A Soviet Armenian intelligence officer and leader who was an NKVD “legal” operative and resident in New York from 1933 to 1941. Considered one of the best Soviet intelligence officers, he held the rank of Major-General.
Ovakimyan was born on August 11, 1898 to the family of a lower clerk in the village Dzhagry in the Nakhichevan district of the Erevan gubernia of the Russian Empire. In 1914, he graduated from the higher primary school in Armavir (Northern Caucusus); from 1914 to 1917, he studied at an agricultural-engineering school (college) in Grigoripoliss in the Kuban’ region. In 1917, he began to earn his living as a probationer at rail repair shops in the South of Russia. In June 1917, he joined the local Armenian section of the Communist Party as a candidate, and in August 1918, he became a member of the RCP (b).
In early 1919, Ovakimyan and a group of other Armenian refugees moved to Aleksandropol (present-day Gyumri) in the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (DRA) – sometimes referred to as “Wilsonian Armenia” because the borders of the new country were to be drawn by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. In May 1920, Ovakimyan took part in a mass uprising against the ruling “dashnak” party organized by the local Bolsheviks. He was arrested and sentenced to a prison term. Freed after the collapse of the short-lived Armenian Republic in December 1920, Ovakimyan served briefly in the newly organized regional Cheka. In early 1921, he was in Erevan, the Armenian capital, as a Cheka official. In early 1922, he became executive secretary of the highest executive agency in Armenia, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom), but in September of that year he moved to Moscow to enroll in the chemistry department of the Moscow Higher Technical School [University], which was famous for its analytical and chemical engineering laboratories.
After a year of study, Ovakimyan went to work at the Economic Directorate of the OGPU, which was fighting economic crime. He resumed his studies in January 1925 and graduated in December 1929. The next year, he became a graduate student of the Moscow Institute of Chemical Engineering, but in early 1931, he had to interrupt his studies again when the Communist Party Central Committee sent him back to the OGPU, this time to its foreign intelligence department (the INO). 1
From March 1931 to August 1932, Ovakimyan was posted in Berlin as assistant “legal” resident for scientific and technical intelligence, under the cover of the Soviet Trade Mission. In Berlin, he received his first introduction to the field of nuclear physics, after recruiting a source at a Berlin physical laboratory which was working on building high-energy accelerators. 2 According to his official biography, “he recruited sources of valuable scientific and technical information, including a source who would later become part of the anti-Nazi underground organization known as the “Red Orchestra.” 3 Recalled to Moscow in August 1932, Ovakimyan resumed his graduate studies, this time at the Red Army Military Chemical Academy.
In June 1933, Ovakimyan returned to the INO OGPU and was posted in New York City as assistant “legal” resident for scientific and technical intelligence, with a cover job as head of the chemical bureau and assistant representative of the People’s Commissariat (Narcomat)) of the Tank Industry. [4. Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, Op. cit., p. 5.] In New York, Ovakimyan continued his graduate studies and subsequently earned his Ph.D. in chemistry.
After the recall of the “legal” resident Peter Gutzeit in 1938, Ovakimyan became the “legal” resident himself. He is credited with acquiring valuable sources “who obtained specifications on the processing of sour crude, the production of lubricants and petrol for aviation, synthetic rubber, polyethylene, a number of warfare toxins, dyes used in war industries as well as on cutting-edge chemical equipment, achievements in radio engineering and other fields.” 4 In December 1939, Ovakimyan became the case officer for Jacob Golos, one of the most important Soviet intelligence assets in the United States in the 1930s. With his extensive networks, Golos became a de facto “illegal” sub-resident in Ovakimyan’s station. Among his accomplishments, Ovakimyan is also often credited with being the first intelligence officer to inform Moscow about American work on developing the atomic bomb.
On May 5, 1941, Ovakimyan was arrested by FBI agents in New York City at a meeting with one of his sources and charged with violation of the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act. Released on $25,000 bail, he never came to trial. After the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, a diplomatic agreement was reached allowing Ovakimyan to return to the Soviet Union in exchange for letting several Russian-born wives of Americans immigrate to the United States. He left San Francisco on July 23, 1941. 5
On his return to Moscow, Ovakimyan became the head of a department at the NKGB foreign intelligence headquarters. In 1943, having been promoted to the first assistant head of foreign intelligence, with the rank of Major General, he was in charge of issues connected with atomic intelligence. He is credited with playing “an important role in the organization of obtaining atomic secrets in the USA and Great Britain, as well as in the creation of nuclear weapons in the USSR.” At the end of 1943, Ovakimyan was named liaison officer with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American World War II-period central intelligence agency. Under the name of “Colonel Osipov,” he met with its head, William Donovan, during Donovan’s visit to the USSR. 6
In 1947, during the reorganization of Soviet intelligence, the MGB and GRU branches were temporarily brought under the umbrella of the Committee of Information (KI). Around the same time, Ovakimyan was forced to resign from the intelligence service. He later became head of one of the research institutes of the Soviet Ministry of the Chemical Industry, and continued in that and similar positions until his death in 1967.
- These biographical details were ascertained from Ovakimyan’s Soviet Communist Party “vetting” file, which is part of the collection of VCP (b) Central Committee “vetting” files on Communists who returned from overseas trips between 1936 and 1941. – Fund 17 (Central Committee, CPSU), description 97, file 1096, p. 4, RGASPI. ↩
- Ocherki po istorii rossiiskoi vneshnei razvedki, Moskva: Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija, 2003, tom 3, 1933-1941, ss. 403-405 (Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, Moscow: International Relations, 2003, vol. 3, 1933-1941, pp. 403-405. ↩
- http://svr.gov.ru/history/ovakimjan.html ↩
- Ibid., p. 177. ↩
- “Correspondence around the arrest of Gajk Ovakimyan,” Fund 0129 (Information [Referentura] on the USA), description 25a, P. 236, folder 6, pp. 39-132, AVP RF. ↩
- http://svr.gov.ru/history/ovakimjan.html; Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, vol. 4, 1941-1945, Moscow: International Relations, 2003, pp. 401, 408-415. ↩