Vladimir Sokolov was a beloved Russian professor at Yale. Then his past caught up with him.
For seventeen long years, from 1959 to 1976, Vladimir Sokolov had been a respected, well-liked Senior Lecturer in Russian at Yale. He was a skilled teacher, reserved, revealed little of himself, and students and colleagues knew not to ask him about his life in Russia during the Second World War. In conversation, his story was skeletal: he came of age under Stalin’s purges, fled as a political refugee, eluded death too many times to recount.
But in the nineteen-seventies, a part of Sokolov’s past that he had concealed for three decades flooded his present. By 1985, he was facing death threats and imminent deportation from the United States. Sokolov wasn’t the dissident he insisted he was. He had been a Nazi.
The threads began to unravel in February 1976. A short article appeared in the daily newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party’s Youth League, alleging that a Russian professor at Yale had written propaganda for the Nazis during their assault on the Eastern Front. Then a longer piece was published a couple of months later in a Soviet Yiddish magazine describing that professor’s wartime actions. Sokolov, the author wrote, had been the deputy editor-in-chief of a Nazi-controlled newspaper in the Russian borderlands, pumping out exhortations to genocide.
In May 1976, Sid Resnick, a New Haven-based writer for the Morgen Freiheit, a large communist Yiddish daily in New York, sent a translation of the article, along with photocopies of the original pieces it referenced, to Robert Jackson, then-chairman of Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures department.
Twice before, the department had been tipped off about Sokolov’s Nazi history by anonymous sources in the Soviet Union. Both times, the faculty met behind closed doors and asked Sokolov to explain himself. In both cases, he convinced them that he was being smeared. The KGB hated him for his anticommunism, his writing in the emigré press, his work at the university; they had declared him guilty of outlandish atrocities to discredit his activism. The department dropped the inquiry, and Sokolov stayed on the faculty. The tips stopped coming.
But now Jackson had pages of Sokolov’s broadsides in the Nazi newspaper Rech on his desk, and he couldn’t look away. What he saw was “Goebbels-like,” he told the Nazi hunter and journalist Charles R. Allen, Jr., who was reporting on the Sokolov affair for the progressive quarterly Jewish Currents. “In this struggle, Zhidostva [the Kikes] will be destroyed finally and forever,” one of them read. In another, he told readers, “For twenty five years, the Zhids [Kikes] hit us, for twenty-five years, the zhids [kikes] tormented and ripped pieces from the Russian people. Finished! Never again will their foot trod upon our soil. And there where they continue to torture the people, there will sooner or later be an outcry: ‘Beat them!’”
The documents circulated around the department that summer, and a third meeting was called between faculty in the department; Jackson; Horace Taft, the Dean of the College; Jarislov Pelikan, the Dean of the Graduate School; Hanna Gray, the Provost; and Sokolov. The articles weren’t Soviet forgeries, Sokolov said this time, but he’d been coerced into writing them under penalty of death.
Who forced him to join the paper to begin with? He had to survive. He had to feed his family. Did he have to urge people to slaughter innocents? Did he have to call Jews “yellow rats?” He had been ill. He couldn’t work in the mines or the forests. He had to write. He wrote what the Nazis told him to. Did he believe what he wrote? He only wanted to write against the Bolsheviks. The censor twisted his words. But when pressed for concrete examples of edits from the censor, Sokolov could only give one: All his references to “Jews” had been changed to “zhids,” the Russian equivalent of “kike.”
That was enough for four professors in the department—Carol Anschuetz, Victor Erlich, Riccardo Picchio, and Edward Stankiewicz—to draw a line in the sand. In late June, a few weeks after the meeting, they wrote an open letter to Sokolov, saying that he could “under no circumstances…count on the undersigned for any support whatsoever.” They sent the letter knowing that the university had already decided what it intended to do with him, which amounted, in essence, to whatever Sokolov wanted to do with himself. He was 63, two years shy of retirement, and, on the books, hadn’t done anything to violate his contract. As an institutional matter, the university said its hands were tied.
Provost Gray met with Sokolov alone that summer. He was inconsolable, she recalled in her memoirs, “an aging and seemingly broken man who felt that he was about to lose everything, and was desperately concerned about what would become of his family.” She promised that Yale wouldn’t force him out. He chose to resign and received a full year’s salary as severance, plus funds from a TIAA pension he and Yale had contributed to over the years.
Meanwhile, Jackson went wading through the department’s records to try to understand how Sokolov had been hired in the first place and to study his track record on the faculty. He interviewed former students and colleagues Sokolov socialized with, some of whom said that his gentle persona was an act that occasionally got sloppy. “We knew many things about him from students,” Jackson, now 98 and nearing 20 years emeritus, told me. “We knew that he was rather outspoken with those students. One of them informed me that he said he had ‘dogs who can smell out Jews.’”
