Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 1-Diplomacy by Murder
1 Diplomacy by Murder
Neither vineyards, nor gardens
Do I ask.
Nor horses, nor sheep.
Don’t take my soul away,
I am curious.
I must see how this game ends!
In a hurry, the neatly dressed little man was panting as he carried a bulky package down Atatürk Boulevard in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. It was 10 o’clock on the pleasant morning of February 24, 1942, a good day for a walk after the oppressive, positively Siberian winter. There was little diversion in that city plopped in the midst of the desolate Anatolian plateau. For entertainment, people might have a drink at the railroad station and watch a train leave. Ankara was jokingly called a diplomatic concentration camp. Turkey was neutral, but this fact and the country’s physical isolation from the war raging in Europe did not prevent that titanic struggle from being the city’s main preoccupation.
Distances were long in Ankara and there were many gaps between buildings. It had been a mere village fifteen years earlier when it was chosen as the new capital, and it still looked like an unfinished real estate development. Britain’s ambassador, Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, thought Ankara “like the realization of one of H. G. Wells’s dreams of the future,” but it was still an incomplete one. The broad boulevards, local wits said, began nowhere and ran past nothing to end nowhere. Each summer, government officials and foreign diplomats fled Ankara’s baking heat, sandstorms, and sirocco wind on the overnight train for the cool breezes of cosmopolitan Istanbul.
No such escape was possible in the winter when the city was imprisoned by deep snows and wolves prowled in the outer suburbs. The lights burned late into the night in the missions of Allied, Axis, and neutral countries–whose buildings often adjoined each other along Atatürk Boulevard–as those within worked to win the ferocious war that raged all around Turkey’s borders.
That January the terrible weather had distracted everyone. It snowed every day for a week. Bus and train service collapsed; food rations were reduced. Newspapers gave lessons on how to follow the European custom of standing in line at stores. People shivered in their homes because there was not enough wood or coal. Life was very hard.
Cabdrivers found few fares, since Turks took buses and foreign diplomats had their own cars. For the taxi driver on Atatürk Boulevard, the man struggling with an oversize package appeared as a miraculous opportunity. The Turk blocked the sidewalk. “Wouldn’t you like a cab, sir?” he asked politely.
“Get out of my way,” the man replied, pushing past him.
“But your burden is heavy and the fare is cheap,” the driver insisted, opening his car’s door. The man ignored him, pressing on, and the driver could only shrug his shoulders and lean back against his automobile. He had a peasant’s patience. Something else would turn up.
A fashionably dressed couple strolled on the other side of the boulevard about 10 yards away. The taxi driver watched the rude man hurriedly walk to a point directly across from the couple and lift his package. A single car passed down the empty street. Constantino Liberali, the Italian embassy’s concierge, stood outside that building’s gate waiting for a bus.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion. The package had blown up, disintegrating its bearer. Window glass shattered for several blocks in all directions. The couple was thrown to the ground. The shaken Liberali ran up and recognized the two people immediately as German Ambassador Franz von Papen and his wife. The wiry, gray-haired ambassador was impeccably dressed in a well-cut suit, bow tie and monogrammed handkerchief. ” Are you hurt?” Liberali asked in Italian. “No,” von Papen replied. Somewhat reassured, Liberali looked up and saw nearby the would-be assassin’s amputated foot lying on the sidewalk.
Von Papen’s personal secretary, who had also been walking to work, helped the ambassador stand up. “Damn it!” von Papen complained. “My best suit!” A trickle of crimson ran down his neck from a broken eardrum. Bits of the assassin’s flesh and spots of his blood covered the von Papens. Officials rushed out of the nearby German embassy. They saw a large pool of blood on the opposite pavement and a battered revolver. Von Papen’s survival seemed incredible.
After the attack, all the byzantine complexity of Turkey during World War II came into play. Ankara was full of rumors as to the assassin’s identity, motives, and employers. There was no shortage of suspects, as spies and saboteurs rubbed shoulders in every hotel, restaurant, and nightclub. There were many refugees whose great sufferings at German hands might induce them to choose von Papen as a target.
