Pastelnyak, Pavel Panteleimonovich (1903 – c. 1960)

A Soviet state security officer who was posted in New York from 1939 to November 1943 and from May to July 1944.

Pastelnyak was born in 1903 in the township of Scherbinovka in the Ekaterinoslavskaya gubernia of the Russian empire (now the Dnepropetrovsky region of Ukraine). He reportedly had a military background and began his military service with the border troops which were part of the Soviet State Security system (GB). Later he transferred to counterintelligence. 1

According to the notes on KGB intelligence files taken by a former KGB officer and journalist, Alexander Vassiliev, during his research in 1994 and 1995 for what was planned as a Russian-American collaborative project, Pastelnyak was sent to New York in March 1939 “as the head of a group, which was to ensure security at the Soviet pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.” After the exhibition closed, he was transferred to NKVD foreign intelligence and appointed assistant “legal” resident in New York, under the cover of Vice-Consul. In New York, Pastelnyak worked under the name of Pavel Klarin, with the cover name “Luka.” Judging from Vassiliev’s notes on a cable from Moscow Center, “Luka”/Pastelnyak was to continue “working in the United States as assistant station chief,” with the prospect of being promoted to station chief after the recall of the current station chief, Gajk Ovakimyan. The Center also informed “Luka” that he had been provided with a special cipher for independent correspondence with the Center – and promised to send him “a reliable cipher clerk” “in the next few days.” [2. Alexander Vassiliev, White Notebook #1, p. 15, Op. cit.; Viktor to Luka, undated (some time after April 4, 1940), Ibid., p. 130.]]

Reading Vassiliev’s notes at their face value, his American co-authors, historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, concluded:

The KGB’s chief of foreign intelligence had contacted an officer of the KGB New York station by a back channel to prepare him to take over when the station chief was lured back to Moscow to face what was likely to be a grim fate. Moscow Center was even sending a new cipher officer to assist with the plot against its senior officer in the United States. … Pastelnyak … had only limited experience in foreign intelligence and spoke poor English. He … had originally been sent to New York to oversee security at the Soviet exhibit at the 1939 New York World Fair. When that task ended and with most New York station officers recalled, the KGB shifted Pastelnyak over to foreign intelligence and made him Ovakimyan’s assistant station chief.

Ovakimyan received orders to leave New York in March 1940 and return to Moscow…. He did not go and remained the KGB New York station chief. … Exactly what happened is not set out in the documents in Vassiliev’s notebooks or elsewhere. Pastelnyak, however, continued back-channel communications with Moscow Center at least through April 1940. 2

The Soviets left the New York World’s Fair (which officially closed on October 27, 1940) in early December, 1939, closing their pavilion in response to a sudden order from Moscow. But according to Vassiliev’s notes, the head of NKVD foreign intelligence, Pavel Fitin, had recommended Ovakimyan’s recall more than a month earlier, in October 1939 — and the orders to return to Moscow were sent to Ovakimyan in March 1940. 3

Vassiliev’s sketchy notes do not shed any light on the real circumstances behind Pastelnyak’s “shift.” As elsewhere in their book, Haynes and Klehr hurry to pronounce their reading final, claiming that “exactly what happened is not set out in the documents in Vassiliev’s notebooks or elsewhere.” Rather simple crosschecking reveals that the story is indeed set forth “elsewhere,” including in sources that are accessible to non-Russian readers.

