Dylan Brethour / February 26, 2019
Assassin, spy, organizer of literary journals: Yakov Grigorievich Blumkin could only have been created by the Russian Revolution. An early member of the Cheka, or secret police, Blumkin spent his short life engaging in political conspiracies and travelling the globe. Sometimes known as the Soviet James Bond, much of Blumkin’s career remains shrouded in mystery. Did he really make a living trading in plundered Hebrew incunabula in Turkey? Is it true that he masterminded political intrigues while posing as a pious Jewish laundry owner in Palestine? The answer, as is so often the case with Soviet history, belongs only to the dead.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the realities of Russia’s past and present were not just lost, but deliberately obscured. Blumkin’s travels and his involvement in the Cheka make recovering the truth of his life doubly impossible. Still, hints of the flamboyant and dramatic character that propelled him into power are recorded in books written by his contemporaries. Many Russians who lived through the revolution were inveterate writers of memoir. Political leaders, artists, intellectuals, and their hangers-on all left accounts of their lives and ideas. Blumkin has a habit of popping up and then vanishing in these stories. He flashes through them, usually just long enough to wield a gun or shout “Long live Trotsky!” in front of a firing squad.
In Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, covering the years 1901 to 1941, he writes: “I had known and loved Yakov Blumkin since 1919. Tall, bony, his powerful face encircled by a thick black beard, his eyes dark and resolute…Recovering from an illness, he was making ready to conduct assignment in the East.” Serge goes on to describe the staggering breadth of Blumkin’s travels, including his trip to Persia in the early 1920s. Then barely out his teens, Blumkin was sent to start a revolution alongside Kuchik Khan in Gilan, on the Caspian coast. According to Serge, Blumkin claimed to have returned to Russia only after receiving a telegram from the Central Committee with the message, “Cut your losses, revolution in Iran now off.”
Afterwards, Blumkin was put in charge of organizing the army of the People’s Republic of Mongolia and entrusted with secret missions in India and Egypt. Back in Moscow, he lived in elegant surroundings, “in a small apartment in the Arbat quarter, bare except for a rug and a splendid saddle, a gift from some Mongol prince, a curved saber hung over his bottle of excellent wine.” Filtered through time, memory, and Blumkin’s own bravado, the truth of these accounts is uncertain. The most infamous incident of Blumkin’s career, however, is much better documented: his assassination of Count Mirbach, the German Ambassador in Moscow, in 1918. On the orders of the Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party, Blumkin and his comrade Andreyev bluffed their way into an appointment with the Ambassador, with weapons hidden in a briefcase. Blumkin purportedly described the Count’s murder to Serge:
I was talking to him, looking into his eyes, and saying to myself: I must kill this man… My briefcase contained a revolver among all the documents. ‘Wait,’ I said, ‘here are the papers,’ and I fired point-blank. Mirbach fell, and then I threw my grenade hard on the marble floor…
The motivations behind the assassination are impossible to explore without disentangling the ideological chaos of the Revolution. Blumkin was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. After the February Revolution in 1917, when the Tsar abdicated power, the SR Party won a plurality of votes in the newly formed Provisional Government, which had taken power. The Bolsheviks, however, continued to agitate for a communist revolution, going on to overturn the Provisional Government during the October Revolution later that year. Blumkin cast his allegiance among the side of his party that supported the Bolsheviks, a group that came to be known as the Left SRs. Later, the Left SRs strongly opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Bolshevik government had negotiated with the Central Powers. The peace treaty was intended to end the invasion of foreign powers and take Russia out of WWI. In return, Russia paid a heavy price, giving over control of the Baltic States to Germany.
The Left SRs were disgusted by the treaty, preferring to encourage a guerrilla war against the invading army. Serge writes that Blumkin had hoped the ambassador’s murder would deflate the Germans: “We knew that Germany, in a state of collapse, was incapable of starting a new war against Russia. We wanted to inflict an insult on her. We were banking on the effect of this action in Germany itself.” The plan had begun even more audaciously, with a plot to assassinate the Kaiser. However, Blumkin explained: “The attempt fell through because we insisted that the principal actor should be a German. They didn’t find anyone.” Whether this is an indictment of the Russian conspirators or German assassins is left to the reader’s imagination.
After the Ambassador’s murder, Blumkin went into hiding, eventually surrendering to the Bolsheviks in 1919. Recognizing a capable spy when he saw one, the head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, pardoned Blumkin and recruited him into the newly formed State Security apparatus. Blumkin’s conversion annoyed his former comrades in the now-outlawed Left SRs. They responded by shooting him several times and, when he survived, tossing a grenade into his hospital room. In true James Bond style, Blumkin threw the grenade back out the window towards his would-be assassin.
In Serge’s admiring account of his friend, Blumkin spills blood and crosses borders with equal ease. Serge’s descriptions are also illuminating about how the revolutionaries saw themselves. Blumkin, he writes, is the kind of man who returned from a failed insurrection in Iran “more poised and virile than ever.” He appears in a far less flattering light in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (1970), a biography of her husband, the anti-Stalinist poet Osip Mandelstam. Blumkin, she writes, “was always brandishing his revolver in public places.” This was a habit he particularly indulged in with her husband, who he considered an enemy. The bizarre root of their quarrel began in Moscow’s Poet’s Café, where Blumkin was drunkenly compiling a list of “wretched intellectuals” to be executed by the Cheka. Mandelstam is credited with grabbing the list in disgust and ripping it up. Nadezhda Mandelstam describes their subsequent encounter with Blumkin, when he passed their balcony at the Hotel Continental in Kiev:
… The horseman in the black cloak [Blumkin] looked up and, seeing us, he turned around sharply in the saddle, and the next thing we saw was a hand pointing a revolver at us. M. was about to duck, but instead he bent over the edge of the balcony and waved in greeting to the horseman. When the group drew level with us, the hand which had pointed the revolver was already hidden in the folds of the cloak.