Von Papen’s unpopularity sprang from his personal record as well as his post as Hitler’s representative in Turkey. In Germany, von Papen had been a leader of the Catholic Center party. But in 1932 he betrayed his party to become Germany’s chancellor and one of those conservatives who had helped Hitler into power. Von Papen was part pillar, part prisoner of the Nazi regime. Some friends became early critics of Hitler; his own assistant was executed in a 1934 purge. But von Papen collaborated, first as vice-chancellor and then as ambassador to Austria, which he helped Germany annex in 1938. Von Papen then became ambassador to Turkey. His mission was to bring the country into the German orbit or at least keep it from joining Berlin’s enemies.
A few months before the assassination attempt, von Papen visited Berlin–where rumors of his secret contacts with the Allies were common–to shore up relations with Hitler. Ulrich von Hassell, a German diplomat who despised the Nazis, wrote about von Papen in his diary: “He again impressed me as weak. On the other hand, he apparently still has a lot of ambition. At the proper time he would like to take German foreign policy in hand and make peace for Hitler.” If, von Hassell added, von Papen thought Hitler would compromise, he was living in a fantasy world. And if von Papen believed that new German victories in Russia would persuade the Allies to make concessions, he did not know the truth about the faltering German war effort. Time, von Hassell concluded, was on the Allies’ side.
The smooth, well-mannered von Papen was an effective representative
of Hitler’s regime. Many anti-Nazis thought him to be both a brilliant tactician and a powerful, evil genius. One author called him “Satan in a top hat.” Yet despite the popular belief that von Papen was a strong influence behind Hitler’s throne, Berlin’s cliques held him in low regard. Von Papen exaggerated his own power and thought himself Hitler’s most likely successor. This strange combination of subservience and ambition made him both a successful servant of the Nazi regime and a man willing to toy with betraying it, though he never committed himself to supporting the resistance.
Given all this ambiguity, it was difficult to determine which side had sought to assassinate him on that February morning. The Germans blamed the Allies and particularly the Russians for the assassination attempt. Some of von Papen’s subordinates suspected elements in Berlin; the ambassador himself thought the British were responsible. Moscow hinted that the Gestapo was behind the attack and wasted no time cranking up a propaganda barrage. The Tass news agency falsely reported, “Papers found in the clothing of the person killed in the explosion …showed stamps of the German Embassy.” Equally inaccurate was the Soviet ambassador’s claim that the Americans had “irrefutable evidence” of the Gestapo’s responsibility.
More bizarre was the fact that while millions of people were being killed in battle or murdered in concentration camps, the would-be assassin’s breach of diplomatic norms was deemed shocking. At a Berlin dinner party–between discussions about kidnapping French children and raising them as Germans and about the “good news” that the massive deaths of Russians would allow German repopulation of the Soviet Union–Hitler commented that the attempt on von Papen’s life showed the Soviets’ depravity. Not only was the deed itself dastardly, he complained, but Moscow arranged it so that the killer’s bomb would destroy himself as well as his victims, leaving no evidence for tracing the crime.
In the midst of total war, belligerent countries continued to observe diplomatic niceties. This situation had a comic, even farcical, side. On Turkey’s national day, guests at the president’s reception were divided between two rooms: Germany and its partners were in one; the Allies were in another. The neutrals shuttled between them. In 1943, Italy quit the Axis and joined the Allies, posing a complication. When the Italian ambassador was shown into the Axis room, von Papen led a
walkout, complaining of the “traitor’s” presence. But the Greek and Yugoslav envoys, whose countries had been occupied by Italy, also objected to the hapless Italian’s presence among the Allies. He was forced to wander the corridor.
Both sides recognized Turkey’s strategic importance. The Germans needed a foothold in order to defeat the Soviets and penetrate the Middle East. The British and Americans sought bases in Turkey to liberate the Balkans from German control. The Russians, Turkey’s main enemy for over a century, wanted Istanbul and its straits in order to control the Black Sea and ensure their access to the Mediterranean. From Istanbul, the British and Americans ran spy and paramilitary operations into Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. The Germans bribed officials to gain influence and to gather information; the Russians recruited agents. Each of them established secret bases and fought a tug-of-war with the others to win Turkey for its side.
Istanbul also became a haven for a steady stream of dazed refugees from war and persecution in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. Members of the German underground came to inform the Allies of their plans to overthrow Hitler. The valet of the British ambassador worked as a German agent photographing the Allies’ most secret documents. Balkan and neutral businessmen were courted with requests for data on German-ruled Europe. One of them obtained the Reich’s secret industrial address book, invaluable for locating bombing targets. Another produced a map of the Romanian oil fields, Germany’s main source of petroleum. An Austrian engineer provided data on Nazi synthetic-rubber production. German agents were infiltrated into the Arab Middle East to organize uprisings. Delegates from Zionist groups in Palestine worked day and night to smuggle Jews out of danger. Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian officials arrived with mandates from their Axis satellite regimes to negotiate secret surrenders to the Allies. A whole industry arose on the basis of forged and phony information sold to multiple clients. No less than seventeen foreign intelligence services operated in Turkey during the war. The stakes were high, and the measures taken were desperate.
