“Little Chocolate House” Stories: “Colonel Bykov”

On November 2, 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin posthumously decorated a former Soviet agent named George Koval as a Hero of Russia, the prominent American historian John Earl Haynes told the New York Times that this was “very exciting” because “we know very little about GRU operations in the United States.”1 Although the GRU cannot be expected to open its archives to scholars in the foreseeable future, there is still a certain amount of reliable information in Russia about GRU operations and people during the 1930s and World War II. This information includes scarce, declassified GRU records, traces and clues scattered in recently opened archival collections, oral histories and memoirs, and recent writings by Russian authors.

For years, it has puzzled me that, despite the existence of this fascinating and slowly growing body of information, many Western historians continue to consider the English language account given by Whittaker Chambers more than 50 years ago the final word on the subject of the GRU activities in the United States in the 1930s.2 When crosschecked against available documentation, however, many of his stories, rather than serving as reliable insights into history, turn out to be odd mixes of fact and fiction rearranged to heighten drama or make Chambers himself the heroic center of the tale.

Take, for instance, Chambers’s story about a man he called “Colonel Bykov,” for whom he allegedly worked from the latter part of 1936 to the early months of 1938. In fact, during that time Chambers had no idea that the man whom he used to know only under an alias of “Peter” had the rank of a Colonel, or any military rank at all.

From the scarce documentation and the few publications which have surfaced since 1990, it would appear that the real man behind “Colonel Bykov” was in fact one Boris Yakovlevich Bukov. Although these two names look similar, they are pronounced differently in Russian and have different derivations (“Bukov” [Bu-kov] derives from the Russian word “buk” [bu:k], or beech tree, and “Bykov” [By-kov] from the word “byk,” meaning “bull”). The correct spelling of the man’s name has been available in Russian publications since the early 1990s; it was originally revealed by Petr Ivashutin, a former head of the GRU, in a well-known Russian history journal.3 However, this 1990 article and its subsequent reprints4 have had no impact upon recent American writing.5

Boris Bukov finally made it onto American radar in early 2005 – appearing in handwritten notes from a late 1940s report on failures suffered by Soviet intelligence as a result of several defections. These notes were taken in the early 1990s by a Russian journalist and former KGB foreign intelligence operative named Alexander Vassiliev, who was doing research at the SVR for a book undertaken as part of a joint Russian-American publishing project. (Later, after the original American publishers had withdrawn from this project, Vassiliev’s research would become the basis for a book named The Haunted Wood (1999), which he co-authored with Allen Weinstein.

Click here to learn more about Vassiliev’s notes and how they turned up, first in London and then in the United States.

In 2005 I posted a brief biographical reference about Bukov online, in English, in an annotated translation of Vassiliev’s notes about a particular document from the late 1940s. The document dealt with failures suffered by Soviet intelligence as result of the defections mentioned above – and supplied details about the Russian reference book that was my source of information.6

Click here to see my reference about Bukov in the English translation of Vassiliev’s notes.

It would take more than three years for this Russian source to be consulted for a Wikipedia reference on Boris Bukov. However, the writer of the Wikipedia entry still included the mythical “Colonel Bykov” of Chambers’s account – presumably in order to make Chambers’s story about “Bykov” square with new information that had recently been discovered. Otherwise, why continue to call the man “Bykov” and provide references to Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Sam Tanenhaus’s biography Whittaker Chambers and Allen Weinstein’s Perjury, which do not even mention the name Bukov or any of the details in the Wikipedia entry that were sourced entirely from the Russian book?7

Moreover, not only does Boris Bukov continue to be misnamed, but his role in the United States is also consistently misrepresented. According to available sources, Bukov reportedly ran an autonomous group of agents – he was never “chief agent for Russian military intelligence in the U.S.,” as he was portrayed in Chambers’s account and in subsequent retellings.8 Chambers’s biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, wrote that “Boris Bykov, a GRU agent from Odessa … had come to the United States in the summer [of 1936], with orders to supervise the country’s Soviet military intelligence operations.” 9 The latter statement is particularly amazing, because at the time of his meetings with “Colonel Bykov,” which Chambers dated as “roughly from September, 1936, into April, 1938,” 10 Chambers had no first-hand knowledge of the man’s identity or his “relationship to the Russian government,” not to mention his relationship to Soviet military intelligence. “The most definite thing” Chambers could say about the man whom he had known only as “Peter” was what he later heard from Walter Krivitsky, a former Soviet intelligence operative who defected to the West and arrived in the United States at the end of 1938.11

Click here to see what Chambers did, in fact, know firsthand about the man he called “Colonel Bykov.”

