Stierlitz, first name Yankel

02 Jun 2015
02 Jun 2015 Facebook Twitter Email Print

He had no military rank, no rewards, not even a respectable retirement plan, and after traveling the world for years he was forced to earn his meager living working as a translator. He lived in a one-room flat far from downtown Moscow and took the subway to work. Work was in fact downtown, on Tverskoy Boulevard, and later on Ogareva Street, in an enormous building with a globe over the entrance symbolizing “our omnipresence”.

Vladimir Levin, New York

We called this building “the Mass Tomb of the Unknown Journalists” in self-irony. For these people were anything but unknown in professional circles. The organization was officially referred to as the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS). This was the Ministry of Truth, spreading its Truth throughout the country and towards the sea where it ran out of people to need it. It employed quantities of staff so vast that they dwarfed the actual journalists: referents, consultants, managers, translators into every imaginable and unimaginable language, and people whose names one is better off not knowing, and is in fact expected not to know. These were trying on the roles of journalists. The TASS’s appointed Director General was a godlike Central Committee member; there was always a major general from the KGB on site. In my day, that was General Kevorkov. Not a retired general, like the Writers’ Union had, but an acting and curating general. Indeed, Central Committee generals never retired. This was natural, because the KGB had correspondence points even where no Foreign Ministry official had ever set foot. In places where such a foot had in the past been set, there were several such points, all known as “TASS bureaus”.

This is what it was like about three decades ago. I do not know how it is today. The Ministry of Truth prepared a separate publication for Politburo members, under six pages — their maximum reading capacity. There was a special person tasked with this responsibility, a hopeless drunk who subsisted on a lethal wine called Agdam. One time they fired him and replaced him with a young careerist who decided to reform the Politburo newsletter. The Elders of the Kremlin indignantly demanded that everything be returned to its origins, and the man whose style they had learned to recognize, rehired. He was apologetically restored, and the editor in chief searched high and wide through Moscow for the elusive Agdam. There was a “blue TASS” for First Secretaries of republican, regional and district Central Committees; there was a special newsletter for the major papers of socialist states; and there were publications for “general use”.

I, too, scrambled about in that mass tomb. Among us was a short and visually unremarkable older man who translated texts from seven languages into Russian and back. He was respectfully addressed as Yan Petrovitch.


His death was prolonged and excruciating. His wife, who had shared a life with him for fifty years, never left his bedside. Then, on December 14th 1994, heavy armored vehicles rolled up to the hospital. Pompous generals stepped out, wearing full dress uniforms with constellations of stars on their shoulders. These were Chief of General Staff, General of the Army Mikhail Kolesnikov, and Chief of the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-General Fyodor Ladygin. They read President Yeltsin’s decree decorating Yankel Pinkhusovitch Chernyak with the title of Hero of the Russian Federation, and handed the Golden Star and the Hero Certificate— to his wife. The hero himself was unlikely to hear or comprehend the proceedings, given that he was in a coma. Ten days later, he passed away. At the funeral, General Kolesnikov announced to the press that Yankel Pinkhusovitch Chernyak had been the same legendary Maxim Isaev, also known as Stierlitz, who had inspired the film “Seventeen Moments of Spring”; that Yulian Semyonov, author of the Stierlitz book and screenplay, had met with him; and that despite the film being fictional, the protagonist clearly reflected some traits of Chernyak’s character and work, which had been strictly classified nearly until his death.

Playing Stierlitz — national favorite Vyacheslav Tikhonov

Pushkin was correct when he wrote of Russian people that ‘they love the dead alone’. Stierlitz was loved as a great legend, counterpart to the British James Bond. Who could love Yankel Chernyak?

When the Stierlitz movie was screened, cities seemed dead. Militiamen reported that no crime was committed on such nights; everyone was glued to the TV screen.

I am not a great fan of Yulian Semyonov’s work (his actual surname was Lyandres). Nonetheless, the film based on his book was very talented, due greatly to director Tatyana Mikhailovna Lyoznova and a panoply of excellent actors: Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Yefim Kopelyan (who did not appear on screen, but contributed with his unique voice), Leonid Bronevoy, Rostislav Plyatt et al. Incidentally, all of the film’s creators were rewarded, and Vyacheslav Tikhonov was decorated with the Hero of Socialist Labor title, on Brezhnev’s orders. For how could Stierlitz not be a Hero?

