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Alexander Orlov : the FBI's KGB General /
Edward Gazur.
New York : Carroll & Graf, 2002.
xviii, 606 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 24 cm.
More Details
New York : Carroll & Graf, 2002.
catalogue key
Includes index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One



In order to understand the subsequent events of General Orlov's life, it is important to be aware of the background that shaped him and the progression of his career which culminated in his becoming a leading KGB officer.

    Leiba (Leon, nicknamed Lev) Lazarevich Feldbin was born on 21 August 1895 in the rural town of Bobruysk, which lies in the Byelorussian district of Russia some 390 miles south-west of Moscow and 100 miles south-east of the Byelorussian capital of Minsk.

    Feldbin's parents were Jewish and were both strongly dedicated to their religion. Up until the First World War, his father Lazar was engaged as a broker in the timber industry. His mother, Hannah Zaretsky, was adored and cherished by her son. Leon Lazarevich Feldbin would eventually become known to the world as Alexander Orlov, a cover name that was first used by him in 1936 when he became operational head of the NKVD in Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War -- and which we will use hereafter. Throughout his undercover career in espionage he used a long list of fictitious identities, but none would be more closely identified with him than the name of Orlov.

    The fortunes of war prevailed on the Feldbin family when, early on in the Great War, the timber industry was virtually brought to a halt. Lazar decided to move his family to Moscow, where he found a secure position in the mercantile field.

    Drawing on his scholastic aptitude, Orlov was admitted to Moscow's esteemed Lazarevsky Institute, which was highly regarded for its academic excellence. There he pursued courses that would lead to a civil service or diplomatic career. He graduated with honours, but having no inclination for government service, he opted to study law. In pursuit of his goal, he was accepted for admission to Moscow University's prestigious School of Law.

    Orlov's tenure at the Law School was short-lived as in the autumn of 1916, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, he was drafted into the Tsar's army and served as a private with the 104th Infantry Regiment stationed in the Urals, far from the actual fighting.

    Although he was well-qualified academically, possessed strong leadership qualities and, most of all, was highly motivated to become a military officer, he would not be able to do so in the army of the Tsar. Jews were not accepted for officer training nor were they ever assigned to the army's prime units; for the most part, they would find themselves in the infantry or in clerical positions, where their skills could be best utilised.

    The situation did change to Orlov's benefit in early 1917, when the first phase of the Russian Revolution secured the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and brought into being the Provisional Government. The interim government dictated the reform that would enable Orlov to enter the Third Moscow Military School, from where he graduated as a second lieutenant in March 1917. In May of that year, he joined the Bolshevik Party under the name of Lev Lazarevich Nikol'skiy.

    The success of the October 1917 Revolution permitted Orlov to return to civilian life. That November he became Chief of the Information Section of the Revolutionary Finance Administration. Again, historical events interceded when civil war broke out in 1918 and the White Russian Armies consolidated their efforts to overthrow the Bolshevik Government and restore the monarchy. Orlov felt that he had no option but to help the cause of the Bolsheviks by re-entering the Red Army.

    During the spring of 1920, Poland invaded Russia with such success that it occupied Kiev and most of the Ukraine, precipitating the Russo-Polish War. The White Russian Armies took this opportunity to consolidate their forces with the Poles so as to achieve their mutual objective: the overthrow of the Bolshevik Government. As a consequence, in September 1920 Orlov was posted to the 12th Red Army fighting along the Polish front. It was in this setting that fate intervened to change Orlov's direction in life forever and lead him to his career in the Russian intelligence service.

    Orlov's first encounter with counter-intelligence and guerrilla warfare occurred when he was given command of a detachment that operated behind the Polish lines. It was in this capacity that he conceived ingenious planning strategies and personally led bold operations behind the enemy's lines. However, it was one particular incident that brought him to the attention of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Chairman of the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB), and which provided the impetus that would eventually bring about his long and fruitful association with the KGB. He would later remark in his twilight years that this was the most physically active phase of his life and acknowledged that this was the experience that had formulated his desire for a career in espionage.

