Joy Bennett was just two years old when she arrived for the first and last time in what should have been her home country, the United States. She had sailed across the Pacific to Los Angeles, California in late 1932 with her mother, Raisa. The pair then disappeared for several months, only breaking cover when they made a desperate dash to the local hospital, where her mother hoped to have a last meeting with her own dying, estranged father.
Raisa, or Ray, was Soviet Military Intelligence’s primary agent on the West Coast. Two-year-old Joy was her cover. Some eight decades later in Moscow, 86-year-old Joy can still recall a few details of the months she spent in the United States, playing on the beach and meeting relatives. Her mother was arrested and jailed by the Soviets in 1935, and her daughter never saw her again. She only learned the reasons why two years ago, in 2017.
Ray Epstein Bennett, as Joy’s mother styled herself, was one of a unique generation of Russian-Jewish socialists, a firebrand in search of a cause. Like many of her generation, she found that cause in Communism. In search of a better life, the parents of young people like her had crowded into the tenements of Brooklyn and other cities to take low-paid jobs, often in the garment industry. But in America, some of their children came to believe that the game of life was stacked unfairly against them because they were Jews. While the majority accepted their lot and got on with their lives quietly, some chose to join unions fighting for better pay and conditions. Several thousand others joined the radical political parties of the left.
Among this generation, Soviet intelligence found dozens of volunteers who, like Ray, wanted to make a difference. Without them, Soviet espionage would not have been able to function in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ray was born with a fierce independent streak. Her family understood she was different, and that with her fiery character she was destined to be trouble. As she grew up, she would openly challenge the established order, convinced that unfairness must be confronted, and injustice defeated. The family remembers Ray as a strong-willed, round-faced girl with bright blue eyes who was always laughing. After her disappearance, her family lost all contact with her without explanation. It was not a time to ask too many questions, her brother recalled; “nobody cried when they spoke of Ray, there would just be a far-away look, a sigh filled with regret or envy, sometimes a resigned shrug of the shoulders.”
Soviet sources record that Ray was born in April 1899 in Petrozavodsk in Karelia Russia, later the site of a famous UFO sighting. Following the premature death of her mother, an actress, her father, Solomon Epstein, emigrated alone to America in 1907. The three motherless children, Ray and her two brothers, went to Slutsk, a famous rabbinical center in Belorussia, to live with their grandmother.
In November 1913, at the age of fourteen, Ray followed her two older twin brothers, Jacob (Jack) and Julius, and sailed aboard SS Kursk from Libau in Latvia to rejoin her demanding father in New York. She barely knew him. Solomon, as the family recalled, “was a hellion, a man so involved in himself that he didn’t realize that he had children to look after. So they looked after themselves, forming a kind of co-op, with the boys looking after their fiery sister.”
Ray joined the large Russian Jewish community in Brooklyn. She came from a family of printers, and her father was a linotype compositor. Almost immediately, she began to challenge her father’s traditional views that she should devote her life to looking after him, her brothers, and her father’s new family. One emotional argument culminated in the daughter throwing a loaf of bread at her father.
Ray adjusted quickly to life in America, mastering English in just three years. She terrified her family, when making the valedictory speech at her graduation in 1917 from Eastern District High School in Brooklyn, by proclaiming her view that it was immoral to buy Liberty Bonds in support of America’s participation in the Great War. Ray was not deterred from sharing her opinion of the conflict as evil and imperialist by the the wave of patriotic fervor that followed the U.S. entry into the war. The family feared that her school might cancel her graduation; instead, the rebel was merely banned from the remainder of the celebrations.
The brightest of her family, Ray was the only one who pursued her education, graduating from Hunter College New York in 1921 as a teacher. She taught English as a foreign language and instructed new immigrants about the American way of life. These were skills that would prove useful for her espionage career. She paid her way through college by working as a courier for a publisher, a candy seller for the Soft Candy Store in Brooklyn and a bookseller on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at the National Education Association store. She married Nisson Neikrug, a remote relative whom she met through her brothers’ involvement in union activity, in 1919 before graduating.
Neikrug had studied engineering at nights at the Cooper Union but could find no work as an engineer and instead became a linotype operator. He had fled Russia to escape military service in the Tsar’s army in 1914, and then dodged the U.S. draft in 1917 on the grounds that he was not a U.S. citizen. At some point, in a vain effort to escape the anti-Jewish prejudice that he believed prevented him from pursuing his vocation to be an engineer, he changed his name to Julius (Jules) Bennett.