Investigating who had tried to kill von Papen posed dangerous political issues as well as apparently unsolvable investigative problems for the Turkish authorities. To accuse any state of responsibility was to
risk not just diplomatic but perhaps military retaliation. As long as agents observed the ground rules, they had been allowed to function freely, but those attacking von Papen had gone too far. The omnipotent Turkish secret police, the Emniyet (National Security Service), had a well-deserved reputation for effectively countering subversion. With their famous tenacity, the Turks were determined to solve the case and punish the perpetrators, no matter who they might be.
But the scanty evidence did not look promising. The serial number of the revolver recovered at the scene had been filed off. Few fragments remained of the assailant, although it was said that the discovery of a circumcised penis in a nearby tree allowed police to identify him as a Moslem. Investigators discovered that his shoes had been purchased in Ankara about two weeks earlier and that he had been smoking a cigar in a holder, had brownish hair, and had been wearing a hat. The police also had the taxi driver’s description, but with all the ambiguous evidence they could not even be sure that von Papen was the intended victim. After all, several high-ranking Turkish officials had driven by the spot within a few moments of the explosion, and the British military attaché might have been killed if he had not left his apartment, under whose balcony the assassin stood, ten minutes before the bomb wrecked it. Sherlock Holmes would have been stymied.
Within two days, however, an incredible breakthrough occurred, bringing some amazing surprises. The Turkish police identified the killer and arrested several alleged accomplices. The assailant was a 25-year-old Yugoslav Moslem named Omer Tokat. A teacher’s son, Tokat had joined the underground Yugoslav Communist party as a student. He moved to Turkey in October 1940, enrolled in Istanbul University’s law school, and became a Turkish citizen.
The identification of Tokat was only the beginning. The police then surrounded the Soviet consulate in Istanbul. They demanded that George Pavlov, an employee listed as archivist, be surrendered for questioning. After a two-week siege, Pavlov was given up to the authorities. A second Russian, Leonid Kornilov, a transportation expert for the Soviet trade delegation, was arrested on a train near the Soviet- Turkish border while trying to sneak out of the country. Two other men–Suleiman Sagol, a barber, and Abdurrahman Sayman, a medical student–were also taken into custody; both, like Tokat, were Yugoslav Moslems and Communists who had taken Turkish nationality.
The Russian press launched an all-out campaign attacking Turkey for, according to Pravda, “yielding to the demands and indulging the interests of the German Fascist circles, which are attempting to cover the traces of those really guilty of the provocation.” Soviet diplomats told their colleagues that the charges were slanderous German propaganda, part of the Nazi effort against the Allies. Why were the Turks furthering this farce? Why didn’t the British and Americans protest?
Soviet Ambassador Sergei Vinogradov asked the Turks to release the two Russians in order to improve relations, and he gave his personal assurance of the men’s innocence. The Turkish foreign minister replied that this satisfied him but, unfortunately, was not sufficient for the judges. Characteristically, the U. S. government believed in the innocence of its Soviet ally, while the British felt that political expediency, not guilt or innocence, should deter prosecution. The case was turning into an international incident that might threaten the Allies’ strategic position. London and Washington agreed that the Turks were being too rigid and should drop the whole matter.
Although angry about Soviet pressure, Turkish leaders nonetheless, told newspaper editors to tone down criticisms of the U.S.S.R. since the situation was so delicate and fraught with danger. But the Turks were proud and stubborn. As a contemporary U.S. Army intelligence report put it, “The Turks cannot be driven to anything…. They are conspicuous among the human creation for their obstinacy.” Amidst his own warnings for calm, the head of the Turkish government press bureau could not restrain himself from adding, “If necessary we will fight the Russians!”
The trial began April 2, 1942, with a startling revelation: the two Turkish defendants confessed that the Soviet government had ordered the assassination “to disturb the good relations between Turkey and Germany and to assure the entrance of Turkey into the war to the advantage of the Russians.” Tokat was recruited because his nationality and religion would direct Berlin’s suspicions toward Turkey. He agreed to be the triggerman after being told that his fiancée in German-occupied Yugoslavia had been mistreated.
