EPISODE 87

STALIN'S ROMEO SPY

STALIN'S ROMEO SPY

As a young Soviet journalist, Emil Draitser stumbled on a story that would later change his life. He was summoned by Dmitri Bystrolyotov to hear the deepest secret of Dmitri’s life: that he was a ‘Stasi Romeo’ spying on Germany for Moscow, taking advantage of vulnerable women to steal state secrets. It was a fascinating tale, but it could also land Draitser in prison should he ever publish a word.
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True Spies, Episode 87: Stalin’s Romeo Spy

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

EMIL DRAITSER: In my estimation, this was one of his most astonishing operations because he found a way, gradually, not right away, gradually get the heart of this woman who would not be seduced in the straightforward, usual manner.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, Episode 87: Stalin’s Romeo Spy.

EMIL DRAITSER: The first time I met Bystrolyotov it was under very unusual circumstances. I was a freelance journalist and my work was published in leading Soviet-time publications like Izvestia and the Evening Moscow and Labor and Soviet Culture and many others. 

NARRATOR: At home in Moscow, satirical journalist Emil Draitser says his goodbyes, and hangs up the telephone. His brow is furrowed. He’s confused. 

EMIL DRAITSER: I was very, very much surprised when I got one day… as my record shows, September 10, 1973. I got a phone call from my father-in-law who said that his client would like to talk to me.

NARRATOR: His father-in-law is a tailor, employed by the Soviet Ministry of Defense. And therein lies the source of Emil’s confusion. Surely, no client of his father-in-law would talk to the press about the Ministry’s business? This is Soviet Russia we’re talking about, after all. Freedom of the press ranks low on the government’s list of priorities, especially regarding military matters.

EMIL DRAITSER: So I was very curious, and so I asked my father-in-law: “Who is this man? Why does he want to speak with me?” "I don't know. He was just a nice man. I talked to him about you..." 

NARRATOR: Now, Emil has the feeling that his father-in-law might have missed out on some crucial information during his conversation with the mysterious client because while Emil is a journalist, he’s primarily a satirist. He makes a living poking fun at the government - within limits, naturally.

EMIL DRAITSER: He probably just mentioned the newspapers, widely known titles of the names of newspapers at that time. "So I don't know," he said, my father-in-law. "Here's his telephone. Give him a call". 

NARRATOR: Before long, confusion gives way to curiosity. Emil picks up the phone.

EMIL DRAITSER: So I called just very, very curious. Why? Why does he want to talk to me? 

NARRATOR: The man on the other end of the phone keeps the details vague.

EMIL DRAITSER: He just invited me to come over to his apartment, which I did the next day, September 11, 1973. 

NARRATOR: Which is how Emil found himself on the threshold of the modest, Muscovite home of one Dmitri Bystrolyotov, Stalin’s Romeo Spy.

EMIL DRAITSER: I saw an aged man with a long, already gray beard, very cultured, who upon my entrance asked me to show my press ID. At that time, I was a member of the Journalists of the Soviet Union, and he then treated me to tea and started telling me about his life. As I was listening to him, I still, to the end of the evening, could not understand why he was telling me what he was telling me. Because nothing he told me at that time was possible to publish in the Soviet press. He told me about his life, how he was recruited as a Soviet spy while being in immigration in the West, and about his work.

NARRATOR: The spy and the satirist spoke for hours. The older man spun a tale of glamor, tragedy, and subterfuge between the wars. The younger man simply listened. What else could he do?

EMIL DRAITSER: So again, I was totally flabbergasted why this man tells me all of these things that are not possible to even mention to somebody, needless to say, to put it in the press. So I came home. And I wrote down whatever I remembered from our meeting. But interestingly enough, now and later on when I looked at my notes, I wrote everything in ink. However, his name, I put in pencil.

NARRATOR: An interesting creative choice... 

EMIL DRAITSER: And why? I thought: “My God, if by any chance the KGB comes to me, after learning about his talk, at least I will be able to erase the name of the man.”

