Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Did you Know, that Ernest Hemingway was a Russian Spy, thou not a very Good one?

July 21, 1899, Ernest Miller Hemingway, author of such novels as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” was born in Oak Park, Illinois. The influential American literary icon became known for his straightforward prose and use of understatement. Hemingway, who tackled topics such as bullfighting and war in his work, also became famous for his own macho, hard-drinking persona.

Many people are familiar with the fact that after surviving two plane crashes in Africa in 1953, Hemingway became increasingly anxious and depressed. On July 2, 1961, he killed himself with a shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. (His father had committed suicide in 1928.). However, less know fact is that Hemingway may had at the time other reasons to get depressed, besides the near death experience, and familial predisposition to suicide.

Spying for Russia

In the last few years of his life, Ernest Hemingway grew paranoid and talked about FBI spying on him. He was even treated with electroshock therapy as many as 15 times at the recommendation of his physician in 1960. It was later revealed that he was in fact being watched, and Edgard Hoover had personally placed him under surveillance. In 2009, the publication of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, revealed that the FBI was in fact right to spy on Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel prize-winning novelist, because he really was on the KGB’s list of its agents in America. Based on notes from a former KGB officer who was given access in the 1990s to intelligence archives in Moscow from the Stalin era, the book reveals that Hemingway was recruited in 1940 before making a trip to China, and was given the cover name “Argo”.

According to Soviet documents, he met with Soviet agents during the 1940s in Havana and London and “repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help us”. In the end, Hemingway turned out to be of little use to the Soviets however, as it has claimed he failed to give them any political information and was never “verified in practical work”. By the 1950s, “Argo” was no longer an active Soviet contact. Some project that Hemingway’s escapades as a KGB spy were more likely all part of an elaborate charade by him to gather literary inspiration. Others suspect his paranoia over being watched by the FBI may have led him to take his own life.

But Why?

Though Hemingway was publicly anti-Communist, he maintained some unofficial contacts with the NKVD even before his forma recruitment - from as early as 1935 - and it was his Soviet contacts, that allowed the author to enter Spain for the research, that eventually became For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Given the Hemingway personality and his expressed public views, it is hard to reconcile his decision to work for NKVD with his individualism and many of his statements about communists and communism. He admired a number of communists, and how they fought for their ideals, but he said that he did not subscribe to their ideology. Joyce remembered Hemingway as “apolitical”: “The leftist intellectuals… were angry… because he always refused to enter their “camp”…. [Hemingway said,] “I like communists when they’re soldiers but when they’re priests, I hate them.” He was always particularly contemptuous of the “ideology boys.”

Considering the timing, it is especially hard to reconcile Hemingway’s becoming a spy for the NKVD with his longstanding antifascist views. In January 1941, when Hemingway reportedly accepted the pitch, the Hitler-Stalin pact was still in force; the Nazi and Soviet dictators were allies.

More than 70 years later, it is hard to appreciate what a blow the cynical pact, signed in 1939, had been to many on the left, especially those who had seen Stalin as the only real counterweight to Hitler. Lifelong communists experienced agonizing doubts. More than a few, like Hemingway’s communist friend Regler, abandoned the party. Those who found a way to rationalize the Hitler-Stalin alliance were on their way to qualifying as true believers.

Interesting is the statement of the NKVD station chief in Madrid, Alexander Orlov, who considered Hemingway to be one of these true believers. Well, despite numerous statements and actions to the contrary, Hemingway did occasionally write or talk like a true believer, especially in the cause of antifascism and, by extension, its communist and Soviet supporters. Robert Jordan, the American guerrilla who is the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, is disturbed by atrocities on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, to say nothing of the cynical intrigues of at least one communist leader that undermine the war effort. But, for the greater good, he decides to suspend judgment for the duration of the war.

Is Jordan speaking for himself or for Hemingway when he extols the benefits of communist discipline—“the best…and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war”? Then there is Philip Rawlings, the hero in Hemingway’s little-known play The Fifth Column. Rawlings is an American journalist who, behind the scenes, is happy to help a ruthless communist counterintelligence officer uncover fascist spies by spotting them in the cafes and hotels of Madrid, all in order to save the Spanish Republic.

In a remarkable letter dated 13 February 1947 and written in his own handwriting, Hemingway appeared to be speaking for himself when he defended the Soviet Union and its work in Spain. He started with the disclaimer that is familiar to generations of Hemingway readers: “It’s politics I do not agree with.” Then he continued with more passion than logic, sounding like many other true believers on the left who argued that the ends justified the means, to include political killings.

NKVD and Agent Argo

NKVD file on Hemingway reflects the service’s frustration in keeping in touch with the agent. A NKVD operative met with Hemingway twice between September 1943 and April 1944 in Cuba, once in June 1944 in London, and once in April 1945 in Cuba. The NKVD file summarizes Hemingway’s poor record as a Soviet spy: “Our meetings with “Argo” in London and Havana were conducted with the aim of studying him and determining his potential for our work. Through the period of his connection with us, “Argo” did not give us any polit. Information [sic], though he repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help us. “Argo” has not been studied thoroughly and is unverified.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the practical use of the author as NKVD spy, his secret affiliation with Russian intelligence service opened the door for his books to the Russian book market, bringing him a great popularity among several generations of the Soviet people.

Sources and Additional Information:

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