Click here to read more about Walter Krivitsky’s identification of “Colonel Bykov” in the late 1930s.

Neither Weinstein nor Tanenhaus nor other historians who followed in their footsteps have bothered to check whether such a thing as a “chief agent for Russian military intelligence” even existed at that time. In fact, an internal scandal and shakeup within Soviet intelligence had preceded Bukov’s arrival in the United States; under the new set-up, individual agent groups operating in the U.S. were autonomous with respect to each other. Bukov headed one of these individual groups.

A document which sheds light on the set-up of Bukov’s operations has been in the public domain in Moscow since 1994 – in the very same archive that houses the collections of the Communist Party of the United States and the Comintern.

In late 1933, Soviet military intelligence suffered large-scale failures in several European countries and in the United States – followed by detailed investigations of its organizational problems and shortcomings. On May 25, 1934, a major issue on the agenda of the meeting of Stalin’s Politburo was discussion of “The issues of the IV Directorate of RKKA,” the name of Soviet military intelligence at that time. The Soviet Politburo decided that the major reason for the scale of failures was the existence of large field stations supervising all the operations of military intelligence in a single country. The discussion resulted in a detailed resolution, which specifically warned about the danger of creating any large intelligence groups (or “residencies”). It was resolved to restructure the whole system of working with human sources immediately, by creating small residencies which would be completely autonomous in their communication with the Center and unaware of each other.12 The protocol of the Politburo meeting was then locked into the top-secret “Special File” – for 60 years.

Click here to have a look at a verbatim English translation of this fascinating document.

Click here to have a look at the scanned original.

The Politburo decision was followed by a total overhaul of the organizational principles of military intelligence operations, supervised by Arthur Artuzov – then head of OGPU foreign intelligence (known as INO) — whom Stalin appointed as deputy head of military intelligence. The operation of the new organizational system of autonomous agent groups would become the modus operandi of Soviet military intelligence for years to come.

We also know that, despite the assertions of Chambers and his biographers, Bukov’s work was not compromised by Chambers’s defection, and that his operations continued well into 1939. According to Chambers, his break with the Communist Party put an abrupt end to “Colonel Bykov”‘s operations:

“The Washington espionage apparatus had been short-lived. … My break with the Communist Party … was about to end it. Its life had been crowded into the space of a year and a half, roughly from September, 1936, into April, 1938.” 13

However, the real-life Colonel Boris Bukov remained in the United States until summer 1939 – providing Moscow Center with valuable information. Here is an excerpted translation of evidence from General Petr Ivashutin, the GRU director from 1963 to 1987 (emphasis added):

“… Stalinist repressions against the leadership of the Red Army at every level dealt a serious blow to military intelligence. …

… a considerable part of the foreign intelligence network, which had taken years to build, was liquidated. … Still, … intelligence officers who managed to survive, as well as [their] networks, were able to provide the Center with information on practically all major issues. This included information on the preparations by Nazi Germany and its allies for an attack against the USSR [and] on the substance of the policy of the USA, England and France towards the Soviet Union. These tasks were solved most efficiently … in Germany …, in Japan …, in Rumania …, in England …, in the U.S.A. (the groups of Adams, Bukov, Mulat), in France and Belgium …, in Switzerland …. … These groups included very well-informed people devoted to their cause. …” 14

General Ivashutin, who knew the history of his service first-hand, unequivocally listed Bukov’s group as one of the three U.S.-based units that were providing Moscow with high-grade intelligence after the wave of Stalinist repressions of 1937 -1938 had subsided.

