Stalin's Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB's Most Daring Operative


Sailor, painter, doctor, lawyer, polyglot, and writer, Dmitri Bystrolyotov

(1901–75) led a life that might seem far-fetched for a spy novel, yet here

the truth is stranger than fiction. The result of a thirty-five-year journey

that started with a private meeting between the author and Bystrolyotov

in 1973 ...

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Sailor, painter, doctor, lawyer, polyglot, and writer, Dmitri Bystrolyotov

(1901–75) led a life that might seem far-fetched for a spy novel, yet here

the truth is stranger than fiction. The result of a thirty-five-year journey

that started with a private meeting between the author and Bystrolyotov

in 1973 Moscow and continued through the author’s subsequent

research in international archives, Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable

Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative pieces together a life lived

in the shadows of the twentieth century’s biggest events.

One of the “Great Illegals,” a team of outstanding Soviet spies operating

in Western countries between the world wars, Bystrolyotov was

the response to Sidney Reilly, the British prototype for James Bond.

A dashing man, his modus operandi was the seduction of women—

among them a French embassy employee, a German countess, the wife

of a British official, and a Gestapo officer—which enabled Stalin to look

into diplomatic pouches of many European countries. Risking his life,

Bystrolyotov also stole military secrets from Nazi Germany and Fascist

Italy. A man of extraordinary physical courage, he twice crossed the

Sahara Desert and the jungles of Congo.

But his success as a spy didn’t save him from Stalin’s purges, at the

height of which he was arrested and tortured until he falsely confessed

to selling out to the enemy. Sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in

the Gulag, Bystrolyotov risked more severe punishment by documenting

the regime’s crimes against humanity in unpublished and suppressed

memoirs that rival those of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The first full-length biography in any language, at once a real-life

spy thriller, a drama of desire, and a prison memoir, Stalin’s Romeo Spy

is the true account of a flawed yet extraordinary man.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Dmitri Bystrolyotov (1901–75) was a talented, good-looking, multilingual, highly motivated young man when he was recruited in the 1920s to work for Soviet Intelligence. He became a member of the "Great Illegals," an extraordinary group of agents that penetrated Western governments and recruited native agents. Unsurprisingly, he used sex to enroll new agents, and his skills and aristocratic bearing allowed him to move easily around Europe. But success did not save him from Stalin's deadly paranoid purges in the 1930s. He spent 16 years in the Gulag, where out of desperation he focused on remembering and writing down his story. Draitser (Russian, Hunter Coll.) had been a Soviet journalist who met Bystrolyotov before immigrating to the United States in 1974. This book, undertaken after much international research, is his effort to show a daring professional at work and to counter Russian efforts to whitewash their history. The details of espionage work and of Soviet life are fascinating. Bystrolyotov's story is also covered in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin's The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. VERDICT This amazing story should be read by those interested in espionage, Soviet affairs, and European history. Recommended for general readers and academics. (Index and photos not seen.)—Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810126640
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 3/19/2010
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Originally a journalist in the Soviet Union, Emil Draitser was blacklisted for a satirical

article and, in 1974, immigrated to the United States, where he is now a professor of

Russian at Hunter College in New York City. His most recent book is Shush! Growing

Up Jewish Under Stalin: A Memoir.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2010 Emil Draitser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2664-0

Chapter One

Sowing the Wind

It so happened that [young] Bystrolyotov saw his parents rarely. -FROM BYSTROLYOTOV 2006 OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY I [was] not a pretty little boy, but a little boy down on his luck. -BYSTROLYOTOV, RECALLING HIS CHILDHOOD

"Where would you like to work for us?" a man with a Mephistophelian beard asked.

"I don't know ..." Dmitri began, but, seeing that this didn't make a good impression, he straightened his shoulders and added, "I want to be where it's most dangerous!"

He got what he asked for.

The conversation took place at the end of April 1925, during the time of Dmitri's visit to Moscow as the Czechoslovakian delegate at the First Congress of Proletarian Students. His address to the Congress was published in Pravda. His interlocutor was Artur Khristyanovich Artuzov, head of the Counterintelligence Department of the OGPU. Although Dmitri had been involved in intelligence work at the Soviet Trade Mission in Prague for more than a year, he considered this meeting the true beginning of his intelligence career.

