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Interviewer: Tell me where and when you met the Cohens and how you came to know them.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Unfortunately a rather long story.
Interviewer: Keep it short.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I will keep it as short as possible. I first met Lona and Morris Cohen in Moscow KGB hospital, which is not far from this place, in early October 1992. I would say these were the last weeks, months of Lona's life, and I came there because I was involved in searching for Lona's relatives in the United States, and I had a call from Lona, asking me to come over and help her with making a contact with her sister, who was at that time in Florida. So that was how I first had a chance to see Lona and Morris.
Interviewer: And why was she so desperate to see her sister?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Oh, she said that for many years she was desperate to see not just her sister, but any of her relatives she left behind forty-two years ago, and she was asking her colleagues and people in the intelligence to look for relatives, but it was all in vain. They told her that there was no chance to find any of them, and then back in May, I had a chance to ask American historian, Walter Schnere, who is now got his book on the Rossenburg story, to try to look for Lona's relatives. And Lona's long time friend and former case officer, Anatoly Yakushev, brought me a very carefully written list of Lona's relatives, and I faxed it immediately to New York for Walter Schnere to look, and in a week and a half, Walter was back with at least one sibling, whom he discovered in Florida.
Interviewer: Now, the Cohens had had no contact with their family for how long?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: So the Cohens didn't have a contact with any of their relatives since they left New York in July 1950, so in 1992, it was forty-two years.
Interviewer: Were they lonely?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, they missed their past, they missed America, and they missed their relatives. And it's my feeling, over the two months I was meeting with them, that it was a feeling they developed by the end of their lives, so they, somehow were assessing their lives and they regained their American souls to some extent. For instance, I was told that Lona spoke Russian. So when I was visiting, she could speak very little Russian, and she didn't understand much. So they were very secluded together. They were talking English, and they were very happy to meet me, with whom they could speak English.
Interviewer: Were they politically disillusioned?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think yes. They were politically disillusioned. But again, it was not a thing which they carried throughout all of their life. They just came to this feeling, and I think that Morris even gave an exact date when they finally became politically disillusioned in the Soviet system. So he put it around 1984, 1985, and I remember Lona saying that she understood that it was not an ideal system, but outright totalitarianism she said. So they came to feel this way. And, in December 1992, I managed to take Walter Schnere inside the hospital to see Lona, and it was a type of a prize for finding her sister, and he shared the same feeling with me, because his immediate assessment was that these two people are politically disillusioned, that they feel lonely, that they miss their country and somehow they want to be Americans, and die American.
Interviewer: But the America regards them as traitors.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah American regards them as traitors. It's an interesting thing that this word was, I would say, most often pronounced word by both Morris and Lona during our conversations, because they saw the fourth channel, the humanity, where fear says that a traitor is always a traitor, and that phrase somehow stuck in them, and they spent hours to talk about what's being a traitor, whether they were really betraying their own country and they talked a lot about their motivations of how they come to work for the Soviet intelligence, and it's interesting that, as Lona often said, that she was working for the intelligence to save American lives. So she had her own logic. No she didn't have much education. She was from working family. She was of a, I would say, very average mental development, but she was very emotional and very vocal, and she told me several times, that the brightest memory of her childhood was one day in 1918, when her uncle took her to some place in New York, I don't exactly remember where was it, and I remember that she was saying that he was holding her on his shoulder to see around and she saw the World War I vets coming back and she saw all these young people crippled, maimed, and somehow it was a very strong emotion for her, and she, even at that young age, saw that it's good to spend your life not to let other people die, and again, when it came to the Second World War, it was her motivation, which as far as I know, was rather common among American left wing circles in those years, that by helping the Soviet Union, she's saving American lives. So she was building the whole logic of it, that the United States were very slow to open the second front, and it took them years to commit their units into action, and so the Soviets were alone, bleeding and fighting for democracy, defending American lives, and so by helping them, you save the lives. So, it's my feeling that as a scholar, that it was rather common logic among thousands of Americans in those years, but, some just worked in Russian war relief, some were making donations, but other people just went down to the brink, where they somehow crossed the border from mere assistance into something else. So it took some maybe, character features just to cross this.