In addition to a revolver, the Russians gave Tokat a package they said contained a smoke bomb which he was supposed to set off after the shooting to cover his escape. The overcautious Tokat had pressed the device’s button just as he took a pistol shot at von Papen. But the
“bomb,” filled with dynamite rather than smoke, exploded with such a devastating blast that only after police recovered a bullet from the scene did anyone realize a gun had been fired.
The political situation became increasingly tense. On April 18, Turkey’s foreign minister told the British ambassador, “Even if it comes to war we shall not change our attitude!” When a Soviet embassy car accidentally knocked down a Turkish soldier outside the courtroom, an officer incited the crowd and a riot was narrowly averted. Meanwhile, the invading German army continued to drive deeper into the U.S.S.R., breaking through into the Caucasus Mountains on Turkey’s northern border. The Turks moved three army divisions to that frontier to oppose any incursion from German or Soviet troops.
As the trial continued, prosecution witnesses–some of doubtful credibility–tied together the four defendants, the dead gunman, and the assassination attempt. A clerk from Tokat’s hotel in Ankara identified clothing recovered from the scene of the crime. Experts found a wart between the deceased’s eyebrows matching that in photographs of Tokat. A tobacco shop owner said he saw Pavlov talking to Sayman near Istanbul’s Azak cinema; another man recounted having observed Kornilov and Sagol meeting at the Marcel hairdresser’s shop in Istanbul one morning. The taxi driver who had witnessed the explosion testified that he saw Kornilov, shortly before the event, sitting in the driver’s seat of a red car, license plate number 320, belonging to the Soviet embassy.
The plot, said the prosecutor in his closing statement, was “prepared lengthily, slyly and treacherously.” The two Russians were actually agents of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), who organized the conspiracy. They were helped by a third Yugoslav Communist who came from the U.S.S.R. in October 1941, feigned illness, and obtained a temporary residence permit for Istanbul. This man was an assassination expert who trained Tokat. Two months later, he ostensibly left for Cairo to join the Yugoslav army-in-exile there. But he was never seen again.
Moscow’s motive, continued the prosecutor, was to have von Papen’s murder set off a German-Turkish conflict that would relieve pressure on a Soviet Union hard-pressed by the German invaders. If Turkey went to war, the Russians could use Turkish territory as abase to defend their southern flank, their oil fields, and the Black Sea. The plot failed, concluded the prosecution, “only thanks to a stroke of great luck.”
In rebuttal, Pavlov proclaimed, “The despicable slanderers sitting here in the dock are being used by the enemies of my country for provocative purposes against the Soviet Union and for undermining Soviet-Turkish relations.” Both Russians denied knowing Tokat or their fellow defendants. Sagol identified him, Pavlov claimed, because the police had showed him a photo earlier. The case, Pavlov said mockingly, “was something like the stories found in fashionable detective novels.”
Despite Pavlov’s speech, on June 17 the court found all four defendants guilty. Kornilov and Pavlov were sentenced to twenty years, and the two Turks were given ten years despite their cooperation with the prosecution.
The Soviets were not alone in questioning the verdict. U.S. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt commented, “The state has not only failed to establish the guilt of the Soviet defendants beyond a reasonable doubt but has not even made out a prima facie case against them.” A number of British observers agreed. British and American skepticism could only have been heightened during the next few months as the prosecution’s case appeared to fall apart.
The two Russians appealed their sentences and again appeared in court on November 4. Looking healthier than they had at the original trial despite months in prison, Pavlov and Kornilov cheerfully gave the Communist clenched-fist salute to Soviet diplomats and journalists. Again, they claimed to be victims of a frame-up, complaining that there was no direct proof of guilt and that some of the defense lawyers were incompetent or corrupt. They asked for twenty-five new witnesses and demanded new judges. All their motions were denied. The appeal dragged on with much repetition, little new evidence, and a great deal of vituperation. At one point, Pavlov claimed Sagol’s testimony was unreliable because Sagol suffered from venereal disease.
In December, however, came a dramatic confrontation amidst another dull exchange of charges and countercharges. Sagol rose to his feet and addressed the judges: “The man disintegrated by the explosion is not Tokat. I can cite witnesses who have seen Omer in Ankara since the explosion.” The courtroom buzzed with excitement as journalists scribbled notes. Sagol remained calm; the prosecutors conferred. Kornilov whispered a translation in Pavlov’s ear.