Using the department’s internal documents and what he’d gathered from interviews, Jackson wrote up an 11-page account of Sokolov’s time at Yale, which has since, it seems, been lost. “I had studied his background,” he told me, “how he used it to bring other people into the department with similar ideas as his own, vicious anti-Semitic ideas. I gave this account to the Provost at a meeting of her staff, and she cast the whole thing aside rather haughtily.” Jackson thought about publishing what he’d written, then thought better of it. “I played a role as a spokesman of the department. At the time, I thought it would have upset the apple cart,” he said. But the case, and what it meant for the department, stuck with him. When the dust had settled, he went back to look through the department’s in-house files on Sokolov, the ones he’d extensively sourced from for his probe. They had vanished.
Alexander Schenker, ex-chairman of the Russian department and one of Sokolov’s closest allies on the faculty, had been on leave as the crisis around Sokolov deepened that summer. When Schenker got back to campus before the fall term, Sokolov had already resigned, and he was “outraged” by the department’s handling of the case, according to Jackson. Schenker, a Polish-Jewish emigré who fled Krakow for Russia as a teenager amidst the Nazis’ advance, and had been sent to a labor camp with his mother, kept a lifelong hatred of the Soviets and charged that the department had indulged in a witch hunt.
Weeks later, at the start of the semester, the Yale Daily News picked up the story of Sokolov’s resignation and sought Schenker’s comment. “Here you have a man who had suffered during those years, who has been arrested, who has risked going to concentration camps,” he told John Harris ’78 at the News. “The German occupation, paradoxical as it may seem, was the only real chance to escape.” Sokolov, he continued, “believed that the temporary evil of Hitler, who was bound to be defeated by the West, was better than the Russians. People have a right to change. He is not anti-Semitic now. In fact, he is probably the most pro-Semitic Russian in the department… The question is, do we recognize redemption or not?”
The article set off a months-long debate in the News’s opinion section. First, in September 1976, the editors of the News published an editorial defending Sokolov on the grounds of academic freedom and good behavior. “Although we are somewhat alarmed by the vast ideological distance one man can travel in 30 years,” the Board wrote that it was inclined to trust Sokolov when he said that “he is no longer anti-Semitic and that he ‘loves his students.’” “The lesson is simple,” they wrote, “all men grow when they leave the house of intellectual bondage.” The same day, the scandal breached the national news orbit under a loud New York Times header: “YALE TEACHER QUITS OVER PRO-NAZI ROLE.”
Throughout the week, letters streamed into the News from professors, students, and alums, some castigating, others praising the editorial. Sokolov’s defenders repeated a variation of Schenker’s character reference: he had been a helpful and kind teacher, a “pro-Semite,” a Zionist, who at the time never knew of the Nazi genocide, who had been caught in a Soviet plot, framed with counterfeits, framed as a personal vendetta, framed in order to delegitimize emigré dissent, Yale, and the U.S., whose present redeemed his past, whose past couldn’t be judged through a contemporary moral lens from a “New Haven armchair,” and, even if it could, whose speech was coerced and wasn’t, in itself, so bad, or was edited by the censor, or was written by a boss, or was conscious, but for calculated and politically respectable reasons, or was a last resort to live. Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of Leo and then-chair of the Tolstoy Foundation, a resettlement organization for Russian refugees, was one of several prominent figures to publicly vouch for Sokolov in the News.
Sokolov’s detractors, for their part, said that his advocacy of genocide was willfully undertaken out of conviction and expedience, and bore an absolute immorality; that however he presented himself now was irrelevant to his crimes, that there had been other ways of surviving the war, that he was a chameleon; that a seething antisemitism was a part of his sense of self, which left him privately raging, even at Yale, that he was under Jewish domination.
Finally, Sokolov spoke for himself in a letter to the YDN. Writing against the Bolsheviks, whatever the venue, had been his “sacred duty,” he wrote, and the Nazi press ended up being the only venue. The Nazis made him inflect his anti-Bolshevism with anti-Semitism, and he only wrote against Jews in power, he insisted, in “key positions in the party appartus.” By the time he was writing, there were no Jews left in the area, and it wasn’t until after the war that he learned of their “tragic fate.” And after the “Doctors’ Plot”—a 1953 Stalinist campaign animated by a lie that nine prominent doctors, six of whom were Jewish, had planned a mass-poisoning of the Soviet leadership—Sokolov wrote that, at the time, he had told himself: “From now on the Jews have become allies in the struggle against our common enemy—Communism. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Friends and enemies. This was the activating principle of Sokolov’s life. You were either an instrument of or an obstacle to his future, deserving acceptance on the one hand, annihilation on the other. And when he held the tools of annihilation, he used them to devastating effect.
The city’s name was Orel. At the turn of the 20th century, it was home to about 75,000 people, mostly farmers who worked the land and nobles who owned it. It was situated deep in “wooden Russia,” the agricultural heartland 200 miles south of Moscow, and its main export was grain, huge amounts of it: both to feed the Empire and to sell abroad. It was laid out the way Russia’s agrarian towns typically were—radial streets spiraling outward from a central market, ploughlands on the outskirts, deep birch forest beyond.