This largely one-sided feud went on until the two men accidentally boarded the same train carriage while leaving the Crimea. The assassin dramatically unhitched his holster, packed his gun in his suitcase, and shook the poet’s hand. What changed Blumkin’s mind remains a mystery. Osip Mandelstam himself never believed that Blumkin really wanted to murder him. The poet, who was not easily taken in by theatrics, noted Blumkin’s penchant for melodrama and suggested he was not as deranged as he initially seemed. Nadezhda Mandelstam shared her husband’s sentiments, writing that Blumkin “was by nature a terrorist of the flamboyant type which had existed in Russia before the Revolution.” But, she argues, it was a damaging precedent for later revolutionaries. With his casual talk of shooting people, Blumkin wasn’t just following suit, he was creating a pattern of brutality that others would soon learn to follow. As dissenting voices, both Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam were less impressed by the assassin’s fashionable excesses. They were also indirectly its victims, with Osip Mandelstam dying in prison after years of political persecution.
This model of casual violence also contributed to Blumkin’s own death. In the 1920s, Blumkin had become friends with Leon Trotsky, assisting with his writing and pestering him to fund a literary journal. Blumkin met with Trotsky some years later, when the latter was living in exile in Constantinople. It was a dangerous time to maintain ties with Trotsky, who was the de facto head of the Left Opposition, which came together during the struggle for control among the Bolsheviks following Lenin’s illness and death. Stalin emerged the obvious winner, crushing his opponents in the party. But even Stalin’s relentless persecution of the Left Opposition didn’t prevent Blumkin from visiting his old friend. Pavel Sudoplatov, a lieutenant general in the Soviet intelligence service, offers a glimpse of Blumkin’s time in Turkey. He also implicates the agent Elizaveta [Elizabeth] Zarubina in Blumkin’s death. In his controversial 1994 memoir Special Tasks, he writes:
In 1930 Elizabeth and Blumkin were posted as illegals in Turkey, where he was to sell prized Hasidic manuscripts from the Central Library in Moscow. The money was intended to support illegal operations in Turkey and the Middle East, but Blumkin gave part of the funds to Trotsky, who was then in exile in Turkey. Elizabeth was outraged, and exposed her husband. She contacted Eitingon and Pyotr Zubov, who were on a mission in Turkey, and they arranged for Blumkin to be recalled to Moscow via a Soviet ship. Blumkin was immediately arrested and executed by firing squad.
Historians have challenged the veracity of Sudoplatov’s memoirs. The dubious nature of his claims is particularly apparent here, because Blumkin and Zarubina don’t appear to have been married. According to other sources, Blumkin returned to Moscow when Trotsky asked him to deliver a message to his friend Karl Radek, the former Secretary of the Comintern, part of the Left Opposition, and a vocal critic of Stalin. Aleksandr Mikhailovich Orlov, a former member of the Secret Police who defected to America, wrote in Life magazine that it was Radek who betrayed the plot to Genrikh Yagoda, the effective head of OGPU, which had replaced the Cheka. Yagoda, Orlov writes, enlisted the help of Zarubina, “a beautiful young woman in whom Blumkin had at one time shown a romantic interest.” Yagoda hoped she would worm out details of the plot and further implicate leaders of the opposition. After three weeks of romance failed to loosen the spy’s lips, Blumkin was arrested anyway, accused of belonging to the anti-Stalin opposition, and sentenced to death at the age of just thirty or thirty-one. “During his interrogation,” Orlov writes, “Blumkin carried himself with remarkable dignity. He went courageously to his execution. When the fatal shot was about to be fired, he shouted, ‘Long live Trotsky!’”
A CIA document by Rita T. Kronenbitter, which was declassified in 1994, calls both stories into question. It concludes that: “One not too irrational deduction would be that Blumkin came to Trotsky upon GPU instructions.” (The acronyms for the Soviet secret police during the early 20th century were the Cheka [1917-1922], the GPU [1922-1923], and the OGPU [1923-1934]. Given the chronology of Blumkin’s activities and death, Kronenbitter must have meant the OGPU.) Kronenbitter points out that both Trotsky and the Soviet intelligence service had reason to lie about their relationship with Blumkin. The intelligence service would be unlikely to admit to executing one of their own agents without a trial. However, “Trotsky’s liberal propaganda exploitation of the execution of Blumkin also offers no clue about who controlled the agent.”
For Kronenbitter, “What probably happened was that the GPU had Blumkin under arrest as soon as he arrived in Moscow, whether his visit to Trotsky had been a GPU assignment or not. His execution marked the beginning of the liquidation of active or potential Trotskyists, and killing a GPU agent was consistent with the policy of subsequent Stalinist purges. By 1929 all Trotsky’s friends and associates were under suspicion; many of them were in prison and exile.” If this account is correct, Blumkin died the most Soviet of deaths, where reality was ultimately irrelevant to the authorities. People were murdered because innocence and guilt mattered less that political paranoia. Nadezhda Mandelstam mentions rumors that Blumkin was playing a double game, his violent behavior intended to bring the intelligence service into disrepute. She herself doubts this conclusion but adds: “Only historians may be able to make sense of this when they come to study this strange time and this outlandish man.” However, even for historians, the study of Soviet history continues to be dominated by rumor, deception, and intrigue.
Dylan Brethour is a journalist and short story writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Guardian, Vice, and the London Short Story Prize Anthology. Dylan tweets @DylanBrethour.