the spy with nine lives
At a party at the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen in November 1979, a CIA officer had a few too many vodkas. The American was goaded by one of his KGB hosts … and then … oops! The CIA officer blurted out the name of one of their agents, a man named Boris Korczak.
Or so the story goes.
It is just one of the strange incidents that have cropped up in the life of a most unusual man.
Boris Zdzislaw Sielicki-Korczak, was born on February 11, 1939 in Vilnius, Polish Lithuania.
After the war, living within the newly formed borders of the People’s Republic of Poland, the young Korczak got in trouble with the law.
Poland fell within the Soviet sphere of influence after the Second World War, and the Communist government was little more than a puppet of the USSR.
Things changed following Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech in 1956, which condemned the cult of personality that had been built up around Stalin (who died in 1953). Though Khrushchev had primarily wished to use the speech to bolster his own position as leader of the USSR, many across the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc saw it as opening up the possibility of reforms to the Communist system.
In Poland, intellectuals and even some in the Polish Communist Party saw an opportunity to develop a more independent state. Meanwhile, the working class started to demand better living conditions and wages.
The city of Poznan saw mass demonstrations, where tens of thousands people gathered in defiance of the Communist authorities in order to demand a better life.
The protests were brutally suppressed, but limited reforms were permitted.
As a teenager, Boris Korczak took part in this tumultuous year in the life of Poland. Aged 17 he was arrested and locked up by the authorities for taking part in oppositional activities. In prison, he tried to commit suicide. In very poor health, Korczak was released early.
In 1964, Korczak fled Poland and settled in Denmark, where he was granted political asylum. He established a business in Copenhagen importing and retailing home electronic products.
In the early 1970s, KGB officers based at the Soviet embassy started to purchase Western electronics from his shop. In 1973, Korczak approached the CIA and offered his services, spying on Soviet activities.
Operating on behalf of the Americans, he became a KGB asset - a double agent.
Korczak continued in this role, finally reaching the rank of major within the KGB in the summer of 1979 - just before he was outed.
Though we may be skeptical about how exactly Korczak’s cover was blown, his work for the CIA in Copenhagen certainly ended by 1980.
After several alleged threats to his family, Korczak claims he was visited by a Soviet assassin who warned him that his days were numbered. He then fled to the United States.
Living in northern Virginia, Korczak approached the CIA, hoping to receive help to resettle with his family in the United States.
He claimed the CIA had promised to give his family citizenship and compensation in the event that his cover was blown.
But that was not how the CIA saw it. They acknowledged that Korczak had worked for them in some capacity in Denmark, but stated that they had made no such commitments to him.
Rebuffed, Korczak went on something of a media offensive. On multiple radio and television programs, he stated that the CIA had welched on their deal.
In the first part of our episode, we recreate a radio interview with Korczak. For the full, unedited transcript (thanks to the CIA!) you can use this link: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp88-01070r000100390002-1
He also said that he’d faced assassination attempts after moving to the United States. The most sensational claim Korczak made was that in 1981 he was shot with a poisoned pellet while shopping at a Giant grocery store in Arlington, Virginia.
He claimed that his car was being followed that day. He assumed that he was being tailed by the FBI - supposedly something that had happened before. Inside the store, Korczak said he saw the driver of the car hanging around, pretending to shop.
As Korczak was putting fruit in a bag, he felt a sharp pain in his side. At first he thought he’d been stung by a bee. But when he got home, Korczak claimed that he fell very ill.
A hospital record shows that he was admitted at the time he said the attack took place, and that he had an elevated white blood cell count. However, there was no sign of an infection.
A few days later, Korczak said that he passed what seemed to be a kidney stone. Upon inspection of the small clot, it turned out to contain a tiny metal pellet.
He said it looked like the poison-filled pellet that had reportedly been used against Georgi Markov in London a few years before.
Korczak said that he suffered from six months of sickness after the attack.
He eventually gained US citizenship. In the 1990s he attempted to sue the CIA for the money he claimed he’d been promised. However, the case never went to trial - the agency invoked state secrecy protections that prevent any legal action that might endanger their work.
Korczak still lives in Virginia - and still feels that he was treated unfairly by the CIA.
Attribution for music used in this episode:
Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald