By Todd Avery Raffensperger
“I’ve come to you from Moscow. The Central Committee of the Communist Party has ordered your liquidation.” The blunt statement did not come as a surprise to the recipient of the information. Georgi Okolovich knew that his work as a Russian émigré and political dissident had incurred the wrath of Communist leaders in the Soviet Union. What was surprising was the messenger himself. The would-be assassin was Nicholai Yevgeniyevich Khokhlov, a hero of the Great Patriotic War with Germany and a captain in the Soviet intelligence service. Khokhlov’s presence almost suggested overkill.
An Unlikely Assassin
Khokhlov was a man destined for greater things. He came from a prominent and well-to-do family in Moscow, where his stepfather was a member of the prestigious Moscow College of Barristers. His birth father was an original Bolshevik who had served the Russian Revolution from its creation and talked of sharing a room with Lenin himself. That background ensured an ideological upbringing for Nicholai, who joined the Communist youth organization, Komsomol, in 1938.
But Khokhlov did not aspire to a career in either politics or the law. He was more interested in the creative arts. He was accepted into the Studio of Music Hall Art, his talent being—of all things—whistling. But his real goal was to go into filmmaking, and he applied to enter the Motion Picture Institute. He was still waiting for word from the institute on June 22, 1941, when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia.
‘Kamarov is Listening’
As Hitler’s armies rolled across the Russian steppes, Khokhlov joined a special demolition battalion in Moscow. In September, as the Germans drew ever closer to the Russian capital, he was summoned to the office of the battalion’s commissar, who gave him a phone number and ordered him to dial it. Puzzled, Khokhlov did as he was told, and after a moment he heard a voice that said, “Kamarov is listening.” He was directed to go to Kamarov’s flat, where he was whisked away in a big, black sedan to Kamarov’s place of work, Dzerzhinsky Square, the headquarters of the NKVD.
The NKVD was the internal security organ of the Soviet government. It had functioned as absolute dictator Joseph Stalin’s principal weapon during the purges of the 1930s. With the advent of World War II, the NKVD was given a new set of priorities—setting up intelligence networks behind enemy lines and establishing and coordinating resistance in areas overrun by Axis forces. It was for this purpose that Khokhlov was recruited.
For several months, he and three other people, one male and two females, lived in a flat in Moscow, posing as a musical group in the local theaters. In reality, the four were trained in the use of weapons, explosives and hand-to-hand combat and how to function if left behind in a city full of Nazis. Fortunately for them, they never had to use their training. Hitler’s army came within 17 miles of the Soviet capital before the Nazis were halted by the combination of fierce Russian resistance and even fiercer Russian weather—known sardonically as “General Winter.”
Khokhlov’s first real mission occurred in August 1943, when he and a fellow agent codenamed “Karl” parachuted into Byelorussia behind enemy lines, posing as German soldiers. They were to make contact with local partisan forces that would help them infiltrate the city of Minsk and arrange the assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi official in Byelorussia, General Wilhelm Kube.
Before he had been sent in, Khokhlov was issued a special device to help him complete his mission, a magnetic bomb manufactured by the British. To get it to where it needed to be, Khokhlov had to enlist the services of Kube’s maid, a young woman named Yelena Mazanik. Yelena had been contacted by Soviet agents before, but she had been reluctant to assist in any plot that could jeopardize her or her family. To give her a push, Khokhlov resorted to blackmail. He reminded her that her husband worked for the NKVD and that this information could easily be relayed to the Gestapo if she did not cooperate. “There will be no one to pity you and there will be no place for you to flee,” Khokhlov told her.
The not-so-friendly persuasion worked. On the night of September 23, an explosion destroyed Kube’s bedroom, killing the general as he was sleeping. Yelena, who had planted the bomb under his bed, escaped to the Soviet lines and was decorated as a hero of the Soviet Union. Khokhlov, for his part, was awarded the Medal of the Motherland, First Class.
The last two years of the war, Khokhlov fought with the partisans in Byelorussia, joining the Russian juggernaut that slowly and bloodily pushed the Nazis out of Soviet territory. Ironically, as his side was winning the war, Khokhlov experienced his first doubts. When the Red Army stormed into eastern Prussia and Poland in the summer of 1944, he marveled at the well-made homes, luxury items, and high standard of living the enemy had enjoyed. For a man who had been raised to believe that the quality of life in the Soviet Union was unsurpassed, the experience was a revelation. There was a wide gulf between Soviet rhetoric and the truth.
If Khokhlov thought that the end of the war would allow him to return to his original career goal of filmmaking, he was quickly disabused of the notion. General Pavel Sudoplatov, head of the NKVD department, Administrations for Special Tasks, had other plans for him. Sudoplatov’s department had been responsible for various acts of sabotage and assassination, including the 1940 murder of Stalin’s archenemy, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico. The general placed Khokhlov in Romania under a false identity, ready at a moment’s notice for any possible assignment.