The earliest publicly available source turned up in a rather well-known early 1950s publication of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Entitled “The Shameful Years: Thirty Years of Soviet Espionage in the United States,” the publication was originally released on December 30, 1951. Among many other things, it sheds light circumstantially on an early 1940s U.S.-British counterintelligence operation, in the course of which some correspondence between the New York and Mexico City NKVD outposts from 1941 to 1943 was intercepted and partially deciphered. By breaking the NKVD ciphered messages and undertaking follow-up counterintelligence measures, U.S. counterintelligence managed to uncover the Soviet operation to rescue the assassin of Leon Trotsky from a Mexican prison. According to the HUAC report, “ciphered messages between New York City and Mexico ceased in November 1943. Shortly thereafter, Pavel Klarin, vice consul of the Soviet consulate general, New York City, was transferred to Mexico City.” The follow-up investigation disclosed that, in Mexico City, Pavel Klarin (Pastelnyak’s diplomatic alias) was contacted “upon numerous occasions” by individuals identified as participants in the plot. 4

According to a semi-official Russian history of KGB foreign intelligence, the counter-espionage operation behind the HUAC report was code-named “The Friedman Case” [“Delo Fridmana”]. Allegedly, this code name was leaked to the press in 1946. Other details were also leaked, including the fact that the operation was run out of the Soviet diplomatic missions in New York and Mexico City, and that Klarin was one of five intelligence officers involved in the plot. 5

Next, Pavel Klarin’s temporary transfer to Mexico City, and his involvement with the plans for the assassin’s escape, were revealed in a few NKVD messages between Mexico City and Moscow in December 1943 that were partially deciphered in the course of the Venona operation. At the time these messages were released, Klarin was identified as the Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City from November 23, 1943 to May 24, 1944 – a man who “served previously and subsequently in the USA.” 6 The Venona-sourced story was summarized in a 2000 book, The Venona Secrets, by Herbert Rommerstein and Eric Breindel, who correctly described “Pavel Klarin, Venona code name ‘Luka’,” as the assistant to the “senior intelligence officer in charge of the operation,” Leonid Eitingon (known in Venona cables as “Tom”). The authors cited the third volume of the Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence as their source. 7

The Essays Rommerstein and Breindel cited comprise a semi-official history of KGB foreign intelligence. They were based on the KGB’s archival records and written on the initiative of its successor agency, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). But the two authors skipped an earlier New York leg of the story, which revealed what was actually behind Pastelnyak’s independent line of communication with Moscow Center. This detail can be gleaned from Vassiliev’s notes on early 1940 communications between Moscow Center and its New York outpost, as well as from the “Operation ‘Duck’” chapter in the Essays cited above. This chapter describes the story of the NKVD conspiracy to assassinate Leon Trotsky. It is based on a thorough search for surviving documentation – and an analysis and evaluation of that material. According to the writer, some of the documents were destroyed in the 1950s. 8

According to this chapter, following the outbreak of World War II, the NKVD had to make changes in the international communication lines between its Center in Moscow and its people in Mexico, which required the organization of an intermediary outpost in New York City:

In connection with the war in Europe, it was necessary to re-structure the system of communication with the people in Mexico. France was eliminated from the initial plan, and the intermediary outpost was organized in the USA. A special operative of the Center named Pavel Panteleimonovich Patelnyak (according to his documents, P. P. Klarin) was dispatched to the Soviet Consulate General in New York. He was made the case officer of several agents and confidential contacts. It was planned that the mail communication between New York and Mexico would be conducted both in concealed writing and with the use of individual ciphers. 9

The next sentence in the chapter, “We do not know much about the period between December 1939 and May 1940,” may be taken as a tentative dating of the initial stage of Pastelnyak’s mission. Beginning with May 21, 1940, the chapter cites quite a lot of activity centered around the New York outpost of “Operation ‘Duck’,” which was supervised by Pavel Pastelnyak/Klarin. 10

This explains the real purpose of the Center’s move to provide Pastelnyak “with a special cipher for an independent correspondence with the Center,” and its promise to send him “a reliable cipher clerk,” both of which are mentioned in the Vassiliev notes cited above. That cipher and the cipher clerk were to be used exclusively in the communications outpost Pastelnyak operated in New York.

