EDITOR’s NOTE: One of the reasons I’ve chosen to live in a university town is because of the fascinating characters who come here. As Bill Peterson has written, it’s the only place where the world seems as big as it really is.
For a couple of years, I’ve known Roy Sivan who will graduate in December with a master’s degree in accounting. I’ve known for a while that Roy enrolled at Texas State University after being discharged from the Israeli army and that he spends summers in Tel Aviv where his family has deep roots — all of which is quite exotic enough for this East Texas farm boy. Only recently however did Roy mention that his late grandfather, Viktor Grayevksy, was for fourteen years a double agent who spied on the former Soviet Empire for the West from his perch as an embassy worker and journalist.
This article, originally printed in The Australian when Roy’s grandfather died last year, details one chapter in Grayevksy’s lifetime. More will follow as I secure reprint rights from the authors, as I have for this one. As always, I’d love to hear about interesting people you know who live in San Marcos.
by ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
Special to The Mercury
All Victor Grayevsky had in mind that March morning in 1956 in Warsaw was a coffee break with his girlfriend. By lunchtime he had helped change the course of history, although it would be four decades before he knew it.
Grayevsky, who died in Israel last week, aged 82, was the man who smuggled to the West the secret speech delivered by prime minister Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th congress of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The speech, in which Khrushchev denounced predecessor strongman Joseph Stalin, who died in 1953, as a mass murderer, was widely seen as marking the beginning of communism’s downfall.
Grayevsky’s girlfriend Lucia Baranowska was executive secretary to the most powerful man in communist-ruled Poland, party chief Edward Ochab. When Grayevsky arrived at Baranowska’s office that morning, she said she couldn’t get away: “Things are just too hectic.”
As he prepared to leave, he noticed a document on the desk with the Russian words “top secret” and “state secret” on its red cover. At the bottom it read “Comrade Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress”.
He picked it up and riffled through it. “Would you mind if I take this for an hour or so?” he asked.
As far as Baranowska was concerned, the document was just another of the heavy-as-sin party speeches that regularly passed across her desk. “Just get it back before four,” she said. “I’ve got to put it in the safe.”
Neither of them knew at the time that Western intelligence agencies were searching for a copy of the speech, made the month before, as if it were the Holy Grail.
Grayevsky took a bus to his apartment and began reading. “I was very soon in shock,” he recalled in an interview in 1994. “I remember Khrushchev saying how Stalin had eliminated the army’s top generals before the war.” For the first time, Khrushchev was revealing Stalin not as a mythic source of benevolence but as a fearsome tyrant.
Khrushchev had ordered the hall cleared of foreign delegates and newsmen before the speech. The masses would have to be told the truth, but in carefully monitored doses. “This subject must not go beyond the borders of the party, let alone into the press,” he said. But Khrushchev ordered copies be sent to the leaders of communist bloc countries. It was the copy sent to the Polish party boss that Grayevsky found himself reading.
Hurrying back to Baranowska, he stopped off at the Israeli embassy. His parents were living in Israel and Grayevsky had already applied for an exit visa to follow them. He decided to come to Israel as a guest bearing a gift: Khrushchev’s speech. Intelligence personnel photographed the document and Grayevsky had it back on Baranowska’s desk by 2pm.
When the head of Israel’s secret service, Amos Manor, received the speech from his man in Warsaw, he realised it was of crucial political importance. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion ordered him to pass it on to the CIA. Within a few weeks, the speech was leaked to The New York Times. The US government would print millions of copies in the languages of Eastern Europe and smuggle them into the communist bloc, including in balloons, to expose the rottenness at the core.
Grayevsky, who found employment at Israel Radio broadcasting in Polish and Russian, always assumed that the copy he had turned over to the Israeli embassy was just one of many that reached the West. It was only in 1994, when a book was published about US-Israeli intelligence co-operation, that he learned it was his copy that had reached the CIA. He had helped begin the process that would finally end the Soviet empire and the Cold War more than three decades later.
“I didn’t make history but I touched it for four hours,” he said.