Maria Fortus’ Five Orders

Working with unique documents of 1920-1930s in the Sector State Archive of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, I accidentally came across a brief mention of a desperate young intelligence officer, who was sent to Nestor Makhno’s army, regularly provided important information, and then was discovered and shot dead. Further research confirmed my assumption: it was the legendary Soviet intelligence officer Maria Fortus, who managed to survive and about whom in the 1960-1970s several books were written and two movies were filmed — “Alba Regia” with Tetyana Samoylova starring and “Salute, Maria!” with  Ada Rogovtseva. The successful performing of the role of the intelligence officer brought Ada Mykolaivna fame and the prize for the Best Woman’s Role at the 7th Moscow Film Festival in 1971.

Today about Maria Fortus could be created an exciting serial thriller that would keep in tension to the last shot and would meet the most demanding viewers’ tastes. After all, there was everything in her life: a turbulent revolutionary youth, dangerous risky intelligence work abroad,  tragic balancing  between life and death, bitterness of losses  of friends and relatives, dramatic love.

Maria Fortus

From the  dossier of the Foreign Intelligence Service:

Fortus Maria Oleksandrivna was born in 1900 in Kherson region. During the Revolution of 1917she took part in the underground work of local party branches of SRs and Bolsheviks. Since 1919 she was in the service in the Cheka (KGB) in Kherson, Yelyzavethrad, Odesa. Maria performed undercover job in one of the units of Makhno’s army. In 1930s she lived in Spain with her husband – Spanish Communist, performing tasks of the Foreign Intelligence Service. After the tragic death of her husband, for some time she stayed there illegally , and during the Spanish Civil War was the Soviet representatives’ interpreter, combining this with carrying out  various special assignments. After returning home she graduated from the Frunze Military Academy.

During World War II she was the Chief of Staff of the Aviation Regiment under Maryna Raskova’s command, then – in Dmytro Medvedev’s partisan group, where for some time she operated jointly with the Soviet intelligence officer Mykola Kuznetsov. As part of the Intelligence Unit of the Third Ukrainian Front she was training intelligence groups to be sent  deep behind enemy lines, and repeatedly participated in landing operations with specific tasks on the territory of Romania and Hungary.

After the war she continued to work in the Intelligence Service.  She was awarded two Orders of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star and many other awards of the USSR and foreign countries. She died in 1980.

In the revolutionary Kherson

The unexpected meeting in a cozy Kherson confectionery turned Maria’s life upside down. Swarthy dark-eyed sailor from a foreign ship began to make her compliments. His name was Ramon Kasanelyas Lyuk. He was the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist, who because of persecution in his homeland for political activity went to work on the French merchant ship as a mechanic. Soon the ship was turned into a repair base and incorporated into the French military squadron, which was sent to the South of Russia to fight against the young Soviet power. In the roads of Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson there were a lot of English, French, Greek cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary ships. Sailors with the White Guard units felt at home in port cities. But the revolutionary underground was not sitting idly by, it launched a broad explanation and propaganda work among sailors. Maria Fortus actively participated in that work.

Before the revolution, as a member of the SR organization, she used to perform various risky tasks. Once she began working in the greenhouse of the local prison to make contact with the condemned activist and prepare his escape. Maria did everything what she had to, but at the final stage the flow of the operation was corrected by the February 1917 revolution. After the revolution all political prisoners were released anyway.

During the years of foreign intervention, Fortus successfully delivered from Odessa to Kherson suitcases with agitation literature. The next task was to spread leaflets among foreign sailors. Realizing that the new acquaintance was not just in love with her, but also shared her revolutionary views, Maria began to actively involve him into this activity. But after massive anti-war demonstrations of French sailors in the Black Sea port cities, the French government had to withdraw its fleet. Ramon was also leaving Kherson, not knowing apart from his love he was leaving on the Ukrainian shore his unborn child.

Maria called their son after his father -Ramon. But her character was not for staying home and washing diapers. The moment Kherson became Soviet, she was offered a job at the local Cheka. Maria agreed immediately. Although she was doing mainly paper work, all the same she felt needed. But in the south the events of the civil war were developing unpredictibly. Within a minute everything has changed, the Red began to retreat quickly, without having time to evacuate even government agencies with their documentation. The greatest concern was the Cheka’s secret papers. Not to risk on the way, they buried the most important papers in the forest. (Together with requisitioned bourgeoisie’s gold and silver). Most valuable jewelry and diamonds had to be carried to Kyiv.