News of the twin revolutions in 1917 gripped the Russian émigré community in New York with much excitement. Few were more enthusiastic than Ray. She and Jules became immersed in underground activities for the Jewish section of the Communist Party, where Ray was a junior Party leader and educator of new recruits. The family recall that Ray and Jules would have people over most evenings for political meetings at their home and that songs sung in Russian could be heard from behind closed doors.
Once Ray Bennett found her cause there was no stopping her: there were no limits to her anger at the exploitation of human beings, at the injustice meted out to women and at the brutal way the city and national authorities sought to control and break the growing labor unions. She joined the CPUSA in 1922, a year after her husband.
Ray was one of many eager volunteers who wanted to go to the USSR immediately and settle there. But with no relevant skills to match her enthusiasm she had to be content, like many hundreds of others, with helping the Revolution from afar. To maintain her interest, the Party told her that she was a valued active worker of its New York organization and that, due to a “lack of activist cadres,” her departure to the Soviet Union had been refused by the Central Committee. In other words, she was too valuable to be sent away. Few would remain so persistent in wanting to travel to the land of Lenin.
Eventually, her lobbying to go to Moscow bore fruit. In 1923, she gained permission from the Central Committee of the American Communist Party for a short trip to the Soviet Union. She could finally be spared from her activist duties in New York. She earnestly hoped that if she were to get a job in the Soviet Union, then she would be able to remain and petition for a transfer to the Soviet Communist Party. Her loyalty to the cause was so great that she was prepared to leave her family and her adopted country. Family records suggest that Ray may have taken the trip to recover from the loss of her first child, a daughter, in infancy. She later told the NKVD that the child had been named Stalin.
When Ray finally made it to the Soviet Union, under a false name, as the wife of a doctor, she spent months living as a tourist in Moscow and visiting her grandmother in Slutsk. Before her departure from New York, she had agreed with her husband that if she were to find a job in the Soviet Union she would remain there permanently and he would come over and join her. In fact, Jules could not travel anywhere, as he had lost the right to a U.S. passport and re-entry thanks to his refusal of the draft in 1917, when he had stated he was not a U.S. citizen and had no desire to be so. If he left the U.S., he would be unable to return.
Unable to find a job in the Soviet Union, Ray returned to the U.S. Still waiting for any opportunity to serve the Soviet Revolution, she worked at AMTORG’s New York offices promoting Soviet cinema and for a Russian-language newspaper published by the Communist Party. In 1927, she returned to the USSR, this time with Jules, boarding a ship from Germany. This time she thought she was going back to the land of her birth for good, to a place where the future worked.
However, before their departure from America Jules had encountered serious difficulties in his workplace. Caught by the management of AMTORG trying to break into the desk of a colleague, Jules explained his actions by saying he had believed the fellow employee was taking bribes. To confirm his suspicions, Jules had decided to examine the documents stored in the desk. Unsurprisingly AMTORG’s management did not believe him, and he was fired for attempted theft. After arriving in the USSR, Jules transferred his membership from the CPUSA to the All-Union Communist Party, eventually becoming deputy head of the RUDA (Iron Ore) Trust in Pivdennorudnyi, Ukraine.
To no one’s surprise, the Bennetts divorced shortly after arriving in the Soviet Union. Jules was softly spoken, a gentle soul, while his wife was a force of nature. Ray found herself a job in Moscow teaching English and the American way of life at the Frunze Red Army Military Academy Eastern Division. She began an affair and soon married one of her pupils, Joseph Ovadis, a senior member of the Intelligence Directorate. She taught English to every agent heading to the Far East, thereby making friends with a large portion of the military intelligence community.
In 1928, while staying with a pupil from the Intelligence Directorate in the spa town of Kislovodsk—the hometown of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn—at a newly opened sanatorium resort, she met Yan Berzin, head of the Directorate, who by chance was holidaying there. After an introduction from her companion, she struck up a conversation with Berzin; when he discovered she spoke English and held an American passport, he suggested she should start working for the Directorate. Ray had finally found the opportunity to serve the cause that she had spent her whole life looking for.
Upon her return to Moscow, Berzin enrolled Ray in the central intelligence apparatus of the Red Army. Although her background was completely unknown to the Intelligence Directorate, she became a deputy section head. Later on, during her interrogations, the NKVD would express surprise at the lack of any vetting by their fellow espionage agency.
