Events in Salisbury, England, in early March led some to suggest a Second Cold War is imminent. Former Russian Main Intelligence Directorate officer and British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. As a result, 29 countries took punitive action against Russia and an unprecedented 153 Russian diplomats were sent packing, including two from Australia and 48 from the United States. The Russian consulate in Seattle and the US consulate in St Petersburg were closed. If World War One - which dragged the US, Australia and New Zealand into the squabble among a bunch of European consanguineal kin, and cost those nations hundreds and thousands of young lives - could be sparked by the shooting of an obscure Austro-Hungarian archduke in Sarajevo, and Cold War Two could be set off by the poisoning of a duplicitous double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, what then of a Manhattan "Leap to Freedom" by a 5ft 3in tall, brown-eyed 52-year-old rug-knitting widow? Could she possibly have precipitated Cold War One?
It may seem a bit old hat by now, but it's coming up for 70 years since the tit-for-tat closure of US and Russian consulates occurred the first time, and all because of a Ukrainian natural science teacher called Oksana Stepanovna Kasenkina (above). In late August 1948, the Soviet Union's consulate in New York City, as well as the San Francisco consulate, were closed and the Soviet Union ordered the US consulate in Vladivostok closed. Plans for a US consulate in Leningrad were shelved. Then Soviet Consul-General Jacob Lomakin advised the Kremlin against ever re-establishing consular relations, and in the event it was 26 years before the US and Soviet Union came to an agreement to open new consulates, the US in Kiev and the Soviet Union in New York City. (The Soviet Union's first consulate in New York was opened in 1934, on the strength of reports from Moscow by Walter Duranty. See previous post.)
According to Susan Lisa Carruthers in her 2009 book Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing, the Kasenkina affair "prompted Newsweek to announce that the Cold War had, at last, become universally intelligible ... Historians have failed to memorialise Kasenkina's role as a precipitant of the Cold War, but for some weeks in 1948, the tale of a desperate Soviet schoolteacher who sought to avoid forcible repatriation to the USSR monopolised the headlines: 'a melodrama' more hair-raising than a Grade-B thriller' ... [She was] a stirring example of the lengths to which a Soviet citizen would go to escape her state's tyrannous clutches. With her dramatic exit from the consulate, Kasenkina appeared to validate a fundamental truth about two antithetical ways of life. While the 'worker's paradise' was a country one would court death to flee, the US beckoned as an asylum for which one would risk risk itself." Kasenkina had, said Newsweek, provided the "Western democracies ... their biggest break in the three-year propaganda war" with Moscow. Carruthers adds that Kasenkina became "a prominent icon of anti-Communism".
Still in her Roosevelt Hospital bed in September 1948, Oksana Kasenkina tells her story to Belarus-born American journalist and anti-Communist writer Isaac Don Levine, described by Martin Tytell as a "typewriter expert".
Bear in mind that, if one accepts the Carruthers view of Kasenkina's impact on American thinking, then the fact is that it wasn't so much bombs and war machines that created the vision of the start of a Cold War as the typewriters which spewed out hundreds of thousands of words from and about Kasenkina, words which swept across the world and forever influenced attitudes towards the Soviet Union. Words about Kasenkina's escape even reached the USSR, where two Soviet pilots, on hearing of her successful "Leap to Freedom", decided in October 1948 to fly their fighter plane from western Ukraine to the American zone of Austria, and were taken from there to the US. Promised a safe return to see his wife and baby son, one of them, Anatoly Barsov, went back to the Soviet Union. Australian defectors the Petrovs later revealed that Barsov was immediately executed and didn't even get to see his son.
It's startling how similar the Kasenkina story is to that of fellow Ukrainian Evdokia Alexeyevna Petrova, the Soviet spy who succeeded in defecting to Australia almost six years after Kasenkina had defied death in New York City. The defection of Siberian-born Vladimir Petrov and his wife changed the entire political spectrum in Australia, leading to a split in the Labor Party and conservatives staying in power until 1972. (Petrova is seen right being forced on to a plane in Sydney by armed Soviet "diplomats").
