Harris, Catherine (Kitty) (1899-1966)

Catherine Harris

A long-time special courier of the OGPUNKVD foreign intelligence during the 1930s and 1940s.

Kitty Harris was born in London in 1899 to a Jewish family headed by a shoemaker from Belostok, the Russian Empire (now Bialystok, Poland). In 1908, the family moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where Kitty finished four grades of school. At the age of 13, she began earning her living, first at a cigar factory, where her vividness and dark eyes earned her the nickname, “Gypsy” – which would become one of her operational pseudonyms years later – and then as a seamstress. She joined the labor union and was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Later, influenced by the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, she joined the revolutionary movement, leaving the IWW in 1919 or thereafter. Having moved with her family to Chicago, she became the secretary of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers local and joined the CPUSA in January 1923.

In 1925, Harris reportedly married Earl Browder, a prominent CPUSA functionary who later became the party’s head. In late 1927, she was transferred to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (VCP (b)) – to “work in the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat” (PPTUS) of the Comintern. 1 In 1928, on assignment from the Comintern, she went to Shanghai, China with Earl Browder, where he became the secretary of the PPTUS and she became its courier. In mid-1929, Kitty followed Browder to Moscow, where he was summoned “to report for special work and to take part in the plenum of the ECCI. 2 Upon her return to the United States, Harris worked at the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), which was organized in 1925 by the American Communist Party to address the social and economic concerns of African-Americans.

In 1931, Harris was recruited into OGPU foreign intelligence (the INO), and the next year she was sent to Berlin and assigned the cover name “Gypsy.” (By that time, she had already separated from Browder.) In Berlin, she was part of the INO “illegal” station. In October 1935, she went to Moscow, where she went through training in radio operation, photography and cryptography.

In April 1936, Harris was sent to Paris as the radio operator of the NKVD “illegal” station. In January 1937, she was recalled to Moscow for training in working with new equipment, and in May of that year she arrived in London to become the keeper and courier of a safe flat, with the cover names of, first, “Norma” and later, “Ada.” Under the guidance of the “legal” resident, Gregory Grafpen, she served as a liaison with Donald Maclean, a member of the famous “Cambridge Five” group of NKVD sources. Eventually, she fell in love with Maclean. In December 1937, Harris successfully applied for Soviet citizenship. In 1938, she followed Maclean after he was transferred to Paris, continuing to ensure a reliable liaison with this important source. In 1939, however, their relationship came to an end after Maclean met an American girl whom he subsequently married. Following the Nazi occupation of France, Harris escaped to Moscow in July 1940 and was assigned to the NKGB foreign intelligence reserve.

On June 22, 1941, the day of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, Harris wrote a personal letter to Pavel Fitin, the head of Soviet foreign intelligence: “I request to be involved in the work immediately. I can go to the front as a radio operator, can make soldier’s blouses; finally, with my experience in underground work, I am not afraid to go behind the enemy lines.” 3

Instead, Harris was sent to the Mexican station via the United States. In November 1941, she sailed to the United States, arriving on the West Coast in December. For a few months she worked with the NKGB “legal” station in Los Angeles. Finally, at the end of 1942, she arrived in Mexico, where she worked as an agent-courier, cipher clerk and in many other capacities until her return to Moscow in July 1946.

Harris was an outstanding agent-courier who spoke four languages; in 16 years of service, she worked under 17 different names, under more than 40 Soviet intelligence officers, with 24 agents. 4

In Moscow, it turned out that her Soviet citizenship papers had been lost, and that as a foreigner she had no right to reside in the capital. In February 1947, she was sent to Riga, Latvia (then part of the USSR.) That May, she was readmitted to Soviet citizenship but was required to stay in Riga, where she was arrested by the Latvian MGB in October 1951 as a “socially dangerous element,” on the basis of the infamous article 7-35 of the criminal code. In February 1952, Harris was sent for compulsory treatment in a prison psychiatric hospital in Gorky (now Samara). Article 7-35 was revoked after Stalin’s death in 1953, but Harris’s case was not closed until 1954, after the head of the MVD interceded on her behalf. Following her release, Harris remained in Gorky, where she lived until her death in 1966. 5

  1. Kitty Harris’s original Comintern “silk” (a little piece of silk bearing typed text, which certified a Communist’s party status and his or her mission), dated December 9, 1927. – CPUSA files, fund 515, description 1, file 4144, p. 92, RGASPI.
  2. Earl Browder’s original Comintern “silk,” dated June 21, 1929, in Earl Browder’s personal Comintern file, fund 495, description 261, file 16, p. 99.
  3. “Svjaznaja Dzhipsi – ‘Tsyganochka’,” Ocherki po istorii rossiiskoi vneshnei razvedki, Moskva: Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija, 2003, tom 4, 1941-1945, s. 259 (“The Courier ‘Gypsy’,” Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, Moscow: International Relations, 2003, vol. 4, 1941-1945, p. 259.
  4. Ibid., p. 255.
  5. Igor Damaskin. Semnadtsat’ imen Kitti Harris. Moskva: Geja, 1999. (Igor Damaskin, The Seventeen Names of Kitty Harris, Moscow: Geya, 1999.)