After a few months of training in field craft and radio work, Ray was dispatched on her first overseas mission, to China in July 1929, when she was appointed assistant to the Shanghai-based resident, the head of Military Intelligence in the city. Uprooting herself from Moscow using her now former American nationality, Ray spent twelve days on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, travelling in the luxurious but dangerous international first-class compartment. The route was notorious for the presence of foreign counterintelligence officers posing as passengers, looking out for Russian agents on their way to China. In order to maintain their cover stories, Soviet agents were told never to speak Russian from the moment they boarded the train. Ray had another important task on the journey: she would have to remember a cipher of 32 random numbers, each corresponding to a letter of the Russian alphabet. For security reasons, the cipher could never be written down.
On her arrival in Shanghai, she made no mention of a Russian husband or of her new Soviet nationality. Before her departure, she had renewed her American passport at the consulate in Riga, Latvia. The new passport contained no clues revealing her long stay in Moscow.
Thus armed, Bennett rented an apartment on Rue La Fayette in the stylish French concession, near the 50,000-seat greyhound racing track. The premier residential and luxury retail district of Shanghai, the French concession was popular with foreigners and wealthy Chinese alike. At the time Shanghai was the entertainment center of Asia and a playground for the rich and famous. Foreigners and Chinese flocked to Shanghai to get rich quick and indulge in the pleasures on offer, which included brothels, gambling houses and drug dens.
To blend into Shanghai’s cultural melting pot, Ray was required to live a double life. At the same time as being an agent codenamed ‘Josephine’, or ‘Joe’ in honor of her husband, she had outwardly to maintain the life of a single American English language teacher. Crucially, Ray still had her American wardrobe, not the shabby, ill-fitting, functional clothes of Muscovites that would give her away. She was required to frequent the city’s jazz cabarets, nightclubs and restaurants while spending the balance of her nights waiting to decode secret transmissions from Moscow.
Shanghai was the espionage capital of Asia at the time, a hotbed of international intrigue where foreign intelligence services and their agents operated without restraint, attempting to gather information on the latest machinations of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and the feuding warlords who ran China. In 1927, Chiang had fallen out spectacularly with his Communist allies, massacring many of them in cities across China, especially in Shanghai. His formerly close relations with Moscow came to an abrupt end, causing the dismantlement of the Soviet intelligence network and leaving Moscow blind.
In the summer of 1929, further tensions arose over the controversial ownership of the Chinese Eastern Railway linking Vladivostok to Chita. This was a single-track spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway that crossed Manchuria, cutting thousands of miles from the route to Vladivostok. The argument over the railway had spilled over into open fighting between the Chinese army and the USSR. The Chinese struck first, seizing the railway. To everyone’s surprise, the Red Army fought back successfully, routing the Chinese.
The Soviets now needed to keep tabs on both the Chinese and the bellicose Japanese, whose territorial ambitions extended to the Soviet Far East, making Shanghai the pivotal foreign espionage station for the entire service. The station was run at the time by Alexander Gurvich, who operated under the codenames JIM and ‘Willi Lehman’. Gurvich had learned the espionage trade working for the Soviets in New York, where he had been taught by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to operate long-range transmitters. He had only arrived in China in late 1928, travelling via America to divert any suspicion about his real purpose.
Gurvich had to build his espionage network from scratch. It was a stressful time for the resident, who was desperate for recruits while short of money and under pressure for results. He used a German trading company financed by the Intelligence Directorate as a front for his illegal operations. Newly arrived illegals for his rebuilt station were preferably non-Russians, whose foreign passports meant there was no need to waste time creating a cover story.
Ray was one of the very few taught in strict confidence the difficult skill of how to code and decode messages: The Soviets used a secret one-time pad system of ciphers that was theoretically unbreakable, sounding like gibberish if intercepted. For extra security, the radio operator was not trusted with the secret of how the codes worked and would broadcast lists of numbers, never knowing what information he or she was transmitting or receiving.
Over her first summer in Shanghai, the hot and very wet climate and the intensity of the work adversely affected Ray’s health. Working alone at night, she spent long, arduous hours in a hot, airless room deciphering coded documents from memory, recalling the latest cipher while subtracting the number from the right one-time pad in order to retrieve each letter of the message. By day Ray had to run her language school with legitimate clients as a front. It was an exhausting routine.