Interviewer: Excellent. Did Morris or Lona ever tell you how Morris was recruited?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, we spoke about Morris's time in Spain, because I've told you that Morris was longing for his American past, he was longing for his Spanish past as well, and for his friends in the brigade, so he tried, though his memory was faltering at that time. For instance, at one time it was very funny when I asked him I wanted to tell the legend, how he recruited the young physicist, Morris just blew up. He said, "me recruiting anybody." So it was very funny. And then he--maybe he didn't hear anything--he started telling me that he himself was no physicist, and physics and mathematics were his biggest field. But since, at that time I was not greatly interested in the details of his recruitment, because I knew them more or less, he just confirmed the official story.
Interviewer: Well what did he confirm?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: So he confirmed that he was recruited when in Spain in around 1938, after he was wounded. And that he was recruited and that he got initial intelligence training back in Spain. And then he came back to the United State just to join New York Residentoire. First station.
Interviewer: What did he do for Soviet intelligence at that time, in the late thirties?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: You see it's very interesting that exact--we'll never learn what he exactly did, until we read the archives, because both Morris and Lona were intelligence officers "till their last breath." They always used to say "oh, we can't talk about it yet. Oh, we can't follow this subject yet," and you remember, fifty year old secrets. So maybe they felt that in-built fear in them till their last breath. That's my feeling. When they started telling you something, and then they were controlling themselves. So Lona was controlling Morris. Morris couldn't control Lona, because he couldn't hear well. So, but Lona was controlling Morris to some extent. But sometimes when Morris was really giving you tall stories, then Lona would jump out from her bed and shouted at him like when we were talking about young physicists. Suddenly Lona said "don't you remember these two young physicists whom I met?" And that was the first time when I heard about two young physicists, because we heard an official story of just one young physicist whom she met. For me it was interesting, because just days ago, I was visiting Anatoly Yatzkov in another wing of the same hospital, and he told me in, I would say, more or less general detail about his atomic network, which included ten people. And so, he was very precise that he had five sources inside Los Alamos, so we have a room for one more physicist there, because now as far as we know, one was Fuchs, one was Theodore Hall, one was David Greenglass, and I know that one, the last one in line was a mere technical person. So there is still room for one more whom we don't know. So there is a chance that Lona met with some other physicist, we don't know.
Interviewer: Can you just answer the question I asked you? Did Lona ever tell you how she was recruited?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think it was in most general terms when she was telling me about their love story. That it was both a love marriage and spy marriage at the same time. That he was recruiting her almost simultaneously to be his wife and to join the spy ring. It was a simultaneous operation. But, now I can't say that I remember any great detail.
Interviewer: But did she say that Morris actually recruited her? Did she know that he was spy before they married?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes she did. He told her the whole story. He confessed to her.
Interviewer: And how did she react?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: How did she react? So at first, as far as I remember, there was some hesitation, but then she just joined in.
Interviewer: We talked about this a little bit before. Did they talk to you about why they became spies?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes. Their motivation was to help the Soviet Union with Lona, because she joined during the war. So her motivation as she said was anti war, and to save American lives, and since he joined much earlier, I think that with him it's more ideological. He was more ideological. He was more on communist lines. Though she was also left wing. So I think that he came along on ideological lines. That he was helping and working for socialist, maybe workers' paradise, as people in low Manhattan at that time thought about the Soviet Union.
Interviewer: What were they like as people. Were they contrasting? I mean did they seem an odd couple?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think that they were a perfect couple in terms of contrasting, so he was more of a learn type. He was more philosopher, he had a great library. He read lots of books on history, philosophy and he had a very complicated language. So all his sentences were terribly long, with lots of clauses, and she was of more, I would say, mundane type. She was very over emotional. She could blow up immediately. She could shout at him, and she was, I would say, what's like, a women with, as French say, with courage. She had lots of this in her, and maybe that was again one motivation that she was very adventurous now, and she could go to great risks just to do some mission. And I think that they both enjoyed the process. There are people who enjoy the process. So they are just that type.
