A Russian revolutionary, founding member and functionary of the American Communist Party (CP USA), and agent of Soviet military intelligence in Europe from 1930 to 1936, whose name (with the spelling Zelnis) was used by Whittaker Chambers, a self-admitted Soviet espionage agent, as one of his many aliases.
Zelms was born to a working class family in Curlyandskaya gubernia of the Russian Empire (now Latvia) in 1888. In 1905, he joined the Social-Democratic Party (RSDRP (b)) and took part in the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907. In 1907, he arrived in the United States as a political refugee and settled in Boston. For many years, he was a worker and an active functionary in the Latvian section of the Socialist Party of America. He was a charter member of the Communist Party of the USA and a functionary of its Lettish [Latvian] section; later, he was an important functionary of the party’s District #1 (Massachusetts and New Hampshire).
In CP USA files of 1927, we see Zelms as one of the District #1 department heads. As of late 1928, he was the secretary of the District #1 Control Commission, which was a most sensitive position. He was a delegate at party national conventions. Filling in a delegate form for the Sixth National Convention in 1929, he listed his occupation as “party functionary” and his party positions as District Organizer of ILD (the International Labor Defense) and a member of the DEC (District Executive Committee) and the District #1 Bureau Secretariat. 1 In CP USA files, his name was mostly spelled Zelms, but sometimes Zelnis. 2
In early 1930, Zelms disappeared from his party district, and in a few months its functionaries heard rumors that he was “in Moscow under a different name.” According to Zelms’s Comintern file, in early May, 1930 he did indeed land without documents in the Soviet seaport of Novorossiisk under the name of Fritz Zelms-and asked for official permission to proceed to Moscow. 3
A decade later, a self-admitted agent of Soviet military intelligence named Nicholas Dozenberg would write in his 1940 affidavit that “Robert Zelms, Z-e-l-m-s, alias Elmston” was one of the individuals whom he had met in the “period from 1927 to 1933” and whom he “had recommended for employment with the Soviet military intelligence in foreign countries.” 4
Zelms’s activities had not escaped the eye of British intelligence, which shared this information with the FBI – in response to an FBI query about Zelms – in the midst of preparations for Alger Hiss’ first perjury trial: “In 1930-1936, Zelms (as Robert Elmston) was a GRU agent in Europe, reportedly under the cover of the International Trade Press of Chicago.” 5
According to the scarce information available in Russia, since the latter part of 1930 Zelms had been the principal assistant to the Red Army military intelligence “illegal” resident in Germany, Oskar Stigga; after 1934, Zelms reportedly worked in Austria. He was reportedly still in Austria as of late 1937; however, back in Moscow as of January 1938. 6 Robert Zelms escaped the purges and was on record (as of the last record discovered to date) as residing in Moscow as of late 1946. 7
In late October 1949, in the course of preparations for the second Hiss perjury trial, the Hiss defense tried in vain to pursue some clue that Chambers might have used the name of Robert Zelnis as one of his aliases. 8
- See, for instance, Shklar to [Bertran] Wolfe (Re units of Distr. 1), 13 October, 1927, 515-1-1095, pp. 18-19; Minutes of District C.C., June 9, 1930, 515-1-2063, pp. 25-26; Zelms’s delegate form for the CP USA 6th Convention, 515-1-1598, p. 35. ↩
- See, for instance, Robert Zelnis personnel form in “Materials of CCC CP USA, lists of expelled, 1930,” 515-1-2054, p. 25. ↩
- “Zelms Fritz, USA” file, 495-261-5885. ↩
- Statement of Nicholas Dozenberg [1940 affidavit], read at the HUAC public session on Nov. 8, 1949, in Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage. Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 81st Congress, First session, November 8, December 2, 1949, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: 1951, p. 3541. ↩
- Untitled and undated letter from MI6 to J.A. Cimperman, legal attaché, U.S. Embassy in London, in reply to Cimperman’s letter No. 2619 of the 13th January 1949. – In MI5/MI6 Case File, Intelligence Records on the Wostwag, KV2/1655, National Archives, U.K. [Courtesy of, PRO Research by Nigel Linsan Colley, Oct 2005 – January 2007. ↩
- “Arvid Yakovlevich Zelms” investigative file, Fund 10035, description 1, file P-24630, p. 8; “Bertha Indrikovna Ron’sala” investigative file, Fund 10035, description 1, file P-21889, p. 8. GARF, Moscow. Courtesy of Widwud Straus, head, volunteer research association, “The Letts in Russia,” June, 2008. ↩
- Zelma Janovna Nabel’ [Oskar Stigga’s widow] to K.E. Voroshilov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, to comrade Rudenko, the Procurator [Prosecutor] General of the USSR, December 16, 1954, Cit., “Dorogoi nash tovarisch Stalin!”… i drugie tovarischi. Obraschenija rodstvennikov repressirovannykh komandirov Krasnoi Armii k rukovoditeljam strany. Sostavitel’ N.S. Cherushev. Moskva: “Zvenja,” 2001, s. 252. (“Our Dear Comrade Stalin!”… and other comrades. The Appeals of the Relatives of Purged Red Army Commanders to the Leadership of the Nation. Compiled by N.S. Cherushev. Moscow: Zvenja, 2001, p. 252.) ↩
- Memorandum re Maxim Lieber, October 29, 1949. Hiss Defense Files, Hiss Personal 2395. Courtesy of Jeff Kisseloff, March, 2009. ↩