The “Mary Martin” Note: A Glimpse into 1938 Events on the Soviet “Receiving End”

Soviet diplomatic files from 1938 provide a glimpse into the alleged Soviet “receiving end” of one of the key items of physical evidence in the Alger Hiss perjury trials – the “Mary Martin note” in Alger Hiss’s handwriting. By “receiving end” I mean foreign – in this case, Soviet – intelligence, to which the note was allegedly directed. Prosecution on U.S. espionage charges requires proving the existence of a “receiving end,” that is, proof that the information being handed over was intended for a foreign power, to the detriment of the United States and the benefit of that power. (You can look up the Baltimore Documents Overview on this site to read a contemporary FBI discussion of “legal and investigative” requirements for prosecuting for espionage or conspiracy to commit espionage.)

Russian diplomatic records from 1938 are complete and mostly declassified, except for “cipher correspondence” files (from Russian “shifroperepiska”, that is, coded correspondence) with decoded texts of diplomatic messages originally sent in code, which are not available to researchers, and a few files with a 75-year moratorium on making xerox copies. However, the “cream” of the cipher correspondence from the period is accessible in the files containing the Soviet Foreign Office’s correspondence with the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

For a firsthand look at the American response to Soviet behavior during the Soviet-American diplomatic crisis of early 1938 known as the Rubens-Robinson case, here is a February 15, 1938 memorandum from Loy Henderson, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, to the U.S. Secretary of State:

The evident desire of the Soviet authorities to keep the American Government from eliciting information regarding the activities of Mr. and Mrs. Rubens naturally gives rise to the suspicion that the hands of those authorities are not entirely clean in so far as the case is concerned. On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that the Soviet police are accustomed to act in an extremely secretive manner even when there would appear to be no valid reason for secretiveness. 1

As we now know, there were two valid reasons for the Soviets’ secretiveness. First was the fact that “Donald L. Robinson”, the name on the U.S. Department files on the case, was a Soviet intelligence officer who returned to the USSR following several years as an “illegal” intelligence operative and resident in the United States. Second was the fact that the crime the Soviets charged “Rubens-Robinson” with was not entering the USSR on a fraudulent passport but rather espionage on behalf of the Nazis – a standard charge used in Stalinist purge trials of the period. 2

Hence, it was obviously in the Soviets’ best interest to keep Americans in the dark about the true nature of the case – and simultaneously to minimize the threat it posed to already shaky Soviet-American relations.

From an informational standpoint, the Soviets had an advantage: Their “competent authorities” had firsthand knowledge of Rubens-Robinson’s identity – and of his career path. Moreover, the Soviets took advantage of American openness: Their diplomatic outpost in Washington, D.C. was tracking official State Department releases on the progress of the Rubens-Robinson case, as well as almost daily investigative reports in the press 3 – and keeping Moscow informed.

From Soviet diplomatic files of the period, we can get a glimpse of the two potential Soviet “receiving ends” in this case: 1) the Foreign Office (NKID), which had to maintain an all-round defense against the information requests of the Americans, and 2) the Soviet security agency, the NKVD, which arrested the Rubens-Robinsons and investigated their case. The third participant – the Soviet military intelligence with which “Donald Robinson” had served – was at that time weakened by mass purges and, according to some contemporary documents, totally demoralized. 4

As is obvious from Russian diplomatic files, the goal was to keep the Americans in the dark – and minimize the damage to Soviet-American relations. The files I have reviewed provide no indication of any informational interest on the Soviet side, nor information-sharing on the part of their military intelligence.

Here is how the Rubens-Robinson case looked from the Russian end:

January, 5, 1938, Washington, D.C.:

On instructions from Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Soviet Ambassador Alexander Trojanovsky received a memorandum from the U.S. Department of State. In the Soviet Ambassador’s view, the memorandum “has resulted from the desire of the officials of the American Embassy in Moscow and the Department of State to make use of the irritation of Hull and probably Roosevelt in connection with the Robinsons case.” 5

January 7, 1938, Moscow:

More than a month after the arrests of the Rubens-Robinsons, the U.S. Embassy sent a note to the Soviet Foreign Office “with a query whether the Rubenses have been arrested here.” By that time, American authorities had already ascertained that “Mrs. Robinson” was in fact the American national Ruth Marie Boerger Rubens, who was born in Philadelphia in 1908, married Adolph Arnold Rubens in 1935 and had an American passport, No. 264324, issued on April 3, 1936. The note informed the Soviets of the results of the State Department investigation – and asked them to elucidate the present whereabouts of Mrs. Rubens, and, if she had been arrested, to provide information about the charges against her.

Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov decided “that this time we would not give the Embassy any information again.” 6

Still, the Soviet diplomats acknowledged that, with the U.S. note of January 7, “the case had entered a new phase.” Hence, Litvinov instructed his first deputy, Vladimir Potemkin, to send an official informational request to NKVD head Nickolai Ezhov.

January 10, 1938:

This Top Secret request was sent via special messenger from the NKID building to the NKVD “neighbors” across the street.

Informing the NKVD head about current developments in the case and the scope of American knowledge, Potemkin suggested the following: “To state to the Americans that the Robinsons equipped with American passports had indeed resided at the National Hotel; that later they checked out of the Hotel one after another and their present whereabouts had not yet been ascertained. Since American authorities had discovered that the said Robinsons were equipped with fraudulent passports, we may assume that besides American they might have in store other foreign passports under which they might be residing somewhere in the USSR or had even managed to go abroad. At any rate, their traces had not been discovered.” Potemkin asked the NKVD for their “opinion on this matter.” 7

The “opinion” of the NKVD would take a week to arrive.

January 13, 1938, Moscow:

Meanwhile, in Moscow, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Loy Henderson visited Fedor Weinberg, the head of the Third Western Department of the NKID – to show Weinberg a cable that Henderson had just received from U.S. Secretary of State Hull, asking him [Henderson] to speed up the Soviet response in the Rubens case.

Weinberg told Henderson that the Foreign Commissariat “had informed the competent authorities” (an obvious reference to Potemkin’s letter to Ezhov) “on the content of the Embassy’s note but had not received any response thus far.” 8

January 15, 1938:

According to Weinberg’s books, on January 15, 1938, “Henderson called him by telephone and asked to speed up response to the Embassy’s note in the Rubens case.” 9

Later that same day, Weinberg ran across Henderson at a session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (the name of the Russian quasi-parliament). Henderson used the opportunity to explain “the reasons behind the heightened interest of the American Government in the Rubens case.” Here is Henderson’s explanation, in an account by Weinberg:

In his opinion, the State Department to some extent is looking upon this case as a precedent. Since, despite numerous approaches to us by the U.S. Government and the State Department, we have not found it possible to provide the Embassy with information as stipulated in the Roosevelt-Litvinov Agreement, one can predict that in other cases we will also not inform the Embassy about the arrests of U.S. citizens. In Henderson’s opinion, this is the whole point. It is absolutely clear to him that Mrs. Rubens has committed a crime, since she entered the USSR on a fraudulent passport. If we could tell the Americans that she was arrested and charged with this crime, the U.S. Government would be totally satisfied. However, the fact that for such a long time they have been unable to obtain any information from us creates a very bad impression in America.

To Henderson’s tirade, Weinberg replied that “the only thing we could do was to transmit the information provided to us by [the U.S.] Embassy to the competent authorities and to ask them to clear up this matter.” 10

However, the matter was not to clear up for several more days.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Secretary Hull and his Special Assistant James Dunn had a conversation with Soviet Ambassador Trojanovsky, who told them that the “NKVD had been informed about the great significance Americans attached to this case,” but that to date the NKID had not yet received “an answer from the NKVD.”

January 17, 1938:

By coincidence, the long-waited answer arrived via special messenger exactly at the time Weinberg was finishing writing his six-page reference for Narcom Litvinov “on the substance of the issues touched upon in the conversation of Comr.[ade] Trojanovsky with Hull and Dunn.” The timing is obvious from a last-minute, handwritten addition Weinberg made in his reference:

(We have just received information from c.[omrade] Frinovsky, on the basis of which it is possible to give an answer to the Embassy.) 11

The NKVD’s “Top Secret” response to the NKID’s request for information was signed by Mikhail Frinovsky, then first deputy head of the NKVD. From Frinovsky’s language, it appears that it had taken some deliberations (Frinovsky refers to these as “negotiations”) to come up with “a legend” 12 or story the diplomats should keep to in their dealings with the American side.