NARRATOR: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, after all. So dangerous, in fact, that Emil had to wonder why the aging spy had decided to tell all. Now, looking back at a distance of almost half a century, he has a working theory.

EMIL DRAITSER: He never could tell the truth about all his life and what it amounts to. So, therefore, he just wanted - like a man wants to, on an uninhabited island - put a note in the bottle and throw it into the ocean in the hope that someday somebody will pick it up and learn about him. 

NARRATOR: Within the next few months, Emil Draitser would be on a plane out of Soviet Russia bound for the United States. And that’s where he’s made his home ever since, making a living as a writer and academic. It would be almost 30 years before he heard the name Bystrolyotov again.

EMIL DRAITSER: In 2002, a small collection of my short stories was published by a publisher in California, and they invited me for a publication lunch. And, during this conversation, I knew that the man was Gary Kern. He was my colleague. He had a doctorate degree from Princeton University and he was a writer. And so, I asked him as we talked around the table: "What are you working on?" And he said: "Well, I'm now writing a biography of a Soviet spy who defected to the West in 1940." Just to keep the conversation going, I told him: “Yeah, I also met one Soviet spy some years ago.” And he said: "What's his name?" And I said: "Dmitri Bystrolyotov". And Gary froze and said: "What? You met Dmitri Bystrolyotov?" "Yes". "Do you have notes of your meeting?" "Yes. Yes, I do". "Oh my God. You must write about your meeting, you're part of his biography." I say: “Wait a minute. All of a sudden I'm part of somebody's biography?” 

NARRATOR: Unbeknownst to Emil, in the intervening years, the life and work of Dmitri Bystrolyotov had reached a wider audience. In 1999, the KGB defector Vasily Mitrokhin co-authored a book that gave the world unprecedented access to the Russian Secret Service’s extensive archives.

EMIL DRAITSER: It was called The Sword and Shield: The Mitrokhin File. He brought out files of this Soviet intelligence working in the West for all these years, starting from the 1920s on, and in this book there was one chapter about Bystrolyotov, so his name was known.

NARRATOR: Emil’s curiosity, dormant for decades, was piqued once more.

EMIL DRAITSER: I was very curious and I'd started searching. I knew that the man died actually a year and a half after our meeting, in May 1975, he died. But I started looking for his relatives. And I remember the name of his second wife, and little by little, I found online a telephone number of his step-grandson. So when I contacted him and I introduced myself and said that I would like to investigate and write a biography of Dmitri Bystrolyotov, he invited me to come to Moscow, and that's how it all started. 

NARRATOR: In Moscow, Emil pored through Bystrolyotov’s archives. Novels, memoirs, private diaries - all ripe for the picking. A life in pages.

EMIL DRAITSER: He gave me archives of his writing, Bystrolyotov's writing, and that helped me to know what the real life of Bystrolyotov was all about. How the whole thing started, how he became a spy and why he - at the end of it - wanted to talk to somebody like me just to get it out, to let his truth, the true story of his life, be known. 

NARRATOR: So, let’s tell that story. Sit back. Relax. Order a coffee. Slice of strudel? Oh, go on then. When in Berlin, do as Berliners do. A pretty young woman stares, a bit antsy, out through the window of the cafe. She’s waiting for someone. Eventually, her patience is rewarded. 

EMIL DRAITSER: So as they watched through a window of the cafe, a luxurious car, the limousine would drive up and out came a dashing, handsome Count, well-dressed. 

NARRATOR: The young Count - for his noble bearing is plain for all to see - smiles nervously as he glides through the cafe’s gilded entrance. He joins his young paramour at her table. And if you were sitting there too - a table or two away, perhaps - you might have overheard her asking him a question: “Have you met Doris?” Yes, there is a third member of this jolly little group. 

EMIL DRAITSER: This woman was in her early forties and she was disfigured through an automobile accident from early in her life to the extent that she was horrifically ugly. 

NARRATOR: Doris, too, had someone special in her life. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

EMIL DRAITSER: She was ultra-Nazi. She was totally devoted. She adored Hitler. 