Khokhlov saw firsthand the squalor and deprivation of Romanian life. Until that time, he had never seen the ugly side of Communist life. By September 1949, he had seen enough. He submitted an official request to Moscow to be relieved of his duties and released from any further intelligence work. In Stalinist Russia, such an act could have cost him his life, but Sudoplatov was not the kind of man to use such blunt and overt tactics. Instead, he had Khokhlov recalled to Moscow and gave him several months’ leave to visit his mother and sister (his father and stepfather had been killed in the war) and to think over his options. During that time, Khokhlov ran into an old school acquaintance, Yana Timashkevich, and started a relationship that led to their marriage.
Assignment to East Berlin
In 1952, Khokhlov was posted to East Germany and assigned to an office in the Karlhorst, a suburb of East Berlin. From sunrise to sundown he was stuck at a desk, shuffling and sorting the reports of agents in both East and West Germany. It was a long, tedious assignment, made worse by the fact that his wife and newborn son were not allowed to emigrate with him.
During this time, Khokhlov came across a dossier on a dissident organization called the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, or NTS. Originally organized by White Russian émigrés who had fled in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, the NTS advocated replacing the Soviet system with a system based on a philosophy of Christian collective social responsibility, or “Solidarism.” The more he read about the NTS, the more Khokhlov became enamored of the group’s resolve to liberate the Russian people from the yoke of Soviet oppression.
The next year Stalin died in his sleep and his chief henchman, Lavrenty Beria, who had been chief of the NKVD, was arrested and executed. In the wake of Beria’s downfall, a purge of Stalinist loyalists cut across the intelligence hierarchy. Among those felled by the axe was Khokhlov’s superior, Sudaplotov, whose replacement was Colonel Lev Alexandrovich Studnikov, head of the newly formed Ninth Department. From Studnikov, Khokhlov received a new mission: kill the chairman of the NTS, Georgi Okolovich, then living in Frankfurt.
Planning the Murder
Khokhlov accepted the assignment, codenamed Operation Rhine, and handpicked the members of his team, two German operatives who went by the cover names “Felix” and “Franz.” Both men had fled Germany in the wake of Hitler’s ascendancy, and neither was a stranger to killing. It was Khokhlov’s responsibility to choose their weapons. Instead of relying upon a commercially made firearm or an edged weapon, he recommended several concealable, noiseless guns to be used at short range, with steel bullets injected with poison to make certain the death of their target. Common cigarette cases were used to conceal the weapons.
Khokhlov’s plan for killing Okolovich was simple and straightforward. Outside his apartment, Okolovich would be approached from behind by Franz and shot with one of the silenced weapons. Franz would then slip the weapon to Felix as he walked in the opposite direction, and Franz would get into a car with Khokhlov at the wheel. Felix would make sure that Okolovich was dead, then leave in his own car. With good planning and a bit of luck, the men would be back behind the Iron Curtain before German authorities knew what had happened.
‘I Can’t Let this Murder Happen’
On January 13, 1954, Khokhlov caught a plane for West Germany. When he arrived in Frankfurt, he rented an apartment and bided his time. By mid-February, he was ready to act. But he was about to act in a way that his superiors in Moscow did not foresee.
Khokhlov took the tram to the eastern outskirts of the city and proceeded to Okolovich’s flat on the second floor of his building. He rang the doorbell, and the door opened halfway to reveal the oval-shaped, bespectacled face of his would-be target. “Georgi Okolovich?” Khokhlov asked, already knowing the answer. “Yes, I am he,” replied Okolovich, who opened the door to let him in.
Once inside, Khokhlov told Okolovich that he had been ordered by Moscow to kill him. But, Khokhlov reassured him, “I can’t let this murder happen.” Khokhlov warned Okolovich that Moscow would certainly send others after him who would have no qualms about completing the mission.
Okolovich was skeptical at first, but he soon realized that Khokhlov could easily have killed him then and there. This fact, along with the earnestness the Soviet agent was obviously expressing, was enough to convince Okolovich of the other man’s sincerity. He agreed to help Khokhlov but advised him to contact American authorities. The two men agreed to meet again the next week, by which time Okolovich had informed his CIA contacts about the meeting.
Ultimately, Khokhlov was driven to a safe house in the city, where he was subjected to a series of long and intense interrogations by men who had a hard time believing the story he was telling. At one point, one of the agents, identified only as “Leonard,” made a point of looking up Nicholai Khokhlov’s name in the Moscow telephone directory. When the operator told him that the line had been disconnected, Leonard accused the Russian agent of lying and of being a plant sent by the Soviets to spread false information to Western intelligence agencies. The mystery was cleared up when it was discovered that the Moscow directory Leonard was using was outdated and that Khokhlov’s phone number had since been changed.
