Aleksandr Orlov

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Alexander Orlov (Leiba Lazarevich Felbing).png

Leiba Lazarevich Felbing (Russ. Лейба Лазаревич Фельдбин; 21 August 1895—25 March 1973), better known as Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov (Russ. Алекса́ндр Миха́йлович Орло́в), was a communist Jew, who as head of the Soviet Union's NKVD death-squad during the Spanish Civil War, was responsible for massacres of Spanish Christians. Along with Marcel Rosenberg and Francisco Largo Caballero, he was involved in stealing $700 million worth of gold from Spain and shipping it to the Soviets. He was never brought to justice for his war crimes against the Spanish people.

As well as this criminality, he was prior to the conflict in Spain, a long time GPU spy for the Soviets in France, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria and the United States. As the Great Purge began, Orlov black-mailed his former masters in the Kremlin and went underground in the United States in 1938. He warned Leon Trotsky of his impending assassination. Orlov published The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes in 1953. This embarrassed the CIA and FBI who did not know that a former NKVD officer had been living in their country for 15 years. He later authored other books about espionage.

Early life

He was born Leiba Lazarevich Feldbin in the Byelorussian town of Babruysk on August 21, 1895 to a Jewish family. He attended the Lazarevsky Institute in Moscow, but left it after two semesters to enroll at Moscow University to study law. His study, however, was cut short when he was drafted into the Tsarist Russian army.

When the Russian Civil War erupted in 1918, Orlov joined the Red Army and became a junior counterintelligence officer on the Polish front in the vicinity of Kiev. He personally led and directed sabotage missions into enemy territory. He later served with the OGPU Border Guards in Arkhangelsk. In 1921 he retired from the Red Army and returned to Moscow to resume his study of law at the Law School at Moscow University. Orlov worked for several years at the Bolshevik High Tribunal under the tutelage of Nikolai Krylenko. In May 1924 his cousin, Zinoviy Katznelson, who was chief of the OGPU Economic Department (EKU), invited Lev Nikolsky (his official name since 1920) to join the secret police as an officer of Financial Section 6.

Career as a Soviet spy

When his cousin was moved to supervise the Transcaucasian Border Troops of the OGPU, he offered to Nikolsky and his wife the opportunity to move to Tiflis (now Tbilisi, Georgia) as chief of the Border Guard unit there, which he accepted. There their daughter contracted a rheumatic fever infection and Orlov asked his friend and former colleague Artur Artuzov to give him an assignment abroad so that Orlov could have European doctors treat his daughter.

Posted to Paris and Berlin

Therefore, in 1926 Nikolsky was transferred to the INO, the branch of the NKVD responsible for overseas operations, now headed by Artuzov, and sent to Paris under a legal cover of a Soviet Trade Delegation official. After one year in France, Nikolsky, who operated on a fraudulent Soviet passport in the name of Léon Nikolaeff, was transferred to a similar position to Berlin. He returned to Moscow in late 1930.

Posted to the United States

Two years later he was sent to the USA to establish relations with his relatives there, and to obtain a genuine American passport that would allow free travel in Europe. "Leon L. Nikolaev" (Nikolsky-Orlov) arrived in the USA aboard the SS Europe on 22 September 1932, sailing from Bremen. After obtaining a passport in the name of William Goldin, he departed on 30 November 1932 on the SS Bremen back to Germany.

Posted to Austria

In Moscow, Nikolsky again asked for a foreign assignment, as he wanted his sick daughter to be treated by Dr. Karl Noorden in Vienna. This was granted, and together with his wife and daughter, he arrived in Vienna in May 1933 (as Nikolaev) and settled in Hinterbrühl a few kilometres away from the capital. After three months, he went to Prague, changed his Soviet passport for the American one, and left for Geneva. Nikolsky's group, which operated against the French Deuxième Bureau, included Alexander Korotkov, a young illegal, Korotkov's wife Maria, and a courier, Arnold Finkelberg. Their operation, codenamed EXPRESS, was unsuccessful and in May 1934 Nikolsky joined his family in Vienna. From here he was ordered to go to Copenhagen to serve as assistant to rezidents Theodore Maly (Paris) and Ignace Reif (Copenhagen).