NARRATOR: Ah, that’s right. It’s 1935. Doris is the keeper of some of Hitler’s most valuable secrets. And the lovely young couple? Soviet spies determined to wrest them from her by any means necessary. The Count, as you’ve probably surmised, is just one of many aliases maintained by the protagonist of this week’s episode - Dmitri Bystrolyotov. Let’s leave the cafe for a moment. We’ll be back soon. In the meantime, let’s find out more about our mysterious aristocrat.

EMIL DRAITSER: Actually, to fully understand the motivations that were used for him to be recruited by the Soviet intelligence, you have to understand his main vulnerability. And his main vulnerability was to be an abandoned child. 

NARRATOR: It’s 1901, in the city of Anapa. Dmitri Bystrolyotov begins life on an uneasy footing. Russian society is changing, and he is a social experiment.

EMIL DRAITSER: His mother was a suffragist, and she, with her girlfriend, also a suffragist, decided to do something to prove to the society at that time - we are talking about the beginning of the 20th century - that you can have a child out of wedlock. It's no big deal how you do it. 

NARRATOR: Nine months earlier, Dmitri’s mother had offered this radical opportunity to a number of noblemen who holidayed on the Black Sea. And, at the age of three, he was sent to live with a foster family.

EMIL DRAITSER: And the foster home was of an impoverished gentry family in St. Petersburg.

NARRATOR: During his time with this new family of faded aristocrats, Dmitri was unwittingly prepared for a future in intelligence work.

EMIL DRAITSER: Why? Because he learned at least three foreign languages. It was custom at that time. English, French, German. Then he learned how to fence. He learned how to dance. He learned how to treat a lady in a high manner. It all became very handy in his future work, of course. It never even crossed his mind that it would ever happen to him.

NARRATOR: Dmitri returned to Anapa to live with his mother at the age of 13. Their relationship, needless to say, was complex. At every juncture, her fervent dedication to social justice took priority over her son.

EMIL DRAITSER: And the Civil War started. After World War I, the Civil War started and he wound up being a sailor in the Black Sea. In this whole mess that happened at that time - not only really knowing who is fighting whom and for what - he winds up with the White Guards, with the forces, military forces that oppose the takeover of power. And he immigrated with them to Istanbul. 

NARRATOR: In Istanbul, Dmitri’s mental health - already somewhat fragile as a result of his upbringing - began to suffer. Before long, he was desperate to return to Russia.

EMIL DRAITSER: When he was in Istanbul, he came to the Soviet embassy and asked them [if he could come back]. But he already was marked as being an enemy of the Soviet regime.

NARRATOR: The Soviet Embassy denied his request. But that’s not to say that they didn’t see potential in him. After all, Dmitri was young, handsome, and educated - and he really wanted to go home. If you’re a long-time listener to True Spies, you’ll know that understanding somebody’s primary motivations is essential to recruiting them.

EMIL DRAITSER: At that time, they already thought - 'they', I mean, the Soviet intelligence - already thought this is a prospect to be used in the West. So they say: “You go with the flow. We’ll contact you later on.” 

NARRATOR: Eventually, like many Russian emigres of the period, he washed up in Prague, the bustling capital of Czechoslovakia. 

EMIL DRAITSER: And then at Prague, he again contacted the Soviet Embassy and asked to come back. For him, going back to his mother meant going back to the Motherland. Mother, Motherland. That's the main issue, the main desire that he had. But he was told: “Well, you have to deserve to come back, for us to allow that. Do something that proves that you are really loyal to your motherland. Do something that would prove to us that you are worthy of coming back. And that was the carrot in front of him for practically the whole time of his intelligence work.

NARRATOR: The Soviet intelligence service went by many names in the early years of the USSR. The Cheka, the GPU, the OGPU, the NKGB, the NKVD. Look, you get the picture. For consistency’s sake, we’ll use their most famous moniker, the KGB. You’ll have to forgive the anachronism. At this point in history, the KGB had one thing on their minds. And they knew that Dmitri could help them get it. 

