Victor Kravchenko (defector)
Poster featuring Victor Kravchenko (2015)
Victor Andreevich Kravchenko
October 11, 1905
|Died||February 25, 1966 (aged 60)|
|Years active||1944 - 1966|
|I Chose Freedom|
Viktor Andreevich Kravchenko (Ukrainian: Віктор Андрійович Кра́вченко, 11 October 1905 – 25 February 1966) was a Soviet defector, known for writing the best-selling book, I Chose Freedom, published in 1946, about the realities of life in the Soviet Union.
Victor Andreevich Kravchenko was born on 11 October 1905, into a Ukrainian family in Ekaterinoslav, Russian Empire (now Dnipro, Ukraine) with a non-party, revolutionary father. Kravchenko became an engineer specializing in metallurgy, and while studying at the Dneprodzerzhinsk Metallurgical Institute he became friends with future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. An enthusiastic Communist Party of the Soviet Union member who joined the party in 1929, Kravchenko later became disillusioned by witnessing the effects of collectivization while working in the steel mills of the Donbass region in his native Ukraine, and his personal mistreatment during the Great Purge, although he ultimately managed to avoid arrest. During World War II, Kravchenko served as a Captain in the Soviet Army until 1943, when he was posted to the Soviet Purchasing Commission in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.
On 4 April 1944, Kravchenko abandoned his post and requested political asylum in the United States. However, the Soviet authorities demanded his immediate extradition, calling him a traitor, and ambassador Joseph E. Davies appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt directly on behalf of Joseph Stalin to have Kravchenko extradited. He was granted asylum, but lived under a pseudonym thereafter, fearing assassination by Soviet agents.
Kravchenko began a relationship with an American woman, Cynthia Kuser-Earle, daughter of Anthony R. Kuser (1862–1929) and sister of New Jersey State Senator John Dryden Kuser, who was married to Brooke Astor from 1919 to 1930. Viktor and Cynthia created a family, but never married to reduce the chance of detection by the Soviets. They had two sons, Anthony and Andrew, who were obliged to live under their mother's arranged married name (Earle), and they remained unaware of their father's identity until 1965. When Kravchenko defected, he had a wife, Zinaida Gorlova, and a son, Valentin (born 1935), who remained in the Soviet Union. Gorlova remarried and her second husband adopted Valentin, changing his last name to that of his stepfather's to remove the stigma of his father. In spite of his new surname, Valentin was eventually publicized as the son of a "traitor to the motherland" and for various other reasons was sent to a Gulag in 1953 for five years, where the conditions of the camp 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. Valentin died in 2001 from heart failure, receiving his American citizenship on the day he died.
I Chose Freedom
Kravchenko wrote a memoir, I Chose Freedom, a best-seller both in the US and Europe, containing extensive revelations on collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Soviet prison camp system, and the use of penal labor which came at a time of growing tension between the Soviet Union and the West. The publication of I Chose Freedom 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.
Trial of the Century
Kravchenko's lesser-known memoir, although a best seller in Europe, I Chose Justice, published in 1950, mainly covered his "trial of the century" in France. An attack on Kravchenko's character by the French Communist weekly Les Lettres Françaises resulted in him 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 Union 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 prison camp system, 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, and 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.
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.
A lifelong democratic socialist, Kravchenko felt increasingly alienated from American politics, both from the anti-socialist right-wing and a decreasingly anti-communist left-wing. He then chose different ways to counteract exploitation and Stalinist development by living in Peru and New York City. 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 corrupt activities by business associates. Sympathetic biographer Gary Kern suspects that the KGB played a role in the failure.
Suicide or assassination
Kravchenko's death was officially ruled a suicide, and this view is widely accepted, including by biographer Gary Kern. 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. 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. Andrew Kravchenko produced a documentary film in 2008, The Defector, about his father. Kravchenko's decision to defect from the Soviet Union resulted in family members he left behind facing harassment, imprisonment and even death, with more than 30 relatives of Kravchenko being killed in the Soviet Union as a reprisal for his defection. It is known that Kravchenko's location was discovered by NKVD agents in 1944, notably Mark Zborowski, and subsequently closely monitored by the NKVD and later by KGB special operations.
- Kern, Gary (2007) The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War On Stalin, Enigma Books, ISBN 978-1-929631-73-5
Notes and references
- Tzouliades, Tim (2008). The Forsaken. The Penguin Press. p. 275. ISBN 978-1-59420-168-4.
- Landsberg, Mitchell (11 May 2003), "Searching for Tato", The Los Angeles Times
- "Soviet defector's sons finally meet", Tri-city Herald, p. 2, 4 January 1992
- Mydans, Seth (4 January 1992), "First Meeting For Two Sons of a Defector", The New York Times
- Werth, Alexander (1956). "France 1940–1955". New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 438.
- Spiegel, Irving (26 February 1966). "Kravchenko Kills Himself Here; He Chose Freedom From Soviet". The New York Times. p. 9. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
- Kern, G. (2007) The Kravchenko Case: One Man's War On Stalin, Enigma Books, ISBN 978-1-929631-73-5
- The Defector: a documentary film, American Sterling, archived from the original on 29 December 2008.
- The Defector, US: Wild at heart films
- Wilcox, R (2008), Target Patton: The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton, Regnery Publishing, p. 249, ISBN 978-1-59698-579-7
- 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: www.nsa.gov. (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.)
- Top Secret: Information on "Mars" on "Gnat" Archived 26 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine De-classified Venona project document from the US National Security Agency
- The Venona Story (PDF), The National Security Agency.
- "Top Secret: The Shadowing of "Gnat"", Venona project (PDF), US: National Security Agency, 1945, archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2010