For quarter of a century I. S. Poretsky (or Ludwik or Eberhard or Ignace Reiss) was one of the most prominent secret agents of the ussr. Now, after more than 30 years of ‘withdrawal and reflection’—according to the preface—his widow writes the tragic story of his life and death.footnote1 She also re-traces the grim road which led so many of the best revolutionaries downwards, from soaring ideals and hopes, through bitter disillusionment to the depths of moral degradation. Born in a small town in Galicia, then belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire, ‘Ignace Reiss’ started his political life in 1919, when to the loud beating of patriotic drums and less widely heard anti-Jewish pogroms, Poland regained her independence. The Communist Party was soon declared illegal and those who had joined it were among the most heroic and self-sacrificing idealists. ‘To serve the revolution’ was their only aim; for this they were ready to die. After the most dangerous underground activities during the Russo-Polish war, came long years of perilous and nerve-wracking Intelligence work in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, and rare trips to ‘the fatherland’, no less perilous and even more nerve-wracking.

In 1927 Poretsky-Ludwik received what was then the highest Soviet decoration—the Order of the Red Banner—‘for services to the Revolution’. This was still the time when men of the ‘Fourth Department’ were intelligent, multilingual, ‘European’, feeling on familiar ground in any country where they became ‘residents’. They were trusted by ‘the centre’ and were not afraid of showing initiative. They were chosen because of their deep commitment to the cause and not—as later on—because they were meek, obedient units in the bureaucratic army or had families in Russia who were always potential hostages.

With his Order of the Red Banner Ludwik was sent on one of his most important assignments: gathering information on Great Britain, for which Amsterdam became his base. The Dutch Party was at that time shaken by the expulsion of Trotsky, but the ‘heretics’ were still on speaking terms with the ‘faithful’ and the Soviet agent spent many hours in the company of Sneevliet, the heroic Dutch communist who helped to build the Indonesian Communist Party and then broke with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the struggle against the Workers’ Opposition. The subject the two friends discussed most often was: can one at the same time serve both a particular state and the international workers’ movement?

When Amsterdam became too dangerous for him, Ludwik was recalled to Moscow where his wife and small son joined him. This was the Moscow of 1929, hungry, cold, desperate and overcrowded: fifty families shared a house where before only one had lived. In their ‘barrack-room’ Ludwik and a large circle of friends and colleagues still felt quite free to speak their mind and even to curse Stalin, though they had to beware of inquisitive neighbours. The purges, the trials, and the bullet-in-the-neck murders were for Poretsky still ‘mysterious affairs’.

At that stage he was transferred from the Red Army to the Intelligence of the nkvd—this was apparently the only way in which he could obtain the much coveted assignment abroad. How tangled and irrational are human emotions: ‘the farther we went (away from Russia) the more I realized how tied I had become to that country. The years of suffering and disillusion had forged a closer link than the early hopeful years which followed the revolution’, recollects the author. She was to return to Moscow by herself in 1937—the second of the Great Trials was nearly over and ‘people did not believe in natural death’. It is not quite clear what was the purpose of that ‘Christmas visit’, unless it was needed to ‘allay the apprehension’ of Ludwik’s superiors at ‘the centre’. By that time his doubts had hardened into certainties. After so many years of tortuous reasoning and equivocation, he finally decided to break with Stalinized Russia. The only friend and colleague whose thoughts seemed to run parallel to his was Krivitsky, and they decided to take the momentous step together. But as in so many communists, breasts, so in Krivitsky’s, two—or even more—souls lived side by side. He procrastinated. Gradually for the two men the problem was not whether to break with Stalin, but how to break and to whom to turn. At this juncture Elisabeth Poretsky repeats a rather spurious argument. It is beyond doubt that they would never have defected to Western intelligence, but—she says—‘it was equally out of the question to turn directly to the logical person, Trotsky. To do so would have been to risk compromising Trotsky, for Soviet propaganda could well have pictured them as Fascist or Nazi agents seeking shelter with the archfascist Trotsky’. This solicitude for Trotsky’s reputation and the fear of compromising him must have sounded as naïve in the summer of 1936 as it does today: had these two experienced agents any doubt that in case of the break the least they could expect was to be decried as traitors who went over to the enemy? ‘Trotsky himself could not be expected to trust two unknown men unless they were introduced to him by known socialists or oppositionists. And at the time Ludwik and Krivitsky had no such contacts,’ says the author. Yet Ludwik’s friendship with Sneevliet, undoubtedly a ‘known oppositionist’ (though he had his differences with Trotsky) was by then of quite long standing; when a year later Ludwik finally decided to act, it was precisely Sneevliet who became his link with Trotsky.