Both women lived out the rest of their lives under assumed names. The major difference is that Kasenkina was no spy, though she was far more unspoken about conditions behind the Iron Curtain than Petrov was, at least publicly.Apparently historians can't fully agree on an official date for the outbreak of the Cold War, but a common timeframe is the period after March 12 1947, when what would become the Truman Doctrine was announced. The Berlin Blockade began on June 24, 1948, two months before Kasenkina's vertiginous leap. Carruthers wrote that "voluminous literature crammed with opening salvos, crisis points and bellicose declarations" yields no mention of Kasenkina. There's no doubt, however, that a crisis involving a single individual is a far more effective catalyst in making a broader concern more crystal clear. Newsweek choose its words well, saying the Kasenkina affair made the Cold War "Something That People Can Understand". TIME said Kasenkina had revealed "nakedly ... the bitter despair behind the glowing promises in Communism's worker's paradise". The New York Times view was that "The incident on Sixty-first Street will strengthen popular resolve." Carruthers adds that Kasenkina's escape marked a "new nadir" in US-Soviet relations, and she proposed "a different kind of starting point for the Cold War: the point at which that phenomenon became emotionally resonant for 'ordinary Americans'." Kazenkina "vividly illuminated the Cold War's terms of engagement, providing a model for individuals and nationals the world over." Americans had seemingly been previously unmoved "by distant wrangling over Berlin and the creeping Stalinization of eastern Europe".
Kazenkina recovers in Roosevelt Hospital after her ordeal.
While Kasenkina was still recovering in hospital from her near-fatal fall, she was visited by Belarus-born journalist and anti-Communist writer Isaac Don Levine (1892-1981), who persuaded Kasenkina to allow him to ghost-write her life story for syndication through Hearst to newspapers and magazines around the world. At the time Levine was editor of the anti-Communist magazine Plain Talk. Kasenkina later collaborated with another writer, fellow Ukrainian Walter Dushnyck, a specialist in Eastern European affairs and editor of the Ukraine Quarterly, on her "autobiography", Leap to Freedom. While Levine was fixatedly and rabidly anti-Stalinist, Dushnyck was deeply concerned with human-rights issues in Russia and the Ukraine. Nonetheless, the extended series of long articles by Levine, appearing under Kazenkina's byline, was a relatively straightforward saga of her unhappy life under Stalin's rule, first in Sloviansk (Slavyansk to Kasenkina) in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine, and later in Moscow until her arrival in New York to teach to children of Soviet diplomats. Particularly harrowing were the details of the NKVD's arrests of her maths teacher husband, the Bolsevik Demyan Nikitich Kasenkin, and her brother-in-law, telegraph operator Stefan, in April 1937 (they were sent to Siberia and she never saw either of them again). In 1934 Kasenkina also lost her daughter Sylvestra ("Sylva") to starvation following the Stalin-manufactured Ukraine famine, and then her son Oleg died fighting for the Red Army on the Volkhov Front on January 1942.
Oleg, Oksana and Sylva Kasenkina in much happier times, 1932.In her book, however, Kasenkina is critical of the US State Department, accusing it of caving in to Soviet blackmail - with an implied "danger of war". The department had delayed the serving of a writ of habeas corpus for her release from the Soviet consulate while it checked out the facts of the matter, but the department's procrastination was overtaken by Common Cause, a militant anti-Communist action group which had its origins in Britain and was introduced to the US by Natalie Wales Latham Paine in 1947. Common Cause directly served the suit on Soviet Consul-General Jacob Lomakin on the evening of August 11, the day before Kasenkina jumped. New York Supreme Court Justice Samuel Dickstein decided Lomakin had to produce Kasenkina in court on August 12, despite the fact Dickstein himself was a former paid Soviet agent. Lomakin refused to comply, and the State Department contacted New York Governor Thomas Dewey, urging him to put a stay on Dickstein's verdict. While all this was going on, it became apparent that under Soviet law Kasenkina could be executed within 24 hours. All of which forced Kasenkina to take matters into her own hands. (The State Department finally made a strongly-worded declaration on August 20, eight days after the "Leap to Freedom". Lomakin was told to leave the US and the consulate closed a week later.)
Isaac Don Levine fuelled McCarthyism fires,
just as Kasenkina's escape excited the House Un-American Activities Committee.While in Boston to cover the Sacco and Vanzetti trials, Levine's experience turned him against the Communist Party and toward a career exposing the NKVD's (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) and later KGB's espionage activities in America and Europe. In 1939 Levine collaborated with the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky for a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post exposing the horrors of Stalin's regime. From that year until 1948, Levine was deeply involved with Whittaker Chambers in the accusations Chambers made against Alger Hiss, culminating in Levine providing testimony against Hiss to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Of course, the key piece of evidence against Hiss was a Woodstock typewriter, and the story of that machine, and the involvement of typewriter forensics legend Martin Tytell in the Hiss defence, is told elsewhere on this blog ("FBI Forgery by Typewriter: Re-Examining the Alger Hiss Case - How Did His 1927 Woodstock Become a 1929 Model?"). In February 1957, Tytell gave evidence about another typewriter, this time before the Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States hearings in Washington (see post here). Tytell was questioned by senate subcommittee chief consul Robert Morris about his interest in an April 1956 LIFE magazine article about Stalin being a Czarist spy. That article was written by Isaac Don Levine (see above), who presumably was the "typing expert" referred to by Tytell (below).