!ijr “My previous depositions were all false. Sayman succeeded in convincing
me that it was necessary to make these depositions. I am ready to name the organization that prepared the attack…. I will prove to you that I never introduced Sayman to the Russians. I never set foot in the Russian embassy…. During my first deposition, I had spoken of a Russian whose nose was shaped like an eggplant. I ask you Mr. President, look at Kornilov’s nose, does it look like an eggplant?” The tension dissolved into laughter which quickly quieted when Sagol claimed he had confessed only after being tortured.
The chief judge tried to maintain order. “Here in this tribunal, you are not the object of such torture. You have for months been sworn to speak the truth. And you always kept silence. You could speak freely and you did not do it. Why didn’t you speak from the first day?”
“I didn’t know Turkish well enough,” Sagol replied. His real contact had been neither Pavlov nor Kornilov but a man with “blond hair and with an eggplant nose” to whom Sayman introduced him in Istanbul’s Taksim Square Park. The rattled judge asked, “What is the opinion of the prosecutor?”
“Mr. President, members of the court, Suleiman Sagol pretends to having lied and not spoken the truth until now. Now he is lying, lying openly. I have on several occasions questioned him directly. He was sincere in his depositions.”
“No! No!” exclaimed Sagol.
“Be quiet!” demanded the judge. The spectators moved their heads back and forth as if watching a tennis match.
“Mr. President,” interjected Sayman, “Sagol changed his story because he understood that everything had been discovered. ” After the last session, Sayman added, Pavlov told him, “All is not lost.” They could still save themselves by denouncing their earlier testimony.
Amidst this pandemonium, the court adjourned for lunch. At 2 o’clock, when it reconvened, the Palace of Justice was packed. The Court of Appeals’ judges refused to accept Sagol’s new statement; they confirmed the guilty verdict but reduced the two Russians’ sentences to sixteen years and eight months. The case was closed. Although the Russian prisoners were released as a goodwill gesture in August 1944, the von Papen assassination affair became part of a legacy of Soviet-Turkish antagonism that would contribute to the onset of the Cold War between them.
Yet the mystery and confusion around the case persisted. Why had he Turks taken such a tremendous risk in arresting and prosecuting Kornilov and Pavlov on such limited evidence? Who was really responsible for the attempted assassination?
Only many decades later could the real story be pieced together. In fact, the Turkish authorities had secret information from two witnesses who could not be called to testify but who rightfully convinced them of Soviet responsibility.
One of them was Milos Hanak, the Czech ambassador to Turkey. After the German empire swallowed his country in 1939, Hanak lost his diplomatic standing. In a miniature blitzkrieg that antagonized many other diplomats, von Papen evicted Hanak from the Czech ambassadorial residence and seized it for his own use.
Refused diplomatic license plates, the Hanaks gave up their car. Nearly impoverished, they moved to a little apartment from which they struggled on behalf of their government-in-exile to maintain links with the underground resistance movement at home. Cooperating with their British and American allies, the Hanaks and a small band of refugee Czech intelligence officers made a disproportionately large contribution to the anti-Nazi war effort.
The policy of the Czech government-in-exile in London was to cooperate closely with Moscow. Of all the Allied governments and intelligence agencies, the Czechs had the best relations with the Soviets. The Czech leaders were convinced that the Russians would dominate central Europe after the war and that Czech independence would depend on Moscow’s tolerance.
One day, early in 1942, this connection gave Hanak an unexpected opportunity to strike another blow against Germany. Soviet Ambassador Sergei Vinogradov met Hanak at a diplomatic reception and asked him to invite the Soviet press attaché in Ankara to lunch. Hanak complied. At the appropriate time, Leonid Naumov, a stout man with baggy clothes, knocked on Hanak’s door. Naumov had come to Turkey a few months earlier as the NKVD chief. He bragged that his orders came directly from Stalin. His mission was to arrange von Papen’s assassination.
Naumov was confident that Hanak would help him. As they finished lunch and sat over coffee, Naumov invited Hanak to “collaborate” in
the plot to kill von Papen. Czech resistance militants could be brought to Ankara as “students” to act as triggermen. Hanak, shocked and angry, shouted, “I am not a murderer! Get out!” Unaccustomed to being so addressed, Naumov vowed revenge and stormed out the door. Deprived of Czech help, Naumov decided to use Yugoslav Communists instead. He traveled between Istanbul and Ankara seven times to make the arrangements.
