We know of at least one Soviet agent who entered Britain undercover and worked there undetected during the early 1920s. Of all the cases British Intelligence dealt with in these years, this one – the Johnnie Walker case, as it became known – may well have left the deepest scars, because Walker travelled with a wife, a duo who ought to have been a lot easier to catch than a lone agent, and yet both Walker and his wife succeeded in leaving Britain at the end of their first mission, uncaught and able to re-enter the country again.
Long acknowledged as a low point for the intelligence services, the Johnnie Walker affair had a protracted and unpleasant afterlife, as many of its nastiest surprises were revealed only after Walker’s final departure. Most stunning of all was to be the revelation in the early 1950s that Walker had in fact been no clandestine mastermind, but just a novice when he left Moscow in September 1920 – a novice who nonetheless managed to test the patience and effectiveness of Britain’s leading intelligence officers to breaking point.
‘Johnnie Walker’ is certainly the kind of alias that a novice would choose. It is everything that ‘George Brown’ is not: eye-catching, a little arch and knowing, and, above all, very memorable – that is to say, a terrible name for a spy. Undoubtedly the name was connected with the scotch whisky that is still drunk today. The man who selected it, whose real name was Jacob Kirchenstein, may well have chosen it on the spur of the moment (the first thing he saw when he needed a name), or he may have felt it resonated in some way. Perhaps he found the brand’s famous image of the ‘striding man’, which was used on bottles and in advertising from 1908 onwards, to be emblematic of his own intrepid life.
What we know for certain is that Kirchenstein was yet another Soviet agent whose life of peregrination had started early, in the aftermath of the failed Russian revolution of 1905. A young telegraph operator in the Baltic port of Riga at the beginning of the uprising, Kirchenstein was sentenced to exile in Siberia for his part in the strikes and violence. Aged just eighteen when he first manned the barricades, he must have been terrified as he faced transportation thousands of miles to the east. But he quickly discovered a means to escape and made his way back to Russia’s west coast, where he boarded a ship for England. The young Kirchenstein then moved almost immediately from the United Kingdom to the eastern seaboard of America, where he worked for a number of years on commercial steamships, before eventually settling in New York, to use his skills as a telegrapher on the local railways.
While some exiled veterans of 1905 stayed in contact with revolutionary politics throughout their lives (including the most senior Bolsheviks whose biographies are best known), Kirchenstein followed what was the commoner path for survivors and initially tried to put the traumatic events behind him. He established a home among the Latvian community of the Bronx, marrying a Latvian girl, Vallie Waldman, in 1915 and becoming an American citizen. As he was to tell an FBI interrogator many decades later, Kirchenstein kept in touch with other Latvian socialists after arriving in America but mainly for social purposes. It is likely he would never have known the excitements of the radical life again had it not been for two separate events that occurred in quick succession at the start of 1917. Following the first Russian Revolution of March 1917 and the United States’s entry into the Great War on 6 April, he and Vallie started to think that a return to their homeland, and a re-engagement with left-wing politics, might be a good idea.
This was for both positive and negative reasons. Progressives and proletarians across the globe were thrilled at the news that the despotic Nicholas II was no longer in power, none more so than the hundreds of thousands of former Tsarist subjects who had been driven from the country. For people with left-wing inclinations, in particular anyone who belonged to a minority ethnic group, there was now hope that events would bring a fairer future, including self-determination for ordinary men and women. Jacob and Vallie later admitted that they were caught up in this moment of fervour: ‘The picture [. . .] painted of a new Russia where the rights and privileges of human beings would be recognised and respected after hundreds of years of Tsarist oppression convinced me,’ Jacob confessed in the early 1950s. But there was another significant factor behind the couple’s decision to leave that they were not so quick to acknowledge. Compulsory military conscription began in the United States in May 1917, and, as a man who was not yet thirty, Jacob was liable to be drafted. He must have felt that he was now destined to return to Europe one way or another.