Contrary to the impression on the U.S. side, Bukov was neither punished nor censured when he returned to Moscow in mid-1939, but rather continued his military intelligence career. According to available personnel data, he became a lecturer on the “agent-operation cycle” (known in the West as HUMINT) at the Higher Special School of the Red Army General Staff. In September 1940, he was promoted to Senior Instructor of the Chair of Intelligence – a position in which he served until June 1941. Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Bukov, who was fluent in German, was sent to train military interpreters as the Head of the Chair of Country Studies at a military school of the civilian Second Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages15 which later would become part of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages of the Red Army.

We also have reliable information about a number of other military intelligence agents operating in the United States at that time under the new organizational structure. One of the best known and most successful was Arthur Adams, who had been a resident of Soviet military intelligence in the United States from December 1935 to the spring of 1938 and again from June 1939 to sometime in 1945 (operating the second time under the code name “Achilles“). A few details of Adams’s operations are described in an article in Wikipedia; however, the sources and literature available on the Russian side have mostly remained untapped.

Click here to read how in the early 1950s the FBI came across evidence of Arthur Adams’s early operations in the United States.

Watch for alerts on this website to learn more about Arthur Adams and his U.S. missions.

Among the trio of GRU agents whom Director Ivashutin named in 1990, the one who has been least fortunate with American historians was a group leader then known only by his Russian code name, Mulat (“Mulatto”). Today, 15 years after his true identity was revealed in Russia, Mulat is still known to American espionage historians as “Ignacy Witczak.” According to one Russian source, this was the cover name of “a longtime GRU agent” who “set up clandestine networks along the West Coast” while teaching at the University of Southern California. The FBI “never knew” the real name of the little dark-haired man in thin-rimmed glasses, whom they put an unprecedented “fifty or sixty men out to watch” in late 1945 — after his cover had been blown following the defection in Canada of Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk of the Soviet military attaché and GRU resident there.16

In fact, Mulat’s cover was blown on the Russian side in the early 1990s, by none other than the man himself. For years there had been whispers among social science scholars at the Soviet Academy of Sciences that a senior scholar at its Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) named Zalman Vulfovich Litvin had a secret and heroic “past.” When I first talked to Litvin in early 1992, I quickly recognized him as the real person behind “Ignacy Witczak.” 17 Following Litvin’s death in 1993, his identity and life story became public knowledge. Litvin was first named as the GRU’s “illegal” resident in the United States in the late 1930s, and as an agent of Soviet military “strategic intelligence” in 1941-1945, by the late Colonel-General Anatoly Pavlov, a former first assistant head of the GRU and long-time chairman of its veterans association 18 In the early 2000s, word of Litvin’s exploits spread in Russian publications and then all over the Russian Internet. 19

However, for American scholars in the field, all these sources seem to be locked behind a Berlin wall, to judge from the October 2007 presentation by two American historians that I mentioned above. One of these men, John Earl Haynes, would confide to The New York Times just a month later that he knew “very little about GRU operations in the United States.” Knowing “very little” seems to be the operative mode here in recounting the history of Soviet military espionage in America – with gaps in knowledge filled in by fantasy.

Speaking at a 2007 Cryptological History Symposium sponsored by the National Security Agency 20, Haynes and his frequent co-author, Harvey Klehr, dramatically revealed the story of a GRU agent in California named Ignacy Witczak. Here was a never-activated “sleeper agent,” they explained, who was kept “sleeping” from 1937 through 1945, in order to establish his cover for future exploits. 21 A good story for riveting the attention of a professional audience, it would have been much more thrilling had it been accurate.

As we have known for a long time, Zalman Vulfovich Litvin was wide awake during this period and was running an efficient operation, which at its height reportedly numbered 10 agents, all working on an “ideological basis,” without pay. From what Litvin told me in 1992, he had no time to “sleep” at all. Arriving in Los Angeles in early 1938, together with his wife and assistant, Bunya, he had to create an agent network to provide liaison with Soviet intelligence in Japan. Litvin reportedly accomplished the task within that same year – by organizing his residency and establishing a messenger communication line with Japan. After the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941, Litvin was assigned to obtain military and military-industrial information on new developments in aviation construction, radio engineering, shipbuilding, etc. – both in Japan and in the United States. He operated undetected on the West Coast for about eight years, until the fall of 1945, when he was compromised by Igor Gouzenko and had to flee the United States. So far, Litvin’s story has appeared only in Russian – and that simply makes it more difficult for English speakers to access.

