The legendary intelligence officer Stirlitz, aka Maxim Isaev, aka Vsevolod Vladimirov, has forever become an element of the national cultural code. The hero of the works of the writer Yulian Semyonov fell in love with many of our fellow citizens from books, but especially from the famous television series “Seventeen Moments of Spring”. The folk hero is a fictional character, but when creating it, Yulian Semyonov was inspired by many illegal Soviet intelligence agents. Among them could well have been Lev Efimovich Manevich, who for a long time successfully worked in Europe under the fictitious name of the Austrian businessman Konrad Kertner.
Manevich was not deprived of attention from Soviet writers. As Konstantin Simonov said, intelligence comes to fame posthumously. It happened with Sorge, it happened with Manevich. A novel by the Soviet front-line writer Yevgeny Vorobyov “Land on Demand” was written about this Soviet intelligence officer, based on which a feature film of the same name was shot in 1972.
Unusual childhood of Lev Manevich
Lev Efimovich Manevich was born on August 20, 1898 in the small town of Chausy, Mogilev province. The future intelligence officer came from a poor family of a small Jewish employee. In those years, Gomel, Mogilev and Bobruisk formed a kind of Belarusian settlement belt. In the Russian Empire from 1791 to 1917, this was the name of the geographical border of the territory beyond which Jews could not permanently live, with the exception of a number of categories that were constantly changing. Such injustice and infringement of civil rights became the reason for the widespread spread of revolutionary ideas precisely among the Jewish population of the Russian Empire. It was from small towns and cities outside the Pale of Settlement that a large number of famous revolutionaries and political figures later emerged.
Lev Manevich’s elder brother, Yakov, was no exception. He was imbued with revolutionary ideas that were floating in society at the beginning of the 20th century. From a young age he took part in revolutionary activities and joined the RSDLP (b). In 1905, while serving in the army, Yakov was arrested for possession of weapons, Bolshevik proclamations and explosives in the barracks. He got off relatively easily: he was sent for correction to the disciplinary unit on the territory of the Bobruisk fortress. Here Yakov Manevich took part in the battalion uprising on November 22, 1905. Later, 13 rebels were sentenced to death, and the rest of the participants to hard labor.
Yakov Manevich was lucky, his comrades did not leave him in trouble. The battle group freed Jacob, after which he managed to get abroad, first to Germany and then to Switzerland. In the spring of 1907, his younger brother Lev also went to Zurich. Relatives sent the young Leo abroad after the death of his mother, deciding that he would be better there. In 1913, Lev Manevich entered the local polytechnic college, where he very quickly mastered spoken German. Excellent knowledge of the language will be very useful to him in the future in intelligence work. In the same place, in Switzerland, Lev Manevich learned two more languages: French and Italian. These languages were spoken in some Swiss cantons, and Leo showed the ability to learn foreign languages.
The brothers continued to follow the revolutionary agenda. In Switzerland, they attended several of Lenin’s speeches. Both greeted the revolution in Russia in 1917 with enthusiasm and left for their homeland in the summer of the same year.
How Lev Manevich became a scout
Upon arrival in Russia, Lev Manevich quickly decided on his future. After the October Revolution, he volunteered for the Red Army, and in 1918 for the RCP (b), having received the coveted party card. The civil war that began in the country seriously shook Lev Manevich, throwing our hero into various corners of the former empire. In 1918, he was in Baku and managed to fight as part of the First International Regiment against the Musavatists, and in the spring of 1919 he fought on the Eastern Front against the troops of Admiral Kolchak. During the civil war, Lev Manevich was very active in party work in all the cities where he found himself: in Baku, Ufa, Samara.
Manevich ended the civil war as a commissar of an armored train. It was at this time of his life that he would meet a real comrade in arms, Yakov Nikitich Starostin. In the name of this man, many years after the end of the civil war, Manevich will introduce himself, having fallen into a Nazi concentration camp. A comrade in arms from the past, whose biography Lev Manevich will ascribe to himself, will save his life for the last time.
Lev Manevich, fluent in foreign languages, educated in Switzerland, well-proven in battles, wounded and shedding blood for the new power, did not go unnoticed by the command. After the end of the civil war, his military career was on the rise. In 1921, Manevich successfully graduated from the high school of the staff service of the command staff of the Red Army, and in 1924 – from the Military Academy of the Red Army.
Already in August 1924, Manevich was in the service of the Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army. During these years he was assigned to the Secretariat of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic for special assignments. In fact, all these years he was engaged in preparation for overseas business trips and intelligence activities abroad. From 1925 to 1927 he was on a business trip in Germany. After returning to the Soviet Union in May 1927, he headed a separate sector in the Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army. At the same time, in 1928, he managed to undergo an internship as a commander of a rifle company in the 164th regiment, and after successfully completing in 1929 the courses that were organized at the Nikolai Yegorovich Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, in May-October 1929, he trained in 44th aviation detachment. All this was necessary for his future intelligence work in Europe. The main points of application of the intelligence efforts were to be new technologies in industry, especially aviation.