Jacob and Vallie decided that it was better to go of their own volition, crossing the American continent by rail and then sailing from San Francisco to Vladivostok with $3,000 of savings sewn into their clothing. At some point during the summer of 1917, as they made their way from Russia’s far east to Petrograd on the Trans-Siberian railway, Jacob inadvertently completed a circumnavigation of the globe when he passed the place where Nicholas II had imprisoned him twelve years earlier. Back in the capital, he and Vallie were frequently to regret their decision to repatriate. ‘From the first day of arrival in Petrograd we were highly disillusioned,’ Jacob recalled. ‘The streets were filled with deserting Russian soldiers [. . .] hunger and starvation were all about us. This was not the Russia we had envisioned back in the United States.’
Importantly, Jacob had not left America a Bolshevik, though he had known and held discussions with Bolshevik exiles in New York, including the future Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin. On reaching Russia, he only became a Bolshevik after Lenin’s party clearly emerged as the dominant socialist movement, and the one to which it was increasingly dangerous not to belong. Kirchenstein’s background as a survivor of 1905 along with his Latvian connections gave him a certain protection among the new rulers – something that was otherwise in short supply. At the end of 1918, with the civil war raging, he enlisted in the Red Army and succeeded in rising rapidly through its ranks to become an important and respected communications and transport expert, mainly based near the front at Smolensk.
As the war gave way to an uneasy peace, however, Jacob suddenly found himself transferred to Moscow to work at the heart of Trotsky’s new railways commissariat, and rather than prospering by this promotion, he discovered that greater proximity to the centre of power brought greater risks. Before long, he had fallen out with top members of the commissariat after they questioned his professional judgement, and he began to fear for his and Vallie’s safety. Jacob turned to old contacts from American days and called in a favour – a common activity in the factionalised, backbiting atmosphere of early Soviet politics. He asked if anyone knew of other positions in the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy where he would be safe. Midway through the summer of 1920, someone found him a post – albeit a temporary one – on the staff of the Second World Congress of the Comintern.
Whatever Jacob had hoped to gain by this move (and probably it was just to buy time), it changed his life utterly. The second Comintern congress in Moscow is widely seen as a key moment in the development of global Communism. It was at this meeting that the CPGB formally came into existence. But even more fundamentally, this was the Soviet state’s first opportunity to showcase itself to a watching world; it sought to use the gathering to assert its primacy and impose its will on the radical left of every other country. Jacob and Vallie played a crucial role, being put in joint charge of a special train service to convey important foreign delegates around the new country’s highlights (model factories, model schools and model communities) as well as showing the worst of the devastation caused by the enemy Whites and their foreign backers. No country had moved so far towards true socialism, nor suffered so much in the process, was the message that visiting Marxists were supposed to take away.
After the trip, Jacob was judged to have done a good job, but it required quick thinking to prevent a return to Trotsky’s bureaucratic empire. Fortunately he had some ideas about what to do next. He later described this as the moment at which he saw ‘an opportunity [. . .] to escape Russia’. Having discovered from other Comintern cadres that the Allied naval blockade was still causing enormous problems for the Bolshevik economy, starving Russia of basic foodstuffs and other supplies to a far greater extent than was publicly admitted (the blockade would last until the British and the Russians signed the trade treaty in March 1921), Kirchenstein offered to work as an undercover agent in Britain to try to frustrate it in any way he could. Through the congress he had also discovered that most foreign Communist groups were in grave need of material and political assistance; and he said he would use any secret position he established to help with this too.
He left it to Comintern bosses to thrash out the details of his new role, and he admitted years later that he had had little confidence that they would back him. Surely they would think his proposals far-fetched. Yet they actually saw merit in them (while, quite possibly, also feeling that Kirchenstein was expendable). Had diplomats in the Soviet foreign office got wind of his proposal, it is highly likely they would have vetoed it, given its potential to jeopardise the ongoing Anglo-Russian talks. But they were kept in the dark and so, almost out of nowhere, Jacob and Vallie – for he insisted on taking her with him – found themselves on the road once more.
