The release of VENONA translations involved careful consideration of
the privacy interests of individuals mentioned, referenced, or
identified in the translations. Some names have not been released when
to do so would constitute an invasion of privacy.
On 1 February 1943, the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence organization,
usually called "Arlington Hall" after the location of its headquarters in
Virginia, began a program to examine encrypted Soviet diplomatic telegrams
sent between Moscow and Soviet missions abroad. Not until 1946, however,
after very difficult analytic work, did Arlington Hall began to recognize
that these so-called diplomatic communications contained thousands of
messages of the KGB and GRU, the Soviet secret intelligence services.
This monograph accompanies the third set of VENONA translations being
released to the public. The first release, in July 1995, was of a number of
Soviet espionage messages concerning Soviet intelligence operations against
the U.S. atomic bomb program (the Manhattan Project). The second release was
of KGB messages between the New York KGB Residency and Moscow Center during
This third release comprises many more documents than either the first or
second release--more than 500 translations--and includes all the decrypted
and translated messages between the New York and Washington KGB Residencies
and Moscow Center (minus the atomic bomb-related messages previously
released in July 1995).
During the VENONA period the KGB used the coverterm PROBATIONERS to refer to
their agents. A KGB officer, whether under official diplomatic cover or
operating as an "Illegal," was a Soviet citizen and a sworn officer of the
KGB (usually holding police rank). In VENONA messages, KGB officers are
often referred to as "workers" or "cadre." Illegals were Soviet citizens,
KGB or GRU officers, operating under cover in foreign countries with no
visible connections to legal Soviet establishments. These persons had
entered the country other than in an official capacity such as a staff
member of an embassy or consulate. An agent was a private citizen recruited
by the KGB to carry out espionage or other clandestine activities on behalf
of the KGB. In VENONA we also see some persons who appear to fall somewhere
in between agent and officer. American Communists Jacob Golos, Elizabeth
Bentley, and Greg Silvermaster, veteran controllers of agent networks, could
be placed in this category. In fact, Silvermaster was, at one time, the only
American citizen in the KGB Hall of Fame in Moscow.
Except for its agents working against high tech targets such as the atomic
bomb project, the most important KGB sources were in Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, VENONA shows that these Washington-based espionage nets were
apparently run by the New York Residency, that is, the New York Residency
wrote and sent VENONA messages to Moscow even when these messages clearly
concerned activities in Washington. KGB Washington sent no messages until
very late 1943. In 1944 Washington's message volume was still only half that
of New York. Finally, in 1945, Washington KGB took charge, it seems, sending
twice as many messages as New York. Vassili Zubilin, a KGB general officer
who had been the Resident in New York in 1942-43, moved to Washington during
1943 as Resident there. The Washington KGB thereafter began sending messages
in ever increasing volume. When Zubilin was recalled to Moscow in 1944,
Anatolij Gromov, covername VADIM, replaced him in Washington. Gromov (actual
last name Gorsky) was also a senior officer, in his late 30's, who had
served for the preceeding four years as the KGB Resident in London.
American spymaster and courier for the KGB, Elizabeth Bentley, knew him only
In 1944, covername MAJ, believed to have been Stepan Apresyian, became the
KGB Resident (chief) in New York. According to a complaint to Moscow Center
by his co-Resident or subordinate, covername SERGEJ, MAJ was a young,
inexperienced officer who had not previously been posted abroad. Apresyian
was about 28 years old. He operated in New York under the cover of
vice-consul (see NY messages of 9-11 Oct 1944). While we do not know why MAJ
was elevated so early to the senior KGB ranks, there were also other major
changes in KGB espionage operations, as we can see in the VENONA messages.
