Kristaps Salniņš: The Spy Who Stuttered

This article has been adapted by Philip Ruff from the English manuscript of his book A Towering Flame – the life and times of Peter the Painter (published in Latvian translation as “Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs. Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve”, Dienas grāmata, 2012).

Born in Riga in 1885, Kristaps Salniņš (known as Griška) was a former art student, and draughtsman at the Fenikss factory in Riga. Despite a rather unprepossessing physical appearance (‘slightly more than average height, very skinny, blond, stammers, wears shoes size 14’)[1], Salniņš was a physically strong and quick-witted character, renowned for keeping a cool head in the tightest of corners (and a weakness for posing for photographs). In 1912 Salniņš emigrated to America from Belgium as “Alfred Laubergs” and settled in Boston, where he worked for the Redville steamship repair company. In America Salniņš was one of the editors of the Latvian Social Democracy’s newspaper “Stradnieks” (The Worker), and was secretary of the central committee of the “Amerikas latviešu koporganizācijas” (Latvian United Organisation of America), which had 2,000 members in USA and Canada, and was affiliated to the left wing of the US Socialist Party. He left behind him a history of derring-do that would defy belief, except for the fact that it was all true: bold guerrilla exploits in the 1905 revolution; running guns into the Baltic for Lenin; suspected by the British Special Branch of involvement in the “Tottenham Outrage” of 1909; and narrowly avoiding the guilt by association that befell Jēkabs Peterss in the Houndsditch Murders case of 1910.  The apparent calm of his life in America proved only to be an interlude in a remarkable secret career.

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Salniņš in Red Army uniform, wearing the Order of the Red Banner

Soon after the fall of the tsar, in April 1917, Salniņš travelled to Russia via Japan and found work in a rail wagon repair workshop in Vladivostok. But his proven talent for underground activity marked him out for more secret work. In October 1917 the Bolshevik Maritime Committee sent Salniņš back to America. He found work with a steamship construction company in San Francisco, but his real job was to agitate among the lorry drivers in the port against the supply of military equipment to the White army of Admiral Kolchak in Siberia. It was while engaged in this activity in 1918 that Salniņš was enrolled in the newly formed Red Army; becoming the first agent of Soviet military intelligence to operate in the USA.[2]  In June 1920 Salniņš left San Francisco, travelling via China to Siberia, with a shipment of medical supplies for Red partisans fighting against Kolchak. There he joined the Bolshevik 2nd Amur Army and was sent to Vladivostok for underground work.[3] Between 1920 and 1921 he was operating under cover in Shanghai and Harbin, posing as German businessman “Christopher Vogel” (recalling his London alias “Jacob Vogel”).[4]

On his return from China in 1921, Salniņš joined the Intelligence Directorate, or Fourth Department,  of the Red Army (the Razvedpur of the RKKA); forerunner of the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff,  known more commonly by its Russian acronym GRU (Glavnoe Razvedyvatelnoe Upravlenie).  Salniņš worked first in the Intelligence Directorate of the Petrograd Military District,[5] before being posted back to Vladivostok, where he operated under the cover of working for a White Russian newspaper, using the name “Zavadsky”. The exploits of Salniņš were later used as the basis for a series of popular novels and TV serials about Soviet spies.[6] After the Red Army finally occupied Vladivostok in 1922, Salniņš was placed at the disposal of the 5th “Red Flag” Army Headquarters and sent to Harbin in China, posing as a White Russian businessman.

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Harbin, China [Image: History’s Shadow]

In 1923 Trotsky and Zinoviev came up with a plan for an armed revolution in Germany. Kristaps Salniņš was immediately transferred to Thuringia to establish a network of secret arms caches, and set up an underground fighting organisation of the German Communist Party, the so called “Red Hundreds”.[7] The uprising was timetabled to begin on 7 November 1923; the anniversary of the October revolution in Russia. But when 400 leaders of the German party gathered in Chemnitz to consider the call to arms the enterprise was overwhelming rejected. Heedless of the decision, the delegate from Thuringia, Ernst Thaelman, took it upon himself to issue instructions to party organisations throughout Germany to go ahead with the revolution. The messengers were hastily recalled, but the courier to Hamburg had already left by train. The result was a fiasco. Two hundred Communists battled with police in Hamburg for three days, but the mass uprising of the German proletariat did not materialise.