Sokolov was born in Orel in 1913 into a world that was about to be destroyed. His father, active in local politics, was a nobleman, a lawyer, and a landlord. His mother, the daughter of the Rector of the city’s theological seminary, taught Russian literature at a local school. He and his younger brother were homeschooled until age nine, which, as he would later recount in an essay on the Soviet education system, was “customary in the families of the intelligentsia in those years.”
Even before Sokolov was born, the area showed signs of a looming crisis, and the nobility was anxious. The price of grain was plummeting and the land tax was high. Peasants were swimming in debt. Famine had set in. The Tsar’s ministers warned him in the early 1890s that his hold on the region was slipping away. So the government built railroads—by 1895, 22,000 miles of track. They were meant to help the cities industrialize fast, a trick borrowed from America and Prussia. It worked. With the industrial setting came an industrial proletariat, a new intellectual class, an immiserated peasantry, and enormous private wealth. Contradiction meant crisis.
By mid-1905, the empire was in the throes of its first revolution, and rioting paralyzed the cities. That winter, Orel had its own night of mayhem. In the Tsar’s newspapers, the revolution was labeled a Jewish plot. The charge was meant to quarantine the spread of Bolshevism by association with Jewry, to whet the mob’s appetite for broken glass and blood. Orel had a relatively large Jewish population for a city outside the Pale of Settlement—about 2,000 at the time—and on October 18th, 1905, hundreds of the city’s Jews were beaten in the street and rows of houses were burned.
Over a decade later, in the early days of Bolshevik rule, the atmosphere of reactionary violence lingered in the area, and became a formative experience of Sokolov’s youth. In the summer of 1921, on a school-sponsored “cultural trip” to the Verkhovsky District, a few miles to the east of Orel, he got a glimpse of fighting in the Tambov Rebellion, a grain farmers’ revolt against the Bolsheviks that devolved into vicious conflict. It was a war that the Red Army feared it could lose. Both sides slaughtered civilians, prisoners, and the families of their enemies. By June, the forests on Orel’s outskirts, where the farmers staged attacks on Red Army encampments in town, were clouded with poison gas. The scene was ripe with material for Sokolov’s personal mythology of persecution—destruction seemed to chase him everywhere—and he’d tell it for the next 50 years as a kind of origin story.
By the time Sokolov graduated from secondary school, in 1930, his father had fled for Siberia to avoid Stalin’s purges. He was still in Orel, living at home and contemplating the future. He applied to universities in Moscow and Leningrad to study literature, but his “social origin”—as an heir to an old marriage of gentry and clergy—disqualified him. He went to work at a factory in the city for two years to try to scrub his aristocratic past. Then, like other children of White Russia, he applied to the local Teachers’ College, enrolled undercover as an ex-laborer, and graduated in four years. In 1937, he was hired at a Technical College in the nearby town of Ramon, commuting daily from Orel.
Late one night in December 1937, he returned to the city by train. On the walk home, the streets were silent and dark. The river was high. He approached the gate of the house where he was renting a room. A light was on in the window, and the owner of the house was waiting for him there in silhouette. The NKVD—the secret police—had come by earlier in the evening looking for him, the owner told him. He had to leave. Immediately. So he fled a thousand miles west by train to a city called Samara and hid there for several months.
In the summer, he came back east to Voronezh, a city near Orel that he knew from his youth. He lived under an assumed name and stayed with friends, who helped him get a position at a local college before the start of the school year, teaching literature. At the school, Sokolov laid low. He taught Russian classics and American ones in translation. Dreiser, Sinclair, and Hemingway were all on his syllabus. In class, he nursed a dream of becoming a novelist. Outside, he nursed a chronic heart condition, which, he later said, had saved him from the draft.
By the fall of 1941, the Nazis had voided their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and begun a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front. Sokolov was still comfortable, monitoring the progress of the war by radio. He had been promoted to educational director of the college, fielding questions from the staff, who were growing uneasy about the city’s fate. “She was asking about her family,” he would write in 1957 about a meeting with a Jewish teacher at the college, who sought his advice on whether to stay or go. “Her father, a simple tailor, did not want to be evacuated with the Bolsheviks. I advised her, of course, to leave immediately, since the rumours of German extermination of the Jews were being confirmed. However, neither she nor her family believed these rumours, regarding them as Bolshevik propaganda.”
In September 1941, Sokolov returned to Orel for several days to see friends in the military and hear about developments on the front. “They said the Germans had camped in the forests around Bryansk and weren’t expected to begin an offensive for a while,” he wrote in 1954. But the attack began the next week, just days after Sokolov had headed back to Voronezh. By early October, the Nazis had made Orel a colony of the Reich and the central outpost for the eastern campaign. On the eve of the invasion, about 100,000 people lived in the city. The next summer, only 38,000 people were left. Many were killed by artillery, guillotined or garroted in the public square, set on fire, starved, marched to the forest and buried alive, or enslaved and sent by train to forced labor camps in Germany. Others fled the city for Soviet territory further east or walked into the woods to join the partisans—bands of Soviet-aligned soldiers scattered throughout the region. Nazi commandos hunted the Jews of Orel door-to-door until as late as November 1942, torturing them publicly before massacring them in the forest.
