Zarubin, Vassili Mikhailovich (1894-1974)

Vassili Zarubin

Vassili Zarubin

An officer of Soviet KGB foreign intelligence, considered “one of its most outstanding” operatives; also known as its chief resident in the United States from early 1942 to August 1944, under the assumed name of “Vassili Zubilin.”

Zarubin was born in Moscow in 1894 to the family of a railway worker. At the age of 14, he began working as an errand boy at a trade company; later he worked as a clerk and simultaneously continued his education. In 1914 he was drafted into the Russian Army and fought in World War I as a soldier on Russia’s western front until 1917, when he was badly wounded. From 1918 to 1920, Zarubin served in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. In 1920 he joined the Soviet state security service, then known as Cheka. He took part in the struggle against banditry – and in 1923 was appointed head of the OGPU economic department in Vladivostok. In that capacity, he organized the fight against illegal drug and arms traffic in the Far East, traveling to China in 1924.

In 1925, Zarubin transferred to OGPU foreign intelligence, known as the INO, and was posted in Harbin, central Manchuria, as a case officer with a cover job as a clerk at the Soviet Consulate General. The next year he was sent to Finland as the resident of Soviet foreign intelligence there. In 1928 he was posted in Denmark, this time as an “illegal” resident. In the same year, he was joined in Denmark by another operative of the INO, Elizaveta Gorskaya, who would become his wife a few months later and would then be known under the name of Zarubina. (According to another account, the two got married while still in Moscow and were sent to Denmark together – but this account seems less credible when it is crosschecked with the details of Elizaveta Zarubina’s CV.)

In Denmark, the Zarubins gave themselves out to be Czech citizens and organized a small textile export company as their cover. In 1929 Moscow Center decided to relocate them to France. After some time, they managed to settle in a suburb of Paris posing as a Czech couple, and Vassili became a partner in an advertising firm. The agent group Zarubin organized in France managed to obtain documentation not only from French but also from German sources, some of which included secret communications of the German Embassy in Paris. In late 1933 Zarubin returned to Moscow with his wife.

In 1934 Vassili Zarubin was posted in Germany as an “illegal” resident, and Elizaveta as an “illegal” operative. This time, Zarubin’s alias was that of an American representing Paramount Pictures, arranged through the efforts of OGPU INO intelligence operatives in the United States. Among the sources run by the Zarubins was Gestapo officer Willie Leman (cover name “Breitenbach”), and an agent at the Nazi Foreign Office, “Wienterfeld,” who reportedly continued working as an agent even after World War II.

In mid-1937, Vassili and Elizaveta Zarubin were dispatched to the United States with several assignments, including to renew their American passports and to find candidates for future work as couriers in Germany. The plan was, reportedly, for the Zarubins to return to Germany, but following the defection in France of a long-time Soviet operative named Poretsky – known in the West as “Ignacii Reiss” — Vassili and Elizaveta Zarubin were recalled to Moscow. That same year, Vassili continued to work at the INO’s headquarters and was awarded the Red Banner Order. In early 1940, Zarubin was reportedly denounced as a “Gestapo accomplice” by Lavrentii Beria, the People’s Commissar of State Security, but managed to escape being purged. Furthermore, in February 1941 he was appointed assistant head of foreign intelligence. Early that year he was dispatched to China with the task of resuming contact with Walter Stennis, who was a German military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of Guomingdan) and the head of Chiang Kai-shek’s security guard. In his conversations with Zarubin, Stennis, a former leader of the Nazi Storm Troopers (the SA, or Sturmabteilung), stated that he was in possession of information on Hitler’s preparations for the attack against the USSR and indicated that it was to be launched in May-June, 1941.

Zarubin left China in late June 1941 – and in the fall of that year was told that his next assignment would be as head of the “legal” residency in the United States. On the night of October 12, 1941, when Nazi troops were a few kilometers from Moscow, Zarubin and the head of foreign intelligence, Pavel Fitin, were summoned to the Kremlin. There, Joseph Stalin, according to a contemporary account, informed Zarubin that his chief task in the United States would be “to be on the lookout [to make sure] that the ruling circles of the USA would not come to terms with Nazi Germany to conclude a separate peace.”

Zarubin arrived in the United States in the first days of 1942 under the assumed name of “Vassili Zubilin,” with a cover job as Third Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. He ran his operation from New York until the latter part of 1943, when he began running it from Washington. His network of sources provided important political and scientific/technical information, which was regularly reported to Stalin. Zarubin not only supervised the work of his operatives (among the most active of whom was his wife, Elizaveta) but recruited and ran sources himself. In the Soviet intelligence cables of 1942-1944 which were decrypted in the course of the Venona operation, Vassili Zarubin appears under the code name “Maxim” and Elizaveta Zarubina as “Vardo“. In mid-1943, during a trip to the West Coast, Zarubin found himself under FBI surveillance, which later made his operational work more difficult. Soon after, Zarubin’s reputation was damaged in Moscow because of a slanderous anonymous letter sent by one of his operatives in Washington, D.C. (Only decades later would it turn out that a similar letter had been sent to the FBI – and had put the Bureau on high alert.)

In August 1944 Zarubin was called back to Moscow, where he was promoted that September to the high rank of commissar of GB; in February 1945 he was appointed head of foreign intelligence’s sixth department. In July 1945 he was promoted to the rank of Major General. In June 1947 he became assistant head of foreign intelligence and simultaneously assistant head of its “illegal” branch. In January 1948, however, Zarubin was discharged from the service. Nevertheless, he continued to share his experience with younger operatives. Among his many awards were two Orders of Lenin – and the orders of the Red Banner and Red Star. Zarubin died in Moscow in 1974. 1

  1. Vassili Zaroubine’s bio on the website of SVR RF (http://svr.gov.ru/history/zar.html); “V.M. Zarubin: stupeni masterstva”- Ocherki istorii rossiiskoi vneshnei razvedki, tom 4, 1941-1945, Moskva: “Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija”, 2003, ss. 203-215 (“V.M. Zaroubine: “Climbing the Tradecraft Ladder,” in Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, vol. 4, 1941-1945, Moscow: International Relations, 2003, pp. 203-215); Ervin Stavinskii, Zarubiny: semeinaja rezidentura, Moskva: Olma-Press, 2003 (Erwin Stavinsky, The Zarubins: A Family Residency, Moscow: Olma Press, 2003.) Some confusing details in all of the above-mentioned accounts were ascertained from notes on Zarubin’s personnel form (filled out in his handwriting) in his Soviet Communist Party file (fund 17, description 100, RGASPI) made in the 1990s by the Russian espionage writer, Alexander Kolpakidi. Currently, this collection is stored at a remote depository.