In a similar attempt to export revolution, Salniņš appeared next in the south of Bulgaria under the pseudonym “Osip”, and spent four months there fighting government troops.[8] He also smuggled arms to the Bulgarian Communist Party, at the end of August 1924, with a young Bulgarian recruit to the GRU called Ivan Vinarov. Salniņš adopted the disguise of a Turkish sailor, complete with Turkish fez; and together they transported ten boatloads of light machineguns, pistols, hand grenades and munitions from Russia and Turkey.[9]

After Germany and Bulgaria, Salniņš spent the next two years at Military Intelligence Headquarters in Moscow, where he worked closely with the new head of the GRU, Jānis Bērziņš (real name Pēteris Ķuzis), a fellow Latvian who had been arrested in 1907 and sentenced to eight years for killing a policeman; escaping execution only because of his young age.

In 1924 Salniņš joined General V. K. Blucher’s military mission to China, as a Soviet Military Attaché to the Chinese People’s Army. And from January 1926 to April 1929 Salniņš was permanently stationed in China as the illegal GRU Resident (station chief), with Ivan Vinarov as his deputy and Vinarov’s wife Galina Lebedeva, a cipher clerk in the Soviet legations in Beijing and Harbin, as their cut-out.[10] But as well as directing Soviet espionage in China, Salniņš continued to operate in his familiar role of gun-runner and guerrilla. After the rupture of the uneasy alliance between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists in April 1927, Stalin decreed that the top priority in China was to establish a Red Army. In August 1927 Mao Tse-tung told an emergency Party meeting: ‘Power comes out of the barrel of the gun’. Kristaps Salniņš supplied the guns.

Salniņš set himself up in Shanghai as an American, “Christopher Lauberg”, a variation of the name he had lived under in America.[11] Behind the cover of an import-export company that traded in electrical equipment, sewing machines and spare parts from Europe, Salniņš and Vinarov transported the arms in specially constructed crates, hidden beneath layers of electrical tools and sewing machine parts.[12] For the most part they were British, French and Czech weapons, confiscated from the White army of Admiral Kolchak. Salniņš selected them himself from Soviet military bases in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, where they were carefully concealed in consignments of “normal” goods from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Belgrade. Salniņš and Vinarov often made trips to Europe to place new orders and to sell Far-Eastern goods: Chinese vases, crockery, figurines, ivory objects, wood carvings, silk pictures and other souvenirs. Their transit stops in Moscow allowed them to pick up new orders before they continued on to Vienna, Berlin and Prague to carry out their legitimate business.[13]

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Kristaps Salmiņš in Beijing as “Christopher Lauberg”, 1925

Vinarov’s description of Salniņš in December 1927 is decidedly elegant: ‘Dark sunglasses covered his eyes; the broad brim of his Italian hat threw shadow on his well-shaven face. He was wearing a stylish suit from England and fashionable black shoes. A thin Vietnamese walking stick with an ivory handle completed the appearance of this businessman.’[14]

But the stylish businessman could also be deadly. On 4 June 1928 Salniņš was responsible for the assassination of Marshal Chang Tso-lin, a notorious Kuomintang warlord who ruled Manchuria as Inspector General. Chang’s private train was blown up as he approached Mukden. The attack was blamed on the Japanese Kwantung army and interpreted as the beginning of a Japanese plot to seize Manchuria. The effect was to drive a wedge between Japan and the Kuomintang forces of Chang Kai-shek. The man who planted the bomb was Naum Eitingon, who in 1940 oversaw the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico.[15] For his success in this operation, Salniņš was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.[16]

At the beginning of 1929 Salniņš and Vinarov were recalled to Moscow. The pair were concealing their activities then behind the cover of legitimate businesses in Harbin, Beijing and Shanghai, which they handed over to a young German protégé called Richard Sorge – the legendary “master spy”, who was hanged in Tokyo in 1944. By April 1929 Salniņš was back in Moscow.