The important role he played in safeguarding the communications in the top-secret “Operation Duck” – which resulted in the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City on August 20, 1940 – earned Pastelnyak a high government award. According to the once highly confidential award list from June 6, 1941, he was among a small group of NKVD officials who were secretly given awards for the assassination of Leon Trotsky. His name appears last among a group of six – as a recipient of the lowest award on the list, the Order of the Red Star. 11

In May 1941, the “legal” resident in New York, Gajk Ovakimyan, was arrested by FBI agents – and Pastelnyak/Klarin was appointed acting resident in New York. 12 Pastelnyak is credited with sending Moscow Center one of the earliest warnings on the beginning of Allied work on the atomic bomb. Responding to a request from Moscow on November 24, 1941, he sent back a cable informing the Center that “American professors Urey, Bragg and Fowler have left for London to work on the explosive of a mighty force.” 13

With the arrival in early January 1942 of the new “legal” resident, Vassili Zarubin, Pastelnyak stepped down to the position of assistant resident. As stated above, Klarin served as Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City from November 23, 1943 to May 24, 1944, and then briefly returned to New York. He departed for the USSR in July 1944. 14 Pastelnyak reportedly died at the age of 57. 15

  1. Alexander Feklisov. Za okeanom i na ostrove. Moskva: “DEM,” 1994, s. 23 (Alexander Feklisov, Across the Ocean and on the Island, Moscow: “DEM,” 1984, p. 23); Alexander Vassiliev, White Notebook #1, p. 133 (notes on the file “Luka”); p. 15 (notes on V. M. Zarubin to V.N. Merkulov, September 30, 1944.)
  2. Spies. The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Yale University Press, 2009, p. 495.
  3. “Russia Leaves the Fair,” The New York Times, December 2, 1939; Fitin to Beria, October 27, 1939; Vassiliev’s note on p. 354 in “Gennady” (Ovakimyan) file: “Gennady was supposed to depart on 3 March 1940, taking the route Naples – Rome – Berlin.” Op. cit., p. 129.
  4. The Shameful Years. Thirty Years of Soviet Espionage in the United States, prepared and released by the Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Congress. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1952.
  5. “Operatsija ‘Utka’,” Ocherki po istorii rossiiskoi vneshnei razvedki, Moskva: Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija, 2003, tom 3, 1933-1941, s. 106 (“Operation ‘Duck’,” Essays on the History of Russian Foreign Intelligence, Moscow: International Relations, 2003, vol. 3, 1933-1941, p. 106.
  6. Venona KGB Mexico City to Moscow, No. 158, 23 December 1943; No. 174-176, 29 December 1943; No. 177-179, 30 December 1943 – 3 January 1944.
  7. The Venona Secrets. Exposing Soviet Espionage and American Traitors, by Herbert Rommerstein and Eric Breindel, Regnery Publishing Company, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 348.
  8. (“Operation ‘Duck’,” Op. cit., pp. 90-109.
  9. Ibid., p. 98.
  10. Ibid., pp. 98-103.
  11. “Postanovlenie Politburo TsK VKP (b) “o nagrazhdenii Merkader K.R., Eitingona N.I., Vasilevskogo L.P. i dr,.” 14 ijunja 1941. – Fond 17, opis’ 163, delo 1316, l. 45, RGASPI. (“Decision of the Politburo of the Central Committee of VCP (b) on awarding Merkader C. R., Eitingon N.I., Vasilevsky L.P. and others,” June 14, 1941. – Fund 17, description 163, file 1316, p. 45, RGASPI)
  12. Alexander Feklisov, Op. cit.; V. Zarubin to V. Merkulov, Op. Cit.
  13. Razvedka i sozdanie atomnoi bomby (Intelligence and the Creation of the Atomic Bomb), “Urey, Bragg and Fowler” were Harold Urey, Peter N. Bragg and Glenn Fowler.
  14. Alexander Vassiliev’s notes on the “Luka” case, Op. cit.
  15. “Ukrainskie ohotniki za atomnymi sekretami,” Zerkalo nedeli, avgust 28, 2009 (“The Ukranian Hunters for Atomic Secrets,” The Weekly Mirror, August 28, 2009), The details of Pastelnyak’s biography prior to his U.S. posting that are cited in this article turned out to be wrong.