Orel was more than a military anchor for the Nazis. It was an experiment in Hitler’s vision for a pan-continental Reich, where the frontier was cleared of Jews and Slavs by genocide and repopulated by Germans. The Nazis leveled the city and slaughtered its people, but to sanitize their image and subvert the Soviets, they built institutions after the fact and recruited locals—especially local professionals. They restarted the schools, repaired infrastructure, opened orphanages, subsidized a theater for anti-Bolshevik orators and entertainment that didn’t offend the new command—bread and circuses for those who stayed to see what the Nazis would do. But the most important institution was the newspaper.
Sokolov didn’t need recruiting. Voronezh fell to the Nazis about a year after Orel, in July 1942. The battle for the city was among the most apocalyptic on the eastern front. Over half a million people were killed in under a month of fighting. Sokolov, his wife, Alevtina, a teacher at the college whom he had married that March, and her young daughter from a previous marriage, left after the city fell and walked through neighboring villages, 30 miles a day for two days, until they reached a train line that would take them back to Orel.
When they got to the Orel station, Sokolov picked up a copy of the local paper. He read it cover to cover in the terminal. The name, printed across the top of the page in rounded Cyrillic, was Rech—“Speech”—and it stayed in his head for days. “I waited and hoped,” he later wrote of the moment, “and now I saw a word, a new word of truth. What was in it? What was in that word?”
The family settled in Orel. They stayed with an old friend for a few weeks while Sokolov looked for work. He was looking for a way to join the war against the Soviets, and his friend recommended going to city hall, where he applied for an editorial job at Rech, the paper that caught his eye back at the station. The Nazi propaganda unit screened him, liked his background—young ex-aristocrat, ex-teacher, devout, anti-Bolshevik to the bone—and called him for an interview. He showed up at the paper’s offices the next week, and met with two of its leaders, the head writer, an ex-Soviet journalist named Mikhail Oktan, and the editor-in-chief, a German officer named Artur Bay.
They hired Sokolov as a staff writer and copy editor. For his byline, he chose the pseudonym Samarin, after the 19th century Russian reformer and Slavophile philosopher, Yuri Samarin, “a great patriot,” he would later say. Now Samarin, Sokolov saw the position as a kind of patriotic calling to resurrect a fallen Russia. He became a fixture at the paper. He climbed the ladder, wrote front-page editorials, was promoted to literary editor in charge of the paper’s tone and style guide, and was then made deputy editor-in-chief. He read what the Nazis’ propaganda heads put out and wired to the frontier, imitating their style. The Nazis wanted the press in their colonies to sell copy, entertain, outrage, and addict the population to their line. Those were the merits Sokolov learned to judge his work by. By late 1942, the paper’s circulation had grown to 100,000, with distribution channels throughout the region.
Sokolov proved he was reliable, and the Nazis rewarded him. They bought him a well-appointed villa in the old aristocratic section of the city. They ensured he had good food and sharp clothes. They flew him on Luftwaffe flights to Germany on “fact-finding” expeditions to see how the Germans lived and to tour Russian slave labor camps in Stuttgart and Munich so he could advertise them back in Orel. And they decorated him with a medal for “Bravery and Services” to the Reich on Hitler’s birthday. The world the Bolsheviks destroyed was now his again.
At the paper, he built up a reputation as a skilled propagandist with preferred themes: “Kike-Bolshevism,” Jewish “conquest of the world,” Jewish provocation of the war, Jewish “domination” in England and America, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Russian Liberation Army—the Nazis’ corps of 50,000 Soviet defectors.
Sokolov was useful because he combined four traits the Nazis looked for: venom, obedience, striving, and kitsch. What he wrote for the paper was graphic but also completely unoriginal, repeating the tropes of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth, which, as the historian Paul Hanebrik writes in his 2018 book A Specter Haunting Europe, “was constructed from the raw materials of anti-Judaism, recycled and rearranged to meet new requirements.” Of a piece in a Soviet newspaper on the occupation of Orel, Sokolov wrote: “I was so disgusted and repelled that I wanted to spit in a frenzy (will the reader forgive these harsh words of mine) because right out of the page there was staring at me a face with a hooked Kike nose.” On the Nazis: “The world has been divided into two parts. Germany and its allies represent a force intended to bring mankind order and justice.” Of the Allies: “In this war the people of Europe and Asia are fighting against Jewish plutocracy and Jewish Bolshevism, against two outwardly different but inwardly like systems, systems which have brought the peoples only suffering.” About the Russian Revolution: “The Kikes made it their goal to cause bloody clashes within states by means of their deceptive, hypocritical slogans, and to rush to power themselves.” On religion: “The Kikes waged a relentless and cruel war against religion, not despising any means, not even terror.”
