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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the history of journalism in Moscow, before there were Vladimir Pozner,  Valentin Yumashev,  Derk Sauer,  Alexei Venediktov,  Margarita Simonyan,  and Vladimir Soloviev,  there was Victor Louis. He was the best known of Soviet journalists, and the richest of them by a long shot.    

According to a newly published Swiss biography, Louis’s dacha at Bakovka included a heated swimming pool under cover, a tennis court, a wine cave, and a gallery of icons and paintings.  He also had a collection of cars – Peugeot, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Ford Mustang, Land Rover, Volvo, Rolls Royce , and a chauffeur to drive them. In photographs he displayed himself at the bar of his apartment in Moscow dressed as an English country squire – houndstooth pattern jacket, paisley pattern cravat. He sent his three sons to Eton and Oxford; his money to an account and safe deposit box at a Zurich branch of the Swiss Bank Corporation, attached to which were his Diners Club and American Express credit cards.

Louis was well known in his time;  after 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union, quite forgotten. He died in July 1992 and is buried in the elite Vagankovskoye cemetery in Moscow.

The new book by Jean-Christophe Emmenegger  reveals for the first time the hustle which Louis operated in order to earn large sums of money from the governments of the US, the UK, and Israel, and their media corporations, in exchange for materials supplied to him by the KGB, GRU, or other Soviet government agencies, with whatever purpose these suppliers were planning at the time.  Word running mostly – Central Committee documents, speeches by officials, intelligence active measures, disinformation, memoirs, book manuscripts.

Louis also ran several side-earners: the most lucrative was taking cash from Israel to buy Soviet exit visas for selected Jews whom the Israelis wanted to emigrate. Next came American media like CBS Television, Look, Time Life, and enterprising American journalists not unlike himself – Murray Gart,  Daniel Schorr – who paid him fees to fix “exclusive” meetings and interviews with senior Soviet officials. Then there was his accreditation as Moscow correspondent for the London Evening News (Evening Standard).  There may also have been a little gun-running in the record of his visits to Mozambique and Angola.

British intelligence reports – opened in this book for the first time — described Louis as a “megalomaniac” and an “egoist extremely fond of money of which he placed considerable quantities abroad.”

Naturally he shared the proceeds with the KGB men who supplied him with the goods he traded. But compared with CIA and MI6 operations like the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the rigging of his Nobel Prize, the Louis hustles were cost-free to Moscow.  

Louis was nothing if not a patriotic hustler. With that combination, the likes of him have not come again.

Information warfare can’t be as richly rewarding as the arms business for the obvious reason. The supply of words far outruns the demand, while demand for guns usually outruns supply. Also, guns do more expensive damage than words, although in the present war, words have killed far more civilians.

In Russia it’s easier to identify and explain who have been the patrons of the favourite journalists of the Yeltsin and the Putin administrations than to pinpoint who were Louis’s patrons during a career which stretched for thirty years from the end of the 1950s to the start of the 1990s. Emmenegger has traced the origin of his name to a great great grandfather, Michael Louis, a Swiss or German, and the landing of one of his sons in Odessa after (or during) the Crimean War, and from there on to Moscow. Victor Louis’s parents were Muscovites, his father an engineer, his mother a musician; she was of Jewish origin but baptised Orthodox with aristocratic assets until the Revolution. Victor’s Russian first name was Vitaly. That disappeared during the nine years he spent, 1948 to 1956, in the gulag following his arrest and conviction on charges of espionage and speculation.

Top: Victor Louis in the mid-1960s;  the new book available only in French; Jean-Christophe Emmenegger.
Bottom: left to right, Vladimir Pozner, Derk Sauer, Margarita Simonyan; Vladimir Soloviev.

Scoops in journalism, like spy games, have a brief shelf life. Remembering Louis’s successes is a reminder of how quickly they have been superseded. He was the leaker to the western press of an early warning of the Soviet Army’s invasion of Hungary in November 1956; of the Politburo’s decision to remove the corpse of Stalin from the mausoleum with Lenin in Red Square in 1961; Nikita Khrushchev’s removal from office in 1964; the plan of attack against Alexander Dubcek in Prague in August 1968; the catastrophic ending of the Syuz-11 space mission in June 1971.