EMIL DRAITSER: Probably it would be important to describe the main target of spy work, of Bystrolyotov at that time, and the main target was diplomatic secrets. The ability to read diplomatic codes, to have access to diplomatic codes and ciphers, and the ability to read the diplomatic correspondence. Why? Because in the mid-1920s, the international situation was full of ambiguity. Nobody knew how to handle at least two rogue states: Germany after its defeat and the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited it from military development, and the Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: The old powers of Western Europe were deeply suspicious of the Soviet Union.

EMIL DRAITSER: So, therefore, the diplomats of Western countries, let's say, the French and British [were] talking. They tried to figure out what to do now. And the Soviets wanted to know what was going on. It's like playing cards, knowing the cards of your opponents. 

NARRATOR: Before the age of the personal computer, every embassy had a pool of typists who would note down the musings, memos, and diktats that make up diplomatic life. These typists were usually women. The KGB had correctly assumed that women tended to like Dmitri Bystrolyotov.

EMIL DRAITSER: In his prime, he was tall and handsome. Actually, when I met him, he gave me in one sentence the key to his success as a spy. He said: “I was young. I was good-looking, and I knew how to treat a lady.” That's what he told me. In one phrase, he said it all. So he looked like, maybe some people say, like Clark Gable in his prime. He was really sturdy, very strong - remember, he was a sailor during the Civil War on the Black Sea - so he had a lot of physical prowess in him.

NARRATOR: Which brings us neatly to Dmitri’s inaugural mission for the KGB.

EMIL DRAITSER: The first mission for him was to find a way to get hold of France’s diplomatic secrets because there was a French Embassy in Prague where he was. So he had to seduce a typist at the French Embassy in order to get hold of her, to provide her cooperation. And she would provide him with the copies of diplomatic dispatches. 

NARRATOR: Dmitri, unsurprisingly, was successful. The French typist passed along good information for months before the Russian ended the operation, breaking her heart in the process.

EMIL DRAITSER: And so that was his first action. And then the second one was that he penetrated, was able to penetrate, a school for spies in Prague. They prepare the Western alliances, try to prepare to learn something about the Soviet Union. So they recruited emigres from White Guards who left after the revolution. In this school, they kind of try to give them a brush up on the new slang from the camps in Russia and so on. In other words, to prepare them to go to the Soviet Union. So what Bystrolyotov did, with his assistant, he simply broke into the office and made a copy of the list of all students. So, in other words, they already knew whatever information they had about these people. And the Soviet intelligence already learned who possibly could come to the country for spying.

NARRATOR: At the end of that operation - another resounding success - Dmitri once again pleaded with the Soviet Embassy to allow him to return to Russia. But by now it was 1930 and new threats loomed in Europe. Josef Stalin, now in full control of the Kremlin, was anxious that the Soviet Union should have advance warning of trouble from the West. So, yet again, Dmitri Bystrolyotov was denied his request. And the KGB sent him to Germany. Dmitri arrived in Germany under a new alias - Alexander S. Gallas, a Greek merchant. You see, Dmitri had become something of a master of disguise, operating a number of aliases, often on parallel missions.

EMIL DRAITSER: At one point, he posed as a Dutch artist, Hans Galene, and in another as a Brazilian merchant. And then some others - a Yugoslav seasonal worker, an American businessman. Obviously, every time he changes his dress and his hairdo. He even got a true passport while handling a member of a British Foreign Office, the passport of British Lord Sir Robert Grenville. And then, eventually, probably the most known operations are under his alias, Hungarian Count Lajos Josef Perelly. 

NARRATOR: And it’s under that name, Lajos Josef Perelly, that we find Dmitri on one of his most audacious missions. It begins in Berlin, five years after his arrival in the city. It should probably go without saying that the mid-1930s were a time of sweeping political change in that corner of Europe.

