Nikolia Khokhlov testifies over the radio about the Soviet Union at the Los Angeles Federal Building, April 17, 1956. Photo Credit: University of Southern California via Getty Images

By David Kurlander

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains in a coma in Berlin, two weeks after he was seemingly poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok at a Siberian airport. Navalny, who has drawn the ire of Putin’s United Russia Party for his internet-friendly corruption investigations (including his use of drones to showcase the mansions of former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev), appears to be the latest of the Kremlin’s enemies to be silenced by toxins. The American reaction has been predictably fraught. President Trump has said little, sparking his challenger Joe Biden to Tweet, “Donald Trump continues to cozy up to Russia while Putin persecutes civil society and journalists.” Russian poisonings of political dissidents have been a test of American foreign policy for generations. One of the earliest such incidents, the 1957 coffee-cup poisoning of Soviet defector Nikolai Khokhlov, helped to define U.S. opinions of the U.S.S.R. during the transitional years following the death of Joseph Stalin…

Khokhlov had been a war hero. In 1942, at only 20, he parachuted behind German lines into Minsk, where he infiltrated the world of Nazi officers and helped to place a small time bomb that killed Wilhelm Kube, a virulent anti-Semite who effectively organized the killing of the region’s Jews. Khokhlov’s undercover mission was made into the most popular Soviet film of 1947. The resultantly-much-respected KGB intelligence officer, however, was uncomfortable with assassinating political dissidents and avoided any further assignments of the sort for years. In 1954, however, orders came down from the Politburo that Khokhlov was to kill Georgi Okolovich, an anti-communist organizer in Frankfurt. Khokhlov assembled a team and even picked out a murder weapon, a miniature gun disguised as a cigarette case. But he could not bring himself to carry out the “liquidation.” He visited Okolovich and told him as much, the CIA caught wind, and Khokhlov—terrified for his wife and young son back in Moscow—was ferried to America and pasted on the front pages of newspapers.

Washington immediately lionized Khokhlov. Gerald Ford, then a youngish Michigan congressman, prepared a rousing speech about the defector’s “decision to reject murder and oppression as exemplified by his diabolical Soviet rulers, knowing full well the consequences.” Khokhlov appeared before several congressional subcommittees to offer intelligence on gadgetry and intelligence rings that led to the capture of Soviet spies. And he rallied ceaselessly for American assistance for his family, whose fate remained unknown.   

In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to quash President Imre Nagy’s push for self-determination. Khokhlov, believing that the uprising “inflicted a deadly wound on communism and showed that the revolution for liberation was possible,” headed back to Europe, where he spoke on Soviet tactics. The following September, after one such speech at the Palmengarten back in Frankfurt, Kholkhov took a sip of his coffee that “was not as good as usual.” In his memoir, In the Name of Conscience, Khokhlov described in almost psychedelic (and juicily metaphoric) prose his attempts to forge on—including his going to the ballet—as the poison set in: “A couple was dancing a Chopin waltz. For a moment the partners stood still in a pose that, it seemed to me, would end in a fall.” 

Khokhlov had most likely been poisoned with polonium or thallium-201, old-fashioned toxins treated with radioactive isotopes that he believed had come from the KGB’s notorious “Laboratory No. 12,” a poison factory that dated back to Lenin’s days. Doctors, first in Germany and then in the U.S., slowly nursed Khokhlov back to health, but he lost all of the hair on his head and body. As soon as he was well enough, Khokhlov set up interviews across the world to decry the Kremlin’s tactics and showcase his new appearance. “While the Soviet Sputnik soared into space, I was making my appearance before audiences in the United States,” Khokhlov wrote at the end of his memoir. “I, too, was an exhibit of the achievements of Soviet science.”   

Since Stalin’s death shortly after Khokhlov’s defection, anti-communist forces had been frustrated by the liberalizing words of his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, believing that his “de-Stalinization” rhetoric was lulling the United States into a sense of false security about the U.S.S.R.’s direction. Khokhlov’s poisoning—with the backdrop of the early Space Race and the brutality afoot in Budapest—was an ideal piece of evidence for the continued treachery of the Soviets. 

As Khokhlov began lecturing again, a new round of commentary emerged from anti-communist columnists. Herbert Philbrick, a former advertising executive and American Communist Party member who had become an FBI informant and provided damning testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of McCarthyism—and about whom a popular television series, “I Led 3 Lives,” had recently been produced—used Khokhlov’s poisoning to push back on the idea that “Khrushchev, the Stalin-dragon killer, has set everything straight.” Philbrick dramatically continued, “The attempt to take Khohklov’s life is also proof of the great fear which the Communists have for truth, and that the truth is the greatest weapon against them.” The publication of Khokhlov’s aforementioned 1959 memoir, in the immediate aftermath of Khrushchev’s iconic trip to the U.S., led to yet another round of recrimination.   

The rest of Khokhlov’s life was surreal. In a recently-translated Russian interview from shortly before his death, the dissident talked in depth about being sent by the CIA for a three-year stint in Saigon as a counterinsurgency expert to South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, where they devised a plan Khokhlov believed would have prevented the Vietnam War. When he came back to the United States, he became a vaunted psychology professor at Cal State San Bernardino, where he published influential research on extrasensory perception and the history of Russian parapsychology.

Khokhlov lived just long enough to watch in 2006 as Alexander Litvinenko—another intelligence agent who rebelled against the Russian state due to his unwillingness to kill—slowly died from radiation poisoning in London. Khokhlov warned in the London Times, “The situation within Russia today is very perilous. There are no more laws, and no more order.” Fourteen years on from Khokhlov’s final warning, the United States again must make political sense of a dark element of Russian power that continues to rear its ugly head…

To learn about the history of Russian political poisonings, read Boris Volodarsky’s The KGB’s Poison Factory: From Lenin to Litvinenko.

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