Meanwhile, the prototype was languishing in anonymity. He was working as a translator. Nor did Yulian Semyonov receive a reward, a fact that caused him great resentment. On the other hand, the character of Maxim Maximovitch Isaev, also known as Vsevolod Vladimirovitch Vladimirov, also known as Max Otto von Stierlitz, was surrounded with extensive literature. He was the man of Yulian Semyonov’s myths and tales of spies: detective novels like Diamond for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Expansion II, TASS Is Authorized to Announce, Major Whirlwind, The Order to Survive, and other, excuse the expression, detective drivel in thirteen novelettes and a short story, all featuring Stierlitz as the protagonist. Half of that was made into movies. Literary quill-drivers went as far as to puzzle out Stierlitz’s family tree: Russian father, Ukrainian mother, grandfather Ostap Prokopchuk, uncle Taras Prokopchuk, cousin Ganna Tarasovna, evidently, Prokopchuk. He even had a son, Alexander, and a wife, Alexandra Gavrilina. Here was a true Aryan: a stoic Nordic character, stable relationships with work comrades, impeccable at his duty, merciless to enemies of the Reich, employed by SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg — SS-Standartenführer von Stierlitz. A sporting man, tennis champion of Berlin, he had also distinguished himself in Stalingrad battles and behaved admirably under enemy fire in Spain. Although in April 1945 SS-Brigadeführer Heinrich Mueller (played brilliantly by Leonid Bronevoy) did, after all, unmask him, Stierlitz still escaped unscathed, because there were greater fish to catch by that time. Having completed Comrade Stalin’s personal mission, favorited by the Führer himself, who had petted his cheek, Stierlitz cleverly sabotaged Heinrich Himmler’s separate negotiations with Western intelligence agencies and went off somewhere in Argentina, like an Eichmann of sorts.

Naive readers actually believed all of this gibberish. They knew not that any fiction concerning the work of Soviet spies could only be published with the almighty KGB’s blessing, otherwise it would be banned by the Glavlit (censorship) for disclosing the methods of secret services through literary fiction. Even make-belief needed to pass muster. In addition, whatever was written or filmed had to cause patriotic feelings. Just like today.

In fact, the KGB had nothing to do with the real “Stierlitz”. He was a military intelligence agent. Not KGB but GRU. So what did actually happen?

Yankel Pinkhusovitch Chernyak was a resident of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff of the Red Army. He alone did for the Victory more than all of the Soviet spies, the entire Comintern with its agents, and all of the KGB agents, all succesfully discovered by the Gestapo and Abwehr. (Top-secret Agent A-201 Willi Lehmann, serving in Gestapo on KGB’s orders, was unmasked and secretly executed already in 1942.) Whereas Yankel Chernyak continued working for a long time, for which the Motherland truly repaid him by burying him as a hero of war.

Books and films about heroic secret agents offer little in the way of historical truth. In one of his rare interviews, Yan Petrovitch Chernyak said this of himself:

“I never disregarded conspiracy conditions. Always mindful of what a meeting with counteragents may cost me, I never attended brothels, sports competitions, or theaters where raids and paper checks were frequent, and never broke local laws, so as not to attract any attention whatsoever. This is what I taught my assistants as well. But beyond all this, a secret agent needs luck, plain and simple. I was lucky.”

Chernyak was so highly classified that by the time he began receiving his minuscule pension in 1969, there were no photographs of him. The image of an agent (a spy) becomes known only in one of two cases — either he fails or is denounced, or he is dead. They are even buried under borrowed names. Let us consider the image of Stierlitz that Vyacheslav Tikhonov so masterfully portrayed, and the jokes that flooded the nation after the film. No need to invent them, they were lifted straight out of the screenplay:

-    You know too much. You will be buried with honor following a car crash.

-    You, Stierlitz, please stay.

-    A small lie causes a great distrust.

