Legendary Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian, who helped foil a Nazi plot to kill Allied leaders in Tehran during World War II, has died in Moscow aged 87.
Operating in Tehran during World War II, he tracked German commandos who had arrived to attack a summit attended by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill.
Realizing they were being followed, the Germans called off the attack.
Robert Service is British historian and the author of a forthcoming book Spies and Commissars.
Read the Transcript
The text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman. This is The World. Russians are remembering the Soviet era spy Gevork Vartanian. He passed away this week at the age of 87. President Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences to Vartanian’s widow who collaborated with her husband on missions. The legendary spy couple famously helped to derail a Nazi plot in 1943. British historian Robert Service says the goal was to assassinate allied leaders Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill as they gathered for a conference.
Robert Service: The western allies were meeting in Tehran in Iran because Stalin just wouldn’t leave the vicinity of the USSR. So, Roosevelt and Churchill had to fly to Iran to work out what they were going to do to prosecute the war effort. The Soviet Intelligence Agency was interested in keeping all of the allied leaders alive – Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, and one of the principal agents of the Soviet cause in Iran was an Iranian of Armenian descent called Vartanian, who has just died. He was only 16 when he was recruited. He was one of the most brilliant of the lot.
Werman: What made him so brilliant? I mean, he sounds, at least in Iran and this particular plot, long jump, he sounds like the perfect insider.
Service: Well, he was someone who got wind of what the Germans were up to. The Germans sent over a mission to prepare the way for the redoubtable Otto Skorzeny to fly into Iranian airspace and either abduct or assassinate all three allied leaders. This would have been a disaster for the allies in the Second World War. What Vartanian did was get the mission team arrested.
Werman: The Nazi mission team…just got them arrested.
Service: The Nazi mission team that was going to be put down in Tehran and would set about abducting or assassinating the allied leaders. So, he was a very practical, on-the-ground, very, very young man. I mean, he was only in his teens!
Werman: After World War II, when the KGB took over from Russia’s Intelligence Service, it’s interesting Vartanian wasn’t alone in a lot of his espionage. His wife was also a spy along with him – the husband and wife spies.
Service: Yes, the Soviet Intelligence Agency often did this sort of thing. It was a way of keeping the moral of an agent high while he was abroad, and Vartanian was, with his wife, a really primary agent. The thing that changed in 1945, of course, was the cooperation between the British and the Americans and the Soviets completely vanished. During the Second World War, there was a lot of cooperation and there was even a British liaison officer in Moscow working with what became the KGB. It’s an extraordinary story of cooperation, not just among the armies but among the intelligence agencies. It’s not really yet been fully told.
Werman: The Vartanians worked together through the ’80s. Do you know of a very late case that they worked on together that was probably lesser known than “Operation Long Jump?”
Service: Well, until the turn of the millennium, the Russian authorities have kept quiet about the details of what Vartanian got up to even in the Second World War and they’ve kept stum almost entirely about what he did next. What we do know for certain is that he got every medal in the book. I mean, he was a very highly regarded spy.
Werman: I guess his medals indicate that, for many Russians, Vartanian was a hero. I’m just wondering, what do you think current members of the KGB in Russia, how will they be reflecting on the late Gevork Vartanian?
Service: The FSB as it is now is the successive organization of KGB and, of course, Prime Minister Putin – soon-to-be President Putin, again – he too worked for the KGB. So, what he did in sending condolences to the wife of Gevork Vartanian was give a message, I think, from his heart. He’s still a KGB man at heart, the man who rules Russia.
Werman: Historian Robert Service, author of the forthcoming book “Spies & Commissars”, thank you very much.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.