    In the same month that Orlov was posted to the 12th Red Army, he and two of his men in the guerrilla company were reconnoitring an area that had recently been taken by the Polish Army. The situation was such that the front line fluctuated daily, and in order to attack behind the enemy line a crossing-point had to be established from where entry would be relatively safe. As they approached a thicket overgrown with large white birch trees, they heard the sound of a horse neighing. Suddenly a horse appeared carrying a man in the dress of a Polish gentleman engaged in hunting. Man and horse came towards Orlov's group, and as they approached the portly gentleman raised his hands above his head in the act of surrendering. He carried no hunting arms but a small pistol was discovered hidden under his tunic. The prisoner was taken to the nearby army headquarters.

    When they first encountered the man, he seemed excited and spoke in a mixture of Polish and Russian. He identified himself as Vodzinsky and claimed to be a Polish Army newspaperman and photographer. His credentials verified the name and occupation.

    En route to their destination, Orlov observed the beautiful chestnut-coloured horse, which appeared to be of excellent bloodlines and which, during the war, was the type of mount that could only be in the possession of a military officer. The saddle was finely crafted out of quality leather and the workmanship clearly indicated it to be of English origin and quite expensive. Perhaps this man was more than a Polish Army newspaperman.

    Vodzinsky was searched thoroughly at army headquarters and the only thing found that seemed to be out of the ordinary was an inexpensive notebook of the type used by schoolchildren in writing an assigned essay for homework. Vodzinsky spoke very little Russian and asked for an interpreter. He refused to furnish any information concerning the strength and movement of Polish troops and invoked his rights under the provisions of the Geneva Convention. All he would admit to was the fact that he had strayed into the area where he had been captured as he had been assured that Russian troops were a considerable distance away.

    Vodzinsky was questioned at length about the notebook he carried. On its cover was written the name ‘Senkovsky’, which he claimed was his pen name. Inside were the usual pre-printed lines used to help guide a youngster in writing, and those lines that had already been used were in a rather neat handwriting in the Polish language. Vodzinsky claimed that he harboured an ambition to become a novelist after the war and that what was in the notebook was a novel he was writing under his pen name.

    The notebook was translated and brought to Orlov. It was written in the first person and told the story of a Russian who has deserted his post, made his way through the front lines and surrendered to the Poles. He claims to possess vital information concerning the disposition of Russian troops and has been taken to regimental headquarters, where he has been questioned. Here he relates that he was the aide-de-camp in the Russian Staff and has deserted because he is a Polish patriot. He knows that the Polish Army is falling into a Russian trap and had to warn the Poles of the impending disaster. However, everything he relates is contrary to what Polish intelligence believes, although he has raised some serious doubts. He is then taken to army headquarters, where he is confronted by the ‘Commandant’, an old man who apparently knows the hero of the story and berates him for being a Polish traitor. The narrator denies this and states that he only wants to share the fate of his countrymen. Finally, the Commandant puts his arm around the narrator's shoulders and indicates that, in spite of everything, he believes the narrator to be a true Polish hero.

    Something about the prose of this so-called novel did not sit well with Orlov. The events depicted in it sounded more like reality than fiction. He believed it to be a narration of actual events in the form of a diary rather than a novel. Furthermore, at several points the narrator referred to himself as ‘S’, which Orlov concluded could stand for Senkovsky. Perhaps this was Vodzinsky's real name.

    Orlov had Vodzinsky brought before him for interrogation. Vodzinsky continued to claim that the story was only a novel under the pen name Senkovsky and that it was only a lapse when he referred to the hero as ‘S’ because he had not yet named him. Orlov remained unconvinced and believed that Vodzinsky was hiding something. However, he did not reveal his suspicions to the captive as he had already formulated a plan in the event that Vodzinsky continued the pretence.

    Another reason for doubting Vodzinsky's legend was that he claimed to be a photographer. However, when Orlov's staff photographer was purposely brought in contact with the captive and asked him a few casual technical questions, it was apparent that Vodzinsky knew nothing about photography.