Posted to the United Kingdom

In June 1935, Nikolsky (William Goldin) himself became a rezident in London. His cover in London, as Goldin, was as a director of an American refrigerator company.[1] He had nothing to do with the recruitment of Kim Philby or any other member of the Cambridge Five, and deserted his post in October 1935, coming back to Moscow. Here he was dismissed from the Foreign Service and put into a lowly position of deputy chief of the Transport Department (TO) of the NKVD, the successor secret service organization of the OGPU.

NKVD chief assassin in Spain

In early September 1936 Orlov was appointed NKVD liaison to the Spanish Republican Ministry of Interior arriving in Madrid on September 16. It is said Orlov was sent to Spain after a young secretary, with whom he had been carrying on an affair, shot herself in front of Lubyanka because he refused to leave his wife. Orlov arrived in Madrid on 15 September 1936. Contrary to the common knowledge, he had never supervised guerrilla activity behind nationalist lines that was organized by his senior NKVD colleague Grigory Syroezhkin.

In October 1936 Orlov was placed in command of the operation which moved the Spanish treasury from Madrid to Moscow. The Republican government had agreed to use this horde of bullion as an advance payment for Soviet military supplies. Orlov did a commendable job of managing the logistics of this transfer. It took four nights for truck convoys, driven by Soviet tankmen, to bring the 510 tons of gold from its hiding place in the mountains to the port of Cartagena. There, under threat of German bombing raids, it was loaded on four different Russian steamers bound for Odessa. The gold was conveyed to Moscow by special armored train. Once it was safely locked away Stalin threw a party and remarked, "The Spaniards will never see their gold again, just as cannot see one's own ears."[2] For his service, Orlov received the "Order of Lenin."

However, Orlov's main task in Spain remained fighting the "Trotskyites" and other opponents of the Moscow-backed Spanish Republican government. Documents released from the NKVD archives reveal the long list of Orlov's crimes in Spain. He was responsible for fabricating the evidence which led to the arrest and purge of the leaders of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), many of whom vanished. The evidence also suggests he directed the kidnapping and execution of the POUM leader Andreu Nin. In a report to his superiors in Moscow, dated August 1937, Orlov outlined his plan for the capture and liquidation of the Austrian Socialist Kurt Landau. His deputy, Stanislav Vaupshasov, managed the construction of a crematorium for the untraceble disposal of enemies. Erwin Wolf, Trotsky's former secretary, and Mark Rein, son of a Menshevik leader, disappeared in Spain, the victims of Orlov's terror. He also had a hand in the disappearance of the White Russian officer and NKVD double-agent, Nikolai Skoblin (codename FARMER). Though he was the leading NKVD officer in Spain, Orlov would later deny involvement in these and many other assassinations carried out by his NKVD officers and their agents.

Defecting from the Soviet Union

Great Purge and blackmail

In 1938, the Great Purge continued in the Soviet Union as Stalin sought to clear away the last vestiges of the old guard who had survived the 1917 revolution. Orlov watched from afar as close associates and friends were rounded up and shot one by one. When he received orders from Moscow to meet an unknown agent aboard a ship in Antwerp, Orlov suspected he would be killed by the NKVD assassin Sergey Spigelglas. Instead of going to the meeting, Orlov stole $60,000 in operational funds from the NKVD safe and fled with his wife and daughter to Canada. It is possible that he took direct part, again acting as a diplomatic cover, in the assassination of Rudolf Klement, a former secretary of Leon Trotsky, in Paris on 13 July 1938 - the day he left Paris for Quebec.

While in Canada, Orlov composed a blackmail letter which he sent to the NKVD chief Yezhov. He told his boss he would reveal everything he knew about Soviet intelligence operations if agents were sent to kill him or a member of his family. In a two-page attachment, Orlov listed the codenames of numerous illegals and moles operating in the West. He also sent a letter to Trotsky alerting him to the presence of the NKVD agent Mark Zborowski (codename TULIP) in the entourage of his son Lev Sedov. Trotsky dismissed this letter as a provocation. Then Orlov traveled with his family to the United States and went underground. The NKVD, presumably on orders from Stalin, did not try to locate him until 1969.

