Soviet Double Agents

The Western Achilles Heel

Western societies have a significant structural Achilles Heel—all of them: the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, and so on—inasmuch as we value individual initiative, and nurture points-of-view based on the individual conscience. Occasionally, individuals use their outlier initiative to plot against the nation, to overturn it, and restructure it to suit their own views, Through charm and deception, they persuade others to follow them. A freedom-loving society permits this downside to individualism in order to profit from the upside, namely the ability of outliers to rise to the top of their professions and to improve the functions of the society with their creativity and innovative skill. 

One such person, Felix Adler, for example, emigrated to America from Germany and employed his individual conscience to found the Ethical Culture movement. Adler realized his goal most fully in the creation of the New York Society of Ethical Culture. He believed that a moral society has more to do with the orientation of the heart than the "trappings of ritual or creed" (Wikipedia). And so the prevailing moral tenets of the society must now share space with the upstart philosophies created by people like Adler. The government's dictating moral tenets to its citizens does not happen as often in a society like ours.

The Soviet Union discovered this Achilles Heel in the above-named countries and exploited it for all it was worth. The Soviets recruited double-agents among the youth of the privileged class, and among intellectuals who should have known better, and led them into activities that nearly ended the culture of individual-freedom. I doubt any of them comprehended the Soviet system enough to explain why they did it. If questioned about their beliefs, they will respond as if to questions from a catechism. Their personal views are a package deal, and they don't like specifics.

If an interrogator can get past the catechetical answers, maybe the double-agent will admit that he hates the Western veneration of individuals, other than himself. Maybe he feels passed over by the marketplace that gave him his start, so to speak. The veneration of rugged individualism fosters an us-against-them mentality that motivates every sort of person from psycho-snipers to grandstanding litigators. Americans tolerate the challenges they pose, because they support the underlying culture of individualism, which people like Marx did not. If we find a rotten apple who has turned against the culture, we try to remove them from the cart before they do any damage.

Our collective history retains the memory of a few outlier rotten-apples:

Alger Hiss: BA, Johns Hopkins (Phi Beta Kappa); J.D, Harvard Law School (where he clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes); Assistant Secretrary of State to Francis Sayre in the International Trade Agreements section; in 1945 accompanied Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to the Yalta Conference; served as the UN's first Secretary General in April 1945.

Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss's law school classmate, remembered him "for the kind of distinction that had to be seen to be believed. If he were standing at the bar with the British Ambassador, and you were told to give a package to the Ambasssador's valet, you would give it to the Ambassador before you gave it to Alger."

Günter Guillaume: With his wife Christel Boom, Guillaume "fled" East Germany in 1956; but his "escape" to the West took place with the consent and support of the East German Stasi, the nation's secret spy and internal security agency. The very next year, Guillaume started work for the German Socialist Party, the SPD. Like Alger Hiss, Guillaume did excellent work. He worked long hours and never complained. He displayed considerable organizational talent, again like Hiss. He directed the electoral campaign of an important SPD candidate. From there, he became secretary to the German Chancellor Willy Brandt, starting 1972. He was Brandt's shadow and accompanied him wherever he went. No other East German agent succeeded as well as Guillaume.

Kim Philby confessed to spying for the Soviets in 1963: Peter Wright, a former counter-espionage offficer and the author of Spycatcher, remembers the day:

   Suddenly there was very little fun in the game anymore; a Rubicon had been crossed. . . . To find
   a man like Philby, a man you might like, or drink with, or admire, had betrayed everything. . . .
   Youth and innocence passed away, and the dark ages began.

Verne Newton, on the other hand, writing in his 1989 book The Cambridge Spies, titled his chapter about Philby "The Drug of Deceit," and said that betrayal of the people around him—friends, wives, and associates—turned into something like an addiction for Philby.

John le Carré creates a traitor-character in his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that may remind a reader of Kim Philby. After the traitor's death, le Carré's spy-hunter George Smiley tries to explain to himself why the traitor chose to become a double-agent; but Smiley runs into problems: none of his explanations satisfy him. Was the traitor an ideological purist? A snob of sorts, who needed the reassurance of Moscow as his "natural Mecca?"

