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Dmitri Aleksandrovich Bystrolyotov (January 4, 1901 – May 3, 1975) (Russian: Дмитрий Александрович Быстролётов) was a Russian intelligence officer, a sailor and painter, a doctor and lawyer, a traveler and polyglot, a writer and a Gulag prisoner. One of the most outstanding Soviet undercover operatives, Bystrolyotov acted in Western Europe in the period between the great wars, recruiting and controlling several important agents in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. His greatest achievement was breaking into the British Foreign Office files years before Kim Philby, as well as procuring diplomatic ciphers of scores of European countries. Despite his personal courage and heroism, he fell victim of Joseph Stalin's purges of the 1930s. Arrested by the NKVD on drummed up charges, he was severely tortured and turned into an invalid. Serving his term, he spent over 16 years in various Gulag camps. There, at great risk to himself, he wrote and smuggled to the outside world his voluminous memoirs, an indictment of Communist Party of the Soviet Union's crimes against humanity.
Early life and career
He was born to out-of-wedlock parents in the village of Aibory, in the Crimea, Ukraine, to Klavdiya Bystrolyotov, a provincial clergyman’s daughter. In his memoirs, Bystrolyotov identifies his father as a vice-governor of Saint Petersburg and governor of Vitebsk, Count Alexander Nikolaevich Tolstoy, a brother of Aleksei Tolstoi.
Raised in an impoverished foster family of aristocrats in Saint Petersburg, with the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, Bystrolyotov first was drafted into the White Army but, after its defeat, was recruited as a “sleeper” by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.
He was sent to the West with the flow of Russian refugees and activated after he settled in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Capitalizing on his knowledge of several European languages and his aristocratic upbringing, he operated with ease amid the upper layers of European societies and became one of the “Great Illegals”, a squad of outstanding Soviet spies who worked undercover in Western countries between the great wars.
With the growing threat of Fascism and Nazism, Bystrolyotov successfully hunted for Italian and German military secrets. He also stole British secrets for the Soviets years before Kim Philby and made Stalin privy to the contents of French, Italian, Swiss, and American diplomatic pouches.
The modus operandi of this dashing young man involved seduction and recruitment of women as Soviet agents, among them a French diplomat, a German countess, and a Gestapo officer. As a result, he provided Stalin with minutes of Hitler’s meetings with Western diplomats, as well with German, Italian, and Spanish diplomatic codes along with codes of Great Britain and France.
Bystrolyotov also procured for the Soviets Hitler’s four-year plan for the rearmament of Germany and helped identify the Nazis’ fifth column in pre-World War II France. In 1935 he smuggled samples of the latest models of German and Italian weaponry across European borders. During a mission to probe the feasibility of the French government's secret promise to Stalin, in the event of German aggression in Europe, to bring an army of mercenaries from Africa, he twice crossed the Sahara Desert and the jungles of the Belgian Congo.
Arrest and imprisonment
In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, he was recalled to the Soviet Union and soon arrested and tortured until he “confessed” to selling out to the enemy. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. Ostracized and deprived of any means of sustenance as relatives of an “enemy of the people”, his wife and his mother committed suicide.
Still in the camps, he overcame difficult circumstances—his ruined health and the risk of severe punishment—to begin writing his eyewitness account of Stalin’s Gulag. Smuggled to the outside world by his fellow inmates and his second wife, whom he had met and married in the camps, his memoir is comparable to that of Solzhenitsyn.
After his release in 1954, a polyglot with nearly 20 languages at his disposal, including Dutch, Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese, he worked at various medical research organizations in Moscow as a translator and medical consultant. Besides being a gifted painter, Bystrolyotov was also a talented novelist, screenwriter, and memoirist. In 1963, journal Azia i Afrika segodnya (Asia and Africa Today) published a series of sketches about his African trips. In 1973, a film titled Chelovek v shtatskom (A Plainclothes Man) based on his script was released. In 1974, journal Nash sovremennik (Our Contemporary) published his short novel Para Bellum, a thinly-disguised account of one of his pre-World War II foreign operations. But not one of his memoirs was published in his lifetime.
Bystrolyotov died on May 3, 1975, and was buried at the Khovanskoye Cemetery, Moscow. Currently, he is considered one of the leading heroes of Russian foreign intelligence. His portrait is displayed on the walls of the secret “Memory Room” at the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service headquarters. On November 21, 2011, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. unveiled an exhibit devoted to him.
- Pir bessmertnykh(Feast of the Immortals) (Moscow, 1993), Vol. 2, 238. In their book The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 1999), Christopher Andrew and Vassili Mitrokhin cite Bystrolyotov’s claim that his father was a noted Soviet writer Alexey Tolstoy (p. 44). No documents proving his paternity survived.
- For a short description of Bystrolyotov’s career, see Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev, The Crown Jewels (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 63-88.
- Bystrolyotov D.A. (1996) "A Journey to the Edge of the Night" (Быстролетов Д.А. "Путешествие на край ночи"), Moscow, Sovremennik, 550pp — An anthology of works and manuscripts
“One of the most successful Soviet illegals” Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol.. 5 (Robert W. Pringle, ed.)
“[An] extremely versatile intelligence officer was indeed legendary in the 1930s; in fact, with his espionage history, he is the nearest thing to James Bond." Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB Colonel and author (together with Christopher Andrew) of KGB: The Inside Story; Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-8, and other books on Russian intelligence.
“[O]ne of the most prominent undercover operatives, a mega-spy, brave and talented. In fact, he was the best Russian spy ever, eclipsing even the legendary Richard Sorge.” Mikhail Lyubimov, KGB veteran, historian of Russian secret service, author of the book Spies I Like and Spies I Hate and many other books on espionage.
“Thanks to Bystrolyotov and others, [Soviet intelligence] received more assistance from espionage than any similar agency in the West.” Christopher Andrew and Vassili Mitrokhin, in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB.
“His skill at adopting the identity of an aristocrat came useful during his years as an illegal.” Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev in Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of KGB Archives.
“[An] experienced and colorful operative... Possessed of great personal courage and a dashing manner, he was a master of many languages and disguises and used a variety of identities when traveling between the countries of Western Europe.” William E. Duff, Special Agent of the FBI (Foreign Counterintelligence Department), author of the book A Time for Spies: Theodore Stephanovich Mally and the Era of the Great Illegals.
- Draitser, Emil Stalin's Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB Most Daring Operative (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010) ISBN 978-0-8101-2664-0.
- Pringle, Robert W., ed. Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol.. 5
- Draitser, Emil. "Hunting for Interwar Diplomacy Secrets: Tradecraft of Dmitri Bystrolyotov," Journal of Intelligence History, Vol. 6 (Winter 2008), 1-12.
- Draitser, Emil. "A Life Cut in Half: The Case of Dmitri Bystrolyotov." Gulag Studies, Vol. 1 (in print)
- Andrew, Christopher and Mitrokhin, Vassili. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
- Costello, John and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions. New York: Crown, 1993.
- West, Nigel and Oleg Tsarev. Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of KGB Archives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
- West, Nigel. MI-5: British Security Operations, 1909-1945. NY: Stein and Day, 1982.
- Kern, Gary. A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror. Enigma, 2003.
- Duff, William. A Time for Spies: Theodore Stephanovich Mally and the Era of the Great Illegals. Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.
- Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003.