The Soviets would remember Hanak’s behavior. A few weeks later, he was swimming near Istanbul and saw a man paddling powerfully toward him and carrying a knife. Hanak raced toward shore. Suddenly, a passing boat came between them. The Czech widened his lead and safely reached the beach. He told the Turkish authorities about the conversation with Naumov.
After the war, Moscow demanded that Hanak be fired from his position as ambassador to Turkey. The Czech government complied but then named him ambassador to Belgium. Again, the Soviets objected and Prague fired him once more. Hanak returned home. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, he was on the arrest list. Laurence Steinhardt, the U.S. ambassador in Prague at that time, had befriended Hanak during the war when he was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Steinhardt had the Hanaks smuggled across the border in his own car. Mrs. Hanak lay on the back seat under a blanket while her husband hid in the trunk. They settled in Washington.
The other informant on the von Papen case took even greater risks. He was Ismail Akhmedov, the short, powerfully built Soviet press attaché in Istanbul. The 38-year-old Akhmedov, a Soviet Turk from a small town, had grown up in an atmosphere of traditional Islam, one in which a sentimental love for Istanbul was combined with his people’s tough independent character. His family suffered greatly in the Bolshevik revolution and ensuing civil war. The world of his youth disappeared. Akhmedov eventually joined the Soviet army and became a military intelligence operative. One of his assignments in the 1930s was to run agents across the wild Soviet-Turkish border.
He was sent to Berlin in May 1941, nominally as a Tass reporter, to study the German army. When the Nazis invaded the U.S.S.R. a few weeks later, Akhmedov was interned with other Soviet personnel. Since he was circumcised, the Germans thought he was Jewish and
harassed him. Akhmedov learned three things in Germany: the Nazi regime’s bestiality, Stalin’s stupid refusal to heed warnings of the impending invasion, and Moscow’s view that the United States and Britain were only temporary allies who would be treated as enemies once the war ended.
Germany and the U.S.S.R. finally exchanged their interned citizens through Turkey. And so Akhmedov for the first time reached Istanbul, the fabulous city he had heard about so often as a boy. He was not disappointed. Entering the city, he gazed in wonder at its minarets, mosques, old palaces, and beautiful natural setting. But Moscow’s repressive hand quickly descended. Akhmedov and his colleagues were confined to the Soviet embassy’s summer residence. Never again might he see Istanbul, Akhmedov thought, as he boarded a train back to Russia. When it stopped in Ankara, however, he was taken to a meeting with Vinogradov. The ambassador told him he was being transferred to Istanbul.
It was a dream come true. Akhmedov now pursued three simultaneous callings. As press attaché, he dealt with foreign journalists, trying to influence them according to Moscow’s directives. As a lieutenant colonel in Soviet military intelligence, he recruited agents and ran spy networks into German-held areas. For himself, Akhmedov basked in the city and culture that was his own heritage.
Akhmedov spent much time with new Turkish friends at restaurants, nightclubs, museums, mosques, and the university. Vinogradov warned him that “Turkey is our enemy and one day she is going to pay for it. Remember that.” But Akhmedov began to identify with the country, particularly after hearing about his wife’s death in the U.S.S.R. The Soviet authorities gave him no explanation. He wondered if the NKVD might have murdered her.
Akhmedov knew Naumov’s true mission and Pavlov’s expertise at staging murders and kidnappings. “I guess they are cooking up something extraordinary,” a colleague said when Naumov and Pavlov arrived in Istanbul. One of Akhmedov’s men was the Soviet agent who introduced Pavlov to Sagol and Sayman.
“Naumov” was the cover name for none other than Leonid Eitingon, whose still-mysterious career was one of the most remarkable in the history of twentieth-century espionage. He had been a Soviet operative
in China during the 1920s and then Istanbul resident for the secret police in 1929. Next, he was assigned to the NKVD’s “Special Tasks” section, which carried out Stalin’s bloodiest deeds. He went to Spain in 1936 to kill anti-Stalin leftists during the civil war; the next year found him as a Soviet military attaché in Paris, where he kidnapped the leader of the most important anti-Communist Russian émigré group.