-    Damn Bolshevik Cossack kikes.

-    You can’t trust anyone these days. Not even yourself. But you can trust me!

-    What two know, the pig knows.

-    Clarity is a kind of absolute fog.

To look at the fate of this remarkable individual, we need to forget all of the popular film’s inventions. Yankel Chernyak had seen the film that claimed to show and tell his story, and his verdict was: “Absolute fantasy”. Let the film remain fiction while we address reality.


Yankel Pinkhusovitch Chernyak was born in Chernivtsi in 1909. The city, like the entire Bukovina region, was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which disintegrated following WWI. That horrible time saw his entire large family perish in pogroms. He was left alone, growing up in an orphanage. He was a very good student. In his school years, he managed to acquire German, Romanian, Hungarian, English, Spanish, Czech and French, and by 20 years of age could speak these with no trace of an accent. He was best in his year at the Prague Technical College. Later, he worked at an electrical plant, a job that he lost in the recession. It was at the Berlin Polytechnic, where he chose to continue his education, that he became a certified engineer. In 1930, he joined the German Communist Party, being a sworn communist based on his firm belief in the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Soviet intelligence, working under the cover of the Comintern, recruited him then.

Upon his drafting, he became a clerk for an artillery regiment, in the rank of sergeant. The regiment was stationed in Romania, and Yankel had access to secret documents whose contents immediately became known to the Soviet military intelligence. He sent information about all of the weapon systems of the European armies. Since 1934, he headed the Soviet residency in Romania. Soon, however, his cover was blown when a traitor was discovered. It was decided that Chernyak was to be urgently evacuated to Moscow. Here he spent a year in special forces training under Artur Artuzov, assigned by Stalin to serve as deputy head of the Fourth (Intelligence) Directorate of the General Staff of the Red Army. Chernyak had long conversations with the head of the Red Army’s intelligence agency, Army Commissar 2nd Rank Yan Berzin. After a year of intensely studying the tricks and skills of the spying profession and meeting Comintern agents based all over Europe, Yankel Chernyak had also learned the Russian language which he did not know before.

At the end of 1936 he was sent to Switzerland as a TASS correspondent. As an agent, he was operating under the alias “Jen”. He personally recruited his agents in Switzerland and Germany. Hitler’s counterintelligence was never able to uncover a single agent from the “Krona” group led by Chernyak. Only two names out of 35 have been declassified today: performer Olga Tchekhova and Goebbels’ lover Marika Rökk. Remember the ‘trophy film’ Girl of My Dreams? Marika Rökk played the female lead, the very girl worth dreaming of. These favorites of Goebbels’ managed to procure information of the greatest importance. As for the others, even Alexander Averbukh, author of the book Declassified Fates, who specializes in finding secret agents, was unable to expose them. We know only their positions in the hierarchy of the Third Reich: a Reichsminister’s secretary, Abwehr, Wehrmacht and Gestapo officers, an officer working right inside Hitler’s Headquarters, a head of the RnD department of an aviation construction firm, a top-tier banker, a high-ranking General Staff officer, the daughter of the head of a large tank design bureau — all people sitting in the inner circles of the Reich, providing immensely significant information that was reported straight to Stalin. 35 agents in all. Their names are still classified, because they continued working for the USSR after the war, in Germany, the USA, Italy.

On June 12th, 1941, before Richard Sorge and Leopold Trepper’s communications, Chernyak sent to Moscow the secret order of Germany’s Chief of Land Forces on the timing, the purposes and the signals in the invasion of the USSR — the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Stalin did not believe him and suggested that ‘those agents go stuff it’.

“Krona” worked in Germany for 11 years. While German counterintelligence knew all about Trepper-Gurevich’s “Red Orchestra” and Sandor Rado’s “Red Trio”, and liquidated them in 1942 and 1944 respectively, they could only guess about the work of “Krona” from radiograms they were unable to decipher. Moscow learned from Chernyak about the German air defense system, anti-boat defenses, their newest plane construction systems, communications equipment, the state of the defense industry, the V-1, and Hitler’s allies.