Getting back to George Koval, the Soviet agent whom President Putin decorated posthumously in 2007, I am still puzzled by the fact that his story managed to evade the eye of an American authority on Stalin-era Soviet espionage like John Earl Haynes. True, Koval’s role was never officially recognized until November 2007. Beginning in 1999, however, the details of his stunning undercover career have been gradually unveiled in several articles – and in a book by one Vladimir Lota, a Russian chronicler of the GRU who clearly had access to some GRU records. Even more puzzling is the fact that Koval’s FBI file was declassified a few years ago and since then open for review.22

Amazingly enough, Koval’s cover was originally blown by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when the first full version of his novel, The First Circle, was published in the West by YMCA-Press in 1978. (The novel begins with a Soviet diplomat calling the U.S. Embassy in Moscow – to warn that a Soviet agent in New York named George Koval is about to obtain details of U.S. atomic bomb production.) I agree with John Earl Haynes that Koval’s outing was “very exciting” news – but I have to point out that the news was already over 30 years old!

Watch for alerts on this website to read more stories from “the little chocolate house.”

  1. “A Spy’s Path: Iowa to A-Bomb to Kremlin Honor,” by William J. Broad, The New York Times, November 12, 2007.
  2. See, for example, The Secret World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, Yale University Press, 1995; Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein, second revised edition, New York: Random House, 1997; Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus, New York: The Modern Library, 1997; The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, New York: Random House, 1999; VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Yale University Press, 1999; The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Basic Books, 1999; In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003; “From Whittaker Chambers to George W. Bush: The End of the Journey,” by Sam Tanenhaus, The New Republic, July 2, 2007; “”Ales” is Still Hiss: The Wilder Foote Red Herring,” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, presented at the 2007 Symposium on Cryptological History, October 19, 2007, The Center for Cryptological History, retrieved from www.johnearlhaynes.org.
  3. Petr Ivashutin, “Dokladyvala tochno” – Voenno-istoricheskij zhurnal, 1990, No. 5 (Petr Ivashutin, “Reported Precisely” – The Journal of Military History, 1990, No. 5.)
  4. Most recently, General Ivashutin’s article was reprinted in a GRU reference book: GRU: Dela i ljudi, V.M. Lurie, V. Ya. Kochik, Moskva: Olma-Press, 2003 (GRU: Deeds and People, by V.M. Lurie, V.Ya. Kochik, Moscow: Olma-Press, 2003.) The same book provided Boris Bukov’s biographical reference.[[5. Ibid., p. 356.
  5. See Bykov, for example, in Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus, Op. Cit., 1997, pp. 108-112, 113-119, 125, 127, 129, 131, 133-134, 136-140, 146, 148-149, 158, 295, 306, 312, 316, 363, 422, 439; The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – the Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, Op. Cit., 1999, pp. 12, 43, 44, 45; VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, 1999, Op. Cit., pp. 66, 126, 167, 202, 227; In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr. Op. Cit., 2003, pp. 166, 186; Early Cold War Spies, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 110, 111, 116; “”Ales” is Still Hiss: The Wilder Foote Red Herring,” Op. Cit.
  6. A. Gorsky’s report – to Savchenko S.R. 23 December, [19]49, an annotated translation, April 2005; revised October 2005. – http://algerhiss.com/gorskylist.html
  7. See “Boris Bukov” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Bykov. The article first appeared on January 3, 2009.
