An officer of the Soviet OGPU–NKGB foreign intelligence and an “illegal” operative and resident in the United States from 1934 to 1939 and 1942 to 1945. While in the States, Akhmerov is known to have used the cover names William Grienke, Michael Green, Michael Adamec and a few others.
Akhmerov was born into a Tatar family in 1901 in the town of Troitsk in the Urals. His father died when he was just a few months old, and from the age of 11, the young Iskhak had to earn his own living. He managed to finish his secondary education only after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. In 1919, Akhmerov joined the Communist party, and in 1921, he was admitted to the Communist University of the People of the East (a school of higher learning established in Moscow to train the Communist cadres of Oriental countries) where he studied Turkish. He later transferred to the department of international relations of the First State University (now MGU – Moscow State University), where he studied Turkish, French and English.
Soon after his graduation in 1925, Akhmerov was employed by the Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs (NKID) and posted at the Soviet mission in Termez, which was the capital of the short-lived Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic. However, that republic was soon liquidated, and the young diplomat was transferred to Istanbul, Turkey to become a secretary at the Soviet Consulate General. In 1928, he was appointed acting Soviet Consul General in Trapezund – a position he occupied until mid-1929. While there, he acquired his first intelligence experience, having cultivated a number of valuable sources.
Upon his return to Moscow from Turkey, Akhmerov was appointed desk officer [referent] at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. In March 1930, he was transferred to the OGPU counterintelligence department and was soon sent to Bukhara, where he took part in the suppression of anti-Soviet movements in 1930 and 1931. When he returned to Moscow in 1931, OGPU leadership decided to transfer him to OGPU foreign intelligence, known as the INO. At that time there was no special school to train future intelligence officers, so Akhmerov enrolled in the department of world economy and international politics at the Institute of Red Professors. A year later, in 1932, he became a full-time employee of the INO.
Akhmerov was assigned the pseudonym “Jung” and began preparing for his first “illegal” mission: he was soon sent to China under the cover of a Turkish student of the Chinese language and Oriental issues. In Beijing, he enrolled at an American college and reportedly acquired sources who supplied him with information on the political and economic situation in Manchuria, the activities of Japanese intelligence in China, and so on. In early 1934, he was called back to Moscow to prepare for a new posting, this time in the United States. Akhmerov was posted in New York as an assistant to an “illegal” resident named Valentin Markin (“Davis“). He enrolled at Columbia University for his cover and to improve his English, and soon melted into the city, having assumed a new, American identity. After Markin’s death in August 1934, Akhmerov had to take on part of his workload until the arrival of a new resident, Boris Bazarov (“Nord“), in 1935. Soon, Moscow sent two assistants, Norman M. Borodin (“Granite“) and A. Samsonov. By 1936, the “illegal” resident station in New York numbered six operatives, including two women. After Bazarov’s sudden recall to Moscow around July 1937, Akhmerov became the head of the station – until he himself was recalled to Moscow in December 1939.
By the beginning of World War II, two of Akhmerov’s assistants (the above-mentioned Borodin and Samsonov) had been recalled to Moscow, and he was left with a single assistant – an American named Helen Lowry (a distant relative of the American Communist party leader, Earl Browder), whom he subsequently married — to manage, according to long-time KGB intelligence operative Vitaly Pavlov, “around ten active sources, including sources at the Departments of State, War, Justice and Treasury.” After Akhmerov’s recall to Moscow in late 1939, these sources were “put on ice.” Akhmerov himself was demoted to a probationer of the American department, then headed by Vitaly Pavlov, a recent graduate of the INO intelligence school.
Soon after the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Akhmerov began preparing to return to the United States. He arrived in the US with his wife in late 1941, and in early 1942 began to resume contact with his sources. According to an official account, from 1942 to 1945 Akhmerov “used to obtain and send to the Center important political, scientific-technical and military information. Throughout that period he had personally involved several valuable agents into cooperation with the foreign intelligence.” According to Soviet intelligence communiqués decrypted in the course of the Venona operation, Akhmerov’s code names were Mayor and Albert.
According to the evaluation of Vitaly Pavlov, Akhmerov’s network was “the most comprehensive in the range of problems of interest to intelligence and the scope of its target agencies; and made an important contribution [to] the victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War” (the name of the Russian effort against the Nazis). However, in late 1945 Akhmerov’s operation was paralyzed following the defection to the FBI of Elizabeth Bentley, who named many of Akhmerov’s sources and their contacts.
After a hasty return to Moscow, Akhmerov (then holding the rank of colonel) was soon appointed deputy head of the department of illegal intelligence, and took an active part in organizing illegal intelligence networks in foreign countries. According to his official biography, he also made short-term foreign trips in an “illegal” capacity and helped in the training of future “illegals.” Akhmerov retired in 1955 and died in 1976. For his service he was awarded two orders of the Red Banner, the Badge of Honor order and many medals. 1
- Iskhak Akhmerov’s official bio at the SVR website (http://svr.gov.ru/history/ah.html); “Razvedchik-nelegal I.A. Akhmerov” – Ocherki istorii rossiiskoi vneshnei razvedki, tom 4, 1941-1945. Moskva: “Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija”, 2003. (“An illegal intelligence agent I.A. Akhmerov,” in Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, vol. 4, 1941-1945. Moscow: International Relations, 2003; Vitalij Pavlov, Tragedii sovetskoj razvedki. Moskva, Tsentrpoligraph, 2000, ss. 138-145. (Vitaly Pavlov, Tragedies of Soviet Intelligence. Moscow: Centerpoligraph, 2000, pp. 138-145.); Svetlana Chervonnaya, interviews with Lt.-Gen. Vitaly Pavlov, 2002. ↩