Smiley tries again: the traitor "needed the symmetry of an historical and economic solution." Even this leaves Smilley dissatisfied. He eventually concludes that philosophy played little if any role in the traitor's actions. "It hardly mattered if the doctrine wore thin. . . . Treason is very much a matter of habit."

                    To Know a Double-Agent

                "How could a chap like this be a chap like that?"
                (Quote from John le Carré)

The movie Triple Agent came out in 2004, filmed by the 84-year-old Eric Rohmer—nearly his last film. Rohmer (real name Jean-Marie Schérer) came onto the scene as a French New Wave director. Of the half-dozen directors in this group, only Jean-Luc Godard at age 90, one of Rohmer's earliest collaborators, survives him. Godard starred in Rohmer's first film effort, a twelve-minute film with the curious title Charlotte and her Steak.

Once in the early 1990s, I had a bad cold, and since I didn't own a TV, I rented one that contained a video-cassette player and watched several of Rohmer's movies. I liked especially Boyfriends and Girlfriends (French title L'ami de mon Amie), Summer (French title Le Rayon Vert) and A Tale of Spring (Contes de Printemps).

In A Tale of Spring, Natacha returns to her apartment and finds that Jeanne, a weekend houseguest, has bought flowers and set them on the kitchen table in front of a window, covered in a white linen curtain. Sunlight filtered through the white linen backlights the bouquet and produces a wonderful effect. In Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Blanche walks through a forest with Fabian, her friend Léa's boyfriend. She glances at the sky and sees the sunlight blinking through the swaying tree canopy. She can barely keep from crying as emotions well up in her. Blanche likes Fabian and wonders how she will break it to Léa.

In an interview, Rohmer said he especially liked the work of three painters: Rembrandt, Turner, and Monet. It was a kind of Eureka! moment. During the Summer of 1968, I visited London's National Gallery and Tate Gallery and bought a stack of prints to take back to America—mostly Rembrandt, Turner, and Monet! Possibly I could explain why I like their paintings the most, but words alone do not explain the hold they have on me. I can't do justice to the poetry they express:

J. M. W. Turner, Sunset in Venice, Tate Gallery

Claude Monet, Bain à la Grenouillère, National Gallery, London

 In Triple Agent, Rohmer carries his love of art a step further. The main female character Arsinoé is a painter. The image of Arsinoé and her paintings may remind viewers more of Johannes Vermeer than Rembrandt. Vermeer's paintings contain lots of wall-hangings—works by known artists of his time.

Johannes Vermeer, "The Art of Painting," which hangs in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

We also meet Arsinoé's mysterious husband, Fyodor, a "White" Russian who met Arsinoé after the Russian Civil War in a convalescent facility, where he was recovering from war wounds, while she received treatment for Tuberculosis. The Reds (Communists) defeated the Whites (Monarchists) on the battlefield. The Whites had to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. France took in thousands of Russian refugees and offered them citizenship.

Photo from Triple Agent courtesy of film critic Glenn Kenny

Fyodor's White Russian friends befriend Arsinoé and become her best customers for her paintings. Her friend Maguy hates left-wing artists—spitting out "Arteestes!" contemptuously. Maguy makes a rhyme out of the various schools: "Cubeestes!" and "Avant-Gardeestes!" lumping them all together as "Ultra-eestes!" They share a good laugh over it.

But when Arsinoé tells Maguy that she has befriended her upstairs Communist neighbors and that they have also bought a painting from her, Magyuy warns her, "Be careful. It could be a trap. They may be spying on you." Arsinoé laughs and shrugs it off. She remains unpolitical until the end and cannot understand the point of all the hostile feelings. The paintings reveal her orientation to life—sunbathers at the beach, a busy outdoor market, and school-children on a playground.

Arsinoé's pedestrian view of things riles Maguy who warns her, "Every Red in France has a file on Fyodor!" When Arsinoé relates this conversation to Fyodor, he takes it in stride, as if he is used to drawing the attention of others. He tells her proudly that he does not hide his loyalties. Fyodor also has an insider's knowledge of events unfolding in France and Russia. Startled, his friends ask him how he happens to know so much? He replies that he makes it his business to know things. With a knowing smile, he refuses to reveal his sources.