The work of an illegal scout
At the end of 1929, Lev Manevich will go on his reconnaissance mission, from which he will never return home. For successful work, he legalized himself in Austria under the fictitious name of a local merchant Konrad Kertner, the intelligence agent’s pseudonym was the name Etienne. In Vienna, the Soviet intelligence agent successfully legalized himself by opening his own patent office. The cover was excellent and provided access to the latest in European industry. At the same time, being an aviator, having the necessary education and skills acquired during his studies in the USSR, the newly minted Austrian Konrad Kertner made many useful acquaintances with pilots, technicians, mechanics, equipment adjusters and some aircraft designers.
Having legalized in Austria, by 1931 Manevich reoriented himself to Italy, which was of great interest to the USSR. Military intelligence needed information not only about the state of the country’s armed forces and the transfer of troops, but also about the state and capabilities of the Italian military industry, about the military-political plans of fascist Italy. In 1931, in Milan, Konrad Kertner, with the help of his friend, an Italian aeronautical engineer, opened a new patent office, Eureka. The scout met the engineer at the international aviation exhibition in Leipzig, persuaded him to become his companion.
This period of work in Italy was the most successful for Etienne. In Lombardy, the Eureka company represented the interests of a number of real Austrian, Czech and German companies that were interested in supplying products to the Italian market. Kertner’s success was a contract with the German company “Neptune”, which was engaged in the production of batteries, in which the Soviet Union showed particular interest. Here in Italy, the “Austrian businessman” worked especially closely with the novelties of the Italian aircraft industry and military shipbuilding. The large shipbuilding company Oto Melara was of particular interest to the scout.
For the USSR, the spy, legalized in Austria and Italy, became a very valuable employee, supplying the center with a lot of information useful for the Soviet defense industry: drawings, patents, analytical notes, plans. In 1931-1932 alone, Lev Manevich’s residency, which grew to 9 source agents and three auxiliary agents involved in solving secondary tasks, transferred 190 valuable documents and information reports to Moscow. 70 percent of the information received by the Center was rated very highly by the Soviet command. Among the information transmitted were data on aircraft engines, navigation instruments, instruments that make it easier for pilots to fly in poor visibility conditions, information on armored steels, new models of surface ships and submarines.
The flow of this information dried up in October 1932. One of the recruited agents was discovered by the Italian counterintelligence and split. At a meeting with Konrad, at which the agent was supposed to give the Austrian a package of blueprints for the new plane, the “Austrian businessman” was detained. This happened in Milan on October 3, 1932. The Soviet intelligence officer was accused of military espionage and was caught red-handed on the spot.
From prison to concentration camp
The Italian counterintelligence and the investigation were never able to find out the real identity of Konrad Kertner, he did not recognize his belonging to the Soviet intelligence. The investigation itself took a very long time, the final court decision and verdict were passed only in February 1937. Austrian citizen Konrad Kertner was sentenced to 16 years in prison (later the sentence will be reduced, but this will not save the intelligence officer). After sentencing, the intelligence officer will be sent to serve his sentence in the prison of Castelfranco del Emilia. At the same time, in his homeland, already during the investigation, by a secret order of the NKO of the USSR of December 16, 1935, Manevich, who was at the disposal of the Intelligence Directorate of the Red Army, was awarded the rank of colonel.
While in prison, Lev Manevich contracted tuberculosis. In the spring of 1941, the already sick prisoner was transferred to the south of the country to a convict prison located on the island of Santo Stefano. Manevich stayed in this prison until September 9, 1943. The island was liberated by the American military, who released some of the prisoners from prison, including Manevich. Here the story played a cruel joke with the scout. Instead of freedom, he ended up in the dungeons of the Gestapo. After the liberation, Manevich, with some of the freed prisoners, sailed on a schooner to the Italian city of Gaeta, which was occupied by German troops only a day before their arrival.
All the prisoners who arrived were quickly sent by the Germans to the Ebensee concentration camp located in Austria. Realizing that his legend would most likely not be believed that he could be discovered, on the train on the way to the concentration camp, Manevich changed his jacket for the jacket of the Russian prisoner of war Yakovlev, who died from typhus. Upon arrival at the camp, he clarified that his name was not Yakovlev, but Yakov Starostin, and there was simply confusion in his name. Here Manevich combined the biography of a comrade-in-arms known to him from the Civil War with the information that he managed to learn about the prisoner of war who died on the train.
The new legend did not arouse any suspicion among the SS, it was under the name of Yakov Starostin that the Soviet intelligence officer was kept in Nazi concentration camps. In addition to the Ebensee camp, these were the Mauthausen and Melk camps. In the camps, the scout conducted clandestine work and, even being seriously ill, continued to demonstrate to the prisoners the will to resist and endurance. It was again liberated by American troops in early May 1945. However, grave illness and camp deprivation had their say. Lev Manevich died on May 12, 1945 and was buried in the vicinity of Linz. Before his death, he revealed his real name and occupation to the camp comrade Soviet officer Grant Airapetov.
In 1965, Lev Efimovich Manevich was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. In the same year, his grave was found. The scout’s remains were transferred and solemnly reburied at the large memorial cemetery St. Martin in Linz, where the fallen Soviet soldiers were buried. At the same time, a monument was officially installed on the grave with the inscription: “Here lies the ashes of the Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel Lev Efimovich Manevich.”