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City news, 28.07.2004 11:59

Soviet Spy Who Outwitted Einstein

russian_spies By Irina Titova

Staff Writer ST. PETERSBURG -- Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but he was not clever enough to avoid the classic honey pot, in his case a glamorous Soviet secret agent named Maria Konnenkova.

Konnenkova dated Einstein in the 1940s in order to gain information on the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop the first nuclear bomb.

A photograph of Konnenkova at an exhibition on Russian-Soviet female spies that opened in St. Petersburg earlier this summer demonstrates the exquisite beauty of the country's female agents, which made them particularly difficult to resist.

"Most Russian female spies were very beautiful, charming, well-educated, sly and used good logic," said Lyudmila Mikhailova, director of the Russian Political Police Museum, which organized the display.

The exhibition features the country's female spies, along with the policewomen of the tsars' secret police, the NKVD and the KGB. Contemporary heads of prosecutors' offices and bodyguard schools are also included.

Konnenkova was recruited to the cloak-and-dagger world of spying by another Soviet spook, Yelizaveta Zarubina (Gorskaya), the second wife of spymaster Vasily Zarubin.

To gather information on the U.S. nuclear bomb program, Konnenkova charmed Einstein, who had promoted the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, and became a friend of Robert Oppenheimer, who led the U.S. effort.

The Zarubins, who played key roles in obtaining the secrets of the U.S. bomb for the Soviet Union, were probably the most prominent family of Soviet spies. Both of Zarubin's wives worked for the secret services, as did his daughter.

Another leading personality featured in the exhibition is Yelena Kozeltseva, a KGB colonel who worked for the NKVD during Stalin's purges. She finished her career as a deputy head of Moscow State University, or MGU.

In 1938, Kozeltseva, an engineer by education, was 24 years old when she was offered a position as an NKVD investigator. Her first assignment consisted of processing cases that were eligible for rehabilitation.

Mikhailova, who interviewed Kozeltseva in Moscow for the exhibition, said that when Kozeltseva examined the cases, she said she was deeply surprised to learn that there had been no grounds for arrest or execution. She claimed to have done her best to rehabilitate these individuals.

During World War II, Kozeltseva was involved in exposing Nazi agents. She also investigated the killing of Soviet scout Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, 18, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1941.

In 1953, while serving as a KGB agent, Kozeltseva was appointed a deputy head of MGU. KGB representatives worked in many of the higher education institutions.

"Students were always one of the most active parts of the country's population, who could be rather easily influenced," Mikhailova said. "Therefore, the Soviet authorities, like the tsarist ones before them, wanted to have ideological control over them."

In the 1960s, when dissidence broke out in the Soviet Union, Kozeltseva's task was to prevent students from attending political meetings and taking part in actions opposing the Soviet regime.

When MGU students wanted to attend a protest against the arrest of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel, held on Pushkin Square in 1965, Kozeltseva persuaded them not to go.

Mikhailova said Kozeltseva, who is now 90, does not regret her activities in the NKVD or KGB.

"While working there, I saved the lives of many people who could have been exiled to camps or killed," she told Mikhailova.

Another female spy featured in the exhibition is Zoya Voskresenskaya, who is best known in Russia as a children's writer. Voskresenskaya was among those who warned Stalin on the eve of the German invasion that Hitler was preparing to attack the Soviet Union.

In May 1941, Voskresenskaya, using the name Madam Yartseva, attended a reception for German Ambassador Werner von Schulenburg. The gathering was held in honor of the Berlin Opera, which was on tour at the time.

While waltzing with Schulenburg, "Yartseva," an elegant figure in a velvet dress, noticed gaps on the wall of a neighboring room, where pictures had been removed.

A glimpse of a pile of suitcases in the same room and some remarks in the German diplomats' conversations put her on full alert, and confirmed other intelligence about the Nazis' plans.

On June 17, five days before the invasion began, Voskresenskaya delivered a report to Stalin. He did not believe her.

The history of Russian female secret agents began long before the NKVD. The first Russian female spy featured in the exhibition is Duchess Dorothea Lieven, the sister of police chief Alexander Benckendorff, who opened a salon in Berlin in the early 18th century.

Lieven, the attractive wife of a Russian ambassador to Germany, not only chatted about high society with the visitors, but also managed to gather important political information.

Mikhailova said that despite the stereotype that people who worked for the NKVD and KGB were connected only with oppression, the women she met made quite a different impression on her.

"Those whom I met were the women who had gone through World War II, and they all were characterized by devotion and love for their motherland," Mikhailova said. "They were in a difficult situation because they had to obey the dictatorship of the law that existed at that time."

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(c) 2000