The interview had been arranged by Soviet secret service operatives at the Trade Mission in Prague,the only institution representing Soviet interests in Czechoslovakia at that time. Before coming to Moscow, Dmitri had known next to nothing about the inner workings of the Soviet secret service or its intricate structure and organization. He knew only that its headquarters were located on Lubyanka Square in Moscow and that the second secretary of the Prague Trade Mission was an OGPU operative. Before leaving Prague for Moscow to take part in the First Congress of Proletarian Students, he had been forewarned at the Mission that some very important people would talk to him.

The meeting took place in a mansion that had been owned by Prince Dolgorukov until the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917 dispossessed him. In his memoirs, Dmitri gives a minute description of this pivotal meeting in his life:

They took me to a small room where a middle-aged man, tired and sleepy, lay fully clothed on a sofa and next to him sat a man, a bit younger, astride a chair, dark haired, slit eyed. They would tell me later that the man on the sofa was Artuzov and the seated one was Mikhail Gorb. They offered me the only other chair. I didn't know who those men were or what they wanted from me. But I felt that they were big bosses and that my whole future life depended on this conversation ... Comrade Gorb's face reflected ill will. He glanced at me and gloomily looked away. But Artuzov examined me and my suit with apparent interest and a benevolent smile: "Well, let's get acquainted. Tell me everything about yourself. Don't drag it out, but don't race through it either. I'd like to know about your background."

Dmitri outlined that he was brought up in an aristocratic family (although he did his own mending from age thirteen), learned foreign languages (French, English, and German), later worked as a sailor on the Black Sea, and when the Russian Civil War broke out, with the outflow of refugees, fled to Turkey, eventually winding up in Czechoslovakia.

This was all true. But there was so much more in his background that he didn't-and couldn't-tell, because he would only realize its full meaning many years later. Not until the end of his life did he fully comprehend the profound effect of his formative years on the makeup of his personality and the choices he had made in life. To his credit, he knew that his lifelong troubles had begun early, and he mercilessly examined all the circumstances of that period in his voluminous memoirs, sparing no one, including himself.

Bystrolyotov's most recent official biography makes light of the fact that while he was growing up he saw his parents rarely. To begin with, this statement is misleading. He "rarely" saw only one of his parents-his mother. And he never ever saw his father, a situation that deeply wounded him and to which he returns again and again in his memoirs.

Born January 3, 1901, in the Crimean village of Akchora (now Gvardeiskoe), the young Bystrolyotov was deprived of a father not because his mother had had an illicit love affair or because she had wanted a child but decided not to marry, but rather because she wanted to make a social statement. She gave birth to an illegitimate child only to challenge conventions. "They didn't consider the baby and his future," Dmitri bitterly remarks.

"They" is a reference to his mother, Klavdiya Bystrolyotova, daughter of a provincial clergyman, and her best friend, Anastasia Krandievskaya, daughter of a liberal publisher. Both young women were affected by the ideas of women's liberation then gaining ground in Russia. In 1899, under the influence of a newly organized Society for the Protection of Women's Health, they called themselves suffragettes, began dressing in men's pants and hats, and occupied themselves with Swedish gymnastics. Such ostentatious behavior, however, was insufficient for Klavdiya, who burned with the desire "to challenge respectable society in a bolder, sharper, more demonstrative way ... to spite the whole Victorian world." The method she ultimately chose was to have an illegitimate child.

In Bystrolyotov's view, such an outlandish idea could only arise from emotional instability. He attributed his mother's disorder to two factors. The first was Pavlovian reflexes or, as he puts it, "dominance of psychomotor stimulation of the cortex over the buffering effect of inhibiting centers." The second was bad heredity, which he traced back to her grandmother Nina and which he thought had been passed on to him as well. The daughter of an Ossetian prince, Nina had married one Ivan Bystrov, a Cossack officer who later changed his name to Bystrolyotov ("fast flyer") after the nickname friends had given him for his daring horsemanship. Nina was nicknamed Osa ("wasp"), doubtless due to her erratic and irritable character. Shortly after giving birth to a son, she became violent and had to be physically restrained. She died young.