Maria volunteered to perform this mission. She hid all the jewels in a special belt, wrapped herself up with it several times, and again, like recently, she looked pregnant. Accompanied by her allegedly husband, she went on foot on a dangerous journey. On their way they came across numerous gangs, local otamans’ units, revolutionaries. Once they were going to be searched, but Maria got into such a tantrum that the “married couple” were released, and nothing happened.

It took them almost a month to get to Kyiv but they did it, half-starved and barefoot because their shoes fell apart. In the room of the Chief of the Cheka Maria put the  jewelry onto the table and suddenly  felt such a terrible tiredness that nearly fainted.

From Kyiv she was sent to Yelyzavethrad Cheka, this time for operational work. Once there was an emergency, bandits captured Maria’s colleagues and demanded ransom. There was no enough money to fulfill the demand. Someone suggested toask Nestor Makhno for it- his main headquarters were just nearby. Maria and another comrade in the guise of teachers came to the all-powerful father.

- Father, give some money to the school – they began asking tearfully. – The children are starving, there is nothing to write with, there are no text-books.

Nestor’s wife Halyna Kuzmenko, being nearby, took pity and persuaded her husband to help. The money was just enough to free their comrades.

At one of the next meetings they were discussing how to deal with Nestor Makhno’s army, and among other things, were thinking over various options of an intelligence officer’s getting into one of its units. Maria volunteered to do the job.  First, she took a job as a nurse in P`yatyhatky Evacuation point at the railway station, where wounded Makhno’s fighters were often treated. Having made friends with a group of fighters, she soon went with them to one of Makhno’s units. There she continued to treat the sick and wounded, through predefined ways of communication informing about Makhno’s army’s movements and plans.

But something unexpected happened: someone from Makhno’s close circle recognized in her the teacher who had come to ask for money for a school. There was no lingering. At that particular moment Makhno’s army was pursued by the Red Army, which was tasked to destroy the rebels as enemies of the Soviet power. So, together with other captured people, Maria was taken out into the field, there was a volley of fire…

When local villagers visited the place of the execution, they noticed that someone was showing faint signs of life. It was Maria Fortus. The bullet, having hit a large brass button, stuck next to her heart. At hospital her life was saved and she was transferred to Yelysavethrad.

After recovery, she returned to the office, now in Odessa HubCheka (Regional Cheka). Participated in cultivation of foreign White emigre organizations. As hostess of the recruiting apartment she received messengers of the white General Bulak- Bulakhovych who had settled in Romania and from there kept sending his messengers to the south of the Soviet State to collect intelligence and prepare undergrounders dissatisfied with the new government. One of the former tsarist officers denounced her and decided to dispose of her. The injury was bad, but this time she also survived. After a complex operation and recovery doctors forbade her being used  in operational work. Colleagues also advised not to tempt fate.

In Spain with Uruguay passport

With comrades-in-arms from the Spanish Civil War

Maria was sent to study at Moscow Communist University of the Toilers of the East. This is where an event occurred about which she had been dreaming all these years, a meeting, and accidental at that, with Ramon. As it turned out, he was a political emigrant and was trying to find his beloved in the South of Ukraine. But fate brought them together again in Moscow, giving several years of happy life with their son. Meanwhile, Ramon graduates from the Flight School, then – from Sverdlov Communist University, works in the Executive Committee of Comintern.

In 1929, Ramon, as an active political figure, through Comintern was sent first to Mexico, then to Spain. The Soviet Foreign Intelligence Service decides to send Maria to him. Impressive, fashionably dressed Latina with Uruguay passport, made out to the name of Julia Jimenez Cardin, arrived by a tourist ship at one of Spanish ports. Her Spanish was perfect, so no one could even suspect that that charming lady was an intelligence officer.