    Rather than sending Vodzinsky to a prisoner-of-war compound, he was incarcerated in a cell with three other prisoners. Two of them were planted counter-intelligence agents and the third was a legitimate Polish prisoner by the name of Captain Yanek. The Polish officer had been found on the battlefield in a shell-shocked condition along with a fellow officer by the name of Major Zembinsky. Yanek had been sent to a Russian field hospital, where he soon recovered, while the Major was taken first to Orlov's headquarters for interrogation and then to a prisoner-of-war compound. Vodzinsky and Yanek were drawn to one another and became friends. They often conversed in whispers, but Yanek was overheard by the planted spies telling Vodzinsky about his friend Zembinsky and of his great concern regarding the fate of his fellow officer.

    In time, Yanek was transferred to a prisoner-of-war compound and within a week a new prisoner took his place in the cell. The new prisoner identified himself to his fellow inmates as Major Zembinsky. Vodzinsky was overjoyed at the situation and confided to the Major that Yanek had been held in the very same cell and that his fate was unknown. The new cellmate and Vodzinsky soon became friends, and before long Vodzinsky confided his fears that his captors would learn that he was actually Senkovsky. Should this happen, they would be able to determine that he had deserted from the Red Army and he would be put to death.

    Vodzinsky had placed his confidence in the wrong man and his fate was now sealed, because the man who called himself Zembinsky was not the real Major but a Polish Communist working for the Russians. With this additional knowledge, it did not take long to discover that Senkovsky was a deserter from the Red Army.

    When confronted with this information, Vodzinsky readily admitted his true identity. He was Colonel Senkovsky of the Polish Army and commander of all guerrilla warfare forces in the Polish Army. In some respects, this would make him the counterpart of Orlov, who at the time of the incident was the guerrilla commander of a detachment, but by the end of the Russo-Polish War was the guerrilla commander for the whole 12th Red Army.

    Senkovsky no longer spoke Russian like a foreigner but like a native. He came from a mixed Russian-Polish family and had maintained his loyalty to both sides of the family. Under wartime conditions, however, he had been forced to decide where he would place his loyalty and the decision had been difficult for him. He had defected the month before from the 58th Soviet Division, where he had held the Staff position of aide-de-camp to the commander of the Division as well as head of guerrilla forces when the unit was making its way into Poland. He was in possession of information that indicated that the Poles were falling into a trap and would be routed, and he had felt compelled to pass on this information. So the story in the notebook was in fact his diary written in a somewhat veiled manner. The ‘Commandant’ was a reference to Józef Pilsudski, the then President of Poland, who had earned the title when he had run the Polish Socialist Party. Pilsudski had forgiven his old friend Senkovsky for going over to the other side to serve in the Red Army and had appointed him Chief of Guerrilla Operations.

    Senkovsky admitted that on the day he was captured, he had been seeking a crossing-point for Polish guerrillas to make their way behind the Russian line. Orlov couldn't help thinking that the circumstances could so easily have been reversed and that he could have been Senkovsky's prisoner. The outcome would have been his interrogation by the Polish Defensiva and his own execution. Instead, it was Senkovsky's fate which was sealed and he would be executed as a traitor. His final request was a plea to receive the last rites of the Catholic Church.

    During a conversation with Orlov, Senkovsky casually mentioned that he had been a boyhood friend of Felix Dzerzhinsky and his sister Altona. In their youth, the three friends had dabbled in poetry and dreamt of the future. Senkovsky related that he had always admired Dzerzhinsky and lamented the fact that, unlike his friend, he had failed along the path of life. At this time, Dzerzhinsky was probably the most powerful man in the Soviet Union, second only to Lenin.

    Orlov was sceptical of Senkovsky's story, but as Dzerzhinsky's name had been brought into play, he was obliged to inform Dzerzhinsky of the situation. He immediately wired him a short summary of the facts and really expected no reply. On the second day, he was surprised to receive a communication signed by Dzerzhinsky and Deputy War Commissar Skliansky instructing him to send Senkovsky to Moscow under guard.

    A month later Orlov received a detailed intelligence report from Dzerzhinsky's office outlining Poland's guerrilla operations behind the Soviet lines and the identities of the French military attachés in Warsaw who were responsible for organising and financing Poland's guerrilla operations. The source of this valuable intelligence information was none other than Senkovsky, who had again switched sides.