The intelligence work of Salniņš in the first half of the 1930s is obscured by a succession of inexpressive career postings listed in the official chronicles of the GRU. From 1930 to 1932, Salniņš was employed on special clandestine missions in Central and Eastern Europe; most notably Vienna,[17] where from 1930 to 1933 his friend Ivan Vinarov was the chief illegal resident of GRU.[18] In October 1932, Salniņš was promoted to Assistant to the Head of the Intelligence Department, Jānis Bērziņš.[19] Between 1933 and 1935, Salniņš was Head of the 3rd Sector of the 4th Department (intelligence) of the Special Red Banner Far Eastern Army (OKDVA) HQ, based at Khabarovsk.[20] From February 1935 to February 1936, Salniņš worked in Khabarovsk as assistant to Jānis Bērziņš. On 10 October 1935, Salniņš was awarded a gold watch, ‘for exceptionally conscientious work in carrying out special tasks.’ And on 13 December 1935 he was promoted to Brigade Commissar (Brigadier General).[21]  From February 1936 to June 1937, Salniņš was Deputy Head of Special Department “A” (Active Intelligence), at GRU headquarters in Moscow.[22]

Grishka&Vinarov_Moscow1930
Salniņš (holding a dog on his lap) with Ivan Vinarov, Moscow, 1930

The last arena of foreign operations for Kristaps Salniņš was the Spanish Civil War. Salniņš arrived in Spain in June 1937, under the unlikely identity of “Colonel Victor Hugo”,[23] as military intelligence advisor to the Spanish Republican government. The most senior Soviet military advisor in Spain was Jānis Bērziņš, who operated under the pseudonym “General Pavel Ivanovich Grishin”, but Ivan Vinarov was there too, as “Commercial Attaché Winzer”, working on the staff of Soviet Ambassador Rosenberg in Madrid.[24] When Vinarev was reunited with Salniņš in Madrid he was surprised at how much his friend had changed. Wearing the uniform of a Spanish Republican officer, Salniņš had lost weight, looked tired and was hardly recognisable. They shared a bottle of wine in a small restaurant, while Salniņš talked wearily about the problems that existed in Spain between the Communist Party and the anarchists.[25]

In November 1937 Salniņš took over from Ilya Starinov (known in Spain as “Rudolf Wolf”) as chief military advisor and trainer of the 14th (Guerrilla) Corps based at Villanueva de Cordoba, 90km from Cordoba city.[26] The unit had begun as a small group of guerrillas based on the outskirts of Valencia, but soon grew to battalion strength, and operated a sabotage and subversion school. The core of the unit was a group of Spanish Communists under the command of Captain Domingo Ungaria. As GRU specialist for “Special Operations”, Salniņš instructed his Spanish students in the use of improvised explosives and sabotage techniques, explained the organisation and methods of guerrilla warfare, gave basic training in small-arms and lessons in self defence. He also directed the unit’s operations behind enemy lines. In December 1937, Salniņš was awarded the Order of Lenin for his part in storming the fortress at Teruel.

In March 1938, at the height of Stalin’s Terror, Salniņš was recalled to Moscow. Boris Borisov, author of the screenplay for a Russian documentary about Jānis Bērziņš,[27] says Salniņš knew he was going to his death, but returned willingly. Salniņš felt guilty about some of his past actions and wanted to sacrifice himself, preferring death to dishonour.[28] But Stalin liked to toy with his victims before he did away with them. In Moscow, Salniņš was presented with his Order of Lenin and promoted to Deputy Head of the Military Intelligence Service. A month later, on 21 April 1938, he was arrested. After spending nearly a year in prison, during which he was doubtless tortured, he was sentenced on 14 March 1939 and shot on 8 May 1939, aged 54. Salniņš was posthumously rehabilitated on 25 July 1956. Despite his remarkable career, he remains a neglected and obscure figure in the annals of Soviet intelligence.


