The Soviet colonel and me
Shortly after the end of World War II, a Soviet Russian air force colonel named Leon Volkov defected to the U.S. Although he was an engineering officer and not a regular pilot, he took off secretly from an air base in the Soviet zone in occupied Germany and flew to a base in the American zone. He surrended and asked for political asylum.
The CIA quickly took Volkov under its wing, and he became an important intelligence source. He subsequently settled in the U.S. and briefly became a celebrity, largely because of a lengthy article about him in the now-defunct Saturday Evening Post, which was then a widely popular magazine.
Volkov was also enthusiastically embraced by the Tolstoy Foundation, an influential organization of anti-Communist Russian emigres. Through the organization, he met his wife, Galina Talva, an American-born ballet dancer and daughter of a Russian emigre. When they married, she was performing as the ingenue lead in Irving Berlin's "Call Me Madam," a Broadway musical comedy that opened in 1950.
After his association with the CIA ended, Volkov was hired as a writer by Newsweek. He became the magazine's resident expert on Soviet affairs stationed in Washington. I became acquainted with him in the mid-1950s when we were both in a group of journalists invited by the Defense Dept. to visit U.S. military installations in Europe.
Volkov was a short, stocky man with a stern manner and typical Slavic features.With his heavy Russian accent and a fondness for vodka, he seemed like someone out of Hollywood casting for a Russian military officer. As I got to know him better during the trip, it became apparent to me that Volkov's "stern manner" was a facade concealing a delightful sense of humor that increasingly displayed, at least to me, a peculiarly Jewish quality.
Arguing one evening with another reporter in our group, I overheard him say: "With friends like you, who needs enemies?" The remark is now in common usage. But when Volkov said it so many years ago, with an almost Yiddish intonation, I had never heard anyone say it before. I became convinced that Volkov was Jewish. I began to speculate that his defection from the Soviet Union was probably provoked by an anti-Semitic experience.
One morning at breakfast, I decided to greet him in Yiddish. "Vos macht a Yid?" I said to him. Roughly translated, this is how one Jewish man might ask another how he feels. Volkov looked suspiciously at me for a moment, then responded in Yiddish at great length and with greater fluency in the language than mine.
Learning that my mother was also a Russian-born Jew, he began to feel more comfortable talking to me about his Jewish background, and we became close friends. He was born in 1914 to a Yiddish-speaking family in a small Ukrainian shtetl. Under the official Soviet ban on organized religion, Volkov's family no longer observed Jewish traditional practices, and he never had a religious education.
Volkov had an older brother who was a government official in Moscow. When Volkov was a boy, his brother took him away from the family's Jewish ghetto village and enrolled him in an elite Moscow school. Volkov was eventually admitted to a military academy. During World War II, he advanced to the rank of colonel. By now, he had dropped his original Jewish family name and assumed his brother's Russianized surname of Volkov.
During our tour of U.S. military bases in Europe, we spent a day close to the West German-Czechoslovak border. We were invited to fly in an Army helicopter to get a close view of territory in which the cold war could possibly become a shooting war. Volkov declined the invitation, fearing that the helicopter might accidentally be forced to land--as some had done in the past--in Communist territory.
When we returned to Washington, Volkov and I kept in touch socially. I recall his excitement when Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 in retaliation for terrorist incursions across their border. He began to display an emotional interest not only about Israel but in general Jewish matters.
Our European tour of U.S. military bases had brought us to Turkey for a couple of days. I recalled that Volkov had noticed an El Al Airlines office across the street from our hotel. Our group was scheduled to go on to Italy from Turkey. Volkov had asked me to join him in breaking away from the group for a few days to visit Israel, where he had never been before.
I decided it was unwise for us to leave our group, and Volkov reluctantly agreed. Several years later, he told me that intelligence officers at the Israeli Embassy in Washington had become a primary source for him about events in the Soviet Union.
Volkov confided to me his disappointment that his two sons had not been circumcised and had been baptised in his wife's Russian Orthodox faith. He began questioning me about important Jewish holidays as they came up, complaining about his ignorance of the Jewish religion. He began studying about Judaism on his own and finally asked me to recommend a synagogue to attend.
My wife and I moved from the Washington area in 1965. I never saw Volkov again, but we did keep in touch briefly. I was shocked only a few years later to learn that his wife had died. And in 1974, I read his own obituary in the New York Times. He died at the age of 60.
There is a "Register of the Leon Volkov Papers, 1948-1974" in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University. They are formally described as "diaries, correspondence, speeches and writings, reports, clippings, press excerpts...relating to social and political conditions in the Soviet Union, Soviet foreign policy, international politics, and Russian refugee life."
A study of these documents would perhaps reveal how a former Soviet air force colonel, who probably tried to conceal his Jewish origins while living in an atheist, anti-Semitic society, was inspired to search for his Jewish roots when he found a sanctuary in America.