COLD WAR SECRETS : A VANISHED PROFESSOR, A SUSPECTED KILLER, AND HOOVER’S FBI
By Eileen Welsome
Kent State University Press (UK distributor – Eurospan). 266 pages. £24.50. ISBN 978-1-606-354254
Reviewed by Jim Burns
On the 15th March, 1969, Thomas Riha said good night to a friend he had been visiting, climbed into his car, and drove off. He had seemed apprehensive, the friend said later, and thought he had been followed to her house. She invited him to stay but he told her he needed to go home. He was never seen again. His disappearance was initially ascribed to his somewhat chaotic domestic circumstances, which revolved around messy divorce proceedings he was involved in, but the facts of his absence looked odd. He appeared to have gone without taking any clothes, and he hadn’t told anyone that he was intending to be away for a few days. As the days and weeks passed he failed to get in touch with the university where he was an associate professor in the Slavic Studies Department.
Riha was employed by the University of Colorado at Boulder. He had been born in Prague in 1929, managed to survive the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia despite having two Jewish grandparents, and left the country not long before the Communist takeover in 1948. He was in London for a time, but moved to the United States in 1947. His mother and other relatives were living in California, so he went there and enrolled as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in 1951 with a degree in political science. But there then appear to be a couple of years where details of his location and activities are scarce. According to Eileen Welsome:”He may have been travelling, working some non-academic job that he didn’t think important enough to put down on his résumé, or possibly being trained as an intelligence agent”.
He next appeared in December, 1952, when he became a naturalised citizen. Welsome says he studied at Columbia University’s Russian Institute in 1953/54 and again in 1955/56. But he also served in the army around the same time. He was posted to a Psychological Warfare Centre in North Carolina, but if the testimony of one of his fellow-soldiers is to be believed, did little of any consequence while there. Riha spoke five languages, “including flawless Russian”, but it doesn’t appear that the army put his skills to any great use.
A master’s degree from Berkeley, and a Ph.D in Russian history from Harvard followed. In 1958 he was an exchange student at Moscow University. He had been warned not to try to enter Czechoslovakia while on his way to Russia, but ignored the advice and flew to Prague from Paris. Welsome says that Riha’s file in the StB (Czech secret service) archives shows that he had been charged with leaving the country “without permission” in 1947, so should have been arrested when he entered Czechoslovakia. He was instead given a room at the Flora Hotel in Prague, “an arrangement that suggests the Communist government knew he was coming and had authorised his visit”.
He was subject to surveillance while in Prague, but soon moved on to Moscow after visiting Vienna, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. While in Russia Riha “was allowed to travel freely” and to meet a variety of people. He eventually returned to America, and a year or so later was contacted by FBI agents who wanted to know about his experiences in Russia. The Bureau already had a file on him and were aware, through mail interception, that he had received Soviet “propaganda” publications as early as 1954. These could, of course, have been purely for study purposes. He seems to have assured the agents that nothing he had done in Czechoslovakia or Russia could be construed as detrimental to the interests of the United States. What he didn’t tell the FBI was that he had been offered a professorship in Bratislava, coupled with the promise of the return of some family property in Prague that had been seized by the State, if he stayed in Czechoslovakia.
In 1960 Riha obtained a teaching post at the University of Chicago, where he “developed an innovative course on Russian civilisation based upon the histories of three cities – Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad”. He spent a year at the University of Marburg in Germany, during which time he visited Moscow and Leningrad. Curiously, however, when he was back in Chicago, and his name was put forward for an exchange programme with Czech academics, he was denied entry on the grounds that some of their nominees had been turned down by the Americans.
It was probably in Chicago that Riha first met Galya Tannenbaum, a strange lady who was to play a significant part in the events surrounding his disappearance in 1969. She had an affair with Leo Tanenbaum, a Chicago businessman and political cartoonist who was a member of the American Communist Party. Prior to that she had been briefly married to a graphic artist named Charles Russell Scimo, and had served a prison sentence for “obtaining money by false pretences”.
A whole book could be written about Galya. She was a liar and fantasist who claimed to be an FBI agent and to have a high position in the INS (Immigration and Naturalisation Service), among other security-related organisations. It would seem that, during her relationship with Tanenbaum, she was providing information to the FBI about American communists. It was hardly likely to have been of any great value. The Party was a shell of what it once had been and was riddled with informers. And the FBI knew from another informant in Tanenbaum’s design studio that Galya could not be relied on to tell the truth. It was Galya who added the extra “n” to her name and later claimed that Tanenbaum had fathered a child she had.