Nina's son Dmitri also grew up troubled. His early life injuries prevented him from becoming a Cossack officer like his father, so, on a whim, he chose the priesthood. But his inborn anxiety and restlessness eventually ruined his career. Made pastor of a rich parish with a new church in town, he announced one day to his superior, the archbishop of the North Caucasus, that no one could prove the existence of God. The archbishop exiled him to Solovetsky Monastery in the Far North, where he could reflect and repent.

One of Grandfather Dmitri's children, Klavdiya was like her grandmother and father. Restless, headstrong, and erratic, she gave everybody a lot of trouble. Dmitri believed that he, her only child, carried the burden of this heredity all his life.

Upon graduation from the gymnasium (high school), Klavdiya was thrown out of her parents' house for some scandalous behavior. At age nineteen, she began her study in the humanities at a private institution called the Higher Women's Courses in St. Petersburg. But soon, due to her inborn restlessness, she switched to another institution, then another. Finally she abandoned studies altogether and turned to social activism. She served as a liaison between political exiles in the North and their families back home.

As she became better known in circles of the liberal intelligentsia, Klavdiya met Anastasia Krandievskaya, her future lifelong friend. Anastasia suggested that they join a group of young men and women from all over Russia who were heading to the Crimea to do volunteer work at Akchora, the estate of a rich landowner, Sergei Skirmunt. Influenced by Tolstoyan ideas, he was building a model village for the local peasants, complete with cottages, hospital, and school. It was there, while working on the estate, that Klavdiya and Anastasia conceived the idea of challenging polite society by openly having an illegitimate child. Born in 1866, considered a spinster already, Klavdiya nonetheless volunteered to be the mother, while Anastasia took on the task of finding a like-minded male. Relying on his mother's stories, Dmitri identifies him as Count Alexander Nikolaevich Tolstoy, at the time a minor official of the Ministry of State Properties and a descendant of the ancient aristocratic family. The Tolstoy family, in addition to Russian diplomats, scholars, and artists, produced three famous writers: Leo Tolstoy, Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, and Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy.

In his memoirs, Bystrolyotov goes to great lengths to describe all the circumstances that made him take the surname Bystrolyotov and not Tolstoy. He painstakingly recounts all the legal obstacles that had to be overcome to make his birth legitimate. First, the laws of the Russian Empire did not allow his father to adopt him at the time of his birth. Then, two years later, when a new law made it possible, other obstacles appeared. Adoption meant granting him the right not only to carry his father's name and aristocratic title but also to inherit a share of his estate. This circumstance, Bystrolyotov believed, brought about a Tolstoy family feud. Those who did not have a share in the estate approved of the boy's adoption; those who did opposed it. When this conflict was finally resolved in Dmitri's favor, a new hurdle arose. Because his father belonged to the titled branch of the Tolstoy clan, his adoption required a decree of the tsar himself.

Only someone in a position to advise the tsar could have resolved the matter. Whatever were the circumstances, the question of his father's identity remains uncertain-in some of his writings he calls him Alexei Alexandrovich, while in his official Soviet documents, he always put a dash where his father's name should have been entered. But it is important that Dmitri himself believed that he was a Tolstoy. Since he was embarrassed by the circumstances of his birth, it made him feel better about himself, although he never put an official claim on it.

Little Dmitri spent the first few years of his life with his mother at Akchora, the place of his birth, at Skirmunt's estate. But at the age of three, he was separated from his mother, an event that left a lifelong scar on his psyche. It's not quite clear how it happened. According to his memoirs, it was because his father's family, the Tolstoys, paid the bills and insisted on bringing up one of their own as an aristocrat. Apparently trusting his mother's story, he reconstructs a conversation between her and his putative aunt (his father's sister), Varvara Nikolaevna Kokorina, which goes as follows:

When Klavdiya Bystrolyotova got pregnant, Kokorina invited her for a talk and laid down the following conditions: If Klavdiya gave birth to a healthy baby, she would get child support and the baby would be raised in an aristocratic family that she, Kokorina, would choose. The child's continued support would depend on his merits. A mediocre youth would be returned to his mother, but an able off spring would be officially adopted and given all the privileges of a highborn aristocrat. Under these conditions, Bystrolyotov writes, when he was three, Kokorina arrived in the Crimea and took him to St. Petersburg to live with a foster family, the de Courvals.

