilm.
Usually I delivered the precious cargo to a stranger who announced himself, from my hotel lobby, as "Dr," My instructions, which remained standard to the end, were to spend several weeks abroad and behave like a garden variety tourist. On returning I always brought a flock of gifts for American friends in order to make the trip seem entirely aboveboard.
I could not guess, when I said good-bye to Walter before the second of these missions, that I was seeing him for the last time. It was early September and the Cos Cob episode still rankled. On meeting Ludwig and the Long Man, both of whom were in Paris, I complained about Walter's conduct as a menace to our work.
Ludwig asked me to draw up a report on the matter. I had just handed it over when I received a cable at the American Express Company informing me that Walter was dead.
Back in America, I was given only a blurred report of the strange events. Paul did not know the full story and if Berman did, he kept it to himself. Here is my best reconstruction of the facts:
One night the Bermans gave a party at their summer home in Far Rockaway, Long Island. Walter and his American business partner were among the guests. As the festivities heated up, Walter became fighting drunk. When he staggered out to the grounds, out of the house, in his shirtsleeves, the others supposed he was going to cool off. But he did not return.
The next day Paul received a frantic phone call from Berman, asking him to go immediately to Walter at the Times Square Turkish Bath. There Paul gathered that the Russian had been picked up in a 52nd Street hallway during the night by a taxi driver and delivered at his own request to the bath. He found Walter in one of the rooms, half stupefied, with an ugly head wound under clotted blood.
When Paul said he was going for a doctor, Walter grew greatly agitated and pleaded, "No doctor! No doctor! I'll be all right." Nevertheless, Paul went out and in about twenty minutes returned with a friend of his who was a physician. But Walter had vanished. Two men had called and taken him away.
Presumably Berman was one of the callers. In any event, he was able to tell Paul the next day that Walter was at the Park East Hospital, undergoing an operation for brain concussion. The operation was reported suc¬cessful, but the patient developed pneumonia and died within two days.
Not a line appeared in the papers. The death of an obscure foreign businessman, registered as Arthur Walter, hardly spelled news. How was anyone to know that the victim was the director of Moscow's GPU ramifications in America?
(1) Svetlana Chervonnaya, Valentine Markin (2008)
(2) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 33
(3) Valentine Markin, cable to Moscow (March, 1934)
(4) Gary Kern, A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004) page 30 and 31
(5) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) pages 313-314
(6) Hede Massing, This Deception: KBG Targets America (1951) page 131
(7) David Dallin, Soviet Espionage (1955) page 402
(8) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) pages 313-314
(9) Hede Massing, This Deception: KBG Targets America (1951) page 136