Publishing a book, The Secret History

Shortly after the death of Stalin in March 1953, and exactly fifteen years after his own defection, Orlov resurfaced and published The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes. This work, comparable in form to the Anekdota by Procopius, offers the reader a number of previously unrecorded anecdotes about the murderous underside of life within the NKVD during the terror. It is an unofficial history, written without reference to primary sources or documents, sometimes based upon gossip heard at the NKVD water-cooler or at a French cafe, and frequently quoting dialogue. At the time of its publication most of the tales were unverifiable because nearly all the witnesses had been purged.

A textual comparison of the Secret History with Walter Krivitsky's In Stalin's Secret Service reveals that, for both books, the authors' secret informant on the history of the Moscow Trials was Abram Slutsky, head of NKVD Foreign Intelligence.[citation needed] Many historians believe there is the ring of truth to Orlov's tales, though the reader should remember that they are told second-hand, that Orlov himself was deliberately dishonest about his own complicity in Stalin's crimes, and that money was the principal reason Orlov wrote the Secret History. Still Orlov had an eye for idiosyncratic detail and an ear for character dialogue which lends the anecdotes a certain poignancy.

Later life, United States embarrassment

After the publication of The Secret History, Orlov was forced to come in from the cold. Both the CIA and FBI were embarrassed by the revelation that a high ranking NKVD officer (Orlov was a Major of State Security, equal to an army colonel) had been living underground in the United States for fifteen years without their knowledge. Orlov was interrogated by the FBI and twice appeared before Senate Sub-Committees, but he always diminished his role in events and continued to conceal the names of Soviet agents in the West. In 1956 he wrote an article for Life Magazine entitled, The Sensational Secret Behind the Damnation of Stalin. This story held that NKVD agents had discovered papers in the Tsarist archives which proved Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent and, on the basis of this knowledge, the NKVD agents had planned a coup d'état with the leaders of the Red Army.[3] Stalin, Orlov continued, uncovered the plot and this was his motive behind the secret trial and execution of Soviet Marshal Tukhachevsky and the purge of the Red Army.[4]

Orlov and his wife continued to live secretly and modestly in the United States. In 1963, the CIA helped him publish another book, The Handbook of Counter-Intelligence and Guerilla Warfare, and helped him obtain a job as a researcher at the Law School of the University of Michigan. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His wife died there, and then he died on 25 March 1973. Orlov never wavered in his contempt for Stalin. His last book, The March of Time, was published in the USA in 2004 by his follower, former FBI Special Agent Ed Gazur. It is another anecdotal history, a period piece unearthed from the "Cold War" era.



  1. Deadly Illusions: The KGB Orlov Dossier, by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Crown 1993
  2. Beevor, Antony. The Spanish Civil War. p. 124. ISBN 0-911745-11-4
  3. Roman Brackman The secret file of Joseph Stalin: a hidden life 466 pages Published by Routledge, 2001 ISBN 0714650501 ISBN 9780714650500
  4. Paul W. Blackstock The Tukhachevsky Affair Russian Review, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 171-190


  • "The Retiring Spy" Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 2001.
  • "Alexander Orlov" on Spartacus International
  • Alexander Orlov, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes. Random House, 1953.
  • John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions: The KGB Orlov Dossier. Crown, 1993. ISBN 0-517-58850-1
  • Alexander Orlov, The Handbook of Intelligence and Guerrilla Warfare, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1963.
  • Edward Gazur, Secret Assignment: the FBI's KGB General, St Ermin's Press, 2002 ISBN 0-9536151-7-0
  • Alexander Orlov, The March of Time, St Ermin's Press, 2004 ISBN 1-903608-05-8
  • Boris Volodarsky, The KGB Orlov File: The Greatest Deception of All Time (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2009)

See also

External links