You remember that the film Seventeen Moments of Spring shows Stierlitz relaxing in his townhouse in the outskirts of Berlin, drinking Armenian cognac. Well, he had no townhouse. He never stayed long in the same place. Nor did he drink. He kept staying with friends, rarely twice in the same place. He was rarely in Berlin, either, traveling between Switzerland, Paris and elsewhere in Europe.

Yankel Pinkhusovitch was extremely gifted. He could perfectly memorize ten pages of text in any of his seven languages after reading it once, and recall the positions of seventy items in a room after one look. He was also talented at hypnosis and had a Wolf Messing-like ability to predict other people’s intentions and upcoming events. Instead of being the tennis champion of Berlin, like in the film, he was considered a master of martial arts despite only having competed in his youth. What is more, he had hands of gold, able to make stamps and seals out of handy materials and forge any handwriting. His reports could not be deciphered, because the microfilms would get instantly overexposed if fallen into the wrong hands. The several passports he made for himself, including an Australian one, never caused suspicion when crossing borders, and he traveled a lot. He pretended to be a touring engineer lecturing on the recent achievements of engineering thought, or a traveling salesman, and behaved unobtrusively in every country. Constantly changing names and legends, he stayed with trustworthy people instead of hotels. He managed to make a list of accounts in a variety of European banks in which were held the assets of German special service workers and Nazi Party bigwigs. He bought off petty officials like today’s bureaucrats in Russia are bought, by bribes and gifts.


Intelligence agencies have existed since time immemorial and every state has one. The task of the secret agent is to procure classified information of military, economical and political signigicance. In other words, the technological secrets of the enemy state. This was the job of Yankel Chernyak, but being a well-educated engineer, he could in addition analyze the procured data and send along to Headquarters what was most important.

What were his greatest achievements in work?

-    That none of “Krona”’s agents working in Germany and all over Europe were discovered and captured. Moscow received the top-secret Barbarossa plan and the precise dates for which it was scheduled.

-    Chernyak practically saved Moscow from Hitler’s aviation by managing to steal the construction documentation for a radar and even provide a sample model.

-    The first radio locators were called iconoscopes. Moscow received the technology and manufacture method. Scientist and founder of the Soviet electronics, Deputy Defense Minister Vice-Admiral Aksel Berg gave this assessment of the work: “Your materials respond to an acute need our institutes have, helping develop new highly sensitive transmitters and save literally millions of rubles.”

-    During the war, Moscow received information about the German nickel, wolfram and tin stores, quantities of military aircraft and routes by which they were taken to the front.

-    Chernyak sent information on the additives to steel alloys from which the Germans made gun barrels. He also sent tactical and technical data on the Tiger and Panther tanks.

-    He managed to obtain the full plan of the German operation on the Kursk salient, which enabled measures to be taken for a victory, albeit costly. Had Stalin’s staff not held that plan, the war might have gone very differently.


Remember Kat the radio operator, who transmitted Stierlitz’s code messages in the film? Beautiful, fantastic, yet funny. The main difficulty in war is communications. I remember a phrase from an army statute: “Communications is the nerve of the battle”. Operator Kat could never have been able to solve this difficulty. Technical scientific data is impossible to code and transmit telegraphically, because it contains dozens if not hundreds of pages of technical writing, graphs, blueprints and models. The way Yankel sent them was in cakes. Professor Berg wrote in his July 11th, 1944 report to the GRU: “The 1082 pages and 26 models received from you are to be considered a large and valuable contribution to the cause.” December 30th, 1944: “Have received from you 475 foreign written materials and 102 equipment samples. The choice of materials is apt enough to satisfy every requirement.” Some time later: “Have received from you 811 foreign informational materials, including 96 blueprints, descriptions and instructions for innovative means of radio location. The State Defense Committee’s radio location council shall support the nomination of your emloyees for state awards and decorations.”

A word on Professor Aksel Berg. A professor at the Naval Academy, he commanded a submarine back under the Tsarist regime. In 1937, Berg was arrested for “anti-Soviet propaganda” and spent three years in Kolyma camps. Released and rehabilitated right before the war, he was assigned head of the radio location council under the State Defense Committee led by Stalin himself. Berg was old-school intelligentsia, the greatest radio location specialist, sometimes called “the father of Soviet radar”. Such a specialist’s high opinion of the secret agent’s work was precious.