Anti-Communists Badim Makaroff, Alexandra Tolstoy and Boris Sergievsky look at the typewritten Levine letter in a bank vault.That Oksana Kasenkina believed there was an implied "danger of war" in her escape from Stalin's grasp is perhaps underlined by the article she wrote for Collier's magazine for its "The War We Do Not Want" issue of October 27, 1951. Kasenkina's prophecy - happily unfulfilled - was highlighted on the striking cover designed by Richard Deane Taylor. Beside the masthead are the words, "Russia's Defeat and Occupation 1952-60".
Kasenkina details a hypothetical World War III which lasts from 1952 to 1955. It's written from the perspective of a post-war Ukraine in 1960, five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She describes her return home after defecting in 1948. (Full story below.)
Kasenkina's life story, as told to Levine, is primarily about a course of events in the Ukraine and Russia, and suggests she may have quietly and patiently plotted to escape the Soviet Union. In fact she felt held back by hopes her son Oleg was still alive. But whatever her plans, things did not map out smoothly for her in the US, and her eventual defection was shrouded in confusion. As Gary Kern points out in his book The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War on Stalin, "The defection of Oksana Stepanovna Kasenkina is one of the most dramatic of all." "It ... caught the world's attention and led to momentous events ... As if with a great exclamation mark, the Kasenkina case ended the period when Soviet defectors were regarded with disdain and disfavour in America. By word and deed the USA served notice that henceforth they would be welcomed, honoured and protected." The change most probably occurred because Kasenkina had no attachment to politics, governments, the military or, especially, any intelligence agencies. She was just an ordinary woman, a quiet and unassuming school teacher.Kasenkina's opportunity for a new life started when she was sent to New York in 1946. But working within the Soviet consulate's school soon opened her eyes to the realities of a Communist caste system (some students were more equal than others). She herself, as a non-Communist Party member, was treated badly. She began to read the American Russian-language newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo and was startled to find in an article by the Ukrainian defector Victor Kravchenko:
Secretly going to see the movie The Iron Curtain, a thriller based on the memoirs of Igor Gouzenko, had a similar effect on her. Gouzenko was a defector of Ukrainian stock who exposed Stalin's efforts to steal nuclear secrets and the technique of planting sleeper agents. Kasenkina became increasingly defiant, outspoken and unsettled, and far less inclined to accept her fate when told she would be returning to the Soviet Union by ship when the school year ended in mid-July 1948.
She approached Mark Weinbaum, editor of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, who assisted her to gain entry to Reed Farm at Valley Cottage outside of Nyack, New York. Ironically, the farm was named for John Silas "Jack" Reed, above, the American journalist, poet and socialist activist for did much for Communist Russia's cause, for which he was considered a martyr and a symbol of the international nature of the Bolshevik revolution. But in 1948 it was a retreat for disillusioned Soviets, run by Leo Tolstoy's daughter, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, seen below typing for her father.
Countess Alexandra Tolstoy at Reed Farm.Kasenkina was unable to settle at Reed Farm, however, and began to have second thoughts about her decision. She wrote to Soviet Consul-General Jacob Lomakin, under a heading "Why I do not want to return to the Soviet Union", saying the Soviet "paradise" had been turned into a hell and a flourishing country into a prison. Kasenkina ended the letter, "I implore you, I implore you once more, don't let me perish here. I am without willpower." Lomakin opted to read "here" as Reed Farm and quickly turned up at the farm to take her away - despite Tolstoy's warning that she would be shot.
Kasenkina's room at Reed Farm is left in a shambles.After a struggle, Kasenkina was back under Lomakin's control, and soon regretting writing her letter. The police arrived too late, but soon they had informed the Press about what was going on. Lomakin labelled the Reed Farm people as "White Russian bandits" who had kidnapped Kasenkina. A staged press conference only added to the general confusion, with The New York Times presenting the story as a clash between Russian factions. Victor Kravchenko became involved, and contacted Senator Karl Earl Mundt, then acting chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee embroiled in the Chambers-Hiss case.
Lomakin keeps Kazenkina to a pre-arranged script for the benefit of the US Press.This is how LIFE magazine saw the sequence of events, differentiating between claim and counter-claim:
Victor Kravchenko told The New York Times, in relation to the fate of Lomakin, Soviet Ambassador to the US Alexander Panyushkin and Vice-Consul Izot Chepurnykh:
Lomakin wasn't purged, but went on to the Beijing embassy and died in 1958. Panyushkin also went to China and later headed the KGB foreign directorate. He died in 1974. Chepurnykh was made the fall guy and was sentenced to 15 years prison. Kasenkina achieved her much cherished ambition to become a US citizen in 1957 and died in Miami, Florida, on July 27, 1960, aged 64. In her Collier's article, she had imagined herself to be back home in Sloviansk by that time, free to worship God again.
