Viktor Grayevsky

Journalist and double agent
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The Independent Online

Viktor Spielman (Viktor Abramovich Grayevsky), journalist and spy: born Krakow, Poland 29 July 1925; twice married; died 18 October 2007.

As soon as word leaked out that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had denounced at least some of Stalin's crimes at a closed late-night session at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in February 1956, the hunt was on among western intelligence agencies for the full text of the four-hour long speech. Numbered copies, marked "Top Secret", had been distributed among the party leadership, as well as the leaderships of friendly Communist parties. The CIA was desperate for the text, reputedly offering a vast sum for it.

The Polish Communist journalist Viktor Grayevsky was visiting his girlfriend in early April 1956 at the Central Committee headquarters in Warsaw where she worked when he noticed on her desk a red-bound copy of Khrushchev's speech. "Everyone wanted to know what he had said," Grayevsky recalled. She agreed to lend it for an hour or so and – despite the risk that he could be caught with a secret document – he took it home to read.

"When I had finished reading it, I realised I was holding something like an atomic bomb in my hands," he told the BBC Russian Service 50 years later. "It was something terrible! I was a party member, I believed in socialism, in Communism, and everyone believed at that time. And suddenly all this evil-doing. Stalin such a gangster, such a murderer!"

Grayevsky hastened to return it, but on the way decided to show it to Yaakov Barmor, a friend at the Israeli embassy who worked for the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service. "He went pale, he went red, he went black, because he knew better than I what it was," he said. "That everyone throughout the world was looking for this speech." Barmor went off with the copy for an hour and a half, then returned it with thanks and Grayevsky took it back to his girlfriend.

Unbeknown to Grayevsky, Barmor immediately flew to Vienna to hand on the text to Amos Manor, the head of Shin Bet. Manor showed it to David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, who approved its despatch to Allen Dulles at the CIA. After checking it, the CIA deemed it authentic and it was handed to The New York Times for publication in early June.

Viktor Spielman was born in 1925 into a Polish-Jewish family in Krakow, later changing his name to the non-Jewish-sounding Grayevsky. He and his immediate family fled to the Soviet Union when the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939. There he saw out the war before returning to his newly Communist homeland in 1946. By now a convinced Communist, he studied journalism at the Academy of Political Science and joined the Communist Party. He began working for the government news agency PAP.

In the early 1950s, Grayevsky visited his parents and sister who had emigrated to Israel. There he became a Zionist, but returned to Poland. In January 1957 – after he had already passed on the text of Khrushchev's speech – he emigrated to Israel himself, settling in West Jerusalem.

After learning Hebrew, Grayevsky found a rather ill-paid job in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, where he remained until 1961, also working at Kol Israel radio. It was not long before the KGB – hardly believing that a recent immigrant and a Communist at that could get a sensitive government job so quickly – tried to recruit him. Thus began 14 years as a double agent.

With the approval of Shin Bet, Grayevsky began meeting his KGB "recruiter" regularly, passing on material prepared for him. After many hundreds of such apparently unfocused encounters, well lubricated with vodka, Grayevsky remained surprised that the KGB was interested in what to his untrained eye seemed the largely trivial information he was asked to pass on.

But two such meetings were crucial: Shin Bet had decided in the mid-1960s to alert the Soviet Union that it was aware that the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had met Soviet top brass. Grayevsky passed on the transcript.

The second meeting was in May 1967, just weeks before Israel's attack on Egyptian forces sparked the Six Day War. Nasser had already moved his forces into Sinai, poised to attack Israel, and had blocked access to the Israeli port of Eilat. At Shin Bet's request, Grayevsky called an urgent meeting with his KGB handler and told him that Israel would go to war if the blockade was not lifted. Asked where he had gathered the information, Grayevsky pretended it was from a closed briefing at the prime minister's office. The Israelis believed that the Soviets would step in to prevent war, but were disappointed that they failed to rein Nasser in.

Many of the meetings with the KGB took place on property in Israel of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was full of spies masquerading as priests. Once Grayevsky and his family had to leave Jerusalem in a hurry as, using his information, the Israelis swooped on several KGB spies in the Church.

In 1971 Grayevsky ended all contacts with the KGB and Shin Bet, devoting himself full time to radio work. On retirement as head of Overseas Broadcasting in 1990, he spent the next decade as Ombudsman for the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Grayevsky was never trained as a spy and became involved in the shadowy world almost on an impulse. An intelligent man, he nevertheless made no pretence of understanding the machinations of which he was just a small part. As word of Grayevsky's involvement with espionage became public from the 1990s, he remained modest about his achievements. He shrugged off suggestions that he had acted heroically over the Khrushchev speech. "It was of course Khrushchev who made history," he recalled. "I just had a brief encounter with history for several hours."

Felix Corley