Her stay in Spain was very difficult. The political situation at that time was very acute. The pro-fascist regime was trying to suppress the activity of the masses and enhanced repressions of the Communist Party, which had to go underground. Along with Ramon, elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of Catalonia, she also was hiding from persecution. She prepared leaflets, collected materials for newspaper articles, participated in other party work. This flurry activity does not remain unnoticed to the police. Ramon is arrested and Maria is deported from the country. Maria finds herself in the South of France. A few months after learning about the release of her husband, she secretly returns and restarts the underground work.

In Spain, a new trial is awaiting her. Parliamentary elections in the country begin, and Ramon is nominated candidate from the Communist Party. Shortly before the elections the car in which he was traveling to Madrid in party affairs, gets into an accident arranged by rightists.

Thousands of Spaniards came to say farewell to the popular politician. The line of people   to the Central Committee stretched for several blocks. Maria had to repeatedly stand in the common queue to get past the coffin of her loved one: because of the illegal transition of Franco-Spanish border she could be arrested any minute. The Police were looking for her among the participants of the funeral procession.

For some time Maria stayed in Spain, performing intelligence tasks. Then she returned to Moscow. Here she was met by Ramon- Junior, who by then had grown up, matured and seemed much older and more serious than his equals in age. He was under the tutelage of the Comintern, and it influenced his views. The mother kept finding in her son’s nature more and more features common with his father. Maria was happy and at the same time frightened.

- We already have enough revolutionaries in our family – she used to say to her son.

But when Ramon was 16 years old, Comintern’s leadership invited her for a talk. A group of activists was being prepared for a long term trip to Spain to work with the Spanish youth there. Ramon knew Spanish, suited for all criteria, and he was eager to go. With pain in her heart Mary agreed.

And in four months the Spanish civil war broke out. To help the Republican army, hundreds of volunteers from all over the world were sent to Spain. Maria Fortus  immediately addressed her leadership with a request:

- I am ready to do any work. My husband’s grave is there, my son is there.

Upon arrival at the spot of combat actions Maria was sent as an interpreter and an officer on special assignments to the Soviet Military Adviser to the General Staff of the Republican Army General Petrovych. He turned out to be Kyrylo Meretskov, future Marshal of the Soviet Union. Inflammatory, courageous and brave, she was remembered by many participants of those events. At one point, having arrived at the line of defense of one of brigades, she saw a crowd of soldiers who were retreating in panic.

- Wait! – Maria cried. – Where is your pride of Spanish men? Have you out of fear left it behind in the trenches? What will you tell your wives and mothers afterwards?

After such words the soldiers stopped, turned back and with the woman at head made such a lightning counterattack that the enemy did not even have time to recover, as it was rejected.

Occasionally with special post Maria managed to receive short letters from her son, who by then had already been studying at Moscow Aviation School. She did not expect his training to be over so soon when accidentally met him on one of the streets of Madrid in the aircrew battle dress uniform. Three days spent together, flew like a flash. Ramon went to catch up with his unit and Maria received a new assignment – to care for aviation intelligence on the northern front in the Staff of the Air Force.

One of the operations carried out with her direct participation, at that time got into many European newspapers. The task was not an easy one- to destroy the base of bombers in Leon. To conduct a ground operation was out of the question, for all the approaches were safely guarded. To attack from the air it was necessary to know exactly the location of aircrafts on the airfield, air defense units, peculiarities of the combat duty. Republicans had very few planes, so had to act for sure.

With climbing equipment and a powerful telescope, Maria and a group of men set out to conquer one of the peaks near Leon. They reached the intended goal and having set the equipment, saw the military airfield in the view finder. Round the clock surveillance showed that from twelve to one o’clock everybody would leave for dinner, leaving the aircrafts even without crews on duty. The information was submitted to the Staff over the  radio. And the next day they happily watched Republicans at a certain time freely bombing the airfield, destroying dozens of enemy aircrafts and fuel depots. No machine could take off.

For the success of this and other operations in Spain, Maria Fortus was awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner. On her return to Moscow she first of all visited the Department that was responsible for sending volunteers to Spain to learn about her son. There had been no news from him lately.

- A month ago, your son was shot down over the enemy positions near ​​Zaragoza. Please accept my condolences, – said the Colonel.

Behind the Enemy Lines

Maria found the strength to return to service. Among those who had gone through a baptism of fire in Spain, she was sent to study at the Frunze Academy. It was for the first time that a few women were enrolled students.