Bennett moved on to work with Richard Sorge when he arrived in China to head the ring. A legendary spy described by the French newspaper Le Figaro as “Stalin’s James Bond” and by Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, as “the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history,” Sorge was tall with dark brown hair; with his broad, wrinkled intelligent face he looked older than his thirty-three years. He had been wounded in the Great War and walked with a limp. To maintain cover, he would only speak to Ray in English.
Sorge was the established authority on having a good time in Shanghai, participating enthusiastically in the High Life that expressed the colonial mores of expat Europeans rather than puritanical Communists. He had a notorious reputation with women, especially radicals, and enjoyed numerous affairs. He accompanied Ray to the best shops to ensure she was properly kitted out for the Shanghai social scene. Fastidious about her appearance, Ray enjoyed wearing clothes custom made from fine silk.
To be put in charge of cipher communications, correspondence with the junior residents and sending classified agent reports to Moscow were tasks worthy of a resident. She also fulfilled some “special assignments,” which included running two agents in the city. When the resident was absent, Ray acted as Sorge’s deputy.
In mid-February 1930 Ray returned from Shanghai to Moscow, again via Siberia. She had missed her new husband and was exhausted by the demands placed on her. It had been agreed that Ovadis would join her in Shanghai, but Ray’s health had become too poor for her to stay. Her replacement was Nadezhda Ulanovskaya, a woman who recalls in her memoirs being trained to operate a radio by Ray in Moscow. Ray bequeathed Nadezhda the basics of an appropriate wardrobe for Shanghai, a stylish American leather coat and a knitted dress unobtainable in Moscow. Later Ulanovskaya went on to work with Whittaker Chambers, a Soviet agent and early defector in the United States; she features in his memoir, Witness.
On her return to Moscow Ray quickly became pregnant, and she gave birth to her daughter Joy on 29 December. Soon afterwards, in the spring of 1931, the Intelligence Directorate sent Ray on a second mission. This time she was to join her husband undercover in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he had been working since May 1930 as the correspondent for TASS, the official Soviet news agency. Baby Joy, who was just a few months old, went too. Afghanistan was the pawn in the so-called Great Game between Russia and the British Empire. The Soviets were trying but failing to install a government friendly to them. On her return from Kabul, the Intelligence Directorate involved Ray as their core—and possibly only—American asset in the biggest project in its history to date: An audacious operation to place up to eighty agents simultaneously in ten elite U.S. universities.
The scale and importance of the operation to Soviet intelligence cannot be overestimated. It was a vast enterprise in comparison to the limited resources available. The agency only had around eighty-five members in place around the entire world, so to establish a further eighty sources in a key target country was an operation of unparalleled audacity and importance.
Ray was part of every detail of that operation, from completing each student’s initial application to getting the right student to the best university. The most important task was training the team to fit into modern American society. Since other English language teachers in Moscow were Russians and had atrocious accents, Ray recruited fellow American Gertrude Klivans to give conversational English lessons and an introduction to America.
Although both Russian Jews, Klivans and Bennett could not have been more different. Klivans was frivolous whereas Ray was driven. Klivans’ extremely wealthy and supportive family had made a success of their immigration to America and sent her regular parcels of otherwise unobtainable items. She was having fun in Moscow and if she ever felt like it could leave at any time to rejoin her family on vacation in Florida. In contrast, Ray was a committed Soviet citizen and Communist, an intelligence officer who was trusted with the service’s secrets. With their very different backgrounds, Gertrude and Ray did not become friends. Gertrude commented to her parents that Ray was too serious a Communist for her taste.
Initially, the teachers worked with six engineers for just two hours a day, but as departure drew closer, they worked with the group nonstop. After the first challenge of preparing any Russian used to queues and shortages for the shock of America, a second, more difficult task was to knock the rough edges off Communist engineers straight from the factory floor and teach them how to behave at elite U.S. universities like Harvard.
Ray was responsible for an enormous “Pygmalion” project that transformed nearly 80 ex-peasant soldiers and radical Marxists into suave, besuited Ivy Leaguers. There was a lot to explain to the students, from the basics, such as personal hygiene, to instructing them not to chew and spit sunflower seeds. They had to be taught not to scratch, a Moscow habit caused by infestations of bed bugs. Ray had to explain about the use of toilet paper, which was unobtainable in Russia, the liberal use of soap and the importance of ironing shirts. A thorny topic was how to hold a conversation with an American without falling into Marxist rhetoric, like addressing a professor as Comrade.