StierlitzAll together, Chernyak passed along 12,500 pages of technical documentation, 102 equipment samples, papers pertaining to radio location, the electrical industry, naval and aviation weaponry, and metallurgy. He was then nominated for the title of Hero of Soviet Union. However, the war was not over yet and Stalin did not approve the nomination.

Remember the final shots of Seventeen Moments of Spring? Stierlitz returns to Berlin and rides away into the misty unknown. For Chernyak the unknown was, indeed, quite misty, for he moved from Switzerland to London.


There, in London, Yankel tried to unveil the secrets of the British nuclear programme, co-developed with the Americans. How would he get there? He found access to Professor Alan Nunn May, researcher at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, Secretary of the British and Cambridge branches of the executive committee of the British Association of Scientific Workers. Professor May worked on the British nuclear programme, the Tube Alloys project, and was friends with another scientist recruited by Soviet intelligence, Donald Maclean, alias ‘Homer’. Yan Chernyak recruited May under the alias ‘Alec’. It was Alec who gave Chernyak papers on the key directions of nuclear development in England, Cambridge’s lab in particular. These were blueprints for a uranium reactor and a description on the principles on which it operated, 130 pages of top-secret documentation in all. Later, Professor Alan Nunn May remembered this, saying: “This entire story pained me greatly, and the only reason I did it was because I believed it to be my humble contribution to humanity’s safety.”

At the end of the war, May was relocated to the Montreal laboratory of Canada’s National Research Council, which worked for the U.S. nuclear project, “Manhattan”. That was about the time American counter-intelligence accused Soviet military attaché, Colonel Nicolai Zabotin, of espionage. Zabotin was deported from Canada in ignominy, while the Kremlin was forced to issue official apologies for “the diplomat’s private initiative”. Naturally, the initiative had been far from private, and so Yan Chernyak replaced Nicolai Zabotin as head of the Soviet residency in the USA and Canada.

He created new sources of information and soon sent to Moscow a report by Fermi, a list of nuclear research and development objects in the USA and Canada, and samples of Uranium-235 received from Professor May — 162 milligrams in total, soldered into candy wrappers as oxidation on platinum foil.

Chernyak’s group was working successfully when it was denounced by a traitor. When cryptographer Igor Guzenko, an employee of the Soviet embassy in Canada, asked for political asylum, he came not empty-handed, but bearing secret documents. Canadian counter-intelligence learned the names of 19 Soviet agents. Nine of them were arrested and sentenced. The undercover group working on the nuclear project was bled white. However, Guzenko the traitor did not know the name of the group’s leader. That was where Scotland Yard and MI5 came into play. They figured out who ‘Alec’ was, and Professor May soon found himself under arrest. In the course of the investigation and trial he admitted to having been recruited by Moscow, and was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, but was soon paroled for good behaviour. He then moved to Ghana to become a physics professor at a local university. Another valuable GRU agent to be arrested was ‘Mulatto’ — Zalman Litwin, a professor at University of Southern California.

Moscow decided it was time to retire Yan Chernyak and his team. For that purpose, a Soviet Navy ship was sent on a visit of good will to an American port. At night, nine people came aboard, dressed as marines after a good night out clubbing in New York. They were delivered to Sevastopol. This way, Yankel Pinkhusovitch Chernyak ended up in the USSR. He was sometimes called on for operative duty, but was soon “forgotten” for a long time. Almost forever.


He was lucky. It could have been worse. My own uncle, my mother’s brother, was less fortunate. He worked for the Comintern as a secret agent in the Netherlands and Belgium. When Stalin received the report that war was to start on June 22nd, 1941, he told the General Staff’s chief of intelligence: “Let those spies f… themselves.” Uncle Boris was urgently recalled and executed for “high treason” two days before the war broke out. We were not to speak of him at home, and there are no remaining photographs. We were afraid. The two suits left from him my mother kept through the worst starvation. She never sold or traded them, and I wore them as a student. They were nice shiny jackets with a cute little mirror in the top pocket, wrapped in a pretty piece of very soft fabric. I was a right dandy in those rags. Mom would say: “You look just like Bor’ka, a real diplomat!”