In 1967 Riha moved to Boulder where he had been offered “a tenure-track job” in the history department at the University of Colorado. At first, everything seemed to be going well. Riha got along with his colleagues and was popular with students. The nature of his relationship with Galya in Chicago doesn’t seem to have been a particularly close one, but they renewed their acquaintanceship when she turned up in Boulder in 1968. There was another problem, too. Riha had entered into a quickly-arranged marriage to a young woman named Hana who he had met in New York. From observations by those who knew him, it didn’t strike them as a marriage likely to last long, and it didn’t. The marriage took place in October, 1968, and quickly fell apart. Hana had separated from Riha by the time he disappeared in March, 1969, and claimed that he and Galya had tried to kill her so that they could collect on a large insurance policy he had insisted Hana agree to when they married.
Reading Welsome’s book it is obvious that some people took Galya’s claims of high-level contacts in official circles seriously. There were suggestions that Riha was wary of her, perhaps because she knew something he didn’t want others to know. She had turned up at the wedding reception and lured Riha away from his bride and guests for a long conversation. And Galya was present in the Riha household on the night when Hana, afraid for her life, climbed out of a window and ran to neighbours for protection. Police who were called to the scene detected a strong smell of ether in the room Hana had escaped from. Telling the people who had helped Hana not to interfere, Riha said that Galya was a colonel in military intelligence and was armed with a pistol.
When Riha didn’t turn up at an academic symposium he was supposed to attend, and couldn’t be located at home, it was at first assumed he’d gone away for a few days because of the situation with Hana. But as his absence lengthened enquiries began about his possible whereabouts. Local police didn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing the matter once they’d made a preliminary investigation of the circumstances. It was a domestic dispute, as far as they were concerned. And when the FBI and the CIA were contacted they claimed they knew nothing about the case. Welsome’s investigations have unearthed the fact that both agencies were aware of events as early as April, 1969. And had files on Riha dating back to the early-1950s.
It’s impossible not to think that there was something odd about the response of the authorities to people asking about Riha’s disappearance. Several times the answer came back that he was alive and well and living in Brooklyn. And there were hints that he might be living in Czechoslovakia. Welsome notes that more than one person probing into the Riha case was told “You don’t want to know” or advised “not to be interested” or “I suggest you drop it”. Fred Gillies, a reporter for the Denver Post, who on and off over a ten-year period looked into the case, encountered some evasion from local police. Welsome says that he remarked just before he died, “There was so much espionage”.
So what did happen to Riha? It wasn’t long after he went missing that Galya, claiming he had left some blank cheques and his credit cards with her, took charge of Riha’s estate. She told people that he had authorised her to “dispose of his assets”. She claimed that she was owed seven thousand dollars she had loaned Riha when he bought his house in Boulder. And she sold the house and his car. It had been parked in Boulder, which was strange if he was supposed to have left quickly to get away from his wife. It was noticeable that any money that accrued as Riha’s house and belongings were disposed of was paid into Galya’s account. Welsome calculates that Galya received “roughly seventy thousand in today’s dollars from Riha’s estate by using his credit cards, siphoning off his savings, cashing his royalty cheques, and from monies obtained through the sale of his home, his car, and his artwork”.
Did she murder Riha? She was not at any time accused of committing the crime, though Welsome makes a convincing case for her being responsible and for the killing of two other people not connected to the Riha mystery. A sequence of misspellings of words she used in paperwork relating to all three victims convinced Welsome that, with other evidence, Galya must have been guilty. But she was never actually charged with any of the murders, and was convicted of forging signatures on cheques and a false will. Because of medical reports that described her fantasies as dangerous, and diagnosed her as a sociopath and/or psychopath, she was committed to the Colorado State Hospital. She somehow managed to smuggle cyanide into the ward she was placed on and committed suicide on March 5th, 1971. Cyanide was the cause of death for two of the people she killed, but Thomas Riha’s body has never been found so it’s only possible to hazard guesses as to how he died.
There may be some people who will have doubts about whether or not he was murdered. Or did he somehow make his way to Czechoslovakia and spend the rest of his life there? It’s not likely, given that the security archives in Prague were opened up when communism collapsed in 1989. There surely would have been some traces of his existence among the files and other documents. It is curious, though, how the FBI and CIA continued to play down their possible involvement in the case. Welsome, an experienced investigative reporter, obtained many documents under the Freedom of Information Act. They were, as usual, heavily redacted, but she could often work out what was being referred to. None of it appears to indicate that Riha was other than one of Galya’s victims.
Cold War Secrets is a fascinating book, thoroughly researched and well-written. It not only delves into Thomas Riha’s disappearance and death, but also sheds light on the mood in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a large cast of characters, ranging from academics to secret agents, to members of the Communist Party, criminals, local policemen, and more. They are often interesting in their own right, for one reason another, and Welsome does more than just use them to provide colour for her narrative. She makes them and the whole confused situation come alive.