Together, Sokolov’s words constituted a worldview he could justify and weaponize—and later deny he ever had. It was a system of belief he and people of his milieu were devoted to, both as an explanation for their sudden loss of control over Russia and as a strategy for clawing it back. It was as expedient as it was sincere, as radical as it was typical, as Tsarist as it was Nazi.
In the spring of 1943, Sokolov wrote a piece that became the magnum opus of his career at the paper. It was called “The Former Masters of Orel,” and it began with a reminiscence: “Memories of the Soviet times are connected with memories of the Kikes, the true masters of the USSR.” He remembered being in Kharkiv, a city in the northeast of Ukraine, on his way back from a trip to Crimea. It was 1941, and the war had just begun. “As much as the Jews were self-assured and impudent before the war,” he wrote, “so much were they frightened and disturbed after it began…The city was like a disturbed anthill. It was easy to see: the Kikes are scared!” The terror the Jews of Kharkiv felt at the onset of the war brought Sokolov glee. So did the certainty of what would come next. The Nazis took Kharkiv in October. That winter, they killed 15,000 of the city’s Jews and buried them in a mass grave in the Drobytsky Yar ravine. To conserve bullets, the Nazis threw children alive among the piles of corpses and waited for the cold to kill them.
Sokolov dedicated the rest of the article to listing Jews in the city by name and profession, to prove that they had ruled the city in the shadows before the Nazi “liberation.” Most of the 47 people he lists were teachers, doctors or bookkeepers. Later, in his defense, he said that he knew at the time that he wasn’t endangering any of the people he named. After all, they had already been killed or enslaved by the Nazis.
By August 1943, the Soviets were on the verge of retaking Orel, and Rech was pulping its archives. The Nazis evacuated west and took Sokolov and the rest of the staff with them. They went to Bryansk, then Bobruisk, which they still occupied, and restarted the press. In Bobruisk, Sokolov joined the last gasp of organized Russian collaboration on the frontier, a small phalanx called the League for the Struggle Against Bolshevism, which his Rech superviser Mikhail Oktan had founded soon after they arrived in the city. To be admitted, members had to swear an oath to Hitler. Bobruisk fell to the Soviets less than a year later. When the city fell, the Nazis evacuated to Berlin, where they parked Sokolov in the offices of one, then another of their fatiguing newspapers, still courting Russian defectors as the war drew to a close.
After the war, he moved with his wife and daughter to the British Zone in West Germany, rented a one-bedroom apartment in Hamburg, and edited the anti-communist weekly Put for a couple of years. He then moved four hours south to the city of Limburg an der Lahn to edit Posev, the journal of the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS), a global network of militant nationalist Soviet emigrés who spent the early decades of the Cold War planning an anti-Bolshevik revolution. The NTS preached a kind of big tent anti-communism, but the origins of its German chapter were Nazi, and its reactionary goals resembled every other attempt at fascism. In Sokolov, they found a leader.
But by 1951, the work was getting stale. Soviet emigration had shifted to the U.S. and with it went the center of emigré anti-communism. Sokolov was looking to get out of Germany and into America. On May 21, 1952, he went to the Displaced Persons Commission in Wentorf to apply for a visa. Sokolov’s strongsuit had always been pleading his case, explaining and ingratiating himself to an interrogator. When he interviewed for the visa, he told the Commission a version of his story that he thought they’d like best. He came from a family of landowners close to the Tsar. He had been a fugitive from the Soviet secret police. He had been a “proofreader” for an “anti-communist” newspaper in occupied Russia. He rose through the ranks in the emigré press in Germany. He wanted to take his talents to America. He wanted to fight the communists.
He was approved for the visa in a matter of weeks and arrived in New York on June 27. The Tolstoy Foundation—which earlier that year had been saved from bankruptcy by the CIA—helped him and other White Russian notables settle into the new country.
At 38, Sokolov was determined to make himself an important literary figure and was already contemplating his memoirs. He was still writing as Samarin—his Nazi pen name—in America, and never thought to change it. He was sure the Nazis had gutted the files at Rech during their slash-and-burn retreat to the west. Even if his articles still existed somewhere, he was convinced they wouldn’t affect his new life.
Through the Tolstoy Foundation, he got a job as a copy editor at the Chekhov Publishing House in Manhattan, another CIA-funded operation, which printed a hundred or so books by Soviet dissidents. Chekhov was meant, in the words of its biggest benefactor, George Kennan, America’s foreign policy sage of the early Cold War and one-time Ambassador to the Soviet Union, to break the “monopoly of the Soviet Government on current literary publication in the Russian language.”
While at Chekhov, Sokolov prepared proofs for several books by the Nobel Laureate Ivan Bunin, who became a personal hero and a model for his own reconstruction. In America, he wanted to form himself in the image of Bunin, and freely admitted it. “I love Bunin as an artist, as a true master of words,” he wrote in a 1954 letter to the playwright Boris Zaitsev. On the face of things, they had similar stories—sons of the rural gentry, who got their starts at newspapers in Orel, in Bunin’s case, the local daily before the Nazi takeover.