The suggested “legend” listed the circumstances of the arrival in Moscow “in the month of November” of “two unknown foreigners” – Robinson, Donald Louis, and Robinson, Ruth Norma,
“whose strange behavior aroused the suspicions of the appropriate authorities.” “Approximately in the middle of November Robinson, Donald Louis left the hotel and had not returned for several days. Mrs. Robinson, Ruth Norma reported that he had checked into one of the Moscow hospitals; however, she did not know the exact address and name of the hospital. The search for Robinson, Donald Louis in the hospitals of Moscow and the Moscow region did not produce any result”— and his wife could not provide any more information about him.

The NKVD’s story went on to suggest that “in the first days of December a citizen was detained in Sverdlovsk as a suspect. In the course of a physical search and a search through his personal items, several passports in different names and surnames were discovered, including a passport of the North American United States in the name of ROBINSON Donald Louis,” which raised a suspicion of espionage. Robinson was arrested, and his wife’s arrest followed “in a few days.” Ruth Norma Robinson was arrested as an espionage suspect – and her passport, as well as that of her husband, was considered “suspect with the authorities.”

As to the current state of the case, Soviet diplomats were to inform their American counterparts that “the case is under investigation. If espionage is not proven and the passport issued to Robinson Ruth Norma … turns out to be genuine, appropriate authorities would not object to releasing Robinson Ruth Norma and deporting her to the nation she is a citizen of.” 13

January 18, 1938:

The next day, January 18, 1938, Weinberg “summoned Henderson to tell him the information on the Rubens case … now received from the competent authorities.” Adhering strictly to the NKVD’s suggested legend, Weinberg recounted the circumstances of the Robinsons’ arrival in Moscow and subsequent arrests. In addition to the story provided by Frinovsky, Weinberg said, “These doubts and suspicions were reconfirmed in connection with the State Department statement released in the U.S.A. that the Robinson couple obtained passports on the basis of fraudulent documents.”  On behalf of “the competent Soviet authorities” (an euphemism to describe the NKVD), Weinberg expressed gratitude to the American government for its information that the “infamous Robinson is an American citizen Ruth Norma Rubens (born Boerger). They [the competent authorities] asked us to let the [U.S.] Embassy know that no passport in the name of Rubens was discovered with the arrested woman. Our authorities 14 are continuing the investigation.”

According to the record entered in Weinberg’s books under January 18, “Henderson was very happy with the information provided to him and asked to pass to the competent authorities the appreciation of the U.S. Embassy. Saying this, he expressed his desire to dispatch to us the photos of [Mrs.] Rubens in possession of the Embassy, in case this could facilitate the investigation.” 15

Henderson’s happiness was merely diplomatic politesse. By that time, both in Washington, D.C. and in New York, an investigation of the Rubens-Robinson case was in full swing, complete with a grand jury hearing and daily newspaper headlines.

The next record discovered in the Soviet files is dated January 26, 1938. However, this week-long gap can be filled in with a record discovered on the U.S. side.

January 19, 1938:

Secretary Hull cabled Henderson in Moscow “to request that a member of the Embassy staff be permitted to interview Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens without delay” – and simultaneously instructed his Division of European Affairs to visit Constantine Oumansky at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., to familiarize him with the cable sent to Henderson. According to American records of the conversation, the immediate interest of the Department of State was not just in the welfare of an American citizen, but “in finding out how she happens to be in the position in which she now finds herself.” However, “Mr. Oumansky did not promise that his Embassy would communicate with the Soviet Foreign Office in the sense … outlined” in the memorandum. 16

It appears from Ambassador Trojanovsky’s “informational letter” to Foreign Commissar Litvinov, dated January 26, 1938, that Secretary Hull undertook to talk to the Soviet Ambassador, who reported to the head of his Foreign Office that Hull “was not only nervous in connection with the Robinsons’ case, but also, probably incited by his officials, had posed in rather poignant form a number of questions concerning the situation of the American Embassy in Moscow.” 17

That was the status quo by January 28, 1938, when Loy Henderson sent his “Mary Martin” cable to Washington, D.C. In Russian diplomatic files, there is no record of any communications on the Rubens-Robinson case between January 26 and January 31, 1938.