Interviewer: Did Lona talk to you at all about the work as a courier? I mean how many places did she visit in the USA?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: It's interesting that Lona was always reverting to one and the same theme: how much she has done for the Soviet Union. And then she would sort of roll back and say "oh, and whether I have done anything worthwhile." And she said that during the war, she worked not only on the atomic line, but she was also working on the industrial line, or military line, and that she was travelling a lot over the United States. Out of the places she told me, I think that she was on the West Coast. She was in Washington state, I remember, Frankfurt, in one of the installations. I definitely remember Oakridge and I think that she travelled a lot in the East Coast as well. So that not to mention her trip, two trips at least, to Los Alamos.
Interviewer: Now when she went to Los Alamos, describe the meetings as far as we know, that she had in Los Alamos. Where was it, who was it with, what did the person look like?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think that her story was pretty much like the story which has been circulating over the years, so it might be correct. She told me that she made two visits to Los Alamos, and she spoke only about one visit when she stayed there over some period of time. And I remember asking her, because she was working at the plant, how has she managed to leave, and she said that she took sick leave for bronchitis, and since it was, there was a resort for lung diseases, that was rather logical that she was staying in some boarding house, and she had a pre-scheduled meeting at a square, not far from the church, but she never told any details like in Checkov the book about some bag with herring.
Interviewer: Okay, so what we know is true?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, so what she said that the meeting. There were several attempts to have a meeting, and she had to come to the place several times. She didn't remember how many exactly, but finally, it was all Sundays. Finally she saw a very young man, and what struck me that she was very young at that time, and that she specifically emphasized the youth of the man, so it didn't fit with the Pursues legend, which was in circulation at that time, because Pursues couldn't be much younger than Lona was at that time. And I think that that's practically all.
Interviewer: Did she describe what he looked like, how he was dressed?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: No, she just said that he was very tall and very young. That was all.
Interviewer: Did she meet another person at Los Alamos?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: That's what she said, that she met with two young physicists, but she never elaborated on whom the second young physicist was.
Interviewer: Could this second physicist be one of the unnamed atom bomb traders?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: She may, because I have a room for it. Because I remember Anatoly Yatzkov telling me that he had five sources. So since we have now, we know that among these five were Fuchs, then Theodore Hall, David Greenglass, then they had some very minor technical person, so there is still a room for one more whom Lona could have met. And then another, okay.
Interviewer: After all her meetings at Los Alamos, she told the famous story of the Kleenex box. Did you know what happened?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, I was also wondering at that time whether it was true, so I asked Lona a couple of times about it, and she always told it the same way, as it's officially told. So I think that under those circumstances, she would make it up.
Interviewer: Can you tell us the story?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, it was rather, I would say story in Lona's style. That when Lona finally came to the train, she put all the materials she received from the young physicist, as she called him, on the bottom of a Kleenex box, with the napkins on top. And she had all her suitcases around. So, to produce her ticket, she just handed this box to the policeman, and asked him to hold it, and then she started looking into her bag for the ticket, then in the case, she went to the carriage, took all her luggage, and only then did she remember that she left the Kleenex box, but at this moment the man was handing her that box, and said that "madam you have left your box behind." So she was telling it absolutely as many people have already heard it. I hope that it's a real story and not an anecdote.
Interviewer: Did Lona meet this young scientist, that we now think is Ted, did she meet him again in 1949?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, she told me about it because we, again in the context, when we were telling about parity anti war feelings, she told me that, at that time, she was already rung by Rudolph April, and they made that trip. As far as I remember, they went to Chicago. They went together, and their aim was to somehow ask this young scientist to continue his work with the Soviet Union. But I remember her saying that, just she was quoting his words saying that "now, after the war's over and the Soviet Union's won, and there is no longer fascism, I just will get back to my science and no more work," and well they just had to take it. There was nothing else to do. So, they were both very disappointed, and they went back. That's all she said.
