Cold War Comfort

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To say I was a difficult child is something of an understatement: I was a wild child.  In retrospect, I can only feel sorry for my poor parents, who had no idea what to do with me.  I was simply unmanageable.  Unwilling to sit still in class, or to obey the simplest instructions, I did as I pleased without regard for decorum.  I distinctly remember dashing out of my first-grade classroom with the teacher close behind me, leaving that poor woman in the dust while I ran rings around her out on the playground, where I much preferred to be.  As this was a daily occurrence, the adults eventually decided that something had to be done with me, and that is how I made the acquaintance of Dr. Robert Soblen, prominent New York psychiatrist and Soviet spy.

Dr. Soblen’s office, I recall, had a peculiar medicinal smell, and his face was pockmarked.  His thick eyebrows, and thick lips, along with his foreign accent—he had been born in Lithuania—combined with his distant manner to give the impression of alienness, of a creature beyond my ken and experience.  He administered many tests—draw a man, draw a woman, multiple choice—and once we played chess after I showed some interest in his chess set.  But of course I never had a chance when it came to this game: I was a mere child, and the Doctor had already decided my fate.

I know this because Dr. Soblen’s notes on my “case” have recently come into my possession.  It seems the definitive factor in his determination that I was suffering from a mental disease was my Catholicism.  “He says he has seen the Virgin Mary,” wrote Soblen, “and is quite clearly delusional.  Believes in miracles.  These are obviously hallucinations.”  His diagnosis: schizophrenia.  His recommendation: incarceration in a state mental institution.  Soblen worked in just such a facility—Rockland State Hospital, which had served as the backdrop for the infamous movie The Snake Pit, and he argued strenuously that this was the place for me.

Now this may seem like an unnecessarily harsh verdict.  After all, religious belief, at least back in the 1950’s when these events occurred, was hardly unusual, let alone proof of mental illness.  Yet Dr. Soblen was merely reflecting the view of his Soviet counterparts: Any sort of religious—or, indeed, “anti-Soviet”—belief was in itself a manifestation of neurosis, psychosis, or worse.

Soblen led a double life.  To most, he was a pediatric psychiatrist with a thriving practice and a resident position in a huge psychiatric facility in Orangeburg, New York.  However, he was also a longtime Soviet spy.  Along with his brother, Jack, Dr. Soblen (sometimes known as Soble) ran an extensive Soviet spy apparatus in both Europe and the United States.  With a long and storied history as one of Stalin’s most devious—and successful—henchmen, his career is a study in deception, betrayal, and a ruthless cruelty in the service of an ideology.

Born Ruvelis Sobolevicius, in Vilkaviškis, Lithuania, in 1900, Dr. Soblen had many names over the years, each one a mask that fit the role he was playing.  As “Roman Well,” alongside his brother, “Abraham Senine,” he infiltrated the Trotskyist organization in Germany during the late 1920’s, creating factions that eventually destroyed the group.  In 1941, the Brothers Sobolevicius were sent to the United States for the specific purpose of spying on the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization: “Robert Soblen” and brother “Jack” reported directly to the resident NKVD honcho and succeeded in infiltrating the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, as well as the Trotskyists’ New York offices, where they intercepted Trotsky’s communications with his American followers.

The FBI closed in on brother Jack in 1957, when he was arrested along with his wife, Myra, on the testimony of Hollywood producer Boris Morros, longtime music director at Paramount Pictures.  Morros named a dozen others, including brother Robert, who was arrested in 1960.  He was found to have sent photos of nuclear test sites and other top-secret information to his Soviet controller.

Robert denied the charges, but Jack was singing to the jury.  Thus, the former guardian and judge of my mental health was convicted of espionage.  Offered a deal, and a chance at leniency, Dr. Soblen refused to cooperate with the government and was sentenced to life imprisonment.  (Jack got six years and time off for good behavior.)

His final appeal having been denied, Robert Soblen jumped bail and, using a forged Canadian passport, fled to Israel, where he claimed citizenship under the Law of Return and sought asylum.  The Israelis weren’t buying it: Although the decision to turn him over to the Americans was indeed controversial within Israel, send him back they did.  However, the Doctor wasn’t through quite yet.  During a stopover in London he slashed his wrists, wound up in a hospital, and launched a legal effort to claim “persecution” at the hands of the American government.  This was thrown out of court, and once again he was on a plane headed for justice.  But once again he slithered out of his chains, taking an overdose of barbiturates.  Authorities tried to haul him to the airport anyway, but he died on the way there.

My view of Dr. Soblen is colored by my experience.  I can only imagine what my life would have been like if he had prevailed on my parents to make me his ward.  Ah, but evil had its comeuppance, in the end.  His fate, and that of his murderous credo, is an object lesson in the principle of cosmic justice, karma, destiny, call it what you will.

In the Doctor Soblens of this world we face the eternal problem of the evil in our midst, as well as the tragic role played by chance.  After all, what are the odds that your psychiatrist is a spy, sent on a mission by Stalin to persecute the good?  In his notes, the Doctor ridiculed my habit of praying as yet more evidence of my “delusional” system.  However, I like to think that, perhaps in his last moments, he discovered that prayer can be immensely comforting, albeit utterly fruitless for the faithless.      

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