Curious about the Communist couple upstairs, André and Janine, Fyodor and Arsinoé invite them  to dinner. He grills them on how much they really understand about the Communist Party and the machinations of the Soviet Union. They fall back on textbook ideological loyalty that also ignores world events. Can you imagine it? Pedestrian Communist Party members are no different from the true-believers who support any other political party. They haven't a clue about the amoral world of politics, especially one that has Stalin as its head.

The name of the official Communist Party newspaper L'Humanité defines the members' stance—their support for humanity and social justice for the working-class. L'Humanité never bothers to inform its readers about Stalin's pathological striving for power and the purges he launches against real and imagined enemies.

Fyodor, the worldly operator, understands this better than André and Janine. He subjects them to an interrogation of sorts that unsettles them. He reveals his suspicion that Stalin's hand reaches all the way to Paris. He dishes out payback skilfullly on his enemies. Fyodor tells the bemused couple that he does not intend to become a victim. His cool and scarcely friendly warning about the intentions of the Soviets touches viewers' nerves. Gradually, the viewer realizes that Fyodor's real occupation is that of a secret agent. But, for whom?

Viewers complain that there is too much talking in Rohmer's films. "Where is the action?" they ask. But isn't that the way most people live? People generally talk a lot. We don't flee runaway buses; we don't battle extra-terrestrials; and we don't carry out gun-battles with South American drug-dealers. Overpaid actors like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio do all that for us. That's what we pay them for, to take the bullet for us.

What Rohmer does is let us see how common, everyday pedestrians play a part in historical events. Crises pass, sandwiched between visits to the post office, a conference with co-workers, or waiting in a dress-shop. While Arsinoé tries on a new dress, Fyodor does something inexplicable. He helps Soviet secret-police agents kidnap a White Russian general—his own commanding officer! The agents take him back to Russia and execute him in the basement of their headquarters. How could Fyodor do this—one of his own guys?

But different people have asked Fyodor about his loyalties throughout the movie: whose side is he really on? He has been seen entering Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin. He tells Arsinoé they need to move back to Russia. He can get better pay and, thanks to Stalin's purge, the Red Army has plenty of openings for experienced officers like himself. She questions him at length about his loyalty, and he treats her to his usual breezy ambiguity, leading her to believe he is not completely honest with her, or that he is just looking for the best deal—for himself and for her.

Then Fyodor confesses to his part in the kidnapping of the general. When she asks how he could do such a thing, he turns sheepish and says he really doesn't know. A car pulled alongside himself and the genreral on the street. Strangers climbed out of the car, pushed the general into it, and drove away. He then implores Arsinoé to help him create an alibi. He has not only conspired in the kidnapping, he wants her to lie about it. This leaves her stifled and demoralized; but the general's staff officers arrive and interrogate Fyodor before the alibi can take shape; and they already know what happened. Their evidence implicates Fyodor's active involvement.

Fyodor ends up betraying everything he has professed up to now—his identity as a White Russian, his friendships and associations with other White Russians, and finally his wife. The other leaders of the White Russians come looking for Fyodor, and he escapes—simply walks into oblivion and is never seen again. Accounts of his death vary widely among Soviet witnesses who participated in the kidnapping and its aftermath.

Rohmer based Triple Agent upon a true story, the kidnapping-murder of the White Russian General Evgeny Miller in Paris. Rohmer also utilizes a fictionalized account of the kidnapping by a Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, in his short story "The Assistant Producer." Nabokov, best known for his controversial novel Lolita, lived near General Miller in Paris and knew him.

My reader can get a straightforward factual account of General Miller's kidnapping from the book I Was Stalin's Agent, written by the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky and published in 1939. He tells the true story, more or less as Triple Agent relates it, Miller had to meet two German officers, who were, in reality, Soviet secret agents. Krivitsky knew about it because the secret agents worked in his department.  

More than simply relate the story of a kidnapping by foreign secret agents, though, Rohmer wants his viewers to internalize Fyodor's ambiguity, a subject that interested British writer John le Carré. Like Rohmer, le Carré offers no easy answers to the motive for treason. He writes in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that his readers should think of the traitor as a Russian wooden doll. You open the doll and find another doll inside it with a different persona, perhaps telling a different set of falsehoods. Ordinary human motives, you might say—not historically important ones. Karl Marx, who liked to think in terms of history justifying Communism, might not have liked that view.