Cincinnati Enquirer, September 5, 1964.
New York Daily News, July 26, 1998
We Worship GOD Again
By Oksana Kasenkina
Slavyansk, Ukraine, 1960
It was the summer of 1948. I was looking out from a third-floor window into the courtyard of the Soviet Consulate in New York. Far below me was a telephone cable. I climbed onto the ledge. Behind me was a life of fear, hunger, cold and brutality. I whispered the prayer my mother had taught me. Then I leaped to freedom.
Millions of women in my homeland would have taken the same opportunity, but they had to wait until Stalin destroyed himself and his whole regime in the war which ended in 1955. I was one of the lucky ones, for I had the chance to escape.
I never intended to return to Russia—at least as long as it remained Stalin's dungeon. But today, with Russia free and unfettered, it is the duty of Russians like myself to aid in its reconstruction. Thus it was that I journeyed here to my father's house three months ago. It was the first time in 15 years I had seen my homeland.
Everybody is hopeful about this New Russia of 1960. It would be wrong, of course, to say that all the women of Russia are happy; they are not. Their menfolk are gone. Indeed, there are few families who have not lost a father, a son, or some other loved one. Yet the freedom which women are enjoying here now, after 38 years of terror under the Reds, is in itself a great compensation.
This may be difficult for the women of the Western World to understand, but it is a fact nevertheless. For example, under Stalin every five families had one MVD (secret police) agent watching them. One's every move was watched. People were afraid to talk to one another. The atmosphere, whether it was in a big city or a small village, was always tense and cautious. Neighbors suspected one another of being informers. For every day somebody would be arrested, to disappear into the unknown.
I remember many of my friends being taken away by the MVD and then being sent to Siberia for no other reason than they had commented unfavorably on some facet of the regime. Very few of them returned.
Indeed, this terror which gripped the Soviet Union can best be understood if one remembers that one tenth of the entire population of 212,000,000 was sent to labor camps—in the frozen wastes of Siberia or elsewhere. The very existence of these concentration camps—for that is what they were—provided the MVD with the greatest psychological weapon of fear the world has ever known. And the long arm of the MVD reached outside the borders of the Soviet Union, too.
A few months after my escape, I received a letter. Inside the envelope was a single sheet of paper heavily bordered in black. In the center of the page there was one sentence: "Your blood will be exterminated in the Soviet Union." I am still searching for my relatives.
When I returned here, I found my father's comfortable five-room house desolate and deserted. The big terraces surrounding the building were nearly hidden by the wild rose bushes growing untended in profusion everywhere. For a long time I stood looking at the house and the grounds. Memories came flooding back . . . my son, Oleg, born without a doctor or midwife and being christened by a priest who came out of hiding to perform the christening ceremony . . . the government reported Oleg missing in action in World War II . . . my daughter Sylva dying from starvation during the terrible famine of the collectivization years . . . the arrest and disappearance of my beloved husband, Demyan. As I looked at the place, the artesian well in the overgrown garden sprinkled quietly as though shedding tears of sympathy with me for the bitter memories which came back at that moment.
Inside the house I found a cruel reminder of Stalin's police state. After World War II, when I returned here, I discovered that the Gestapo had used one room for interrogation purposes. I found blood spattered waist-high on the walls. During World War III, this room was used once again as a torture chamber—this time by the MVD. Even today I still wonder how many innocent Russian people passed through the hands of Stalin's gangsters—in this house which once knew such happiness.
One of the first things I did was to take the family icon in its protective mahogany frame and restore it to its former place in that room. Occasionally now, as the sun shines onto the spotlessly white walls, it seems to stop for a moment to pick out the image.
Every home in Russia has its icon today, and there is a great spiritual reawakening throughout the land. Most of these holy paintings were hidden for years, for religion under Stalin was merely a political instrument. But in Russia today, the people are enjoying glorious freedom of religion—as they are enjoying other precious things of the West.
We are rebuilding our town, and the Slavyansk festival has returned. All sorts of goods are on sale; cattle is on exhibition, and there are countless tents and wagons—the whole a great colorful fair with gypsies and everybody wearing their best clothes.
But there is no real happiness here, only a grim gaiety, for the Russian people are still in a state of shock. There is, however, great relief—one can feel it all over Russia—for the people no longer live in terror of anything or anybody. Today the words of Lincoln, "of the people, by the people and for the people," apply to the people of Russia as never before. Under Stalin it was "of the state, by the state, for the state." The "people" did not enter into this warped credo, for there was one great flaw in Stalin's thinking: he did not like the Russian people.