Bystrolyotov's recollections of his aristocratic upbringing sound quite authentic. When Artuzov talked to him, he had no doubt that he had been raised according to the highest cultural standards. However, some elements of his story are dubious. Most notably, his mother's meeting with Kokorina and the latter's subsequent visit to the Crimea could not have taken place for the simple reason that Kokorina died a few years before Dmitri's birth.

Although the details remain unclear, the fact remains that the baby boy Dmitri was brought to St. Petersburg and placed under the foster protection of a widow, Elizaveta Robertovna de Courval, who had two small daughters of her own. There was no man in the household. After losing his fortune in a game of cards, Elizaveta's husband, an officer of the guards, had shot himself. Thus whoever made the arrangement for little Dmitri evidently tried to do two things at once: to help the impoverished widow and to give a fatherless boy an aristocratic upbringing. (Such a practice was not unheard of in Russian high society. For example, the famous Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky [1783-1852], born of a captive Turkish girl and given to his father as a birthday present, was raised in the family of an impoverished nobleman.)

Despite leading a materially secure life as a child, Dmitri was anything but happy. In his early teens he began receiving books from his father on high cultural subjects: ancient Greece and Rome, medieval art and the Renaissance, the history of Russian art, the history of French art. But he never received from him even a short note, much less a letter. And he never heard that his father wanted to see him. The two never met. In his memoirs, Bystrolyotov assigns no importance to this situation: "My father is nothing for me; he's a myth. I don't have any feelings for him." Yet it's hard to imagine that a sensitive and intelligent boy would not feel hurt by his father's distance and disaffection.

His mother also was lost to sight, so he was doubly abandoned. In her case he could not hide his feelings. "I lived far from her and was out of her way," he bitterly remarks in his memoirs. With her son off her hands, she threw herself back into her prime interest-fighting for social causes. No sooner was he gone than the war with Japan broke out in 1904, and she volunteered to serve as a nurse at the front in Manchuria. When World War I broke out in 1914, she volunteered again. "She couldn't miss such a rare opportunity," Bystrolyotov remarks sarcastically. Since she hadn't bothered to adopt him officially, and since his father did not adopt him, it seems he was documented as an orphan.

This life of "privilege and prison," like that of "a bird in a gilded cage," as he characterizes it, was interrupted only by rare visits from his mother, who would take him on short trips to the Caucasus. For him these occasions were as comforting as "the whistle of a whip." His radically minded mother resented her son's life of luxury and used every opportunity to give him painful (in the direct meaning of the word) lessons in social justice, lessons he would remember for the rest of his life.

One such occasion occurred when he was about five. His mother had taken him out for a picnic, and curious peasant children came up to look. Seeing the barefoot boys and girls walk awkwardly across a field of wheat stubble, he laughed unwittingly. Klavdiya exploded. "Don't you ever dare laugh at them!" she shouted. "You live on their money." And she ordered him to remove his shoes and socks, grabbed him by the hand, and forced him to walk over the prickly stubble. "Here you go, you little master. Now you know how poor people walk on earth!"

Again, when he was about twelve, he and his mother were vacationing in the Caucasus, and they saw an old Cossack woman, who was trying to cross, fall into a turbulent mountain river. Immediately Klavdiya ordered Dmitri to jump in and save the woman at the risk of his life. When he hesitated, she scolded him, threatened to slap his face, and called him a coward. "Your Cossack ancestors would be ashamed of you!"

Prodded by his mother, he jumped into the water. After much struggling, finally he managed to grab the old woman by the hand; his mother pulled them both out. When the old woman bowed to young Dmitri and thanked him for saving her life, Klavdiya told her, "Get up, little mother, don't degrade yourself. It was his duty to do it." Dmitri forever remembered the way his mother "threw these words over her shoulder" and went to change her clothes with "a very haughty look," all the while laughing at him. His heroism had been turned to humiliation.

In 1914, with Russia entering World War I, inflation made life difficult for the de Courval family in St. Petersburg. Elizaveta Robertovna moved the household to Anapa, a small resort town on the Black Sea, where life was easier and the family still owned a villa. Young Dmitri, now thirteen, was enrolled as a cadet in the Sevastopol Naval Academy. This was a prestigious institution that prepared young men of the aristocracy for careers as naval officers.