But the similarity ended there. During the war, Bunin had been thoroughly anti-Nazi. At his home on the French Riviera, where he lived throughout the German occupation, he sheltered Jewish friends and escaped Soviet prisoners of war. After the war he kept himself out of politics and kept politics out of his art. But Sokolov’s politics couldn’t be contained, and he preferred it that way.
In New York, though, his career progressed. He impressed his superiors at Chekhov, developing a persona as a fastidious reader who could fall into a rage at basic grammatical mistakes. He befriended Alexandra Tolstoy, a lynchpin in the emigré world. He wrote editorials for major emigré papers, especially the New Russian Word. He joined the North American branch of the Coordinating Center for the Anti-Bolshevik Struggle (later rebranded as an NTS chapter) and soon became its chairman. He traveled abroad and spoke at political conferences. His time was in demand.
In 1954, the prominent Columbia historian Alexander Dallin invited him to write a monograph for the university’s Research Program on the USSR. Sokolov accepted the offer. It was his chance to write the memoir he had been rehearsing in his head for over a decade. It was his chance to explain everything. He sat down with his diaries and scraps of published writing he had from the war. He called the monograph Civilian Life Under German Occupation, 1942-44.
The project’s stated goal was to illustrate the “dilemma confronting Russians in the occupied areas who opposed the Bolshevik regime as well as the policy of the Germans, but could evolve no third force strong enough to serve as the vehicle for realizing their goals”—a kind of revisiting of what the YDN later would call Sokolov’s “house of intellectual bondage.” The piece was billed as journalism, and, for it, Sokolov claimed he had interviewed a crosshatch of Russians who lived through the occupation. The source material was meant to serve multiple prongs of a single argument: to prove that true Russians hated the Soviets more than they hated the Nazis, that many welcomed the Nazis as liberators, that a small minority of alien (read: Jewish) communists had enslaved Russia and had to be exorcised, and that that same small minority posed a more extreme threat than the Nazis—in essence, that his and others’ collaboration with the Nazis was a popular, morally sanctioned measure to defeat a world-historical conspiracy.
In a ninety-page manuscript about the horror visited upon civilians during the Second World War, he mentions Jews four times—all in the context of what the Nazi party line was at his newspaper—and interviews none. His time at the newspaper he almost completely elides, aside from a scene at the town hall, in which the German-appointed mayor of Orel tells him that the Nazis are essentially non-offensive busybodies, and begs him to work for Rech as a holy obligation to the city: “Help us, help us protect our people,” the mayor tells him. (While on trial decades later, Sokolov admitted the whole scene was fictional; when he met the mayor for the first time, he said, he had already been working at the paper.) Now out of his “house of intellectual bondage” and at Columbia, Sokolov was writing a more coded version of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth. In it, he cast the Nazis as banal managers who were half as brutal as the Soviets, whose genocide didn’t merit comment, and with whom collaboration was both righteous and non-ideological.
Later that year, a Russian emigré, who claimed to be an old acquaintance from Orel, read what Sokolov had written, and told the American Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that they had let a Nazi collaborator slip into the country. INS brought Sokolov in for an interview, and again he repeated the lines he knew by heart: he was an anti-communist, he never served in the Red Army or any army because of a heart condition, he had been a proofreader at a Russian language paper in occupied territory.
After INS released Sokolov, the FBI took an interest in him. One FBI informant reported back, following a brief inquiry in the days after the INS interview, that Sokolov was a “burning anti-communist.” Field reports declassified under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998 show that this assessment was enough for the FBI to make contact with Sokolov in September 1954. They wanted him to give them information on another anti-communist emigré whom Sokolov had met on a few occasions and whom the FBI suspected was susceptible to Soviet blackmail. In April 1959, Richard Bissell, Jr., the Deputy Director of Plans of the CIA, gave J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, the all-clear to interview Sokolov about his willingness to inform, in an official capacity, on potential Soviet infiltration in his New York branch of NTS, whose global offices, at the time, received CIA backing.
Here the trail gets somewhat murky. After the April 1959 memorandum from Bissell, no other declassified documents appear in Sokolov’s file until 1980, soon after the Justice Department began its investigation of him, and even those have been redacted. Sokolov may have interviewed well, been on-boarded, and assigned an FBI informant ID soon after, accounting for the sudden drop-off in internal docs mentioning his name. He may also have been insulted by the suggestion that his organization would ever harbor communists and refused the offer. But doing so would have raised suspicion about his own sympathies—something Sokolov had a talent for avoiding—and having the FBI’s blessing would have alleviated the burden of proving his allegiances were genuine.