From her time at AMTORG and her long membership in the CPUSA, Ray had an encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. Communists and was able to identify some of those who could be relied upon to help the students adjust. In Boston, she selected Professors Cheskis and Halphin, as well as a local businessman named Stephenson, who was a regular visitor to Moscow and friendly to the Soviet Union.
With her structured English language teaching experience, Bennett was ideally suited to raise the engineers’ English, both spoken and written, to a very high standard, as the engineers were expected to be completing term papers at Harvard in a second language within weeks. Ray worked closely with Klivans, each teaching part of the group in Moscow.
Ray had one particularly important pupil. In preparation for her trip to the United States, she carefully taught her daughter Joy to speak only English, as she could not take the risk that while in America her young daughter would suddenly start speaking Russian and break her cover. Today, Joy remembers not a word of the English her mother taught her.
Once the student operation was launched, Ray was to travel to the United States with the party as their official dean and leader. The mission would require her to travel around the universities to collect information that would be sent back to Moscow. At the same time, she was to carry out other unspecified “illegal” operations, such as the recruitment of agents.
But the plan to send Ray to the United States was abandoned at the last minute. Just as Ray and Joy were packed and ready to sail. Catching the world by surprise, on 18 September 1931 the Japanese had invaded and annexed the Chinese territory of Manchuria following the Mukden incident, a staged terrorist attack by them on a strategic railway. After this act of military aggression, the Soviet Union expected the large Japanese army based on its border in Manchuria to launch an attack on its territory at any moment. Unprepared militarily to confront Japan at this point, they needed as much warning as possible of any imminent invasion.
Ray was given a new, vital task. She was indeed to go to America on a mission, but not to chaperone engineers. She was to settle down on the West Coast, establish a new residency and organize work in America against Japan, which imported metals and oil for its armaments industry from the United States. By monitoring cargoes that crossed the Pacific to Japan, the Soviets would have advance warning of any planned attack. Ray’s new network was to ascertain from Japanese sailors what their cargoes were and how frequently shipments were made.
Ray later described to the NKVD one of the goals of her mission: “I was supposed to prepare a radio operator and the resident for work in Japan. It was planned that for the role of resident we could use one of the journalists that have connections in Japan. For a cover, it was expected to open a Chinese restaurant in Japan.”
The proposed resident was Richard Sorge, who was recalled to Moscow from Shanghai in 1932. But there was one big problem: Sorge spoke no Japanese. At the very least he needed a Japanese assistant who was fluent in English and committed to Soviet ideals. The search for such an individual led the Intelligence Directorate to the United States, then to California and finally to a painter-cum-activist named Yotoku Miyagi, who supported himself as an artist by running a restaurant called the Fukuro, or Owl—the Japanese venerate the owl as a symbol to ward off misfortune and hardship—in the crowded Little Tokyo district of West Los Angeles.
Moscow’s request to Miyagi, channeled through the CPUSA in the autumn of 1932, was that he should return to Japan as a spy. His niece later commented that “he refused, he had no experience in spying, and he asked them to find someone more suitable.” But in the end Miyagi reluctantly agreed to go, if only until a more appropriate replacement was found. Most likely, Ray was sent to California in late 1932 to vet and train the reluctant Japanese recruit.
The least well-known member of the five-man Sorge cell in Japan, Miyagi would work successfully in that country until the network’s arrest in 1941. By that time the cell had provided intelligence of immense value, much of it from unlikely sources developed by Miyagi. They are credited with confirming that Japan would not attack the USSR in 1941, allowing thousands of troops to be transferred westward to save Moscow from the approaching Nazis. Miyagi’s past links to the CPUSA would eventually contribute to the downfall of Sorge’s network in Japan.
Ray’s mission unraveled faster. In California, she grew disenchanted with the prospects for success as she was “not given a concrete task.” Ray needed and craved constant handholding and detailed instructions. In hindsight, she would have been perfect as the dean of the student party. But as events in California spiraled out of control, she would make extraordinary errors of judgement.