  8. See, for example, Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Op. Cit., p. 229.
  9. Sam Tanenhaus, Op. Cit., p. 108.
  10. Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952, p. 441.
  11. “The Transcripts of Grand Jury Testimony in the Alger Hiss Case – The Testimony of Whittaker Chambers,” December 8, 1948, pp. 3593-3596; January 18, 1949, p. 5485.
  12. “Protocol of the Meeting of Politburo No. 7 from May 25, 1934,” p.[point] 229/213 – Fund 17, description 162, file 16, pp. 65, 64, RGASPI.
  13. Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, Op. Cit., p. 441.
  14. Petr Ivashutin, “Dokladyvala Tochno”; (Petr Ivashutin, “Reported Precisely” – Cit., GRU: Deeds and People, Op. Cit., p. 558).
  15. GRU: Deeds and People, pp. 90, 356.
  16. The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story, by Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, New York: Random House, 1986, pp. 34-35.
  17. Svetlana Chervonnaya’s interviews with Zalman Litvin, May 5, 1992; also in early 1993.
  18. “Sovetskaja voennaja razvedka nakanune velikoj otechestvennoj vojny ,” A.G. Pavlov- Novaja i novejshaja istorija, 1995, No. 1, ss. 27-30. (“Soviet Military Intelligence on the Eve of the Great Patriotic War,” by A.G. Pavlov – Modern and Contemporary History, 1995, No. 1, pp. 27-30); “Voennaja razvedka SSSR v 1941-1945 gg.,” A.G. Pavlov – Novaja i novejshaja istorija, 1995, No 2, ss. 48-59 ( “Military Intelligence of the USSR in 1941-1945,” by A.G. Pavlov – Modern and Contemporary History,1995, No 2, pp. 48-59.)
  19. In the early 2000s, Litvin’s story also appeared in some memoirs – for instance, in: Eto nevozmozhno zabyt’, Etinzher Ya. Ya., Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2001 (This is Impossible to Forget, by Etinger Ya. Ya., Moscow: The Whole World, 2001.) In 2003, Litvin’s bio appeared in the above cited historical reference book on the GRU (V.M. Lurie and V. Ya. Kochik, Op. Cit., p. 423.) The book also reprinted the above-mentioned articles by Petr Ivashutin and Anatoly Pavlov. In early 2004, a considerably expanded story appeared in the book by one of the co-authors of the GRU reference book: Razvedchiki i rezidenty GRU, V. Kochik, Moskva: Eksmo, 2004 (Intelligence Officers and Residents of the GRU, by V. Kochik, Moscow: Eksmo, 2004.) Litvin’s bio also appears in a Russian online encyclopedia, “Intelligence and Counterintelligence by Names” (http://rusrazvedka.narod.ru/base/htm/lit.html) and in other Web resources.
  20. Cryptological History Symposium, “Cryptology and Community”, sponsored by the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptological History, October 18-19, 2007, John Hopkins University.
  21. “‘Ales’ is Still Hiss: The Wilder Foote Red Herring,” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Op. Cit.
  22. “Sovershenno sekretno,” Vladimir Lota, Kluchi ot ada., avgust 1999 (“Keys to the Inferno,” by Vladimir Lota –Top Secret, August, 1999); “Operatsija ‘Del’mar’,” Vladimir Lota – Krasnaja Zvezda, 19 aprelja 2002 (“Operation ‘Delmar,'” by Vladimir Lota – Red Star, April 19, 2002; “Ego zvali ‘Del’mar,'” Vladimir Lota – Krasnaja Zvezda, 25 ijulja 2007. (“His Name Was ‘Delmar,'” by Vladimir Lota – Red Star, July 25, 2007. In 2002, the story appeared in a book by the same author: GRU i atomnaja bomba, Vladimir Lota, Moskva: Olma Press, 2002 (GRU and the Atomic Bomb, by Vladimir Lota, Moscow: Olma Press, 2002.) Ads for the book have appeared on a number of English-language websites: www.yalepress.yale.edu; allbookstores.com; eastview.com; russianthings.com; store.rulist.com; bodley.ox.ac.uk, and others. “Agent Del’mar vykhodit na svjaz’,” by Andrei Shitov. Rossiiskaja gazeta, 30 janvarja 2008 (“Agent Delmar Comes into Contact,” by Andrey Shitov, Russian Newspaper, January 30, 2008.) A few years ago, Koval’s FBI file was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Dr. Arnold Kramish, the US nuclear physicist veteran and researcher into the history of the Soviet atomic espionage.