EMIL DRAITSER: According to the Versailles Treaties, Germany was prohibited from building up their military force to have more than 100,000 troops, which was not even enough to defend Germany, [and] prohibited to have conscription totally. But, in 1933, as we know, in January, Hitler came to power, and in 1935, when he actually became Reichsführer and the commander in chief… all German military officers and soldiers had to pledge their fidelity to Hitler personally, to the Führer. He became the Führer. So he decided to start the rearmament of Germany. Obviously, it was a secret from the outside world. And here, the Soviet intelligence sensed that things were changing. So the Soviet spy ring in Berlin learned secret orders for military equipment, tanks, artillery aircraft were given to various German factories and plants. But how much of what? It was important to learn.

NARRATOR: The Soviets discovered that the German military had designated a number of safe locations where sensitive military intelligence could be stored. One such location, disguised as the documentation department of a chemicals company, contained a safe. In turn, that safe contained information about the orders that Hitler had placed with weapons manufacturers. If the Soviets had that information, they’d know exactly what they were dealing with if the Nazis marched East.

EMIL DRAITSER: And to guard this information, they appointed a member of SS who was, in their view, possibly the most enduring guard for all these secrets. 

NARRATOR: Her name was Dorothea Müller, but she preferred Doris. Her colleagues at the SS had a different name for her.

EMIL DRAITSER: Cerberus.

NARRATOR: I didn’t say it was a nice name. But Cerberus the fearsome, three-headed dog which guards Hades in Greek mythology, was an appropriate namesake. Doris Müller, was a fanatical Nazi. She was devoted to Hitler, and was unlikely to be swayed by offers of cash or influence by a foreign power. She was also horribly disfigured, the result of a car crash in her youth. Her superiors imagined that her condition would make her impossible to seduce. After all, surely no foreign spy would be so crass as to feign romantic interest in Doris? They’d be laughed out of the room. Then they’d be led quietly into a different room and shot.

EMIL DRAITSER: So, therefore, they felt very safe with that. So here the test was given to Bystrolyotov. To find a way to get to this safe. And in my estimation, this was one of his most astonishing operations because he found a way, gradually, not right away, gradually, to get the heart of this woman who would not be seduced in a straightforward, usual manner. 

NARRATOR: Dmitri knew that Doris would be a hard nut to crack even for someone with his natural charms. So he worked slowly, establishing a kind of shadow-courtship with his unwitting target.

EMIL DRAITSER: And he started step-by-step. First, he has assistants, who learned everything about the woman. She lived alone. Every day she would come from work and have supper in the local cafe. Usually, she would sit at this particular table near the window. All this information was provided. 

NARRATOR: For the next stage in the operation, Dmitri enlisted the help of a German-born agent who he’d recruited in Berlin. We’ll call her Greta. Greta is young, stylish, and beautiful. Greta walks into the cafe. Greta notices Doris, and smiles, shyly. She’s all nerves waiting for her date. “Do you mind if I sit with you?” Greta’s date, Count Lajos Josef Perelly, arrives. He smiles at Doris too and makes polite conversation.

EMIL DRAITSER: And here, Bystrolyotov used one of his methods that, to me, is ingenious. That usually his target has to see him not from out of the blue, but step by step.

NARRATOR: This routine - girl meets woman, boy meets both - is repeated over the next few weeks.

EMIL DRAITSER: So in this situation, they gave Doris a role of approving mother of the young love developing right in front of her. So that's how Bystrolyotov gradually introduced himself to Doris, and then, little by little...

NARRATOR: Soon, Doris had formed a favorable impression of the handsome young Count. He was easy to like - wide-eyed, enquiring, and endearingly innocent.

EMIL DRAITSER: So in this particular case, he played the role of an outsider, of a Hungarian count who was displaced because of World War I. He lost a lot of his fortune, his property back in Hungary, it's really in dismay.

EMIL DRAITSER: But he's supported by his Aunt from America, and he's just traveling through Europe and wondering what's going on. And he pretended, actually, he played very skillfully - not the first time - the ‘innocent abroad’ card. 

NARRATOR: Wherever he was, and whoever he was in the process of charming, Dmitri always played the outsider.