The famous ‘Kent’, Anatoly Markovitch Gurevich, about whom dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been written in the West, was less than fortunate as well. Nobody knew about him in his home country; he was only rehabilitated in 1991. Son of a Kharkov pharmacist, having learned the language of Cervantes, he was made into a Spanish navy lieutenant and sent to Belgium with false documents containing spelling mistakes, which signified the beginning of serious trouble. He told the cab driver the address of the hote, and it turned out to be a brothel. Realizing that he was on his own, he transformed into rich Uruguayan Vincent Sierro and started taking dance lessons. Leopold Trepper was chief of the “Red Orchestra” until the Nazis occupied Belgium. He was then forced to leave Brussels urgently because of his distinct Semitic looks, and Anatoly ‘Kent’ Gurevich took his place at the Orchestra’s helm. He met the blond millionaire Margaret, of the family Singer, and charmed her. Together, they threw lavish parties attended by members of high society and German officers. Gurevich founded a successful commercial firm called Simesco which made millions on orders, including one from the German army, for the production of 1.5 million aluminium spoons and special fabric that would keep soldiers comfortable in Africa. This way, Gurevich learned the number of prisoners taken in the first days (the spoons were meant for them), and that Rommel was planning an African campaign. In 1942, he reported to Headquarters that the Nazis were planning on occupying the oil-mining regions of the Caucasus. The Red Army regrouped and covered the Caucasus; Stalin’s personal gratitude was announced to ‘Kent’.

The “Red Orchestra” was not merely an intelligence group, but an enormous network of spies, covering Europe from Spain to Norway. My uncle Boris worked for this network. It existed until 1942, when the Gestapo arrested ‘Kent’-Gurevich and Margaret. ‘Kent’ was questioned personally by chief of Gestapo Mueller. He was not tortured or beaten. He was offered a radio game and agreed, knowing that he could signal that his coded messages were being controlled. The Cheka were so unprofessional, they never noticed the signals. Gurevich betrayed noone, and the Gestapo did not even know his real name. When in 1946 he flew to Moscow, he felt that the plane was not going fast enough. Right from the airport, he was taken to the Soviet Gestapo — SMERSH (Death to Spies), who gave him everything the Germans had not: torture, mocking and humiliation. Anatoly ‘Kent’ Gurevich went through sixteen months of abuse. Even General Abakumov, head of the SMERSH, took part in the torture and questioning. A special meeting of the Ministry of State Security sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment. He spent more time in camps in Vorkuta and Mordovia than he had spent working ‘outside’. Worst of all, his entire life since then, maligned and denigrated, he was considered a traitor. Only in 1991 was he released and pardoned, just to live in a slum apartment in St. Petersburg spending most of his pittance of a pension on medicine. He passed away aged 96 in January 2009, while his and Margaret’s son Michel Barga had died in Spain in 2003. Few knew that the famous ‘Kent’, Vincent Sierra, and Antonio Gonzales were all the same Anatoly Markovitch Gurevich.

It is amazing that Lev Manevitch, Yankel Chernyak, Leopold Trepper, Sandor Rado, and Anatoly Gurevich, these outstanding Jewish men who were embodied together in the mythical Stierlitz, all worked for Stalin’s contemptible anti-Semitic regime and in fact dedicated their brilliant lives to it. Why? Because intelligent people make mistakes as often as fools do. Lev Manevitch (‘colonel Starostin’), managed to transmit to Headquarters information from a death camp and died on May 9th, 1945; Anatoly Gurevich spent most of his life in the Gulag; Leopold Trepper was also imprisoned, and lived his post-pardon years in Poland, France, and ultimately Israel; Sandor Rado lived in Budapest.

The Motherland gave everyone his fair share of sticks and stones, and her heroes spent more time in prison than did thieves and murderers. Such is the c’est-la-vie, as a smart-alec friend of mine used to say.

Translation from Russian: Olga Lempert