January 31, 1938, Moscow:

In a conversation with Weinberg at the Soviet Foreign Office, Henderson “again came back to the Robinson-Rubens case.” In what could have been a response to his receipt of the Mary Martin cable, Henderson said that “for American authorities it would be very important to obtain the passport of Rubens whom the U.S. authorities consider their citizen, as well as [the passport] of her husband,” since the U.S. government was “interested in tracking the movement of these individuals … by way of examining the passport and the visas in it.” To bolster his request, Henderson mentioned “the fact that [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull considered this case very significant and [had] discussed this issue with Trojanovsky.”

Weinberg, however, responded that Henderson’s request was “unrealistic,” since the passports “were physical evidence” in the case, which was now under investigation. 18

Since Henderson’s visit to Weinberg came so soon after the January 28 date of the Mary Martin cable, one would expect to find some evidence of it in Russian diplomatic files – if, indeed, the information in the cable was important to the Soviets. Had this information been reported to the Soviets via their intelligence networks, there would be some more tangible trace of the cable in the Russian files – but there is none.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy continued pressing for an interview with the arrested Mrs. Rubens, which was finally granted on February 9, 1938. As Weinberg explained to Henderson on that day, although the investigation was not yet over, “the competent authorities” (by implication, the NKVD) “considered it possible, as an exception, to allow this meeting.” In his record, Weinberg specified that “this conversation … took place in the presence of the investigator.” 19

The interview finally took place on February 10, 1938 at the Butyrskaya Prison. The Russian record of the interview is basically similar to the American, except for Henderson’s question about the identity of one Mary Smied, which is missing from the Russian record. Of interest for the current discussion is not the substance of the record (which is similar to the U.S. Embassy record in State Department files), but its dismissive tone and occasional expressions of opinion by Russian diplomats.

The Russian record is clear that “the obvious goal of the Americans was to obtain information about the people involved in obtaining fraudulent passports in the U.S.A., as well as about the route of the trip of the arrested to the U.S.S.R. after she disembarked in Naples.”

By the end, the record noted that “Mr. Henderson was obviously discouraged” with Mrs. Rubens’s “refusing assistance and [her] unwillingness to return to the U.S.A. Following these answers, [U.S. official Angus] Ward began looking at her with a wolf-like expression.” (Here the record writer used the Russian colloquial expression “smotret’ volkom,;” a verbatim translation into English would be “looking in a wolf-like manner.”)

However, despite their evident discouragement and the failure of their mission, the American diplomats kept up appearances: “While saying good-bye, Mr. Henderson told NKVD investigator Yamnitsky that he understood how difficult the investigator’s work must be, since he himself got tired from this single conversation and the resulting nervous strain. Ward departed with a little bow.” 20

The NKVD apparently felt that the outcome of the prison interview was a success, because the NKVD decided to have TASS, the Soviet information agency, publish a report about it. The NKVD’s deputy head, Frinovsky, informed his NKID counterpart, Potemkin about this intention – and sent him his draft of an information release. However, the diplomats obviously did not share the enthusiasm of their NKVD “neighbors.”

On February 11, 1938, Potemkin wrote to Stalin (with copies sent to Molotov and Ezhov) to express his “doubts on the advisability” of the proposed press release. First, Potemkin saw no need for TASS to publish any information, and, moreover, thought that such a course of action “might be interpreted to the effect that we attach some special significance to this case.” Next, the permission for a prison interview given to the Americans was exclusive and “might be exploited by other missions as a precedent.” Finally, “the Americans themselves, having obtained from us what we do not provide to others, would take a TASS report as a new justification of their claims to be treated as the greatest power” – leading to further requests, which “are already becoming intolerable.” 21

It appears that Stalin’s diplomats prevailed over their NKVD “neighbors,” for there is no further mention of a TASS release in the diplomatic files. What is obvious from reading these 1938 files is that, from February 11 on, the furor over the Rubens-Robinson case had obviously subsided, with only occasional later references appearing months apart.

