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Atomic Bombshell

New research uncovers a link between Freud’s inner circle and the Soviet atomic bomb

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Clockwise from top right: Mirra in Stanislavsky’s world premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, 1908; Yuli Khariton with a replica of the first Soviet A-bomb; Mirra Birens; Max Eitingon, wearing the ring he received from Sigmund Freud as a member of the psychoanalytic “secret committee” and emulating Freud’s perpetual cigar. (Collage Tablet Magazine.)

Novelists often engage in research to learn the background and provide verisimilitude for historical yarns, but we intended nothing of the kind when we began an inquiry into an espionage controversy that had raged since the 1980s. When Yale University Press commissioned our book Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, our editor Jonathan Brent suggested that we add a preface to outline the historical background of Russian involvement in the Middle East. While reviewing Soviet covert activity in Palestine under the British administration as revealed by recently emerged Russian sources, we found that it began sooner after the 1917 Revolution, was ascribed a higher priority, and included higher-ranking figures than we and other scholars had assumed.

We were particularly intrigued by the allegations that Dr. Max Eitingon, an early student of Sigmund Freud and a financial sponsor of the early psychoanalytic movement, was also an agent of Soviet intelligence. The debate that erupted on this issue in 1988 in the New York Review of Books and New York Times Book Review, among others, focused mainly on Eitingon’s activities in the 1920s and early ’30s, when he endowed and directed the Psychoanalytic Institute and free clinic in Berlin. Because he was a Jew, the Nazis forced him out of his medical positions in 1933. Eitingon then chose to migrate to the remote backwater of Jerusalem—to the surprise of Freud and his other colleagues. There he founded and funded the first psychoanalytic institutions in what was to become Israel.

There is now at least a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that Eitingon did cooperate with Soviet secret agencies even after moving to Palestine—though he hardly qualified as one of “Stalin’s killerati,” as suggested by Stephen Schwartz in the essay that sparked the original debate. Rather, his contribution was more by way of relaying money and information and by making his sumptuous homes (first in Berlin, then in Jerusalem) available as safe houses for discreet meetings, lodging, and mail drops. Our investigation thus registered, at first, a moderate confirmation of the existing—interesting but hardly dramatic.

It was then that a brief reference drew our attention to Eitingon’s wife, Mirra. The espionage polemic hardly mentioned her at all; the vast psychoanalytic literature, which disdainfully dismissed the allegations against one of the movement’s pillars, held her in contempt. She was universally denigrated as pampered, intellectually lightweight, and a brake on her husband’s career—a misevaluation that originated with Freud himself. And since an erroneous rendering of her maiden name was copied from one study to the next, this character assassination (as we found it to be) could hardly be corrected, nor could the significance of her actual identity be detected.

However, though Freud belittled the Russian-born Mirra as a former “comedienne,” he did mention one accurate detail: that she had acted in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s celebrated Moscow Art Theater. This first aroused our doubts about her conventional description: The director’s famously demanding method could not be reconciled with physical or mental indolence. Such weakness certainly could not be attributed to the first Jewish actress to overcome the formidable legal and social restrictions in Tsarist Russia to play major roles on its premier stages—a distinction we now found that Mirra née Burovsky had achieved by 1908, a year before meeting Eitingon. By that time she had also racked up a life story that could fill a novel; a stage sobriquet, “Mirra Birens,” and two married names—both famous. She also gave birth to a son, Yuli Borisovich Khariton, who, 80 years later, when the collapse of the USSR lifted the veil of secrecy that surrounded his accomplishments, would gain world renown as “the father of the Soviet atomic bomb.”

As we researched further, what began to take shape was a story with an illustrious cast of characters, a complex plot line spanning disciplines from psychoanalysis through theater to nuclear physics, and a heroine so extraordinary that no author would have dared to invent her.


The capital for Eitingon’s philanthropies originated in his family’s lucrative international fur trade, which prospered thanks to a near monopoly on export of Soviet pelts that made it, through the 1920s, the largest private U.S. importer from the USSR and gave the Eitingons a strong motivation to cooperate with successive incarnations of Soviet intelligence. Another intriguing clue was the name of a leading chekist, Gen. Nahum, aka Leonid, Eitingon, who was responsible, among other exploits, for staging Trotsky’s assassination. The debate in 1988 over whether and how Gen. Eitingon was related to Max has since been resolved by his colleagues and descendants: The two men were cousins.

Little doubt now remains about the Eitingon clan’s collaboration with the Soviets—particularly by Max’s New York-based cousin (and his sometime brother-in-law) Motty, who shortly after claiming a dramatic escape from the Bolsheviks in 1918 was cutting million-dollar fur deals with them. Besides Motty’s support of pro-Soviet intellectuals, trade unions, and causes, his name has popped up in KGB documents that the journalist Alexander Vassiliev was allowed to copy in the chaotic days around the disintegration of the USSR.

Likewise, it is by now clearly established that Leonid Eitingon was assisted by the family firm—in New York and elsewhere—to set up his American spy ring. And our own examination of Max’s papers, as well as his record in Palestine in addition to Berlin, strongly bolstered his accusers’ exhibit A: At the 1938 Paris trial of the Russian singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya for the fatal abduction to Moscow of the “white” Gen. Yevgeny Miller, she fingered Max as her longtime patron even after he relocated to Palestine. The affair has inspired much fictionalized literary treatment, from Nabokov to Anatoly Rybakov. But the fact that Plevitskaya and her husband-accomplice Nikolai Skoblin were indeed recruited by the Soviets had been conclusively documented by the time we revisited the case.

A memorial book published after Yuli Khariton’s death in 1996 revealed that his nickname was Lusia—the hitherto mysterious signature on a letter in the Eitingon papers. It then emerged that 15 years after Mirra left Yuli with his father (the Constitutional-Democrat journalist Boris Khariton) in St.Petersburg, he twice visited his mother and stepfather in Berlin. Mother and son both so assiduously concealed these meetings, and their relationship, that the facts emerged only in his posthumously published memoir. Khariton’s survival and progress during Stalin’s purges were so remarkable for someone with his background that we had to conclude it was one of the factors in Eitingon’s modus vivendi with the Soviets—in which Mirra played a leading real-life role. The Yuli Khariton factor added both a strong motive and a mitigating circumstance for Max Eitingon’s cooperation with the Soviets: His letters show he worshipped Mirra and did all he could to help and protect her son—while suffering great anguish that he never had children of his own.

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gwhepner says:

An interesting article, but I wonder why the authors make no reference to May-Kay Wilmers’s book “The Eitingons.” Among the fascinating details in the life of Max Eitingon that Wilmers reports is his alleged role in the abduction in Paris of a White Russian general whose extraordinary name was Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas


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Atomic Bombshell

New research uncovers a link between Freud’s inner circle and the Soviet atomic bomb