Interviewer: Did she ever describe the scene where she was ordered to leave the USA?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, because I was interested in her escape route at that time. And she told me that Soko, Yuri Sokolov, whom they knew under another name at that time, of course, came to their apartment, and that they were afraid that the apartment was bugged and they were just writing and not talking, and he told them that it's too dangerous for them to stay and they have to leave. And I even remember the date. She gave the date of July 19th, and Lona, at first, reacted a bit, rather violently that she didn't want to go and Morris also said that they were Americans and they loved America and wanted to stay in their own country, but then Sokolov just wrote that it was an order, and well they have to obey. So they did.
Interviewer: So they fled America to Poland. What did they say about Poland?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Oh, there was a long road to Poland. Do you want me to show the route?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: No okay. So, Lona said that after they came to Moscow, there, it was autumn 1950, and they were very quickly taken to Poland and well, I was very surprised why, and she said, so that Uncle Joe doesn't cut our heads off.
Interviewer: Uncle Joe?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Uncle Joe, I remember her saying that we left so that uncle Joe doesn't cut our heads off.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: And you know, that's what she said, and I was very surprised with it. And I was later thinking how could Lona and Morris, without any Russian, without any friends, acquaintances in the Soviet Union understand that Uncle Joe could have cut their heads off. I think that maybe it was some form of saving valuable agent. It's my feeling that since many people in the intelligent suffered in defense of Stalin and Berea, maybe someone just saved them for future mission and took them out of danger.
Interviewer: But what did she mean when she said uncle Joe might cut off our heads?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, I think that retroactively, but it could be only retroactively. She meant the situation in the Soviet Union at that time, with purges, with massive areas with anti-Semitic campaign, which was called anti-cosmopolitan campaign, with the doctor's case, and Morris was also Jewish, and besides they were both Americans. And to be just a foreigner in the Soviet Union was dangerous enough.
Interviewer: In other words, someone moved them to Poland so they didn't get caught up in the Stalin purges?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, that's my feeling. That they were just saved as future valuable agents.
Interviewer: You were saying how were they different?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Oh, I think they made the perfect couple. He is a man of ideology and I would say a man of letters, talking about philosophy, about history--about, I would say like--a torrent of human life, and she was a woman of action. Not much thinking, but more doing, and maybe they matched because she could overreact. She could even shout at him. She could make his life hell for some. But maybe, at the same time, it was also paradise, maybe.
Interviewer: They were very much in love?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think that they were. Yes, I think. And maybe they kept it to the last days, or he won't be able to tolerate her.
Interviewer: Like a lot of marriages.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah.
Interviewer: Now, a bit of a strange feeling you had about the Rosenbergs, did you say "jealousy about the Rosenbergs?" What was going on?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, that was my insight, and it's interesting that wherever I tried to talk with them about the Rossenburg story, I had a feeling that somewhere, very deep inside, they didn't want to show they had sort of jealousy that they did something for what other people got credit for--credit's bad word, because they got death chair--but still the Rosenbergs' is a landmark story, they were much in the limelight. Maybe it's one of the landmark stories of the centuries and theirs is still a rather obscure story, and rather obscure life. That's why, in their last days, they talked a lot about the need to write or maybe to film something about them, and they were thinking about it, not in terms of Russia, but in terms of the United States, because I told you that they felt themselves very deep inside, Americans, and they want somehow to get back to their American compatriots and to explain themselves to them, and they were even ready to sit in front of a camera and to tell it on camera at that point. But it was a little bit too late for Lona already.