His greatest achievement, however, won him promotion to the rank of deputy director for Soviet military intelligence. In 1940 he went to Mexico to organize the murder of Leon Trotsky. A first assassination attempt in May, involving the world-famous Mexican muralist David Siqueiros as triggerman, failed, though one of Trotsky’s bodyguards was killed. Eitingon planned more carefully the second time, recruiting the son of his Spanish Communist mistress to commit the crime. In August, the plot was successful and Eitingon escaped back to the U.S.S.R. The killing of von Papen was his next assignment.
Akhmedov participated in the debate at the U.S.S.R.’s Istanbul consulate when Naumov wanted to resist the Turkish police by force, but cooler heads in Moscow ordered the consulate to surrender Pavlov. The delay, however, gave Naumov enough time to invent a cover story and coach Pavlov on his testimony. During the trial, when Moscow sent the NKVD general in charge of violent operations to investigate what had gone wrong in Turkey, Vinogradov told him that Akhmedov was to blame for revealing the plan to the Turks. It was agreed that Akhmedov was to be the scapegoat for the mess.
Vinogradov ordered Akhmedov to come from Istanbul to Ankara for a meeting in the embassy. The ambassador told the press attaché that he must return to Moscow escorted “for his own safety” by two armed Soviet couriers. Akhmedov took the train back to Istanbul to wind up his affairs. The express cluttered over the featureless Anatolian plateau. Next to him sat one of his closest friends and coworkers. He was not afraid to go home, Akhmedov said, and was quite willing to be sent to the front.
“Look, my dear friend,” his colleague interrupted, “you are in big, big trouble. If I were you, I would not go back…. You are finished. You will never see Moscow as a free man.” Everyone else in the embassy already knew that Naumov, needing a scapegoat, was claiming that Akhmedov had tipped off the Turks, British, and Yugoslavs about the plot. Vinogradov was reporting that Akhmedov was pro-Turkish. “People
bigger than you, generals and marshals of the Red Army, prominent party members, and untold thousands of others” had died in the secret police’s cellars, his colleague continued. His only way out was to defect. Akhmedov smiled. Perhaps this was merely an attempt to discover his true feelings. Years of intelligence work and of life in Stalin’s Russia had made him suspicious. He had no intention of running away, Akhmedov retorted. But whether or not the warning was sincere–Akhmedov later concluded that it was–its accuracy was apparent.
Soon after returning to Istanbul, Akhmedov left the consulate, made sure he was not being followed, and hailed the first passing taxi. He got out near Istanbul’s labyrinthine bazaar, bought a pack of cigarettes, walked a bit further, and then took another cab over the Galata Bridge. At the first public telephone, he called the Yugoslav military attaché and a British intelligence man. He met them clandestinely–the former in a busy cafe, the latter on a local train going to the city’s beach–and told them of his plan to defect. Then Akhmedov returned to his apartment and tried to sleep, but he tossed and turned most of the night. The next day he went to the consulate offices, where he typed a farewell note denouncing the Soviet system and balanced his accounts to forestall charges of embezzlement. Then he told everyone that he was going to lunch and walked outside, across the courtyard to the consulate gate. Just before Akhmedov reached the exit, a colleague stopped him. Akhmedov thought he was about to be arrested, but the man merely wanted to ask if they could dine together. Some other time, Akhmedov replied.
Once out the gate, he made his way to police headquarters to request asylum. He was given six bodyguards under orders to shoot if Soviet agents tried a kidnapping. A small boat took him across the Bosporus to a safe house, where he was debriefed by the Turkish army and Emniyet. No Turkish leader could now doubt that Moscow had ordered von Papen’s assassination or ignore the Soviet effort to subvert Turkey.
These hidden events revealed a complex pattern of deceit. The Soviet authorities, of course, assumed that Akhmedov and Hanak had told the Turks about the plot. Thus, the Kremlin understood that its guilt was fully known to Ankara. All the bluster and threats, then, were not expressions of innocent outrage or even just propaganda; rather, they were a campaign to intimidate the Turks so that they would back down and bury the facts.
The Turks did not want a confrontation with the Russians, but they pursued the case to make crystal-clear their rejection of Soviet subversion. Turkey’s refusal to knuckle under was a prelude to standing firm against the Soviet attacks on its sovereignty that would occur after the war.
The attempt on von Papen’s life was only one of many events that made the covert battles in Turkey so vital to the war’s outcome. The entanglement of motives, spies, and plots meant that Istanbul, whose name was already redolent of espionage and romance, fulfilled its reputation.