In the 1970s and 1980s he was employed to float trial balloons in the western press so that the KGB and Politburo might gauge the likely foreign reactions. He was also active in the KGB’s responses to the CIA and MI6 culture war campaigns. These included early operations to undermine the exposé novels, Ward 7 (1965) by Valery Tarsis and Cancer Ward (1966) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. More rewarding for Louis himself, and his KGB handlers, was his role in publishing the advance pirate version of Svetlana Alliueva’s Twenty Letters to a Friend, beating Harper & Row, the New York Times, and other media to the punch – and also to the fee.

Louis earned an even bigger fee as the go-between for the sale of Khrushchev’s memoirs. That last job, Emmenegger reports, may have grossed Louis more than $600,000 in 1971 – equivalent to $4 million today. How much he netted after he shared the proceeds with his official associates isn’t known.

For the story of the multi-milliondollar Anglo-American operations Louis and the KGB were  up against, read this.   For the ongoing culture warfare, and today’s battles, click.  

Among the secret records Emmenegger has uncovered and reports,  there are the Swiss police and counter-intelligence files on Louis’s many trips to Switzerland between 1962 and 1989, including visa applications, surveillance photos and logs on everyone he met and every shop he and his English wife Jennifer visited. The Swiss agents followed Louis into his Zurich and Geneva hotel rooms and his bank vault. It isn’t clear whether they also arranged to breach Swiss bank secrecy to count the money he had on account, and where it had come from. These days the Swiss are more obliging in opening Russian accounts, as well as arresting them.

More valuable than the obsolete news stories and old spy trails are Emmenegger’s discovery and republication of  Israeli government records of Louis’s meetings with Prime Minister Golda Meir and the transcript of a long conversation he had with Simcha Dinitz in mid-1971; at the time Dinitz was director-general of the prime ministry. Louis was very familiar with “Golda”, he said on the record, and anxious to portray himself as the super-secret intermediary between Moscow and the Israelis as they planned their new war against the Arabs, two years ahead. Louis’s pitch to Dinitz was to forget strategy, ideology, war preparations, and start with making money.

“You won’t be able to speak with any Russian in the way I can speak with you,  I expect,” Louis said to Dinitz in the Israeli transcript. “I’m only going to say things exactly as they are. I’m a semi-adventurer, it’s true, but in a positive sense. I have translated the diary of Anne Frank in Moscow;  Jews who come to me get a firm handshake.”

“I understand you,” Dinitz replied. “We greatly appreciate your initiative.”

“If there’s something, a message you would like me to deliver,” Louis said, “I would be delighted to do it. Moreover, if you give me the possibility to start from scratch… Let’s say, with business.”

The Israeli government hasn’t released its records of how much business Louis proceeded to run under Dinitz’s protection. In parallel, Dinitz was arranging US weapons stockpiling in Israel in preparation for the Yom Kippur War.

Louis was dead by the time in 1995 when Dinitz’s sideline in credit card fraud was prosecuted in an Israeli court. What bribes Dinitz may have been taking in earlier years to finance what the Israeli media called his “lavish lifestyle” were not revealed during his trial or before his death in 2003. That the late Soviet agent like Louis and the late Israeli in charge of Jewish migration Dinitz were birds of a feather may have been the reason for the unusual Israeli document release to Emmenegger.

The sleaziness of Louis’s schemes turn the subtitle of Emmenegger’s book, “A very special agent”, into an irony. The source of his accumulation of wealth, as well as the target of his celebrity name-dropping and braggadocio was not only foreign, but also anti-Russian. So the KGB protected his taking the money and showing it off because it served their interest for the foreigners to keep paying – so long as Louis disclosed exactly what they were thinking and doing, and kicked back too.

The rules of the Cold War, and the proxy wars the Soviets and the NATO allies waged before 1991 in the Middle East and in Asia, motivated and enriched many individual agents on both sides —  on all sides. Today the rules for journalists to grow rich haven’t changed. Why, the British secret services even call their hustle the “Integrity Initiative” – and that’s not a British irony.  

Source: http://johnhelmer.net/

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