Norman J.W. Goda, a scholar of the Holocaust at the University of Florida, was one of four historians commissioned by Congress in 2000 to examine the millions of pages of declassified documents on the U.S. intelligence apparatus’s recruitment of ex-Nazis, and write a report on their contents. He wrote that the 1959 memorandum may have been the beginning of Sokolov’s stint as an FBI informant at Yale—at the time, a hotbed of intelligence recruitment and Cold Warrior training. “Clearly the FBI protected him,” Goda told me. “I don’t know how he got his position at Yale. I posited that the FBI might have had some kind of role in that, but I really don’t know. And I said that perhaps the FBI was using him as some sort of source on Yale, but I really didn’t know that either. I was just sort of guessing. It didn’t make sense. He was a Russian Lit person, but he really didn’t have any credentials. It didn’t make sense to me why Yale would hire him.”
FBI informant or not, Sokolov was hired by Yale for his politics and the kind of ideological training he could provide. He landed on the university’s radar thanks to Vladimir Petrov, a lecturer in the department who had taught Russian there since its inception. Petrov was the one who recommended him for an interview in 1959, something that required an almost irrational confidence in Sokolov’s political reliability. In the world of emigré anticommunism, anyone could turn out to be a Soviet spy and any unlucky believer could be browbeaten by kompromat. Any recommendation, especially one for a position as a teacher of the next generation of American diplomats and spies, came at grave personal risk.
But Petrov had more than faith to go on: he had the same connections as Sokolov. When Sokolov was writing editorials for a Nazi paper tied to the Russian monarchist Andrey Vlasov, Petrov was arranging meetings between Vlasov and high-up Nazi generals to coordinate military strategy for overthrowing the Bolsheviks. When Sokolov came to the U.S., he found employment through the Tolstoy Foundation, and so did Petrov. Both wrote memoirs about their experiences of communism that doubled as salvos. And both contributed often to the emigré press.
In 1959, there was a vacancy in the department. Petrov’s recommendation of Sokolov to fill it carried weight. William Cornyn, the chairman at the time, was out of town, and asked Schenker, the professor who would become Sokolov’s most vigorous advocate after others in the department repudiated him, to interview him in his place. They met in New York and talked credentials, politics, Europe, and family. They hit it off. Sokolov was hired that summer.
Seven years into Sokolov’s tenure at Yale, he paid Petrov’s favor forward. In 1966, he recommended the department interview Rurik Dudin, a close friend from the NTS and a broadcaster at the radio program Voice of America. He was hired shortly after. Dudin was another good teacher—charismatic and funny. He had also been an ex-soldier in the youth division of a Nazi paramilitary made up of Russian volunteers.
Edward Stankiewicz, a full professor in the Russian department, survived the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. Emmanuel Sztein, a lecturer, lost fifty-two family members in Auschwitz. In the mid-ninteen-sixties, during a wave of state-sponsored antisemitic repressions in Poland, he was forced, while being tortured in prison, to share a cell with the Nazis’ former territorial governor of the region. At Yale, Dudin, Petrov, and Sokolov were the colleagues they had to make small talk with by the doors to the Hall of Graduate Studies.
In November 1985, Sokolov, now 72, sat in the Federal District Court for the District of Connecticut, at the Post Office Building in Waterbury, flanked by an interpreter and his defense attorneys, Brian Gildea and Kevin Smith. The defense had been approved for a trial by judge, who in this case was something of a celebrity on the legal circuit: Thomas F. Murphy, formerly the chief prosecutor on the Alger Hiss trial. No jury was present in Waterbury, and the room seemed somewhat empty for it. The government sent three lawyers from the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) at the Department of Justice—two trial attorneys, Bruce Einhorn and Aron Goldberg, and Joseph Lynch, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, ex-NYPD detective, and the lead prosecutor on the case.
OSI began in the mid-1970s as a preliminary list of suspected Nazis living in the U.S. and evolved, by 1979, into a task force of over thirty lawyers, historians, forensic specialists, and translators with a $2.3 million budget. Its mission was to prosecute ex-Nazis in the U.S., not as war criminals, but for lying to immigration officials and illegally obtaining American citizenship. A guilty sentence meant denaturalization and deportation—not prison or death, like Nuremberg—and the script each complaint followed was similar. In Sokolov’s case, the government set out to prove that he had 1) concealed past advocacy of persecution to his interviewer at the Displaced Persons camp where he applied for a visa; 2) voluntarily assisted an enemy combatant of the U.S.; 3) misrepresented his background—the “proofreader” falsehood—to gain entry into the U.S.; and 4) procured citizenship despite a “lack of moral character.” “It’s a high burden of proof to revoke citizenship—as it should be,” Allan Ryan, Director of OSI at the time the initial complaint was filed, told me. The Office filed suit in January 1982.
Trials typically began with testimony from Holocaust historians, explaining how one figure fit into the complex machinery of the Nazi genocide. Robert Herzstein, whose research later helped OSI uncover that Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary General of the UN and then the sitting President of Austria, had been a Nazi paramilitary soldier, testified at the start of Sokolov’s trial. Sokolov’s role in the Nazi apparatus was to ensure that it grew, Herzstein said, to wage “ideological and psychological warfare” on its behalf, and to evangelize Nazi ideas to populations that had no choice but to hear them. Tapping the talent of people like him was essential to the Nazis’ war effort.
