"I have led an odd bipartisan experience."
The language of espionage as practiced by the Soviets during the so-called "Golden Era of Spying," in the 1930s and '40s, and into the Cold War period of the 1950s, would qualify for vaudeville if the consequences hadn't been so serious.
"Enormoz" was code for the atom bomb project. The bomb itself was called "The Balloon." The FBI was "The Hut." Americans were "The Alpinists." Agents were "masters" and "probationers." J. Robert Oppenheimer's nickname, in code, was, inexplicably, "Chester." A U.S. Senate staff informer was known simply as "Mole."
Such provocative trivia are symbolic of the revelations to be found in The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, out this month from Random House. Weinstein's 1978 book from Knopf, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, was an exhaustive and convincing portrait of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent, despite his continuous public denial, The Haunted Wood provides more details about Hiss and lays out the scope of Soviet operations in human and compelling terms. Its ideal audience, Weinstein says, is "someone who can enjoy a Charles McCarry novel or any good spy novel, as well as someone interested in lively, exciting history."
It's a history that could not have been written before the Soviet Union deteriorated in the early 1990s, when the previously classified KGB archives of the era were released for an undisclosed sum, in a deal between the Russian Intelligence Service and Crown (the book was subsequently dropped by Crown and acquired by Bob Loomis at Random House in 1996).
The victories and vicissitudes of American and Soviet spies at work in this country form what Weinstein likes to call "The Canterbury Tales of Soviet espionage." It's a book of stories that, even for this globetrotting historian, who runs a Washington, D.C., nonprofit to promote democracy worldwide, proved "an extraordinary education." Weinstein continues, "I mean in the obvious sense of digging out underlying facts and truths about the subject, and, secondly, in exploring the psychology of people involved. As with Perjury, it digs into the cultural history of post-World War II America. I found the human dramas fascinating."
The book also boasts so large a cast of characters, many of their names in code, that the authors have opted to list them up front, as in a Broadway playbill. "If I were a publisher and came to you, the movie producer, with an idea for a plot about a U.S. congressman who before becoming a New York State Supreme Court judge had traded secrets for money under the code name of `Crook,' you would look at me strangely, I hope," Weinstein says, referring to one of the book's more remarkable figures.
A genial man, relaxed and dapper in shirt and tie, Weinstein meets PW late one morning in his Washington office during the holiday lull. The official publishing date of The Haunted Wood was January 7 -- "an odd time to launch a title," he muses. "It's good I have another life."
The author has just returned from a four-day visit to Moscow where he presented copies to the head of the Association of Retired Soviet Agents. Weinstein also left a copy for Russia's Prime Minister Yvgeny Primakov, who was away on an official visit to India. He had met Primakov several years earlier when the latter was head of the Russian Intelligence Service.
Close to the Kremlin
Weinstein is fully a man of the 20th century. The son of Lithuanian immigrants who came to New York around 1910 and ran a delicatessen, he attended P.S. 79 in the Bronx. His New York background would help him relate to defector Morris Cohen, a Soviet agent for more than 25 years, who claimed to have become a Communist when listening to rebel-journalist John Reed in New York's Tompkins Square. Weinstein interviewed Cohen in Moscow in 1995 on a research mission for The Haunted Wood.
One of his earliest and most poignant memories is the day President Franklin Roosevelt died. "My mother and father were at the table weeping. I was eight years old. He had been the only president I knew, and maybe there wouldn't be another president. For the first time ever, I took the subway downtown and wandered around alone. When I got home, no one had known I was gone. These moments help define your attitude toward history." He adds, tellingly, "You make your own way in life."
Weinstein is currently founder-director of the bipartisan Center for Democracy, a privately funded Washington organization promoting high-level conferences and contacts to extend the rule of law in struggling democracies. He also has been a professor of history for most of the last three decades, giving up three tenured jobs along the way. His longest stint was 15 years at Smith College, where he was chairman of the American Studies Program. Behind his large antique desk in the Center for Democracy's book-lined office are photographs of Eleanor Roosevelt, Violeta Chamorro and Corazon Aquino. "You can't teach that long in a woman's college without its having an effect," he explains.
It was during a conference that the Center helped organize in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1992, entitled "The Proper Role of an Intelligence Agency in a Democracy," that he met Vadim Kirpichenko, a key Soviet figure in the intelligence field. "He has figured in some of John le Carré's novels," Weinstein says with the smile of a man who knows more than he is telling. When Kirpichenko and other officials of the "spy" fraternity were invited to the United States as guests of former CIA director William Colby, in 1993, Weinstein was included in the group.
He produces a black-and-white photograph of the occasion: a not unfriendly gathering of six men in dark suits stolidly facing the camera. They are in the New York law office of the late General William Donovan, head of the OSS, which preceded the CIA.
