Victor Kravchenko (defector)

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Victor Andreevich Kravchenko (Ukrainian: Віктор Андрійович Кра́вченко, Russian: Ви́ктор Андре́евич Кра́вченко; 11 October 1905 Yekaterinoslav – 25 February 1966 New York) was a Soviet defector who wrote of his life in the Soviet Union as a Soviet official in his book I Chose Freedom published in 1946. He also wrote about his experience under American capitalism.

Early life[edit]

Born into a Ukrainian family with a non-party, revolutionary father, Kravchenko became an engineer. He was alienated from the Soviet regime. During the Second World War he served as a Captain in the Soviet Army before being posted to the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington, DC.


In 1944 he abandoned his post and requested political asylum in the United States. The Soviet authorities, however, demanded his immediate extradition, calling him a traitor. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt directly on behalf of Stalin to have Kravchenko returned.[1] He was granted asylum, but lived under a pseudonym thereafter, fearing assassination by Soviet agents.

Kravchenko began living with an American woman, Cynthia Kuser-Earle. They created a family, but never married, to reduce the chance of detection by the Soviets. They had two sons, Anthony and Andrew. Obliged to live under their mother's arranged married name (Earle), they remained unaware of their father's identity until 1965.[2]

When Kravchenko defected he had a Russian son, Valentin (born 1935), and a Russian wife, Zinaida Gorlova. She remarried, and the second husband adopted Valentin and changed his last name to that of the stepfather. In spite of his new surname, Valentin was eventually publicized as the son of a "traitor to the motherland" and for various other misdeeds was sent to a gulag in 1953 for five years. The brutal conditions of the gulag drove him to the point where he tried to commit suicide in his cell. Valentin applied for political asylum in America after discovering that his half-brother Andrew lived there (the other American son, Anthony, had died in 1969.) The two half-brothers were reunited in Arizona in 1992 at an emotional press conference.[3][4] Valentin died in 2001 from heart failure. He received his American citizenship on the day he died.


Kravchenko wrote a memoir, I Chose Freedom, a best seller both in the US and Europe containing extensive revelations on collectivization, Soviet prison camps and the use of penal labor which came at a time of growing tension between the Soviet Union and the West. Its publication was met with vocal attacks from the Soviet Union and by international Communist parties. Kravchenko had made a deal prior to working with respected journalist Eugene Lyons, that Lyons would not receive credit, only a percentage of royalties.

Kravchenko's lesser-known memoir, although a best seller in Europe, I Chose Justice (1950), mainly covered his "trial of the century" in France.

The Trial of the Century[edit]

An attack on Kravchenko's character by the French Communist weekly Les Lettres Françaises resulted in his suing them for libel in a French court. The extended 1949 trial featuring hundreds of witnesses was dubbed 'The Trial of the Century'. The Soviet State flew in Kravchenko's former colleagues to denounce him, accusing him of being a traitor, a draft dodger, and an embezzler. His ex-wife appeared as well, accusing him of being physically abusive and sexually impotent. When a KGB officer alleged that he had been found mentally deficient, Kravchenko jumped to his feet and screamed, "We are not in Moscow! If you were not a witness, I'd tear your head off!"

In a convincing case, Kravchenko's lawyers presented witnesses who had survived the Soviet gulag, including Margarete Buber-Neumann, the widow of German Communist Heinz Neumann, who had been shot during the Great Purge. As a survivor of both Soviet and Nazi concentration camps, her testimony corroborated Kravchenko's allegations concerning the essential similarities between the two dictatorships. The court ultimately ruled that Kravchenko had been unfairly libeled. Kravchenko was awarded only symbolic damages. In the view of one close observer, Alexander Werth,

Technically, Kravchenko won his case.... which brought worldwide attention to the cause and damaged the Communist Party in France although he did not receive the cost he had asked for he did cover his trial expenses and beyond.[5]

Les Lettres Françaises appealed the verdict. A higher French court upheld the verdict but reduced the fine from 50,000 francs to 3 francs, or less than US$1, on the grounds that trial publicity had helped Kravchenko sell books.[6]

Later years[edit]

A lifelong democratic socialist, Kravchenko felt increasingly alienated from American politics, both from the anti-socialist Right and a decreasingly anti-communist Left. He then chose different ways to counteract exploitation and Stalinist development by living in Peru and New York. These included investing his profits made from I Chose Freedom and mining ventures that were successful into an attempt to create through mining ventures better living conditions and a better society for the workers. His South American ventures failed, due to official obstruction and murky activities by business associates. Sympathetic biographer Gary Kern suspects that the KGB played a role in the failure.

Suicide or assassination[edit]

Kravchenko's decision to abandon the Soviet Union condemned family members he left behind to harassment, imprisonment and worse. Some of his family were killed.[2] It is known that Kravchenko's location[7] was discovered in 1944[8] by NKVD agents, notably Mark Zborowski,[9] and subsequently closely monitored by the NKVD[10] and later, the KGB special operations.

Kravchenko's 1966 death from a gunshot wound to his head at his desk in his apartment in Manhattan was officially ruled a suicide. This view is widely accepted, including by author Gary Kern.[11] FBI files obtained by Kern after a six-year lawsuit show that President Lyndon B. Johnson had taken a strong interest in Kravchenko's suicide and had demanded that the FBI determine if his suicide note was authentic or a Soviet fabrication.[2] The FBI ruled that it was authentic. Yet some details concerning Kravchenko's last days remain questionable, and his son Andrew believes he could have been a victim of a KGB assassination.[3][4] Andrew Kravchenko produced a documentary film in 2008, The Defector,[12][13] about his father.[14]


See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Tzouliades, Tim (2008). The Forsaken. The Penguin Press. p. 275. ISBN 978-1-59420-168-4. 
  2. ^ a b c Landsberg, Mitchell (11 May 2003), "Searching for Tato", The Los Angeles Times 
  3. ^ a b "Soviet defector's sons finally meet", Tri-city Herald, 4 January 1992: 2 
  4. ^ a b Mydans, Seth (4 January 1992), "First Meeting For Two Sons of a Defector", The New York Times 
  5. ^ Werth, Alexander (1956). "France 1940-1955". New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 438. 
  6. ^ Spiegel, Irving (26 February 1966). "Kravchenko Kills Himself Here; He Chose Freedom From Soviet". The New York Times. p. 9. Retrieved 19 December 2009. 
  7. ^ Kravchenko was in hiding after his defection. He was given the covername KOMAR/GNAT by Soviet agents. See the Venona project documents on the National Security Agency site at: (See especially New York to Moscow messages of May to August 1944, nos. 594, 600, 613-14, 654, 694, 724, 726, 740, 799, and 907.)
  8. ^ Top Secret: Information on "Mars" on "Gnat" De-classified Venona project document from the US National Security Agency
  9. ^ The Venona Story (PDF), The National Security Agency .
  10. ^ "Top Secret: The Shadowing of "Gnat"", Venona project, US: National Security Agency, 1945 
  11. ^ Kern, G. (2007) The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War On Stalin, Enigma Books, ISBN 978-1-929631-73-5
  12. ^ The Defector: a documentary film, American Sterling .
  13. ^ The Defector, US: Wild at heart films 
  14. ^ Wilcox, R (2008), Target Patton: The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton, Regnery Publishing, p. 249, ISBN 978-1-59698-579-7 

External links[edit]