Moscow Center and the New York Residency intended to take more direct
control of some existing espionage nets that had been run for the KGB by
American Communists such as Jacob Golos (covername ZVUK) and Greg
Silvermaster (covernames PEL and ROBERT). And, as MAJ reported to Moscow,
the time might come when the KGB would need to have espionage agents not
recruited from within the Communist Party. All of this relates to the
dissolution of the COMINTERN as discussed in in the previous VENONA release
and its accompanying monograph. The transition was resisted by American
spies, Greg Silvermaster and Elizabeth Bentley, as well as by some of their
agents. They complained that Moscow did not trust them, and that as a
practical matter, the KGB would be less successful in running espionage
operations if they put their officers in direct contact with the agents,
bypassing the old guard Communist Party controllers. Perhaps mindful of
this, the KGB introduced the "illegal" ALBERT into their espionage
operations. Silvermaster, Elizabeth Bentley, some of their individual
agents, and members of the "new network," would all fall under ALBERT's
These translations frequently show KGB tradecraft--the techniques of secret
espionage and counterespionage--in great detail. The KGB term Konspiratoria,
sometimes seen in VENONA, refers to tradecraft and operational security. A
few examples for quick reference (all New York to Moscow):
[o] Agent Recruiting: No. 27, 8 Jan 1945 & No. 1506, 23 Oct 1944.
[o] Meeting and Password Scenarios: No. 1220, 26 Aug 44
[o] Secret Document Photography: No. 1469, 17 Oct 44
[o] Countersurveillance: No. 1755, 14 Dec 44
[o] Technical Surveillance Countermeasures: No. 1824, 27 Dec 44
[o] Document Forgery Operations (the KGB "A"-line technique): No. 1203, 23 Aug 44
[o] Cover Business: 618, 4 May 44
[o] Payments/Rewards to Agents: Nos. 1052 and 1053, 5 July 45
Also, VENONA has excellent examples of the work of a KGB agent and Communist
Party functionary, covernames ECHO & DICK (Bernard Schuster), in carrying
out investigations on behalf of the KGB, as part of the vetting process of
agent candidates (New York to Moscow, Nos. 1221, 1457, and 1512, all from
In addition to espionage, the KGB carried out other secret activities in the
U.S. In VENONA we can follow the KGB using its agents in the hunt for Viktor
Kravchenko, covername KOMAR, who defected in Washington in 1944 from the
Soviet Government Purchasing Commission. (See especially New York to Moscow
messages of May to August 1944, nos. 594, 600, 613-14, 654, 694, 724, 726,
740, 799 and 907). In the latter message, sent from MAJ to PETROV [who was
either L.P. Beria, head of Soviet State Security, or V.N. Merkulov, his
principal deputy who functioned as the day to day head of the KGB], New York
announces that KOMAR/Kravchenko had been located by their veteran agent Mark
Zbrowski, covername TULIP. Additional related messages of 1944 are nos.
1145, 1202; also no. 87 of 19 Jan 1945, the last VENONA reference to the
case, which reports that KOMAR is "in a great panic" about his saftety and
that KGB agents KANT [the new covername for Mark Zbrowski] and ZhANNA are
carrying out "the work on KOMAR." The KOMAR messages contain references to
anti-Communist emigre community involvement in the defection, including
references to David Dallin, Isaac Don Levine, and even Aleksander Kerenskij,
head of the post-revolutionary Menshevik Government before it was overthrown
in the Bolshevik coup. KGB New York also makes the mysterious remark
(message no.740, 26 May 1944) that "KOMAR is well informed about the
KRIVITsKIJ case." KRIVITsKIJ was a famous KGB defector who supposedly
committed suicide in Washington in 1941.
In 1945, Elizabeth Bentley, a KGB agent who also ran a network of spies and
served as a sometime courier, went to the FBI to describe Soviet espionage
in the United States and her part in it as courier and agent handler.
She gave a 90 page statement, in which she named many names--persons in
positions of trust who, she told the FBI, were secretly supplying
information to the KGB. However, she brought no documentary proof. No
prosecutions resulted directly from her accusations. Over the years she
testified before Congress and in court and also published a book about her
espionage career. Elizabeth Bentley was a controversial figure and there
were many who discounted her confession. Miss Bentley appears in these
VENONA translations (as covernames UMNITsA [GOOD GIRL] and MYRNA) as do
dozens of KGB agents and officers whom she named to the FBI. VENONA confirms
much of the information Miss Bentley provided the FBI.