EMIL DRAITSER: Why? It was very, very important. Actually, when I talked to Bystrolyotov, he said to me: “You never, ever, present yourself as being part of the country in which you operate.” Because sooner or later they - not only accent, let's say you master the accent - but you say: “I'm from such-and-such a town.” And say: “Oh, I also was from there. Well, do you remember the mayor of the city?” Or something of that sort? So he said: “Never, ever. You are always an outsider.” 

NARRATOR: And he used his outsider status to weaponize the guiding light of Doris Müller’s lonely life: Nazism.

EMIL DRAITSER: He asked Doris: 'Tell me, I don't understand it. Why is there so much fuss about Hitler, Goering, Goebbels? Well, in America, the people would not really tell them apart. What is this about?”

NARRATOR: Doris was appalled. How was it possible that the Count could be so ignorant of the great men of the age? Such an aberration had to be remedied.

EMIL DRAITSER: So she started to educate him little by little. She brought him some brochures.

NARRATOR: Dmitri had made Doris feel needed. And gradually, over the course of several weeks, a deep, almost spiritual connection bloomed between the two. Meanwhile, ‘Greta’ quietly withdrew from the equation. Of course, this budding romance was completely one-sided. 

EMIL DRAITSER: So he eventually, even in his memoir, wrote that the first time, when he kissed her, he shuddered because she was so unattractive. But it was necessary for the business at hand.

NARRATOR: The initial seduction complete, Dmitri was able to move on to the most crucial stage of his operation: the acquisition of secrets. He escalated his relationship with Doris, claiming, tear-stricken, that he wanted nothing more than to marry her only, he didn’t have the necessary funds.

EMIL DRAITSER: Unfortunately, the Aunt doesn't give me enough money, and I need some more. And I don't know what to do. I really don't know. She said: “Well, don't worry.” 

NARRATOR: So it was fortunate, really, that Count Perelly was due a stroke of good luck.

EMIL DRAITSER: Then finally, one day a telephone call came to the apartment of Doris, where Bystrolyotov was. Obviously, it was arranged by the Soviet intelligence ring. The phone call was from another obviously Soviet intelligence officer and Bystrolyotov listened to it, and then, and she said: “Who was calling you?” He said: “Well, it's actually an old man whom I’ve known almost all my life. He was the manager of our estate. He was like my second father after my father died. Well, he learned about my situation and he wants to help me. But he, I don't know. He only said the only possible way to get some money is to play the stock market.”

NARRATOR: Hitler’s militarism had reinvigorated the economy. The German stock market had been revitalized after years in the doldrums. But stocks are by no means a surefire moneymaker. Well, not unless you have certain information.

EMIL DRAITSER: She said: “What kind of information?”.

NARRATOR: Well, isn’t that the million-reichsmark question? 

EMIL DRAITSER: “Well, listen, I don't know much about it,” Bystrolyotov said. “But you know what? If we know what kind of orders are given to particular factories and plans of heavy industry, then you can buy these stocks for low. And then when the order really comes and they start producing, sell them high. So this is a typical kind of a stock operation and then you can make money and really very good money.” 

NARRATOR: If that sounds like insider trading to you, then you’re absolutely correct. But Doris did know which companies would be receiving wads of government cash in the very near future and she did love Count Perelly. 

EMIL DRAITSER: So after a while, Doris thought about it. And then, one day, she looked at the files. She remembered, of course, what kind of information she had in this safe.

NARRATOR: Like a seduction, the flow of information began slowly at first.

EMIL DRAITSER: First, she didn't bring any information on paper. She just briefly told him what kind of equipment was ordered from Krupp, Farben Industries, and so on. Or Junckers, for the planes, of course.

NARRATOR: It was a good start, but it wasn’t enough for the KGB.

EMIL DRAITSER: And then [he] said: “The banks really need some documents to give us money for the operation, to borrow money to buy stocks.” 

NARRATOR: A simple formality, he assured her.

EMIL DRAITSER: Then one day she brought it, she said: “Only for two hours, you have it.” And they photographed it, of course, secretly from her. And so that's how gradually, over the course of several months, they got the whole picture.

