Litvin, Zalman Vulfovich (1908-1993)

Zalman Litvin

Zalman Litvin

Zalman Litvin (a.k.a., Ignatii Samuel Witczak) was an officer of Soviet military intelligence (the GRU) who was the head (resident) of a spy ring on the U.S. West Coast from 1938 to 1945, operating under the cover name of “Mulat,” or “Mulatto.”

Litvin was born in Verkhneudinsk (now Ulan-Ude), in the Russian Far East, into the family of a government employee. In 1926, he graduated from the Chinese section of the Oriental Department of the Far Eastern University. Following his graduation, he worked at a number of foreign trade organizations that were engaged in trade with Asian countries, and particularly with China. In 1929, he was drafted into the Soviet Army for a two-year term as a conscript.

After serving his term, Litvin returned to work at the “Sovsin’torg” (short for “Soviet Trade with China”) organization. In 1931, that organization sent him to Kashgar, in Western China, where he worked at the Soviet trade mission. There, he came into contact with Soviet military intelligence for the first time. Its representative asked Litvin to translate from English documents which his agents obtained from the British Consulate. The experienced intelligence operative had a high opinion of his translator – and when Litvin returned to Moscow in 1933, he received an offer to join military intelligence. In this unorthodox way, Litvin, who was not even a Communist Party member, became enlisted in the Intelligence Directorate of RKKA as a civilian under the command of the Directorate’s head.

In early 1934, after three months of intensive training, Litvin signed on as assistant resident (station chief) in Northern China. His travel route took him through the United States, so he could “legalize” himself as the representative of an American firm whose mandate was to establish an affiliate in China and sell products in Chinese territory. This credential helped Litvin to settle in Harbin. With Manchuria under Japanese occupation since 1931, Litvin’s network supplied Moscow with timely information on Japanese field activity there, as well as on the dispositions and munitions of Japanese forces. The information sent to Moscow included a detailed report on the Kwantung Army, the largest and most prestigious command in the Imperial Japanese Army, which had controlled the political administration of Manchuko, a puppet state founded by the Japanese in Manchuria, since 1932. In the course of his mission, Litvin also made trips to Mongolia and Korea. While in Harbin, he met and married Bunya Faibusovich, who would later become an assistant on his intelligence missions.

In 1936, the Litvins returned to Moscow. Shortly before that, Litvin had become a cadre military officer with the rank of “technician-quartermaster,” which was then the equivalent of U.S. Army Senior Lieutenant. After a few months in Moscow, Litvin was sent on a new assignment – still working against Japan, but this time from the West Coast of the United States, as an “illegal” resident. Initially, his assignment was rather narrow: to build an agent network that would serve as a communication line with the Soviet military intelligence group in Japan (likely, the famous Richard Sorge ring, as it is commonly known in the West). Litvin was given a cover name – “Mulat” (“Mulatto”) – and left Moscow with his wife in 1937.

In early 1938, Litvin arrived in Los Angeles with a Canadian passport in the name of Ignatii Samuel Witchak; there, he enrolled in the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern California as a non-credit student. He was diligent in his studies and, within a year, managed to become a regular student. Reportedly, he was also elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In the same year, he fulfilled his initial intelligence assignment, having built his residency group and put a messenger service with Japan into operation.

Litvin used his time at the university not only as a cover and for his studies, but also for spotting potential recruits. As he would later write in his notes for an unpublished memoir, he took an active part in seminar classes: “… It was there, in the presentations by the students, that their political views were revealed. I listened to such presentations with great attention and made my conclusions about whom I should try to get close to, and who might be of help in solving my tasks.” Litvin graduated from the university, earned a master’s degree in political science a year later, and became an instructor in the same department. Gradually, he managed to build a group which numbered 10 agents, both Japanese-Americans and natives. All of them worked on an ideological basis, without any financial compensation.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Litvin’s assignment changed: now he was to obtain political and technical information on areas such as aircraft engineering, radio engineering, shipbuilding and weapons manufacturing, both from Japan and from the United States. Regarding the latter, he commented that “[ they] would not share [information] with their Soviet war ally.” Simultaneously, he continued teaching constitutional and international law and the history of modern civilization – and went about preparing his Ph.D. thesis.

However, following the defection in Canada of Igor Guzenko, the cipher clerk of the Soviet military attaché (and GRU resident), Litvin’s cover was blown and he was placed under heavy FBI surveillance. After a few weeks in hiding, during which he moved from place to place to escape surveillance, he was secretly transported to the Soviet Union. In March 1946, his wife and their American-born son were also rescued and transported to the Soviet Union. 1

Upon returning to Moscow, Litvin continued his GRU service, now with the rank of colonel. He also reportedly made several “special” trips to Europe and later taught at the Military and Diplomatic Academy of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces (a higher military school specializing in training military intelligence officers). In the spring of 1953, at the height of an anti-Semitic campaign in the USSR, Litvin was discharged from the Army and lost his teaching job at the Military and Diplomatic Academy. He would tell his friends years later that in those days he had feared arrest. For three years, he could not find a job – and earned his living by taking on freelance translation assignments.

In 1956, with the winds of change blowing in the Soviet Union, Litvin became a senior scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (commonly known in Russia as IMEMO) – where he worked until his death in 1993. He was remembered by his colleagues as a “brilliant expert in the United States and the Far East” who had authored a number of interesting works on the problems of China, Japan and the United States. 2

Recalling Litvin’s funeral in 1993, his colleague from IMEMO quoted a speech by a former GRU colleague saying that for many decades Litvin’s work for military intelligence had been “behind the screen;” however, at that point it was already possible to say that “his name [was] among such heroic fighters against Fascism as Richard Sorge, Lev Manevich and Sandor Rado.”

  1.  The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story, by Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, New York: Random House, 1986, pp. 34-36; Svetlana Chervonnaya’s interviews with Zalman Litvin, May 5, 1992 and early 1993.
  2. GRU: Dela i ljudi, V.M. Lurie and V. Ya. Kochik, Moskva: Olma-press, 2003, s. 423 (GRU: The Deeds and the People, by V.M. Lurie and V.Ya. Kochik, Moscow: Olma-Press, 2003, p. 423); V. Kochik. Razvedchiki i rezidenty GRU, Moskva: Eksmo, 2004 (Intelligence Officers and Residents of the GRU, by V. Kochik, Moscow: Eksmo, 2004); Svetlana Chervonnaya’s interviews with Zalman Litvin, May 5, 1992 and early 1993.
  3. Etindzher Ya.Ya. Eto nevozmozhno zabyt’,  Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2001 (This is Impossible to Forget, by Ya.Ya. Ettinger, Moscow: The Whole World, 2001). Lev Manevich was a legendary Soviet intelligence officer and a Hero of the Soviet Union, whose exploits were described in a popular Soviet novel and a movie. Sandor [Alexander] Rado was a Hungarian map-maker and revolutionary who headed an anti-Nazi spy ring in Switzerland between 1939 and 1945.