It took six weeks for the Kirchensteins to make it from central Moscow to Britain. Their route lay via Murmansk and the Arctic Circle, where they made a dangerous sea crossing during which the boat in front of them capsized with the loss of all on board, and on down the western coast of Norway to Bergen, where they boarded a steamer bound for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At each stage they were assisted by local socialists whom the Comintern was paying, including, according to Kirchenstein, a young journalist called Trygve Lie, who would later become Secretary-General of the United Nations. As they were leaving Bergen, Vallie and Jacob stowed away in the cabin of a fire officer on board the ship, the SS Sterling. This man, whose name was Anker Petersen, was to become their main contact with the outside world during their first months in Britain. He instructed the couple to stay in his cabin throughout the voyage and until after dark on the day they berthed in Newcastle. At that point he helped them to escape into the dockyard. As Jacob would later recall, ‘the only Passport Control and search was conducted for those legitimate passengers who left the steamer in Newcastle [but] we remained aboard until twilight’.
Following their escape from the docks, Jacob could not believe his luck and was understandably jumpy. He and Vallie soon travelled from the north-east of England to Aberdeen, looking over their shoulders all the way and fully expecting to be apprehended at any moment. At breakfast on their first morning at Aberdeen’s Temperance Hotel, Jacob – or Johnnie Walker as he was now to become – ‘noticed sitting opposite us a very big man, who by his manner could not be mistaken for [anyone] but a police officer or detective’. They promptly checked out. In reality, however, they had no need to worry since no one in the authorities knew they were there. Even if the man was a policeman, he was not watching Jacob. But the realisation that they were safe – safer in fact than they had been in Moscow – would dawn only slowly on the Kirchensteins in the weeks and months ahead.
Gradually they developed a thriving clandestine operation in Britain, suggesting that although Jacob had wanted an excuse to get out of Russia, he nonetheless remained committed to the Bolshevik cause (perhaps his loyalty was aided by the generous Comintern salary he now received in dollars). The ostensible purpose of his mission was not a success, as he failed to make any progress with his plan to break the Allied naval blockade. A fanciful notion of purchasing a British fishing trawler and sailing it back to Russia in secret, laden with supplies, unsurprisingly came to nought. Fortunately for him, however, this did not matter, as the positive outcome of the trade negotiations made the blockade an irrelevance and instead his bosses back in Moscow began to value Jacob for the other things he did.
First and foremost, he proved himself a reliable pair of hands when it came to conveying money, propaganda and instructions to British comrades, particularly in the north of England and Scotland, at a time when the reach of ARCOS and the Russian Trade Delegation was still limited, and some other Comintern middlemen had fallen under suspicion for misappropriating funds. Soon, he also began passing messages from Moscow to Comintern agents in other countries, and passing their messages back to Moscow, effectively turning Britain into a kind of clandestine sorting office for worldwide Bolshevism. He also started to tell his Comintern bosses what he described as the frank truth about British Communism – exactly the kind of thing they loved to hear from their undercover agents. Some reports he sent back on the true strength of the CPGB in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the industrial heartlands of northern England almost certainly helped to persuade the Comintern that the picture painted by British Communist leaders was excessively rosy.
In the midst of all this activity, however, British Intelligence got only one real clue as to Jacob Kirchenstein’s existence and whereabouts and its officers were unable to capitalise on it. This would later be seen as a significant failure, not only because of the length of time that Kirchenstein operated in the country but also because, coming as it did just before the Anglo-Russian treaty was signed, it could have added extra force to attempts to get Lloyd George to abandon the talks. The episode unfolded in December 1920, at which point Jacob and Vallie were living in Edinburgh but still using Newcastle as their main port for communication with Russia.
Late one night, in the vicinity of Newcastle docks, a patrolling policeman caught two British men and a Norwegian sailor hauling a pair of heavy suitcases away from a ship. Upon inspection, the officer discovered that the suitcases contained large amounts of illegal Communist propaganda, including pamphlets that called on British workers, soldiers and sailors to mount armed insurrections against the elected government.