NARRATOR: Dmitri’s efforts had paid off handsomely.

EMIL DRAITSER: And actually, I may sum it up, the whole four-year plan of rearmament of Germany was copied by Soviet intelligence and sent to Moscow. 

NARRATOR: Mission accomplished. Well, almost. There was just the small matter of a serious relationship with an SS officer to wrap up.

EMIL DRAITSER: But probably most important was how to break up the operation with Doris without suspicion because if you were to simply disappear one day, obviously, she would call the police about a missing person, then counterintelligence would come in. They will gradually come to it. Who was this man? All their business. So they then in the center in Moscow, decided to use this so-called “Newspaper Variant”, they call it. How to cut it off with no suspicion. 

NARRATOR: You’ve heard of ‘ghosting’, right? When your love interest goes unaccountably incommunicado? Rotten luck, if it’s happened to you. But we guarantee that you’d take a ghosting over the KGB’s so-called “Newspaper Variant” any day of the week. First, Dmitri announced that, with some money in the bank, he was ready to proceed with the wedding. But first, he would have to travel back to Count Perelly’s native Hungary to settle up with his creditors and put his beleaguered estate in order. Then, their future together would be secure.

EMIL DRAITSER: In the week after Bystrolyotovs’ disappearance, there was a knock on the door of Doris’ apartment and his friend - they call him Sir Batory, another ‘Hungarian’ but actually a Soviet spy - came, very dismayed, and he had a clipping in his hand. And she said: “What happened?” “I'm afraid I have bad news.” And he gave her the clipping of a newspaper which it was the column of the happening social events. And so it was said that the Hungarian Count Lajos Josef Perrelly was accidentally killed during a hunting expedition and his body was sent to his Aunt in America. End of story. 

NARRATOR: Tragedy had struck. Doris’ beloved fiance - the only man who had ever loved her - was gone, forever. Or so she thought.

EMIL DRAITSER: A few months later, Bystrolyotov had to come back to Berlin to meet another Soviet underground intelligence officer and they had the meeting in the cafe in one of the central streets of Berlin. And as he was coming into a cafe through the glass door, he saw Doris on the other side. Both of them froze. Nobody expected it. She immediately fainted. She couldn't believe that the man who died - the only hope for love ever in her life - all of a sudden reappeared alive. She fainted and the group of SS officers nearby started to pick her up. But that was enough for him - Bystrolyotov told me - to get out, grab a taxi, and fly away.

NARRATOR: The KGB had their intelligence. And Dmitri Bystrolyotov kept working, donning new guises, and breaking new hearts in his long quest to return to the Motherland. And he would stop at nothing.

EMIL DRAITSER: He was given a task that, to me, is probably one of his most important operations. The Soviet intelligence, feeling that the war with Germany could happen any time, at least wanted to be prepared and know about the German underground spy network in the Soviet Union. And they learned that, actually, French intelligence knew about it. They collected this data and there was a French intelligence officer living in Switzerland who got hold of it. But the relationship between the Soviet Union and France was on uneven footing. They didn't fully trust each other so it was important to get copies of what French counterintelligence knew about the German spy network in Russia. But how to get it? And here Bystrolyotov did the following. He told his wife that she has to sacrifice part of her personal life and do something that was important because, otherwise, they would never be able to come back to the Soviet Union, to the country of his motherland. And the following operation was performed.

NARRATOR: Posing as a Hungarian aristocrat, Dmitri’s long-suffering wife - yes, he was married - became close to a French intelligence officer; a portly, single middle-aged man.

EMIL DRAITSER: She gradually got into a relationship with him and he married her. Once he married her, then his wife was able to allow access to Bystrolyotov. One night, he might actually have had to climb into the office of this officer and open the safe and copy all of the information that he had about this spy work.

NARRATOR: Another successful mission. But at what cost? How far would you go to complete your objectives?

EMIL DRAITSER: Of course, it dramatically impacted his relationship with his wife because when he offered this to her she said: “Okay, I'll do it, but I don't want to know you anymore.” So, she thought: “If you can sacrifice me for your intelligence work, I don't want you anymore.”