When the Great Patriotic War began, Maria Fortus was appointed Chief of Staff of the Aviation Regiment under Maryna Raskova’s command. They were guided by the fact that she had already dealt with aviation. But Maria was sure that she could be more useful in a different sphere of activity – in intelligence. She kept sending relevant reports to her leadership. At the beginning of 1942 she got an opportunity to use her old skills. The formed by Dmytro Medvedev partisan unit included a group of Spanish immigrants, so an interpreter was needed. Simultaneously, Maria was tasked to assist the Commander in intelligence work.

In the unit Maria met the intelligence officer Mykola Kuznetsov. Once they had to jointly perform an unusual mission. A plane from the mainland landed badly in the forest. The plane had brought weapons and medicine, and had to take back the wounded. The machine was unrepairable, so it was decided to burn it. But the fire was so large that it was seen for miles at night. Medvedev decided to relocate the unit. But it had to be done quietly, unbeknown even to nearby villagers. Kuznetsov and Fortus invented a combination: he put on a uniform of a German Oberleutnant, she- plain clothes with a Police bandage on her sleeve. In the very first village Kuznetsov in German began to shout at villagers that they were hiding partisans and had not reported about the Soviet aircraft that had landed in the forest, threatening that soon a punitive detachment would come arrest everybody. Maria translated everything into Ukrainian and allegedly quietly added from herself: Run away to the forest quickly. No one will be looking for those guilty. They will just shoot everybody dead.

The same was in the second and in the third village, past which the unit had to go to the place of its new dislocation. When the intelligence officers came back, the villages seemed dead, not a living soul around, even dogs did not bark. And then the whole unit went unnoticed along the planned route.

Maria Fortus’ staying in the partisan unit ended when she was wounded. She was sent to the mainland by plane. Her new appointment after the recovery was the Intelligence Unit of the  Third Ukrainian Front. Here she participated in the preparation of intelligence groups to cast them into enemy’s rear. And once she flew on the task herself. It was  necessary  to find out the nature of fortifications and location of troops between Prut and Seret in Romania’s territory. Twice intelligence officers and radiomen had been sent there, but there had been no news from them since. The Commandment was hurrying up, because the time of the attack was coming nearer. No matter how hard colleagues were trying to talk the 44 year old Maria out, she was relentless:

- I myself had prepared the previous groups, so I am responsible for their having not returned. Probably I did something wrong…

Intelligence officers knew Maria’s strong character. If she decided something then to persuade her otherwise was difficult. The task was successfully fulfilled, the needed information was collected. In due time at the front line she was met by colleagues who immediately began to congratulate  her. Maria did not understand what had happened. As it turned out, while she was in the enemy rear, an order arrived on awarding her with the second Order of the Red Banner.

The second Order of Lenin was given to her for successful operations in Hungary. On one of the sections of the front Nazis concentrated large forces and launched a massive counterattack. Soviet troops were forced to retreat and leave the ancient city of Székesfehérvár, the ancient name of which sounded in Latin Alba Regia (White City). Before the retreat, Maria was tasked to urgently prepare reliable positions for leaving in the city an intelligence officer with a radio-set. She chose Martyschenko Lydia as a radio person, whose role later was played by the famous actress Tatyana Samoylova in the Soviet-Hungarian film “Alba Regia”. As a result, from the occupied city, was regularly received important intelligence that helped carry out a successful attack and liberate the city without causing serious damage to it. Later Fortus became an honorary citizen of the city.

During the meeting with the leader of Hungary Janos Kadar in Budapest

Maria herself participated in the next special operation in the occupied Budapest. When fighting began on the outskirts of the city, Hungarian Captain Laszlo switched to the Soviet side. He told that in the basement of the destroyed royal palace where the German headquarters were housed, important, valuable documents were stored. The Captain roughly knew the place and could show it. The Commandment gave an order to get the documents at any price. Since Maria was engaged directly in checking the Captain and reliability of the information given by him, she agreed to go with him to the rear of the enemy.

