An infatuation with a Chekist

After a week in solitary confinement, Marguerite appealed to Mogilevsky to end the torture. She told herself that he was not a cruel man and did not want her to suffer. After all, they had had pleasant conversations discussing French literature and political philosophy. He had shared his story of growing up in a provincial town and his thirst for social justice. He would be reasonable, she believed. So she asked the guard for a pencil and a scrap of paper, and she wrote to Mogilevsky in French requesting to see him. Within a couple of hours, he called her to his office.

Cheka leaders around 1920. Felix Dzerzhinsky (seated fifth from left) once famously said “a Chekist has to have a cold head, a hot heart and clean hands.” 

He again questioned her about foreign agents in Russia, but her vague replies irritated him. Exasperated, he turned her over to his secretary for questioning. Marguerite did not see Mogilevsky again for two months, and she was sorry. “Although we disagreed on many subjects from world revolution to herrings, of which he was evidently fond, for he often had a bowl of our prison soup for his dinner, I took a certain enjoyment in our verbal duels. He was a keen alert mind and he was a stimulating and resourceful enemy,” she said.

Marguerite’s admiration for Mogilevsky contrasts with the opinions of other American and British prisoners who met him. One described him stupid and completely ignorant of conditions in Europe. Another  portrayed him as “thin, nervous in manner” who was not terribly perceptive.

But Marguerite described him as an idealistic revolutionary fighting the injustices he had endured as Jew growing up in southern Russia. She wrote: “I had listened sympathetically to his accounts of his early life, first as a small boy with a thirst for knowledge growing up in a provincial town where all but elementary education was denied him, and already smarting under a sense of social injustice . . ..”.

Yet either Marguerite embellished her description of the Chekist or he did not tell her the truth. Rather than growing up poor, Mogilevsky was born in 1885 into a family of Jewish merchants in Pavlograd in the Ekaterinoslav Province in what is today Ukraine. He he attended high school and while still a teenager, joined Socialist revolutionaries. He spent several months in prison until he fled to Switzerland, where he studied law and met Lenin, who recruited him to the Bolshevik Party.

Returning to Ekaterinoslav in 1906, Mogilevsky worked as a propagandist in local factories for a year, and then he suspended his party activities in order to finish law school at Moscow University. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Mogilevsky served as chairman of the Ivanovo revolutionary tribunal, with the ultimate power to execute anyone he believed to be an enemy of the state. After proving himself in Ivanovo, he went to Moscow where he soon gained the attention of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who appointed him to head the investigation section of Cheka in 1919. In that role, he helped uncover a British plot to oust Lenin. When he met Marguerite, he was in a new position as deputy director of the Special Section that aimed to create a foreign intelligence service.

According to prison records, Mogilevsky interrogated Marguerite her twice before relinquishing her to his secretary. Eventually, Marguerite provided a lengthy report of her espionage activities. She told of volunteering to catch German spies in Baltimore in 1917 and recounted her work for the Military Intelligence Division in Berlin. She described the organizational structure of MID into positive (intelligence) and negative (counterintelligence) branches, and she admitted that she had come to Russia to assess political and economic situations and to locate American prisoners. Marguerite named many of the people she met in Germany, Poland, and Russia, and offered insights into their political beliefs, although— true to her word, —she made no mention of either Merian Cooper or Francis McCullagh.

Based upon her signed confession, Cheka listed three charges against her: She had been a spy in Baltimore; she worked for the U.S. War Department in Berlin; and, most serious of all, “she gave information to Cheka in very poor quality,” identifying only Stan Harding as a foreign agent. “On the basis of the above mentioned fact she is considered as a hostile and dangerous person to Society,” the prison report concluded.

But Cheka officials were sufficiently satisfied with her admissions to move her from solitary confinement.

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