The mission to Russia challenges America’s top spies

Marlborough Churchill’s decision to send Marguerite Harrison to Russia is testament to the confidence America’s intelligence service directors had in her.

Tommy Harrison was co-captain of the football team in Gilman when his mother pulled him out of school to take him with her to Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Gilman School.

In the autumn 1919, the American spy network in Russia had collapsed. The head of its Moscow cell, Xenophon Kalamatiano, was in prison after being caught the year before in a plot to overthrow the Bolshevik government. The chief of the Petrograd ring, Vice Consul Robert W. Imbrie, had fled to Finland after the Bolshevik Revolution, but several of his accomplices had been captured over the summer trying to aid the White Army as it prepared to storm Petrograd.

The challenge for Harrison was enormous. Unlike with the German assignment, this time she did not know the language and could not pass as a local resident. Her mission in Russia depended entirely on her being able to convince the Reds that she was a journalist who merely wanted to tell American readers about the grand Bolshevik experiment.

But the Russians were alert to this ruse. Several British agents had posed as newspaper correspondents, and Kalamatiano had claimed to run an information service gathering economic data – until Cheka police found a list of ciphers, agents, and military positions hidden in his cane.

Harrison, nevertheless, was eager for the assignment. Russia had captured her imagination since 1900, when she saw the country’s exhibit at the World Exposition in Paris.

She did feel some pangs of guilt about leaving her son again. So she decided withdraw him from Gilman School in Baltimore in his senior and take him with her as far as Switzerland. There she left him in a boarding school, which billed itself as “a school for gentlemen’s sons.”

She told herself that they would be re-united before the Easter recess. Instead, she would not see him for nearly two years.

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