Now OSI had to prove Sokolov was eager for the call. So they went to Moscow. There, under Soviet supervision, OSI took depositions and dug through thousands of Gestapo files the Red Army had seized after the fall of Berlin, translated and forensically authenticated them, and cross-checked any names they found against U.S. immigration records. If they got a positive ID, they opened an investigation.
For Sokolov, they found a Nazi background check dated July 8, 1943, just before the Germans evacuated Orel, which read: “Enthusiastic co-worker and trustworthy propaganda orator. As a consequence of his marked anti-Bolshevist attitude is slightly inclined to tendentious statements.” There it was, in handwritten German: enthusiastic.
The defense denied every charge OSI laid: that Sokolov knew about the Nazi genocide, that he had volunteered his services out of anything other than desperation or anticommunism, that he had written the antisemitic portions of the articles, that he had downplayed his involvement with the newspaper when interviewing with Immigration. The logic was knotted, but their point was to bypass the mounting archival indictment of his character with a human story.
This story followed a string of clichés. At the paper, he said he was “under orders” or doing what he could to support his family. Through contacts at the Expert Commission of Russians Abroad—a monarchist organization working to preserve the bones of dead Romanovs—the defense managed to track down Clifford Smith, a former employee of the Displaced Persons Commission, to tell the court that Sokolov, whom he hadn’t met until several days before the trial, was actually a “forced laborer” in Nazi-occupied Orel, and that “as a forced laborer he has no control over what he says.” In cross-ex, Joe Lynch asked Smith point-blank: “Are you telling me that you have agreed to testify on behalf of a man about whom you know absolutely nothing?” Smith replied, “Yes, sir.”
The rest of the defense amounted to a total denial of any responsibility for the words that appeared under Sokolov’s byline. Sokolov himself testified that Mikhail Oktan, whom the Nazis eventually made editor-in-chief, “demanded that we, the employees, write against Jews and if we wrote different [sic] he took them and changed them, and sometimes I didn’t recognize my own articles. I didn’t recognize them.”
Sokolov’s lead attorney, Brian Gildea, was familiar with these sorts of cases. From 1977 to 1984, he had defended, eventually before the Supreme Court, Feodor Fedorenko, an ex-guard at Treblinka, the extermination camp where the Nazis killed nearly a million Jews. Gildea got into the business of defending Nazis on trial for deportation while working the immigration circuit at a New Haven law firm. He told me that he had always been fascinated by the Second World War. The work let him revisit fragments of it in the flesh.
Throughout Sokolov’s trial, Gildea was meeting regularly with William F. Buckley, Jr., the face of patrician Yale and the founder of the National Review. Buckley had become obsessed with the Sokolov case as a kind of frontline in the Cold War, calling Gildea at least a dozen times over several years, dining with him in New York, and writing a personal letter to President Ronald Reagan, pleading for his intervention in the case. The letter landed on the desk of future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts, who at the time was working as an assistant to the Attorney General. In the letter, Buckley mentions that Strobe Talbott, a former student of Sokolov’s who later became Deputy Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, had vouched for him and called the scandal a KGB ploy.
Reagan stayed out of it and the DOJ let the investigation proceed. In 1986, the court revoked Sokolov’s citizenship; a year later, he and Gildea took the case to the Court of Appeals. And when the Court upheld the first verdict, Gildea pressed for an encore at the Supreme Court. But Sokolov didn’t want the trouble. Instead, he wrote a letter to a Russian Orthodox monk at a monastery in Montreal, who agreed to give him sanctuary, and fled the country. Sokolov died there five years later, outliving the Soviet Union by a month.
In 1966, long before his flight to Canada, still a fixture of Yale’s Russian Department, Vladimir Sokolov attended the thirty-fourth International Congress of the P.E.N Writers’ Club. The scene must have been poignant to him, in a way. He was in the important room at the literary congress, where he always wanted to be. But he received no awards. He wasn’t a star. He was spectating. The fiction he wrote had never been especially well-received. It was never even translated into English.
But even as his career as a novelist was going, and went, nowhere, Sokolov had invented a powerful literary character, creating and recreating a fictional version of himself that was the perfect piece of propaganda: a falsehood so total and so flexible that it held for decades, across borders and governments, among Nazi officers, FBI agents, and members of the Yale faculty. The character was a Russian patriot, impressed into service by an occupying power; he had survived the war by a miracle, provided for his family, and worked hard to establish himself in America as a man of letters; he had convictions, stuck to them, and championed the oppressed; he was kind to students, patient in class, modest to a fault; he led a quiet life in suburban Connecticut.
This character was believable, sympathetic even. But he was not Vladimir Sokolov. Sokolov was a Nazi.
Zachary Groz is a sophomorein Jonathan Edwards College and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The New Journal.