Interviewer: Were they very upset at the idea that Americans would see them as traitors?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, they were very upset, because they always ruminated whether they were traitors, and what's a traitor. And Morris was talking about relativity of history, that maybe a betrayal at some point of history, maybe finally vindicated by history itself. That, he said that, "I always tease them well, it was all during the war, but what was after the war?" And then Morris would say, "Well, and after the war there was nuclear parity, and we don't know whether the world would be a safer place to be," these are Morris words, "if the Soviet Union didn't have atomic weapons, and if America retain their atomic monopoly," which I don't know. That's why he was always thinking that there should be some author, some writer, some historian, who would explain to the present generations, he was talking of young Americans, who are beyond the Cold War pressures. What they have done, they and the others, why they have done it, and whether history will ever--they wanted vindication.
Interviewer: Did they feel that it was right to help Russia get the A-bomb.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: No, they would never speak in these terms. They were speaking in terms, one can say, in term of parity. That I would say that retroactively, in 1992, when they saw the Soviet Union as totalitarian structure, they would never talk about that. But again, at that point in 1945, they thought, because they said that we have to be judged in the same historical frame work, and we can be judged differently. How we did it.
Interviewer: How did it seem for them in 1945?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: And in 1945 they thought that the world would be much safer if both super powers have atomic weapons. That it would give some type of a balance. And maybe retroactively, well, there was no atomic war.
Interviewer: In 1945, how did Lona and Morris justify their actions, in their own minds?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think that in 1945, in their minds, the foremost problem was nuclear parity. So maybe they thought that the world would be a safer place to be if both super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union have atomic weapon, and then that will give the world some sort of balance, because, you see if we somehow go under the skin of the people of their generation, as I read, there was lots of nuclear atomic scare at that time. So people were scary of that weapon. Then they got accustomed, but at that moment they were scary and maybe their logic, well maybe it had its effect, there was no atomic war.
Interviewer: And ...
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes.
Interviewer: They talked about it?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes.
Interviewer: Tell me in your own words how Lona looked up to you in her bed, in the hospital, near death, and said, "Am I a traitor?"
Svetlana Chervonnaya: I think that for Lona it was a current thought.
Interviewer: Can you tell me that story about how she asked you that question?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yeah, she was just, usually it was in late afternoons when we stayed alone in the hospital room. It was dusk, because that was early December or late November and several times I remember her just staring at me and saying "Well, am I a traitor Svetlana?" And I think that that was her deepest thought at that moment, that whether she betrayed her own country, or whether she and her husband did something worthwhile, not only for the Soviets, but for America. So at one point she said "but I didn't kill anybody, and I didn't destroy any American life. No American soldier died because of what I have done." So I remember her saying these words. And for Morris it was more philosophical. So he would go into long discussion of relativity, of human perception.
Interviewer: ... ...
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes, she was also very vocal about it and she also thought that one day deed was maybe history will vindicate them some day. So I think that that was what kept these people going. This hope of final vindication.
Interviewer: But they weren't happy ...at the end. Tell me about where did Lona want her belongings sent.
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Lona.
Interviewer: What, what did Lona want to happen after she died?
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Lona told me several times, and first time it was very strange. She woke me up very early on Sunday morning, it was early October, and I remember her telling that, I even remember her voice "Svetlana I am very bad, you have to come to me and help me. I have no one else." I don't know why did she think so. "I have no one else to help me, and you have, you should come, I want to leave all I have to my sister, and I want to be buried," she even didn't say about ashes, she said that she wanted to be buried in the United States, "or list," she wanted even--she said that she wanted to die in the United States first. That's more correct. She said that "I want."
Interviewer: Just one more time. So she called you ...
Svetlana Chervonnaya: Yes she called me one Sunday morning, very early, and she actually woke me up and starting saying that she was very bad and that she may not wait to see her sister. It was before her sister was to arrive. And that I have to take of her and I have to help her. She wanted to leave everything she had to her sister and then she said that she wanted to be buried in the United States. And later on, maybe in November, I remember her saying that she would like to die in the United States. But it couldn't happen. I think that she dare not tell it anybody. But when I was in her room together with Walter Schnere, he had the same impression that she was missing her country, that she wanted to die in the United States and at least to be buried in the United States. So we both had the same perception.
Interviewer: Good. Very good.