[1] LVVA, 4569/1/373 – “File of 1907, List No. 27 of the Courland Gendarmerie about the Revolutionary Movement in the Kuldiga area. Start 12 January 1907 – closed 29 December 1907.”

[2] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi (GRU: The Deeds and the People), “Neva”, St. Petersburg/ “OLMA Press”, Moscow 2002), p.178-179.

[3] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[4] Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, unpublished PhD thesis (LSE, London June 2010), p.172.

[5] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[6] Julian Semjonov, who used Salniņš as the prototype for his espionage hero Maxim Isajev in a series of novels and films says that he got the idea for the novel “Password is not Necessary” from reading a phrase in a telegramme sent to Moscow in 1922:  “…our man, who has been active in Vladivostok, has now been transferred abroad to continue his work in emigration”…  Just like in Semjonov’s novel, the spy in Vladivostok worked under cover at a White Guardist newspaper.

[7] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[8] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[9] Ivan Vinarov, Kämpfer der lautlosen Front, (Fighters on the Secret Front), Militarverlag der DDR, Berlin, 1976 (First published in Bulgarian, Sofia 1969), p. 88-95.

[10] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit.., p.363. And Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, Op. Cit., p. 74.

[11] Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, Op. Cit., p. 172.

[12] Ivan Vinarov, Kämpfer der lautlosen, Op. Cit, p.128-136.

[13] Ivan Vinarov, Kämpfer der lautlosen, Op. Cit, p.136.

[14] Ivan Vinarov, Kämpfer der lautlosen, Op. Cit, p.133.

[15] A. I. Kolpakidi & D. P. Prokhorov Vneshnaya razvedka Rossii. (The Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia) Saint Petersburg & Moscow, 2001, vol. 1, pp.182-3.

[16] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[17] Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, Op. Cit., p. 157.

[18] Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, Op. Cit., p. 74-75.

[19] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[20] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[21] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[22] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit. p.178-179.

[23] V. M. Lurie & V. Ya. Kochik, GRU – Dela I Lyudi, Op. Cit., p.178-179.

[24] Volodarsky points out that “Winzer” is the German-Austrian version of Vinarov’s name; and that both mean a winegrower in English.

[25] Ivan Vinarov, Kämpfer der lautlosen Front, Op. Cit., p. 204-205.

[26] Boris Volodarsky, Soviet Intelligence Services in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 – 1939, Op. Cit., p. 65-66.

[27] Начальник разведки (The Head of Intelligence), Russian, 90 min, documentary film, directed by Romualds Pipars, Moscow, 1989.

[28] Interview with Boris Borisov, Riga 28 June 1989.

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Anarchist historian Philip Ruff (Filips Rufs) is the author of Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs: nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve (A Towering Flame – the life and times of Peter the Painter), published by Dienas Grāmata (Riga 2012).  He first visited Latvia in January 1988 and lives in London.

One Comment

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  1. Generally, it is a good and useful publication. The author could have used better sources then my PhD thesis, and namely my books El caso Orlov (Barcelona: Crítica, 2013) and Stalin’s Agent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) but nevertheless, as mentioned, the article is just all right. One thing, however, should not be forgotten: one must always remember that those people – officers of the Stalin’s secret services, NKVD and RU (later GRU) were Stalin’s devoted soldiers of terror, responsible for many innocent lives for the sake of perverse Communist ideals. Kristaps, as he was known, went to China to make a revolution, to the Far East to support the Soviet power there and to Spain to help the PCE (Spanish Communist Party). He was one of the ‘soldiers of the revolution’ and he perished as he was destined to.
    Boris Volodarsky, London

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