When she stepped ashore in California in 1932, after an absence of five years, Ray Bennett became the first independent female Soviet Military Intelligence operative in the United States. Along with George Koval, she is one of the very few Americans to serve in the Red Army on U.S. soil. At two years of age Ray’s daughter Joy, after her mother’s work in Afghanistan, was already an unwitting veteran of two undercover espionage operations, although she never realized that her time playing on the beach or with her American relatives in the Bronx was part of an intelligence mission. In one photo, sent to her father Ovadis in Moscow, Joy is pictured in a goat cart, looking frightened by the goat; on the back of the picture, Ray recommends that they should get her a pet. (After her arrest in 1935, the NKVD interrogators were bemused at the details of her operation and its execution, which seemed distinctly amateurish even to them.)
Bennett’s was not the first Military Intelligence operation in the United States. German Communist Felix Wolf had undertaken a similar mission just a few years earlier, and his fate is demonstrative of the stresses that agents like Ray felt. Having enrolled for a short time at Columbia University in New York as a graduate student, Wolf found working as a spy alone so far from home without a support network extremely stressful, and he cracked. After travelling undercover along the East Coast and as far afield as Chicago in a fruitless search for industrial secrets, and fearing arrest, he abandoned his mission and fled back to Moscow. But there was no apparent threat to him except the one he imagined. There are no U.S. records of his presence, even at Columbia University.
Ray had one special mission to fulfil, and for this she sought the assistance of the Intelligence Directorate resident. To complete the task, she needed to make contact with a trusted representative from the U.S. Communist Party. Having been put in touch with a former church minister with Communist sympathies, she revealed at their meeting that she came from the Soviet Union and was carrying out an illegal mission. She needed urgently to contact Upton Sinclair, the socialist writer; it was hoped that the minister could make an introduction.
Sinclair had written a letter to Stalin in October requesting the pardoning of a Russian from a death sentence. He had also financed a disastrous film made in Hollywood by the Soviet film director Sergey Eisenstein. Provisionally entitled Que Viva Mexico, it was a plotless travelogue and in its original version is unwatchable. Having advanced $25,000, Sinclair wanted to dig himself out of the deepening financial hole, though Eisenstein’s stock had fallen in Moscow following his extended absence from the USSR.
Stalin wrote back promptly, having gained the impression that as a prominent, popular socialist Sinclair could help the Soviet Union in their Manchurian crisis, perhaps by speaking out on their behalf. Ray was under orders directly from Stalin to contact the writer. Stalin even went so far as to personally underline Sinclair’s address in Pasadena, so that Ray could find him.
Through the good offices of the minister, Ray managed to arrange a meeting with the author, but it was a disaster. Sinclair had a strong belief in the paranormal and the power of psychic prediction, but he was unprepared for what happened next. After introductions and pleasantries, the small, round-faced woman, rather than offer financial support for his film, suddenly announced to Sinclair that she was in America on an illegal spying mission for the Soviet Union and expected him to help her.
Sinclair was completely shocked. In panic, and fearing a setup, he started demanding bona fides and a recommendation from the CPUSA. Ray was unable to produce any such assurances and fled.
After this debacle, Ray moved on to San Francisco, where she met with Kipper, the first wife of Morris Childs, a senior member of the CPUSA. In Moscow at the time, studying at the Lenin School and training to become an NKVD agent himself, Childs would later become the FBI’s greatest double agent and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ray and Kipper became friends, working together to get Joy an American passport.
The resident at the Consulate had given Ray the most valuable introduction possible, to none other than the General Secretary of the CPUSA, Earl Browder. Ray knew Browder in California, and spoke about him later to the NKVD using his codename FATHER. Through FATHER she made contact with two other leading lights of the Party, Irving Kaplan and Nathan Silvermaster; the three would all later be exposed as leading figures in the Soviet wartime spy rings. All these meetings were unproductive.
Ray had access to the top American Communists, but despite all the help she was receiving, establishing a cell on the West Coast was proving impossible. Lack of money for safe houses or recruiting agents was one issue. Like Gurvich, her boss in Shanghai, before her, she found that Moscow Centre underestimated the expense and difficulties of working in the field. Nor was she the first to find that cooperation with the members of the CPUSA was difficult, as the Upton Sinclair debacle showed. The U.S. Communist Party could and should have given her its white ribbon, identifying her to Sinclair as a person to trust. But the interests of Moscow and the CPUSA were already pulling in different directions.
