Mark Zborowski: Stalin’s spy and master deceptionist
From World War II to the Cold War, Mark Zborowski was many things – spy, writer, professor and Fiddler on the Roof. At Stalin's Spies: From Paris to the Gulag presented at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, experts met to discuss the results of often incomplete research. From destroyed records, to “missing” records, or information that is still considered secret, the business of telling the story of the intelligence community practically requires the researcher to become a spy themselves. Andrew Hiller met with one such sleuth, Dr. Susan Weismann, Professor of Politics at St. Mary’s College to examine the puzzle pieces about Mark Zborowski.Susan Weismann says that depictions of both the Fiddler on the Roof play and the film were based largely on Zborowski’s book about life in the shadow.
I’m a little bit worried about beginning this interview because I have a feeling that you have to kill me right after we’ve finished.
No, absolutely not. I am in this because I’m appalled by what he had done.
Mark Zborowski was known in the French international left opposition as Etienne. His life intersected with great events of the 20th century including the Russian revolution, Stalinism, World War II, the destruction of the Jews, the Cold War and McCarthyism in the US.
He was Stalin’s master spy in the Left Opposition and a servant to the vast conspiracy to destroy Trotsky and the USSR’s left critics. He was not the killer, just the finger man.
Weismann says that Zborowski was the opposite of debonair James Bond.
Mark Zborowski is not a household name. But those who knew him variously described him as pudgy, mild-mannered, quiet, colourless, an aerodyte man who never stood out.
He was also a mythmaker and a propagandist. In fact, some of his myths about Jewish traditions are believed to this very day.
Unannounced to most Ashkenazi Jews in the new world are large part of what they think they know about the lives of their forbearers in the fail of settlement came from a master deceptionist, indeed Stalin’s prized spy in the left opposition. When Tevye sings tradition in Fiddler on the Roof, the audience probably doesn’t know that the depictions both in the play and the film of those traditions was based largely on Zborowski’s book about life in the Shtetl.
But Zborowski used his knack at mythmaking for more than creating charming tales about life in the Shtetl. He also used his power with the pen to ruin the relationships between Stalin’s opponents, as he did with novelist Victor Serge.
I discovered Mark Zborowski was deflecting from suspicions about his own nefarious role onto Victor Serge and others. That was part of his work to divide, make certain that these people, who were very talented and were working to expose the lies behind the Moscow trials, to alert the world to what was really happening in Russia in this period were silenced, were not allowed to have their books published, except in tiny left presses that no one would read and who were also, at the same time, maligned because he was also doing literary fabrications, slanders.
He came into the country or he left the country using the means that other Jews would use to escape. And perhaps that, in itself, aided him, because the Jews who were escaping became a close community and they needed that togetherness.
That is absolutely right. In fact, Peter Katel talks how his father-in-law and the others helped Zborowski get his first job in a metal factory for defense use. But he quickly started working for the army, compiling Russian-American dictionary. And then he got a job at JHI, the Jewish Historical Institute, where he was spotted by the anthropologists, who went from one wonderful thing to another for him, because he was this very Jewish polyglot who spoke 6-7 languages who was trained as an anthropologist and who, of course, had the intellectual ability to do all of these things too. He took advantage of that situation. For example, I mentioned Victor Serge couldn’t get a visa into the US – he finally went to Mexico where he died – and was detained very briefly. He was asked by the Vichy officials on about “Are you a Jew?” and he responded to them: “I don’t have an honour.” He did not get a visa to the US. But a man like Zborowski did, which tells you how screwed up that whole system of getting visas is.
I would imagine it’s not that easy doing intelligence work on an intelligence operative.
There are certainly things that were written. Then I started getting Freedom of Information Act files and I saw his testimony to on the Scope of Soviet Activities Hearings in the US and Scope of Soviet Activities Senate Hearings in the McCarthy period. There was some great interest in this period about infiltration of communists and communist agents in the US. That’s one of the ways how he was eventually unmasked. But there was also, within the Trotskist moment, a lot of talk about Etienne and suspicion about him. So I’m the one who wanted to find out and just kept pursuing it.
About the people you met sideways, who had met him, who had interacted with him, were they bitter, were they ashamed they didn’t recognize him.
One of the leaders of the American Trotskist moment, who helped him also to get a visa, said: “You know, we had no idea. All we knew was that he was Trotsky’s son’s best friend and that he helped him right to the end. So we did everything we could to bring him over.” And yes, they felt betrayed and used. How could they not?
What do we know that this man did?
He was the finger man but not the actual assassin. He was involved n the theft of Trotsky’s archives in Paris. He manages to get the key to the mailbox and everything else. He photographed everything and then another team of agents spectacularly broke into the apartment, where the documents were held. This nearly unmasked him, because he had already photographed it all. In the US, he spied on the people who had helped him, the ones he was close to the most. And again, he was inconspicuous, but he managed trough his friendship with Dallin’s to meet Viktor Kravchenko before he defected and the Dallin said “You gonna like this man.” He immediately became the lead agent in charge of finding out if he was going to defect. He wrote a very famous book Kravchenko: I Chose Freedom and a second one I Chose Justice. It was a very big deal in the US. And here an odd thing: Zborowski met him every single night. They had an easy rapport: intelligent men speaking Russian. And Kravchenko said; “I’m writing my memoir.” And Zborowski said: “I’m dying to see it.” Every night, he would go over to Kravchenko’s house and Kravchenko would show him the pages of the day. And Zborowski would say: “I have to go out for a smoke.” He’d take the pages out where another agent was waiting. He’d photograph them all, bring them back, and so Stalin was getting them as the memoir was being written. And Stalin took such an interest that he was penciling in and penciling out errors and other things, acting as a master editor. It’s incredible. Turns out he did the same things with the writings for the left opposition – the book that Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s son wrote – Stalin had markings in the margins that they then used. It’s mind-boggling to see how important Stalin regarded this and how he used these people. It’s a literary intervention at this point, which then ends up killing these people.
You said Zborowski identified people for assassination but may not have directly killed people, although there may still be some ambiguity to that.
He never actually killed anyone, as far as I know. There is a famous story that Trotsky’s son was poisoned. I found no evidence. I went through the inquest. Trotsky’s son was taken to Paris in 1930s – 1938. He came down with an attack of appendicitis. Because he was so worried about being spotted by agents, Zborowski and his other friends told him “Don’t go to the French hospital. You’ll be a sitting duck. We know this clinic. It’s run by Russian physicians.” And the reason there was a Russian physicians operated clinic in France was that these were people who couldn’t pass the medical license requirements. They were working illegally but had been doctors in Russia. He posed as a French engineer and went to this clinic, which was the stupidest thing you could imagine, because Sedov was Russian, he had high fever and delirium. The first time he would open up his mouth they’d know who he was. Zborowski called the ambulance, told the NKVD where he was going. The NKVD probably already knew because all the doctors there were members of the Soviet secret services. The doctor who operated on him for his appendicitis had a history of botching very simple operations, leading n to death. He comes from the appendix operation fine. Within three days, he has a terrible fever, peritonitis, he is delirious. He wonders naked through the hallways there and apparently had eaten a lot of oranges and orange peels on the ground. But I have consulted with physicians and other and they said maybe he wasn’t. But Zborowski later wrote to Stalin “Let’s demand an autopsy. It will make us look good.” So, because we didn’t do it, this one is very inconclusive. In this case, it’s ambiguous. In other cases, he fingered and showed where people were – and they died.
Even after so many years, this secret agent’s work is still top secret.