The three men were arrested on the spot and tried. The Norwegian turned out to be none other than Anker Petersen, Jacob and Vallie’s helper on their voyage from Bergen, while the two British workers were John Bell and Thomas Scott, men whom Kirchenstein had hired as couriers and fixers. Jacob later accused them of having ‘bungled’ their orders, but it was almost certainly just bad luck that got them caught. His anger was understandable, however, since their capture brought the authorities closer to him than they had ever been before. A search of Petersen’s cabin on the SS Sterling revealed a stash of letters that included one Jacob had written and signed with his alias, ‘Johnnie Walker’. When news of Petersen’s arrest reached the Kirchensteins in Edinburgh, they assumed that the authorities would now have this letter and that Jacob’s alias had been blown. For a short time, Jacob expected the police to track him down. Lying low in the Scottish capital, he communicated with other British accomplices by dead letter drop only. In the event, however, none of the defendants revealed any more information about their boss (a favour for which Jacob would later reward them). Petersen, Bell and Scott ended up serving several months’ hard labour in English prisons, but the trail on Johnnie Walker himself went cold.
This passing reference to Johnnie Walker may seem like just a fragmentary clue, yet some of Special Branch’s and MI5’s behaviour with regard to the letter is hard to understand. Jacob had written in Latvian, but it appears the authorities may not have got hold of an English translation of his words until the second half of 1921, long after the trial of the three Newcastle men had ended. The letter clearly showed Johnnie Walker to be a top Comintern man and also indicated that his presence in Britain was part of an active and on-going operation – to have known its contents sooner would, therefore, have been invaluable, but we can only speculate about what caused the delay. Perhaps Newcastle police withheld the document from British Intelligence for some time after the initial arrests (such holdups, both deliberate and accidental, were fairly common) or maybe someone received it in Special Branch or MI5 but initially overlooked its importance.
In any event, even when the content of the letter was known, it did not lead to much in the way of concerted action. ‘Johnnie Walker’ is first mentioned in the intelligence archives in a report on ‘Foreign Support of Communist Agitators’ from October 1921, almost a full year after Petersen et al were apprehended.
He is described as ‘the Third International [i.e. the Comintern] representative in the United Kingdom’, responsible for distributing propaganda through ‘stations’ at ‘South Shields, Hull, Grimsby and Cardiff’, and it is also clear from the text that the authorities had identified his chosen name as an alias (though they incorrectly connected this alias with another Soviet citizen, a man called Fachers, who, as far as we know, never came to Britain). The main British Intelligence response to Walker’s presence appeared to be to bemoan the end of wartime border restrictions, with little in the way of remedial action thought possible. ‘The control at the ports in this country has been perceptibly weakened by the lapse of the Defence of the Realm Act,’ the report’s writer concluded, in effect saying that now ‘Johnnie Walker’ had got in, he would be able to stay for as long as he liked.
Jacob Kirchenstein alleged in his 1951 confession that Sir Basil Thomson’s resignation at the end of 1921 was somehow connected to government anger about the failure to catch him, but no other evidence to corroborate this has come to light. The next mention of the ‘striding man’ in British Intelligence archives came only in March 1922, long after Thomson had vacated the stage. On this occasion it was a report of an operation by police in Libau, Latvia, in which a consignment of Communist letters had been seized as they were about to leave the country. One of the letters, written on 8 February 1922 and signed by someone who styled himself the ‘Deputy Director of the Department of the Worldwide Socialist International of Communist Germ Cells’, mentioned Johnnie Walker and said that he was continuing his work for the Comintern in Britain. The letter included a tantalising detail: that Walker had received £700 (about £35,000 today) to distribute to his left-wing dependants in Britain since the start of the year alone. This information must have dismayed the British authorities, because they still had no leads on Johnnie Walker (a name Kirchenstein had in fact long since dropped), and no operations under way to fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Jacob and Vallie left Britain invisibly later that same year and returned shortly afterwards under their own names. Their method of escape was a further humiliation for the British, though they would not realise it for several years. At some point in 1921, Jacob decided to procure a fake British passport, and succeeded in doing so without difficulty. The idea had occurred to him, he later said, when a clerk in a Thomas Cook bureau heard him speaking and mistook him for a British citizen. Shortly afterwards, Jacob acquired a passport application and filled it in using the details of a certain Cornelius Stormonth, an entirely innocent employee of the Scottish Workers Committee. Jacob passed off his own photograph as Stormonth’s and went on to name Vallie as the Scotsman’s wife, Anne. He had the application signed by two responsible men, a high-ranking Glasgow labour activist and a clergyman, and submitted it. After only ‘six or seven days’ the finished passport came back from what Kirchenstein described as ‘the Liverpool Branch of the British Foreign Office’, presumably the Liverpool passport office.