    Months later Orlov was in Moscow on business when he learned that Dzerzhinsky had received Senkovsky with open arms and they had had lunch together that day in the Chief's office. Dzerzhinsky had gone out of his way in the name of boyhood loyalty and spared the life of his old friend.

    The Senkovsky incident was the lightning rod that first brought Orlov to the personal attention of the chief of the Soviet secret police. Dzerzhinsky was also aware of some of Orlov's daring exploits behind enemy lines and it was he who personally sponsored Orlov's candidacy into the early organisation that would become known around the world as the KGB. Orlov was particularly fond of his patron and felt that he was the best leader the KGB ever had. Dzerzhinsky ran the organisation with an iron fist and every member knew where he stood, yet this leader had compassion for everyone under him.

    Orlov's description of the Senkovsky incident was seriously recounted, but when he had finished I couldn't help noticing the appearance of a grin on his face. I knew him well enough to know that he had something jocular to add. He asked if I was wondering what had happened to Senkovsky's horse and saddle. Actually, I had become so absorbed in the story that I had lost track of these minor details. He then told me that the horse and saddle were far superior to what he had been issued, so he had appropriated them both. The horse turned out to be the best mount he had ever owned and the saddle was far more than he could ever afford. When he was posted to Moscow in 1921, he had had to relinquish the horse but kept the saddle. As horseback riding was one of his passions, the saddle had stayed with him throughout the years until he had been reluctantly forced to sell it to finance his defection.

    At the beginning of 1921, Orlov was brought back to Moscow for a brief period and then posted to the Cheka's elite Border Guard in the northern Russian city of Archangel, where he was placed in charge of counter-intelligence. Here he married Maria Rozhnetsky on 1 April 1921.

    Maria had been born in Kiev on 12 September 1903. She had joined the Bolshevik Party in 1919 and worked for the Bolshevik Government for a short period before joining the Red Army. She had been posted to the Red Army General Staff, near the Polish border, in a clerical capacity, and it was here that she first met Orlov. Orlov would later state that Maria was the most beautiful and intelligent woman he had ever met. They shared the same political ideology, and had the same interests and goals in life, and from early on he was satisfied that this was the woman with whom he wished to spend the rest of his life.

    Orlov admitted that his service with the 12th Red Army and the Border Guard was one of the most fruitful periods of his career. He enjoyed the robust lifestyle of the military and, most of all, the excitement of planning and carrying out operations behind enemy lines. He also enjoyed being able to pursue his love of horses and firearms. He so strongly favoured military values that he considered making the military a career, but he was aware of the mundane nature of the day-to-day routine of military life in peacetime. At this juncture, therefore, he felt it more important to complete his law school education when hostilities ceased. What he did take from his military experience was a substantial background in guerrilla warfare and counter-intelligence that became the nucleus for his career with the KGB.

    In the autumn of 1921, the Orlovs were both released from military service and returned to Moscow, where Orlov re-entered law school on a part-time basis. Maria was accepted as a medical student at the Second Moscow University.

    The era following the Revolution and the Civil War were hectic and in 1921 efforts were made to establish the Soviet Supreme Court. In spite of Orlov's somewhat limited legal qualifications, he was a trusted member of the Party and was therefore appointed as an Assistant Prosecutor in the Collegium of Appeals of the Soviet Supreme Court. Here he was involved in writing the Soviet's original criminal code and is credited for this work in the 1922 and 1923 issues of the Soviet Jurisprudence Weekly .

    On 1 September 1923, in Moscow, the Orlovs' daughter was born. She was named Veronika, but always called Vera, and was their only child. Considered their most prized and loved possession, Vera would die from a recurring illness on 15 July 1940 in Los Angeles, California.

    Early in 1924, Orlov graduated from the Moscow University School of Law. His impressive record at the Collegium of Appeals had not gone unnoticed by Dzerzhinsky, and in 1924 he brought Orlov into the OGPU, the forerunner of the KGB, as a deputy in the Economic Directorate. Orlov served in Moscow for about a year and in 1925 was appointed a brigade commander of the OGPU Border Guard stationed in Tiflis, Transcaucasia. It was here that he would first come into contact with the infamous Lavrenti Beria, then Deputy Chief of the OGPU in Georgia.