They changed into the uniform of German military doctors. The third was an interpreter Shandor. At night, they quietly crossed the front line. Along half ruined  streets they walked to the palace. Maria and Laszlo found the entrance to the underground room and agreed that Shandor would come for them in a few hours. In the light of lanterns they found the right bunker. The entrance was littered with the debris of bricks and stones from the explosion, which they had to clear manually. When they found the documents, an air raid began. From explosions pieces of  the ceiling began to fall down. As it turned out, the exit was tightly overwhelmed, there was even no airflow. Later the  batteries in the lamp died. A day passed … “Perhaps the war for us will end here” – thought Maria. But the brain could not put up with this, they continued to disassemble the  blockage from within. Suddenly they heard knocking and voices. It was Shandor who took the risk and asked two German soldiers to rescue two doctors buried in the basement. Fortunately, in the bustle of the street fighting no one got to the essence of what was happening, and everything ended well.

”Salute, Maria!”

After the war, Maria Fortus for some time was engaged in intelligence activities in Vienna. In particular she took part in the search for a secret underground military factory. After the operation, the most valuable equipment was taken to the Soviet Union.

A shot from the movie “Salute, Maria!”

Later, Maria returned to her homeland and worked in the Central Office of the Intelligence Service, was engaged in social and literary activities. As a prominent intelligence officer she became known to the public after the publication of documentary novels and screening of the film “Salute, Maria!” with actors Ada Rogovtseva, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Vitaly Solomin and others.

Ada Rogovtseva fondly recalls working on the image of the intelligence officer:

- Before the shooting I was not able to meet with Maria. But I know that the scenario, individual episodes, details were agreed with her. Finally, she gave her blessing to the film and my role in it. And later we met in person – at one of the artists’ meetings in Kharkiv.

- As what sort of a person do you remember her?

- As an intelligence officer, all her life through she was very active, energetic, resolute… All this was in her even in senior age, but against the background of reserve, prudence, some inner strength and discipline. She was extremely sociable, able to speak easily and naturally on any topic. There was an impression that you had known her all your life through. Once I had to conduct a TV program with her. The last minute the editor began to make some adjustments, changing everything. I could hardly write everything down, and this – two or three minutes before the broadcast. Maria Oleksandrivna, watching it, came up to me and so quietly said, “Do not worry, everything will be fine. Let’s start with this and this episode, then we’ll see fragments from the film and will have a conversation around them”. And it happened so that in the TV program where I was master of ceremonies, in fact, not I was helping her, but she was helping me. I was just struck by her ability to easily and naturally behave before the camera.

… Maria Fortus often visited Kherson, where she was born and raised and where she met her loved one, whom she remembered all her life through. One of the streets is named after her. Kherson ethnographer Avgust Virlych keeps in his personal archive Maria Fortus’ books with inscriptions, her photos with combat mates. He repeatedly met with her in Moscow, and during her visits to Kherson. He was lucky to hold in his hands revolutionary leaflets distributed by Maria in 1917-1918: once, already nowadays, in the house where Fortus had lived, central heating was being installed, and pulling down the wall and oven they found a hiding place with a package of leaflets in it.

From Maria Olexandrivna he learned about the fate of her brother Mykhaylo- Doctor of Sciences, founder of the first Soviet Sinology Institute, later – of Oriental Studies. For some time he  had worked in China, where he had been elected a delegate to four Party Congresses, and at home in 1937 was executed as an enemy of the people. Therefore Maria Fortus refused when Stalin promised her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Avgust Virlych heard this little known episode from her biography directly from her.

- When a delegation of the government of Republican Spain arrived in Moscow- he recalls – Maria Fortus as an interpreter  was present at the meeting with Stalin. During the conversation, Dolores Ibaruri highly praised Maria Oleksandrivna’s role both,  in underground activities and in operations in Spain, to what Stalin said, “We’ll give her the Hero for that.” But Fortus replied: “Yosyp Visarionovych, I have no right to Hero, because my brother was arrested and shot dead.” After a pause, Stalin said to this: “Well, if not a Hero, we will give her the Order of Lenin”.

The intelligence officer’s father (she hardly remembered him because he divorced her mother long before the 1917′s revolution) was in those days a well known in Kherson banker and owner of several steamers. He gave the name “Maria” to one of them, as if blessing her daughter for successful travels in a stormy sea of ​​life.

It turns out his dream came true …

Oleksandr Skrypnyk,

”Dzerkalo Tyzhnya” (”Mirror of the Week”)

October 25, 2015


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