Borris Morros was, like Ms. Bentley, another controversial figure of the
Cold War. In 1959, he wrote an often criticized book, My Ten Years as a
Counterspy, in which he described his long association with the KGB, and his
decision to go to the FBI with the story of KGB operations in the U.S. In
the book he wrote about various personalities who are seen in VENONA,
including Vassili Zubilin and Jack Soble. Morros appears in VENONA as
covername FROST (the Russian word for frost is moroz). In his book Morros
described how KGB agent Alfred Stern provided his own money to fund a
musical record company run by Morros as a KGB front and a cover for
international intelligence operations. This operation is confirmed in
VENONA: Stern (covername LUI) is quoted as saying his $130,000 dollar
investment is exhausted, but, also, "I want to reaffirm my desire to be
helpful. My resources are sufficient for any solid constructive purpose.
..." (See New York to Moscow, nos. 4-5, 11 and 18-19 of 3 and 4 January
Longtime KGB agent Donald Maclean, covername HOMER, a senior British
diplomat posted to Washington during the 1940s, is found in eleven, possibly
twelve, VENONA messages, six from New York and six from Washington (nos.
915, 1105-1110, 1146, 1263, 1271-74, and possibly 1352, all sent during
1944). He was neutralized because of information from VENONA. Since only
1.5% (36) of all Washington to Moscow KGB messages of 1945 were able to be
decrypted, it was fortunate that seven of these were HOMER messages (nos.
1788, 1791, 1793, 1808-1809, 1815 and 1826). Note that the small body of
Washington messages that could be broken were from small windows of
cryptanalytic opportunity found by the Arlington Hall analysts in messages
of March and June 1945 only. Thererfore, we have but a glimpse of Maclean's
treachery, but ample opportunity to see the the type of important
information he was providing to the Soviets.
HOMER is the English rendition of the Russian covername spelling, GOMER.
(The Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian has no letter representing the sound
"h" of the Roman alphabet and foreign words beginning with the "h" sound are
regularly spelled with the Cyrillic equivalent of "g.") Meredith Gardner,
Arlington Hall's principal VENONA analyst in the early days, began to break
HOMER messages as early as 1947/48, but the story did not come together
immediately as the covername was variously represented in the messages as
"GOMMER" (a KGB misspelling), "GOMER," "G." and "Material G." Initially, it
was not apparent that these were all references to the same person,
particularly as both New York and Washington traffic was involved and
Gardner worked the NYC traffic first (thus the early successes against the
atomic bomb spies in the first VENONA release).
Covername ALBERT (earlier covername MER), is found in VENONA more than 50
times, sometimes as signatory to messages sent by the New York Residency.
ALBERT was Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov, a veteran KGB officer who had two
tours of duty in the U.S. as an "illegal," that is, an officer using a false
identity and background (Legenda in KGB parlance) and without diplomatic
cover or immunity. ALBERT's career, ascertained from VENONA and other
sources, gives an excellent example of the bewildering plethora of names by
which a KGB personality might be known:
Communications Covername (the covername in VENONA): MER in 1943-44; ALBERT,
Aliases (1937-45): William Greinke, Michael Green, Michael Adamec, and more.
Street names: Michael, Bill. For example, Elizabeth Bentley knew him only as
"Bill"--no last name, not even the alias, much less his truename. She knew
his wife, also an "illegal," as "Catherine." Catherine actually was VENONA
covername EL'ZA, truename Helen Lowry, a niece of KGB agent and Communist
Party leader Earl Browder (VENONA covername RULEVOJ).
True name: Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov. (In some cases so-called truenames of
KGB officers, the names that appeared on their passports and the diplomatic
lists, were false. For example, Vassili Zubilin, the sometimes KGB Resident
in New York and Washington, was actually named Zarubin.) To add to the
difficulty in understanding the names, other KGB officers used truenames
that were not names at all, Russian words, but not traditional Russian
names. Some of these nommes de guerre included senior KGB officers Vladimir
Pravdin and Jacob Golos, whose last names mean, respectively, "truth" and
In one message ALBERT refers to his earlier work in the U.S. as an Illegal,
and mentions his old agents, covernames LEONA, JULIA, TONYa, and REDHEAD.
None of these have been identified, nor do we know if ALBERT reactivated
them in 1944-45 (No. 975, 11 July 1944). See also the important message,
Washington to Moscow, No. 1822, 30 March 1945, which reports covername "A."s
interview of the well-placed veteran GRU agent ALES, probably Alger Hiss. It
appears that "A." was ALBERT.