That was the week that Jim Wade, an editor at Crown, took Weinstein to lunch and suggested the project that became The Haunted Wood.
Negotiations had begun during the thaw in the 1990s when the Association of Retired Soviet Agents recommended doing a series of books on different themes, all based on the archives. Primakov was instrumental in this, says Weinstein's agent, John Hawkins, who calls the arrangements "the most protracted negotiations I've ever come across. [The Russians] didn't have a body of commercial law, so every concept, every phrase had to be agreed [upon]."
Weinstein, whom Hawkins describes as "a man who knows the world," was an ideal choice, even though he d sn't speak Russian. Undoubtedly, it helped his cause -- at least where the Russians were concerned -- that he has never run for office or held a government post.
Vassiliev, a former KGB agent in his late 30s who lives in London and writes for a Russian publication, had been chosen by the group of retired intelligence officers to be Weinstein's partner in the Haunted Wood enterprise.
The coauthors split the advance, even though it was Vassiliev's first book and Weinstein's fifth. Although Weinstein wrote the final manuscript, the two worked together across the ocean from 1993 to 1995 primarily by fax and overnight mail, eventually completing five or six drafts. Meanwhile, Vassiliev took a computer into the archives and collected as much material as he could, following an outline supplied by Weinstein. "Ten, even 20, years ago, the book would have been impossible to do," Weinstein notes.
The project hit a speed bump in 1995, when access was withdrawn after the arrest of Aldrich Ames -- the CIA officer now imprisoned for life for selling secrets to the Soviets. "But about the time the Russians closed down on us," Weinstein says, thousands of previously classified, intercepted and decoded Soviet intelligence cables from World War II were released by the National Security Agency. "That gave us two sources for confirmation," the author recalls gleefully.
While writing The Haunted Wood, Weinstein was simultaneously completing the revised edition of Perjury that was issued by Random House in 1997. His agent for The Haunted Wood was Robert Barnett, a lawyer in Washington, with Hawkins -- who has since become Weinstein's agent as well -- representing Vassiliev.
A Double Life
Klaus Fuchs, one of the atomic era's most accomplished spies, is quoted in The Haunted Wood as describing the mindset of spy practitioners to be that of "controlled schizophrenia." With a full-time job as "public servant" and organizational head on top of his writing schedule, Weinstein leads a double life, too, with separate offices for each.
He keeps regular house in the Center's headquarters, in downtown Washington, and maintains an office in a residential apartment building where he lived during his first marriage. He has two grown sons-one is part of Newsweek's new media team and the other a spokesman for America Online-and a stepson by a 1995 second marriage. His home is in suburban Bethesda, Md., but he estimates he spends 100 days a year traveling.
Although Weinstein sees his two lives as quite separate -- one "a public service obligation and the other a private life" -- they often mesh. "I have had the privilege of meeting key people and having a remarkable range of personal experiences that infuses the sense of what you can do as a historian and writer."
He cites the time when he met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow just days before the attempted coup, in 1991. Americans were "too optimistic" about Russia in the early 1990s and are "too pessimistic" now, he says.
Weinstein's own politics elude easy classification. "I have led an odd bipartisan existence in this town," he notes. People often attempt to pin a political label on him, such as "neoconservative" -- after the appearance of Perjury -- but he insists his political views vary with the issue under question. He calls himself a "moderate Democrat," going back to the time when he was a member of the Congress on Racial Equality in the 1960s.
In writing Perjury, Weinstein set out to prove that Hiss was innocent but wound up drawing the opposite conclusion. Political terms such as liberalism and conservatism, however, seem increasingly vague in light of ongoing domestic imbroglios in the U.S. capital. The Haunted Wood avoids ideology. No judgments and few conclusions are projected onto a heavily footnoted narrative. That awaits a time when more research materials are available, Weinstein says.
Nineteen years is a long stretch between books, but he calls the discipline of the historian "a muscle that, once exercised, you tend to stick with." In the interim, he tackled such auxiliary activities as becoming a member of the Washington Post's editorial staff, in 1981, and serving as the president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (Santa Barbara), for one year in 1984.
And, for the past four years, he has chaired the judging panel for the annual International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a IR£100,000 prize given to a novel nominated by librarians around the world. That job came about through his association with IMPAC company chairman James Irwin, a Bronx native whom Weinstein had solicited for contributions to the Center for Democracy. He reads or skims -- but d sn't vote on -- some hundred novels between conference calls with the far-flung judges. Says Weinstein, "It's great, in that it gets me away from my work. I love it."
Among the projects he's considering is "a look at the American presidency in crisis moments, dramatic episodes that are pivotal, entitled Through the Perilous Night." Another is "a good solid book on American politics in government from Watergate to the present."
This is one "mole" who, apparently, never sleeps.