Sachidananda Mohanty revisits the tragic Cy Oggins case of 1947, which has stark parallels to Sarabjit Singh’s death.

Sarabjit Singh’s tragic case shares uncanny parallels with others such as the American Isaiah (Cy) Oggins, “the lost spy” who was put to death by Stalin’s orders in the Lubyanka Prison in 1947. There are lessons in the two narratives that civilised nations must learn.

The classic spy stories of Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene or John le Carré are often steeped in romance and mystery, typical of bedside reading. The reality of intelligence gathering across national boundaries is far more sordid and chilling in its effect and human outcome. Sarabjit’s case is not the only one, nor is it going to be the last in the list of such tragedies. The case of the “lost spies” who are abandoned and left to die their lonely death in battered conditions, far away from home, will forever haunt the civilised conscience of mankind.

In 1947, an American prisoner, suspected of being a spy for the Trotskyite underground in the Soviet Union, was brutally executed in “a covert poison laboratory” in Moscow by the orders of Stalin with all mentions of the case carefully erased from the KGB/FSB files. The condemned was the idealistic-minded doctoral scholar in New York who spied for the Soviet Union in Europe and in the Far East before being caught by the NKVD (the precursor to the dreaded KGB) and executed in mysterious circumstances.

Isaiah (Cy) Oggins and his wife Nerma Berman’s story, despite manifest differences, bears uncanny parallels with that of Sarabjit Singh, accused of working for RAW, India’s external spy agency, and his sister Dalbir Kaur, and is therefore worth narrating. The account of Cy Oggins, passionately brought to life by Andrew Meier in his well documented study The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service, (Phoenix, 2010) is a grim reminder of those who get hopelessly trapped behind “enemy lines”.

Cy’s tryst with destiny encompasses four phases essentially: his radical academic life at Columbia and New York City; second, the mission of surveillance of the exiled Russian Romanovs that he and his wife carried out in Paris, aside from his designated sojourn in Berlin; third his trips to the Far East on secret missions; and finally his capture, internment and execution in the Soviet Union. Each of these intersects with the larger narratives of politics and history.

Cy Oggins was born to Simon and Rena, of the Polish- Jewish background in the summer of 1898 in the United States. As part of the class of 1920, he came in contact with left-wing writers like Matty Josephson and Joe Freeman. The Rand School of Social Sciences, at New York (1906-1935), now forgotten, became the epicentre of socialistic thought and radical teaching. Both the students and the taught firmly believed that it was “an unjust and capitalistic war” that the world recently fought and that “world revolution was not a slogan but a plan”.

The exact circumstances that underlie the couple’s recruitment by the NKVD lie buried in the KGB/FSB vaults till today. The early missions in espionage took the couple to Paris and Berlin. In 1938, Nerma and their son Robin parted from Cy and returned to the U.S., while Cy travelled to Shanghai and Manchuria on secret missions for the Soviets.

By the time Nerma returned to the U.S., the American Congress had enshrined the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, a development that would have a bearing on the fate of Cy in the Soviet Union.

The reason Cy entered the Soviet Union remains shrouded in mystery till today. In the winter of 1939, he became prisoner No 568 in the dreaded Lubyanka Prison, situated at the northern corner of the Square named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Lenin’s Secret Police Cheka. He lived on “watery soup, a piece of black bread and a cup of black tea” but refused to confess for crimes that he had not committed.

By December 8, 1942, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had moved closer. Through a Polish refugee, the State Department had heard that an “American Professor”, who had been arrested and exiled to the Gulags for eight years, was on the verge of death. Two members of the American diplomatic Mission to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn E. Thompson, and Francis Bowden Stevens visited the Butyrka Prison at the centre of Moscow. The Roosevelt-Litvinov Agreement seemed to assure consular access to the detained Cy said that he had abandoned his passport in Paris and entered the Soviet Union on an assumed identity, a suspect in the eyes of Americans and the Soviets.

Back in the U.S., a desperate Nerma appealed to the State Department for help. She sent $400, and a cable through the Department with an appeal to Cy to “gain strength for the journey”. Just when the situation seemed hopeful, the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov turned down the request inexplicably: “The competent Soviet authorities do not consider it possible to reconsider the Oggins’ case”. Till date, there has been no explanation for this volte-face. Was it because Cy knew too much and his return would jeopardise the NKVD’s operations?

Taken to the “poison laboratory” No 1, Cy was given the lethal shot by Dr. Maironovsky, a Colonel in the Medical Corps of the NKVD often compared to Joseph Mengele of the Nazi extermination camps.

The official American approach, Meier suggests, would be influenced, by the secret memorandum of George Kennan, the Cold War architect who served then as a young diplomat in the Baltic: “American citizens but Communist sympathisers”, Kennan wrote dispassionately, “might no longer be entitled to protection without the special approval of the Department.”

Sarabjit Singh came from a modest background in rural Punjab, whereas Cy Oggins, far more educated, was an idealistic-minded scholar in the United States. Oggins was betrayed by the ideology he fiercely cherished in his early life. The totalitarian regime and the horror of the Lubyanka prison were clearly a travesty of the Bolshevist dream of equality, just as the Manichean world of George Kennan, had little sympathy for “renegade” Americans caught in the hostile Soviet Union. Sarabjit, in turn, was let down by the State he earnestly believed in.

There are lessons here that mankind must quickly learn.