The Spy Who Knew LaGuardia

As we drove into Tel Aviv along the Ayalon highway, Mikhail Milstein and I passed the LaGuardia exit. “Fiorello LaGuardia?” he asked. “Why does he have a street named after him in Tel Aviv?”

I wasn’t surprised by the question. Why should a lieutenant general from Moscow know about LaGuardia? “He was mayor of New York back in the 1930s and ’40s,” I replied, “half-Jewish and a Zionist.”

“I knew him,” Milstein said matter-of-factly. “I was in New York in the ’30s, posing as a Latin American student at Columbia University. One of my missions was to get to know him.”

My jaw dropped. Mikhail Milstein, the most senior Jewish general in the Soviet Union, one of the leaders of the Soviet Pugwash movement dedicated to ending the nuclear arms race, had begun his intelligence career as a mole in New York!

Orphaned as a boy in the 1920s, Milstein proceeded to explain, he had been spotted for his quick wit and sent to a special school for indoctrinating and training agents destined to be planted abroad under deep cover. He learned to speak Spanish like a native. He was taught everything he needed in order to pose as a Latin American student in the United States. And of course he learned “tradecraft” — how to arrive for a secret meeting, check whether he was being followed, encode messages.

Though the mass emigration wave from the U.S.S.R. started in 1988, the real thaw in Israel’s relations with the Soviet Union began in 1990. Milstein was a member of the first delegation of senior Soviet intelligence officers — all still serving in the armed forces or the K.G.B. (Milstein, at age 80, lectured at a training academy) — to visit Israel.

The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, of which I was then deputy head, was asked by the Israeli authorities to host the group. Aaron Yariv, the head of the center and a former head of military intelligence — and himself born in Moscow — was judged to be the appropriate host for this historic visit. Yariv and I picked up the distinguished Russian visitors at Ben Gurion Airport and, as a personal gesture, drove them to their hotel in our own cars.

Once in the hotel, Milstein and the others immediately demanded to change rooms, as if to avoid camera or microphone surveillance. With obvious delight and disdain, he pointed out the Shin Bet minders planted in the lobby.

Yet in the days to come, he didn’t stop talking. Sometime after leaving New York, safely back in Moscow, he became the HQ case officer for the renowned “Red Orchestra” anti-Nazi spy ring and its Polish Jewish leader, Leopold Trepper, with whom he would rendezvous in neutral Switzerland. Trepper spied on the Germans in occupied Europe well into World War II, until he was caught. He escaped, was imprisoned by Stalin after the war and eventually made his way to Israel, where he died in 1982.

Milstein went on to become Marshal Zhukov’s chief intelligence officer in the defense of Moscow: “It was only thanks to Zhukov’s protection that Stalin spared me in the post-war purges,” he acknowledged.

One particular conversation with Milstein remains etched in my memory. He was appalled at the way the Mossad had dealt with Mordechai Vanunu, the Dimona reactor worker who in 1986 revealed alleged nuclear secrets to the world press. Vanunu was trapped in Italy by a Mossad temptress and taken back to Israel. Released after 18 years in prison but not allowed to leave the country, he still antagonizes the authorities occasionally by seeking out the press.

“We would have done it very differently,” Milstein objected. “One injection of the right stuff and Vanunu would have become an idiot, never to bother anyone again. No need to kidnap and try him. Much more humane.”

Every so often I spot Vanunu lurking mournfully in one of the East Jerusalem hotels he haunts, and am reminded of Milstein’s solution.

Barely a few years before Milstein’s visit, Israel and the Soviet Union had been enemies, with Moscow arming and supporting our most hostile Arab neighbors. Yet as I well understood — I am a former Mossad official myself — there can often emerge a cautious rapport between former rivals. Cautious, in the sense that Milstein never related anything of current value.

Perhaps he told me about his early intelligence career because, as he acknowledged, the visit to Israel was bringing out the Jew latent in him — an identity never really hidden, since he had proudly retained his real last name through decades of official anti-Semitism. Perhaps, barely two years before his death, he couldn’t resist reminiscing.

And perhaps something had simply snapped. In 1990, after all, the Soviet Union was in a state of economic and political collapse. Our Soviet visitors, who enjoyed all the perks of the Moscow nomenclatura, ducked into a supermarket on Dizengoff Street before we drove them back to the airport at the close of their visit and proceeded to stock up on the most basic supplies.

Mikhail Milstein, who had demonstrated how high a Jewish “illegal” could rise if he just made it back to Moscow, was, above all, a survivor.

Yossi Alpher, who coedits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.