Still skeptical, the Americans sent Khokhlov to Camp King, a refugee camp that fronted as a base for American counterintelligence operations. For several days he was kept under guard while American and British authorities tried to decide what to make of him. Finally, he was able to convince the Americans that he was telling the truth.
Khokhlov’s ordeal was far from over. The Americans transferred him to a small country house in the town of Oberukzel, where he waited for word of his family. As far as anyone knew, Moscow was unaware of what was happening. Khokhlov hoped that with the help from the NTS he would be able to return to Russia and maintain his cover as a loyal member of Soviet intelligence, thus keeping his family safe.
Khokhlov Goes Public
These hopes were shattered when members of the CIA and Britain’s MI6 visited Khokhlov and informed him that they were going to announce publicly his defection to the West in retaliation for the kidnapping of an NTS agent in West Berlin by Soviet operatives the night before. One American in the room, a lieutenant colonel, told him bluntly, “We can’t keep silent anymore. We’ve got to answer a blow with a blow.” The colonel ordered him to appear at a press conference and tell his story to the world.
Khokhlov could not believe what he was hearing. “Do you understand what you’re saying?” he shouted. “My family will perish!” The British agent in the room responded matter-of-factly: “They very probably will die. There’s nothing that can be done. We cannot save them.” The Americans reasoned that if he were to make a public show of his defection and his sabotage of Operation Rhine, it could conceivably put enough pressure on Moscow to ensure his family’s safety and possibly even allow them to join him in the West. It was better than nothing. Khokhlov agreed.
On April 22, 1954, the Soviet war hero, assassin, and captain of the MGB went before an assembly of reporters in Bonn. In a prepared statement, he announced his intention to defect to the West and spelled out the reasons why. He outlined Operation Rhine and his orders to assassinate Okolovich. After making his announcement, Khokhlov held up pictures of his wife and son, pleading with reporters to help save his family.
In spite of their assurances, the Americans were unable to protect his family. On the day after Khokhlov’s announcement, Soviet authorities arrested Yana. For the next two years, Khokhlov made the rounds on television talk shows, magazines, and congressional hearings in Washington, trying to apply pressure on Moscow to release his family. He tirelessly toured the United States, speaking at gatherings about conditions behind the Iron Curtain and impressing upon his audiences the need to continue the struggle for freedom in Europe and Russia.
In the autumn of 1956, as Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian uprising, Khokhlov returned to Europe to work with Okolovich and the NTS. The next year he personally felt the wrath of his former masters. On September 15, 1957, after speaking at a Russian revolutionary movement conference in Palmengarten, Khokhlov took a few sips from a cup of coffee. He thought then that it tasted peculiar. Not long afterward, he recalled, “A strange weight oppressed my stomach and heart.” He became weak and nauseated. Before long, he was in a hospital bed in Frankfurt.
At first, doctors concluded that Khokhlov was suffering from acute gastritis, and reasoned that all that was needed was a couple days of rest. But gastritis could not explain the change in his skin coloring or what happened when he woke up with a strange sensation, feeling as though his mind was “disintegrating.” He got out of bed to glimpse in the mirror; he couldn’t believe what he saw. There were black and blue swellings all over his face, and his hair came out in clumps when he ran his hand through it. He seemed to be melting before his very eyes.
The culprit was thallium, a radioactive element used in the manufacture of high-density glass, gamma radiation detection equipment, and nuclear medicine. It was also used in the creation of insecticides and rat poison. When ingested by humans, thallium causes the hair to fall out, damages peripheral nerves, and destroys the victim’s white corpuscles and bone marrow. The doctors believed his case to be hopeless. Nevertheless, they proceeded with the only known treatment to combat thallium poisoning—blood transfusions. To the surprise of his doctors and friends, Khokhlov began to slowly fight off the effects of the poison, but the struggle left him a wreck of his former self, bald, thin, scarred, and disfigured.
But Khokhlov remained. Not only did he make a full recovery, but he went back on the speaking circuit and continued his activity with the NTS. Eventually, he was persuaded by friends to divorce Yana in order to make life easier in Russia for her and their son. He moved permanently to the United States and became a professor of psychology at California State University in San Bernardino.
Khokhlov would live to have the satisfaction of seeing the USSR finally dissolve in 1991. Until his death in September 2007, he continued to speak out on events related to Russia and the post-Cold War era, including the murder of former Soviet agent Vladimir Litvenenko, who was killed with a lethal dose of polonium-210 that he also ingested through a cup of coffee. In spite of all he had gone through, Khokhlov held fast to the sentiment expressed in his memoirs: “I do not regret the decision, for there could be only one.”
Originally Published February 2010