Excerpted from STALIN'S ROMEO SPY by EMIL DRAITSER Copyright © 2010 by Emil Draitser. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Gary Kern....................xi
Notes on Sources, Transliterations, and Translation....................xix
Abbreviations and Terms....................xxi
Prologue Tea with a Master Spy....................3
One Sowing the Wind....................15
Two A Leaf Torn from a Branch....................30
Three In the Grips of Holy Wrath....................44
Four Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places....................55
Five Marriage and Other Calamities....................72
Six Going Underground....................91
Seven Hunting Down a Man with a Red Nose....................107
Eight Handling "Charlie"....................123
Nine The End of "Charlie" and Other British Agents....................141
Ten In the Arms of the Fiercest Enemy....................165
Eleven The "Vivaldi" Affair....................188
Twelve The Last Operations: Africa and Other Gray Areas....................207
Thirteen The Return....................226
Fourteen In Ink and Blood....................251
Fifteen Sentencing and Entering the Gulag....................264
Sixteen The Invalid Camp....................285
Seventeen Love Behind Barbed Wire....................301
Eighteen The High Price of Decency....................315
Nineteen Taking On Challenges of Freedom....................339
Twenty Fighting to the End, Now a Different Enemy....................357
Selected Bibliography....................405
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  • Posted May 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Stalin's Romeo Spy

    "Stalin's Romeo Spy," is surperb account of a man who led two lives, one as an exceptional spy for early Soviet intelligence, and another life as "lived" in the Soviet Gulag system. Author historian Emil Draitser had the opportunity to meet with his subject Dmitri Bystrolyotov not long before his death in l975.
    Emil Draitser reveals not only a remarkable but a previous unknown master of Soviet espionage, a man long forgotten in his own country for years lost in the depths of the Gulags until only recently when the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) enshrined him as one of their immortals. As a young man, Dmitri Bystrolyotov was a smart agent syping for his country, his "Motherland," abroad,mainly in West Europe but also in the heart of Africa. The "Romeo appellation" stems from the proposition, as all spy agencies practice, the Soviets counted on some agents to be lady's men, to pose as gigolos in fact, to surreptiously solicit information from adoring women fawned over, who just may so happen o have access to their govt.'s secret files. Although this would all end abruptly, when Dimitry's life would be turned upside down when ordered back to Moscow by his superiors in l938, and then quickly arrested during the infamous purges, and, as with most others, under trumped up charges.
    In the infamous gulags ( made "famous" in the West by writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), Dmitri began to lead what would become his second life. In the gulags, his early medical training would help sustain him, in caring for his fellow slave labourers. The suffering ordeals that Dmitri Bystrolyotov, no longer recognized by Soviets as a spy for them, had to bear are made legendary by Draitser, those tjat many victims of camp life would have long ceased to endure. Losing his first wife to excruciating illness, Dmitri would afterward make friends in one camp to the next for both hardened criminals and so-called political prisoners, often located near or byond the arctic circle. Unlike his previous life as a gigolo spy, Dmitri in his new "incarnation" as one of millions confined to the gulags, would make heroic sacrifices with what little he had to help others. As if by a miracle, he would meet a fellow camp inmate named Anna who would eventually become his new wife, always remaining steadfast and loyal to the end, even during several years of seperation from Dmitri in even more prisons of both Stalinist and post-Stalinist regimes. It is to Anna's grandson, Sergei Milashov, that Draitser learned of Dmitri's incredible background, because Milashov saved many of Dmitri's private papers, and also from Draiter's own meeting with Dmitri Bystrolyotov in l974. Dmitri also wrote novels and screenplays, often composing them totally in his own head without benefit of paper or pencil; (forget today's writing retrival systems). Some of his work was published in post-Stalinist Russia, of course in official censored verisons.
    With nationalistic fervor premeating today's Russian Federation, there has been a rekindling of past NKVD/KGB exploits by what present-day Russia now calls Hall of fame. Be assured, the hero being honored there is the early Bystrolyotov spent in days of successful high spy drama, not the real Christ-like heroic figure, that much of Draitser's book chronicles, that person who had endured a living hell on earth, for his "Motherland."

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