    Again good fortune smiled on Orlov when, in early 1926, he was recalled to Moscow to head a department in the newly organised Foreign Department (INO) of the OGPU. The INO had been formed ostensibly to control foreign trade but in reality had been put in place to propagate foreign intelligence and subversion. Here Orlov seized an opportunity for a posting to the Soviet Embassy in Paris and credits Dzerzhinsky with recommending him for his first assignment outside of the Soviet Union. He discussed the matter with his wife, and they both agreed that it would not only be a good career move but an opportunity for adventure in a Western capital.

    Towards the early part of July 1926, Orlov had in hand his transfer to Paris, but within a matter of days Dzerzhinsky was dead from a heart attack. Orlov attended the funeral of his mentor, who was eulogised by both the Politburo and the common man in the street. Orlov had lost his mentor but remembered Dzerzhinsky as the man who had determined the future course of his life.

    In the waning months of the summer of 1926, Orlov was dispatched to Paris under a false identity and the cover of an accredited Soviet diplomat to the Soviet Trade Delegation. In fact, he was the chief of the legal rezidentura at the Embassy, from where he conducted an extensive espionage network second only to the operation in Berlin, which, in the 1920s, was the spy capital of Europe. It was also the focal point of Soviet espionage on the basis of the INO's indisputable appraisal that the German Government was the archenemy of the Soviets. The INO had placed its optimal resources there, and in consideration of Orlov's proven track record in Paris he was reassigned to the Soviet Trade Delegation in Berlin in January 1928 as an accredited diplomat. There he operated under the fictitious identity of Lev Lazarevich Feldel, a name he had no problem remembering as it was so similar to his real name.


Excerpted from Alexander Orlov by Edward Gazur. Copyright © 2001 by Edward Gazur and St Ermin's Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-01-07:
This account of a high-ranking Soviet operative turned FBI spy offers some explosive new information about Stalin, but leaves many questions about Orlov's life unanswered. General Orlov, the KGB's highest-ranking defector, fled to the U.S. in 1938. In the 1950s, he came to the FBI with information on Stalin's purges (much of which he also shared with the public in his book The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes). Gazur, an FBI special agent, debriefed and befriended Orlov during the latter's final days in the early 1970s. The book is strongest in detailing Orlov's flight to the West; he evaded a kidnapping plot at a time when Stalin was decimating Red Army officers in the second great purge. The most shocking revelation, which comes from Orlov's unpublished memoir, is that in 1912 and 1913 Stalin had betrayed the Bolsheviks as a spy for the czar's secret police. Apparently, this information fell into the hands of several Soviet generals in the 1930s the very ones who were soon executed by Stalin, inaugurating the Red Army purge. While this provocative information is likely to cause a stir, Gazur is weaker on Orlov's life in the United States. He claims that Orlov eluded both KGB and U.S. agents for 15 years, yet the mechanics of this improbable feat are not explained. It's also not clear what kind of information Orlov was giving the U.S. in order to remain on their payroll for so long. Gazur concludes with a questionable theory that the KGB might have killed Orlov, which will leave many readers unconvinced. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-01-01:
Alexander Orlov has been justly recognized as the highest-ranking Soviet intelligence officer ever to defect to the West, and his lengthy story is here presented by Gazur, the FBI "minder" assigned to Orlov during the last two years of his life. Gazur acknowledges that this is not a biography but rather a narrative of Orlov's life drawn from his memoirs and personal recollections. Every detail and anecdote of the general's life in the USSR, in Western Europe, and, most minutely, in the United States (a 35-year sojourn) is included. Much of this detail could safely have been omitted. Gazur's account of Orlov's work in Civil War Spain is particularly interesting, as are the details of his 1938 defection and warning to Stalin to leave his Soviet family alone or risk embarrassing revelations. The KGB eventually caught up with him in Cleveland, but he survived unscathed. Gazur also incorporates Orlov-supplied details of famous Soviet intelligence exploits from the first quarter-century of Soviet rule. The book provides some good stories and copious evidence of a brave man with nerves of steel. For the general reader. Robert Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, December 2001
Library Journal, January 2002
Publishers Weekly, January 2002
Booklist, February 2002
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