NARRATOR: Finally, Dmitri got his wish. In the last weeks of 1936, he was allowed to return to Moscow. He took a desk job at KGB headquarters. It was bad timing. The USSR was in the grip of what historians know as The Great Terror - a period of unmatched state repression. During this period, Stalin was arrested, executed, and imprisoned. KGB operatives of Dmitri’s generation were a particular magnet for suspicion. 

EMIL DRAITSER: And it's my understanding [that] these people who lived in the West, they could not be totally brainwashed into Soviet ideology because they knew other lives. It’s much more complicated than the picture that was painted for the propaganda in their country. So, therefore, practically every one of his colleagues and superiors was arrested. 

NARRATOR: Fearing that his days might be numbered, Dmitri laid low.

EMIL DRAITSER: But Bystrolyotov, it just happened that he was not that careful. In six or seven months, he made a phone call to the office, something about inquiring about some document. The man who picked up the phone reported him. 

NARRATOR: In his memoirs, Dmitri looked back on this moment with a twisted kind of relief. The stress of his impending doom had been too much. He was ready to meet his fate.

EMIL DRAITSER: He was brought to one of the prisons in Moscow. They want him to admit that he worked for six intelligence agencies in the world, for Japan, for the British. 

NARRATOR: When Dmitri denied the charges, he was beaten mercilessly. The KGB got their confession.

EMIL DRAITSER: At the time, by the way, when I talked to him, he said: "Everybody talks to them". Mind you, you're talking about September 1973. Still, he was beaten by a ball bearing that broke on his back and one ball still was lodged in his lungs at the time of our discussion. That's a long, long impact on his health… what really happened to him. 

NARRATOR: Dmitri Bystrolyotov was sentenced to 20 years labor in the Gulag system, a sprawling network of camps where the USSR sent everyone from petty criminals to political prisoners. He’d served his country admirably - unquestioningly - for well over a decade. But in the end, he became just one of several thousand victims of Josef Stalin’s paranoia. For years, Dmitri had longed for his Motherland and now, not unlike his real mother, it had rejected him. Upon his release, he worked as a translator for medical texts. By that time, polyglots like Dmitri were a relative rarity in the isolated realm behind the Iron Curtain.

EMIL DRAITSER: However, what really saved him is, again, his background, his being brought up in an aristocratic family, knowing languages. 

NARRATOR: Around 22 languages actually, by the time his career was over. Top that. But ultimately, this was not a happy ending. When he died of heart failure in 1975, he left the world a disappointed man.

EMIL DRAITSER: When eventually Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941, at that time, Bystrolyotov was already in the Gulag. And when he learned about it, he was totally broken up. He’d given his government the plan [of] what was going to happen four years earlier - how many tanks, how many planes, how much artillery Germany would have. How come they did not prepare? He felt that nothing of what he risked his life for, nothing he got for the government was used. So he was totally disappointed. And he wrote in his memoir that was never published - that I had hold of, I saw in my own hands - bitter disappointment that everything that he and other Soviet spies in the West risked their lives to get, nothing was used. Everything was love to the motherland. All their efforts were wasted and they were thrown into the mud. That's literally translated from the Russian that he wrote. These lines were never, ever published in the Soviet Union. That's why my book came out in America, then in Great Britain, then was translated into Polish. It will never be published in Russian.

NARRATOR: We’ve only told some of Dmitri Bystrolyotov’s incredible stories this week. He was one of history’s greatest spies, a tortured Russian proto-Bond who infiltrated the mightiest governments of the age and looked good doing it. If you’d like to learn more, it’s all in Emil Draitser’s book, Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of The KGB’s Most Daring Operative. It’s available in print, and as an eBook, now. I’m Vanessa Kirby. 

Guest Bio

Emil Draitser is an author and professor of Russian at Hunter College in New York City. In addition to writing books, his essays and short stories are published in the Los Angeles Times, Partisan Review, San Francisco Chronicle, and many other North American publications. He is a three-time recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowships in writing.

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