The Stormonth passport would allow Jacob and Vallie to travel from Britain to the United States whenever they wanted without compromising their true identities as the Kirchensteins. It was a measure of Jacob’s growing maturity as an agent that, before planning any such trip, he decided to send the passport back to the Foreign Office to get endorsements (similar to visas today) for travel to a number of European countries which he did not actually wish to visit. At the time, hundreds of individuals who lived in Britain were banned from travelling abroad, mostly because of their connections with Communism or Irish Republicanism. Had any of these individuals requested the same endorsements, their applications would immediately have been refused. As Jacob put it, ‘I requested and obtained endorsements on the passport for travel to Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. I did this in order to test the safety of the passport. The requested endorsements were made and I knew then that no suspicion was attached to the passport.’
Jacob would later assert that the Stormonth passport was intended as a means for him and Vallie to escape the grip of the Comintern altogether. In the event, however, he ended up using it at the end of 1922 in order to deepen and regularise his connection with the Soviets. For a variety of reasons – mainly because of ARCOS’s success as a cover for clandestine activity – Jacob’s Comintern bosses decided to transfer him from Scotland to London, and to have him take up a cover job at the trading company under his own name while continuing to engage, almost full-time, in illegal activities. To prepare for the change, Jacob held meetings with some of Britain’s highest-ranking Soviet agents, including Andrew Rothstein, Nikolai Klyshko and the visiting Mikhail Borodin. British Intelligence failed to pick up on any of these meetings, just as it had missed the illegal Stormonth passport, so that during September 1922, Jacob was able to board one of the great transatlantic liners, the SS Carmania, and pose successfully as the thirty-one-year-old Stormonth travelling to America.
Jacob’s immigration to the United States on the fake passport went smoothly and he then destroyed the document (probably thinking that he could always get another one if need be). He and Vallie now reassumed their own names and, after spending a couple of months in New York, returned to Britain. To get back they used their own American passports, travelling aboard the White Star Line’s Majestic service, departing on 3 November 1922. In the ship’s manifest Jacob gave as the couple’s proposed address the exclusive Savoy Hotel in London, home to the iconic Savoy Havana Band, which was just starting to make its mark as one of the hottest jazz acts in town. Jacob had clearly decided on anything but an undercover entrance to London, whether to signal publicly his new status as a highly skilled American whom the Bolsheviks had hired for his professional abilities (rather than an ideological commitment to Communism) or simply to treat himself and his wife before they settled into their new life.
In all the surviving documentation about him, one thing that continuously comes across is Jacob’s heartfelt surprise that he was able to evade the British authorities for so long. Soviet agents typically emphasised the extraordinary lengths they had to go to in order to remain at large. But to Jacob, what was remarkable was the patchy and confused performance of his British adversaries. Having initially feared policemen at a hotel breakfast, by the time he re-entered the country for a second tour of duty and took up his post at ARCOS, he had learned that he could stay at the Savoy and take the entire British security apparatus in his stride, just as any real-life Johnnie Walker would.
The above is an excerpt from The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age, which is available now for purchase.