Following its newly adopted “Socialism in One Country” policy, the USSR energetically sought information from America that was for the benefit of Soviet security alone, while CPUSA members were focused on the prospects for their domestic revolution. Earl Browder, their leader, was revealed by the defector Elizabeth Bentley to be intent less on intelligence gathering for the benefit of the USSR than on finding the details of industrial unrest for his own purposes.
Given the difficulties she was experiencing, Ray wanted out. She was keen to get home to Moscow but suspected that permission would not be forthcoming, so she invented a pretext. She described to the NKVD how she became “exposed.” She and her contact, named Odner, made a plan to use a White officer for an intelligence operation:
Upon my orders, Odner had some meetings with this White to work on him. Once Odner reported to me that the White informed him that he was interrogated by a Major from American Counter Intelligence who was also interested in Odner. The Major was also interested in a woman who visited Odner at his flat, and the description matched that of myself. It became apparent to me that the police came to know of my relationship with Odner. Because of this, I was forced to abandon San Francisco and travel to New York.
While U.S. counterintelligence may have been interested in Odner, they were in fact unaware of Ray at that time. Still, Ray fled to New York, staying with a friend from her college days until October 1933 and meeting with her family, old friends and various political contacts. She refused to discuss her life in Moscow with her brothers, and the family knew better than to ask, although they gained the impression she was now married to a Soviet general and was possibly being pursued by the FBI. They were aware she had been in China but did not press her on what she had got up to there.
Testing the political temperature, Ray made contact with members of the Trotskyist groups in Boston. Her faith in Communism was as strong as ever, but the official Party line was now at odds with the views she had held since the early 1920s. She opposed the one-country approach to socialism, and harbored doubts about the leadership. So she volunteered her services for the dangerous role as a coordinator of the Trotskyist centers abroad with those in Moscow. Her role as a Military Intelligence officer gave her a reason to be in touch with the United States, while she passed her contact details in Moscow to the Trotskyist network.
On her return to Moscow, Ray was initially disciplined for abandoning her operation without permission. Suspended from the intelligence service, she was sent to a factory. But her language skills were needed too much. She might not have proved herself as an agent in the field, but Berzin appointed her head of foreign languages at the Intelligence Directorate.
One day in April 1935, Ray’s daughter came to her mother’s bedroom, as was her habit in the morning when they did exercises together. That morning the room was a mess, and there was no sign of her mother. Ray was gone, arrested by the NKVD.
After her arrest, Ray gave wholesale denunciations of her friends and colleagues, although much of what she said about their views seemed innocuous enough, had they not been serving intelligence officers. She also accused her ex-husband Jules of making jokes about Stalin and Molotov, reporting to her interrogators without realizing the irony of his belief that it was prudent to watch what you said or the next step was a meeting with the NKVD.
Bennett was initially given a light sentence of five years in a labor camp, from where she was able to send secret letters to Joy at her kindergarten:
My little Joy, my Love!
I got your good letter and, you know, I immediately recognized the sunflower and quickly realized that the girl is doing gymnastics, as I did with you in the mornings. Remember how we put pads on the floor and did the bicycle exercise?
Here, two cows gave birth to small calves, one calf is all white with a black mark on the muzzle, and as soon as he was born, he immediately wanted to stand on his feet, and three of us had to hold him while he was bathed.
Then there is a black fox that sits on his tail in front of the cooperative, he is not afraid of people at all and asks for bread from everyone who leaves the store. He is a silver-black fox with a white tip on his tail. You and I have not seen a fox like him in the zoo. Are you now going to the zoo with your Daddy?
Anyuta writes that you are a good girl. You must dress yourself and tidy up all your toys neatly and obey Elena Semenovna and Daddy.
Little Joy, your mother loves you so much and always thinks about you and misses you very, very much. If you are a good girl and study well at the kindergarten, then I will be back with you by the time you go to school. You will already be big then. But do not forget me and know that I always love you and very much want to be with you.
Ray’s husband returned from a mission in China a month after her arrest and cut Ray out from all family pictures, refusing to discuss her again with his daughter. Ray was to disappear in the madness of the Great Purges. The details of her fatal crime, most likely the product of a fresh denunciation, are lost forever.
Excerpted from The Spy Who Changed History by Svetlana Lokhova, published by Pegasus Books in October 2019. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.
Svetlana Lokhova, a By-Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge, is the author ofThe Spy Who Changed History.