In 1946, ALBERT reportedly moved to Baltimore. Actually, he and EL'ZA
secretly left the U.S., probably because the KGB had learned about Elizabeth
Bentley's statements to the FBI. KGB veterans consider him to have been one
of their service's most successful officers.
The majority of the translations in this release represent telegrams from
the New York KGB Residency to Moscow Center in 1944. Most of these messages
were between KGB officers--covername MAJ (Stepan Apresyian) and covername
VIKTOR (General Pavel Fitin).
Approximately 50% of all the 1944 New York KGB to Moscow Center messages
were successfully decrypted sufficiently to be translated. In contrast, only
1.5% of the Washington-Moscow KGB messages sent in 1945 were able to be
broken and read. No other Washington-Moscow KGB messages from any other year
were ever successfully deciphered. While relatively few messages from the
Center to the Residencies were broken, those that were broken are very
important to our understanding of KGB operations and doctrine.
The translations included in the current release are relatively easy to read
and understand compared to those in the two earlier releases due to
cryptographic circumstances discussed in the monographs which accompanied
those releases. The codebook and cipher procedures used by the KGB during
1944 and 1945 made it possible, after great effort, for the analysts to
produce fairly complete translations. Nevertheless, translations often
contain significant gaps--codegroups that could not be broken. The New York
translations in this set were the earliest of all the VENONA materials
decrypted. All of the New York to Moscow messages (but not Moscow to New
York) which were successfully solved were at least partially solved during
1947-1952 and disseminated to the FBI (on a regular basis starting in 1948).
Many of the Washington KGB messages were also first decrypted during this
period, but not quite so early as the New York material.
The 1944 and 1945 messages mainly involve U.S. individuals and organizations
caught up in a massive Soviet espionage effort--over 100 Americans, most of
them Communists, are mentioned in the translations of this release. Some of
the organizations infilitrated by these include the following:
U.S. Agency Some of the Relevant VENONA Translations
Department of the Treasury NY No. 1119-1121, 4-5 Aug 44
NY No. 1634, 20 Nov 44
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) NY No. 954, 20 Sep 44
War Department NY No. 1721-28, 8 Dec 44
Department of State Wash. No. 1822, 30 Mar 45
Department of Justice NY No. 27, 8 Jan 45
The translations disclose agents with access to the White House, Congress,
and political parties, as well as agents in the media and in high tech
defense industries. New York messages no. 1635, 21 Nov 1944 and no. 12-16, 4
Jan 1945 reveal assets and in-fighting relating to ROBERT's (Greg
Silvermaster) large KGB net in government departments and agencies in
This third release also includes a few important messages concern Klaus
Fuchs, the atomic bomb spy (see especially New York KGB messages 1606, 16
Nov 1944, and Moscow Center's messages to New York, nos. 183, 27 Feb 1945
and 349, 10 April 1945. The last message, only partially recovered, will be
of great interest with respect to the controversy about the pace of Soviet
atomic bomb development. In it Moscow tells NY that ChARL'Z's [Fuchs'
covername] information on the atomic bomb "is of great value" and his recent
report "contains information received for the first time from you about the
electro-magnetic method of separation of ENORMOZ."
One translation, NY no. 1507, Oct. 1944, footnoted covername BUMBLE-BEE
(Russian ShMEL') as equating to David Greenglass; however, the translation
shows a handwritten emendation of "David Greenglass" to "Walter Lippman,"
which is the correct equation.
The KGB successor organization has recently provided historians some
information about Lona and Morris Cohen, their agents the U.S. in the 1940s
and later infamous "illegals" operating in the UK as Helen and Peter Kroger.
Reportedly, Lona Cohen had the covername LESLIE while she was involved in
atomic bomb espionage courier duties for the KGB (see New York's No. 50, 11
Jan 1945, the only VENONA reference to this covername. This message suggests
that LESLIE/ LESLEY had not been active for the previous six months.)
The remaining releases of VENONA will include more than 1000 message
translations: the KGB in San Francisco and Mexico; the GRU in New York and
Washington; and the Naval GRU in Washington. Finally, KGB and/or GRU
messages from Montevideo, London, Stockholm and elsewhere will be released.
By Robert Louis Benson