In the New World of Spies
“Russia will always have an advantage over the West in the deployment of spies.”
To those who met them in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1935, the Swiss businessman Charles Emile Martin and his American partner, Cy Oggins, must have seemed an enigmatic pair. Oggins was a distinguished-looking man with craggy features, well-made suits, and a penchant for silver-topped walking sticks. He seemed to know a great deal about Oriental antiquities, and sometimes described himself as an art dealer. Martin was more discreet, preferring plain neckties and gabardine overcoats, though his wife Elsa was fond of elegant handbags and furs. Both men were polyglots, with a wide if vague range of European connections. Working in concert with a Milanese businessman, they had come to Manchukuo to sell Fiat cars and airplanes to the Japanese.
At the time, Mussolini was courting the Japanese regime—he had just sent an “Italian Fascist Goodwill Mission” to Manchuria—and the business seems to have been a success. At the end of 1937, the Japanese imperial government bought seventy-two Italian planes. The Japanese military attaché in Rome reported the deal with approval. It was, he declared with satisfaction, “equal to three heavy bomber regiments.” As Fiat’s representatives in Manchukuo, Martin and Oggins surely shared some of the credit. But by the time the sale went through, both Martin and Oggins had disappeared.
The deal was real enough. But the salesman had not been quite what they seemed. Charles Emile Martin—alias George Wilmer, Lorenz, Laurenz, or Dubois—had been named Max Steinberg at birth. Though he spoke fluent German and French with a Marseilles accent, Steinberg was born not in Switzerland but in Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, a Ukrainian port town on the northern coast of the Black Sea. He had obtained a genuine Swiss passport through the use of fraudulent identity documents. Oggins’s surname was authentic, as was his American passport, but his persona was not. Before living in Manchuria, he also passed some time in Paris, living innocuously next door to one of the last members of the Romanov dynasty—an excellent place from which to keep a close watch on the White Russian diaspora—as well as Berlin. Those who had once known him as Isaiah Oggins, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper in the Connecticut mill town of Willimantic, would have been astonished by his aristocratic demeanor. Those who had known him as a Columbia graduate student dabbling in radical politics would have been even more surprised.
Steinberg and Oggins looked and acted like wealthy businessmen, but in fact they were Soviet spies, operating not as diplomats but as “illegals,” under false identities and beneath deep cover. “Charles Martin and Co.” may have been a real business, but as Andrew Meier discovered while writing The Lost Spy, his meticulously researched and beautifully written biography of Oggins, the company also provided its “owners” with a reason to be in Manchukuo in 1935. From this unusual vantage point, they were able to observe not only Axis politics but also, again, the large White Russian community that had emigrated to Harbin after the Russian Revolution. They abandoned the effort only because the war between China and Japan was intensifying. There is no record that they were ever exposed.