  1. Enclosure No. 1 to dispatch No. 938, dated February 15, 1938, from the Embassy at Moscow, p. 3. – Loy W. Henderson to The Honorable Secretary of State, Moscow, February 14, 1938, Dispatch No. 938 (by pouch), RG 59, State Department records, Decimal File 1930-39, Box 583, 361.1115-ROBINSON, DONALD L./I 35., NA (College Park)
  2. Krasnaja Zvezda (Red Star) daily, November 14, 1938.
  3. Press Releases, U.S. Department of State, December 18, 1937, January  22, 29, February 12, 1938; The New York Times, December 10-17, 28, 1937; January 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27; February 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 15, 22, 28, 1938; The Washington Post, December 31, 1937; January 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 19, 20, 23, 26; February 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1938.
  4. This is clear, for example, in “The brief notes of comrade Stalin’s instructions on intelligence given on May 21, 1937,” which was discovered by Russian researcher Nikita Petrov at the Central Archive of the FSB, the Russian successor agency to the KGB. In Stalin’s view, the apparatus of the military intelligence, then known as Razvedupr, “… had gotten into the hands of the Germans.” Hence, Stalin instructed his NKVD that “Razvedupr’s networks should be entirely disbanded” and the agents recalled and carefully vetted. Stalin’s paranoia cost his military intelligence most of its cadres – and required the rebuilding of the military intelligence service from scratch. [[5. Cit. Nikita Petrov, Mark Jensen.  “Stalinskij pitomets” – Nickolai Ezhov. Moskva: Rosspan, 2008, ss. 290-293. (“Stalin’s Disciple” – Nickolai Ezhov., by Nikita Petrov and Mark Jensen. Moscow: Rosspan, 2008, pp. 290-293.) The American edition of this book is entitled: Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, by Marc Jensen and Nikita Petrov. Hoover Institution Press, 2002. The Russian edition includes some recently released documentation.
  5. Trojanovsky to Potemkin, January 5, 1938, Fund 05 (The Secretariat of Litvinov), description 18, P. 147, file 132, p. 6, AVP RF.
  6. M.M. Litvinov to A.A. Trojanovsky, January 7, 1938, 05-18-147-131, p. 4; V. Potemkin to N. Ezhov, January 10, 1938, 05-18-147-137, p. 4, AVP RF.
  7. V. Potemkin to N. Ezhov, January 10, 1938, 05-18-147-137, p. 4, AVP RF.
  8. From the books of Weinberg F.S. Conversation with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Henderson, January 13, 1938. – 05-18-147-133, p. 2, AVP RF.
  9. From the books of F.S. Weinberg. Conversation with US Charge d’Affairs Henderson, January 15, 1938. – Ibid., p. 1, AVP RF.
  10. Ibidem.
  11. F. Weinberg to M.M. Litvinov, January 17, 1938, 05-18-147-137, pp. 6-11, AVP RF.
  12. The Russian word “legenda” is professional slang for a cover up story
  13. Frinovsky to Potemkin, January 17, 1938, 05-18-147-137, pp. 12-13, AVP RF.
  14. Russian “organy,” a common description of the OGPU-NKVD-KGB
  15. From the books of F.S. Weinberg, January 18, 1938, Record of conversation with L. Henderson, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in the USSR, 17 January, 1938. – 05-18-147-133, pp. 5-7, AVP RF.
  16. Memorandum of Conversation, January 19, 1938; Participants Mr. Constantine Oumansky, Counselor of the Soviet Embassy, Mr. Orsen N. Nielsen, of the Division of European Affairs; Copies to: Moscow. – RG 59, the State Department Decimal File 1930-39, 361.1115 ROBINSON, DONALD L./97, NA, College Park, MD.
  17. Trojanovsky to Litvinov, January 26, 1938. – 05-18-147-132, pp. 4-5. AVP RF.
  18. From the Books of F.S. Weinberg, February 1, 1938. – 05-18-147-133, pp. 8-10, AVP RF.
  19. From the Books of F.S. Weinberg. Conversation with the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Henderson, February 9, 1938 – 05-18-147-133, pp. 11-14, AVP RF.
  20. On the visit to the arrested Robinson Rubens by representatives of the American Embassy, February 11, 1938 – 05-18-147-133, pp. 15-18, AVP RF.
  21. Potemkin to Stalin, February 11, 1938 – 05-18-138-3, pp. 77-78, AVP RF.