Evil, upright, or misunderstood? It’s possible to see Red spy Kitty Harris—a.k.a. Elizabeth Dreyfus, Alice Read, Gypsy, Norma, Ada, et al.—as all three in this biography by retired KGB officer Damaskin.
Sometimes a nest of spies is the only family a girl’s got. Having heard the tales of how her own family was brutalized in one Russian pogrom or another, and swept up in the revolutionary fever of the time, London-born Kitty grew up with a sense of outrage. As a young garment worker, she became active in the trade-union movement, and from there it was a short step to joining the Communist Party. She was soon courted by both Earl Browder, the leader of the American branch of the now-Stalinized party, and by Soviet intelligence, which, “in its various acronymic manifestations of Cheka, OGPU, MGB, NKVD, and KGB, was another family: a hard core of officers and support staff, moving from one trouble spot to another, marrying, betraying, helping each other, with the same personalities popping up in Harbin, Shanghai, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Mexico City.” Harris was an active and willing spy, constantly on the move, marrying and betraying with the best of them, and steadfastly loyal to Josef Stalin, whom Damaskin portrays as an unusually mild-mannered, unusually smooth-talking chap. (“As the international situation gets more complex,” he remarks, “we need to be fully informed on an even broader range of issues. Above all we need reliable intelligence on what the main capitalist states are planning against us.”) Kitty helpfully provided such intelligence, although, toward the end of her career, her handlers came to see her as something of a loose cannon. Damaskin’s portrait is respectful and even affectionate, though he points to a few careless errors that should have brought Harris down long before her cover was eventually blown.
A little clunky, a little slow: a blip in the spy genre.