The Volkswagen Spy: American's cold war story about espionage

      In 1961, Marvin Makinen was a chemistry student at Free University in West Berlin, Germany. He pulled up to the border crossing between West and East Berlin and told them, “I am about to begin a weeks-long road trip through the U.S.S.R.” (Chapple, 2021) was in the Ukraine taking a photo of what the Soviets determined was a military object. So, he was arrested at Kyiv.

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   Before he stopped at the border, he had being engaged by American Intelligence to travel through the Soviet country side as a tourist to gather military and civilian structure information for the U.S. government.

      Though he appeared like a benign student, the Soviets were watching his every move as he drove through Ukrainian countryside. He was arrested in Kyiv and imprisoned in a Soviet prison. The penalty in USSR at that time for his crime was imprisonment or death by shooting. A body belt with film, a notebook and a copy book with intelligences records were taken from him at his arrest.

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       Makinen (Also referred to as MacKinnon by Soviets) was tried by a closed military tribunal and sentenced to 8 years in a Soviet prison. There was an article in the NY Times stating, “The Soviet Foreign Ministry made a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow against what it described as the continuing use by the U.S. intelligence agencies to use tourists for espionage in the Soviet Union.” (Topping, 1961) Though he only served 2 years in Vladimir Prison, one year was in solitary confinement. Then moved to a labor camp called Mordovian ASSR (autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). It is the same as an oblast or close to what we in the U.S. call states, Canadians call provinces. Makinen and Rev. Walter Ciszek were later traded to the U.S for two Soviet spies.


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Makinen went back to work in the U.S. upon return. During WWII he was sent to Budapest and worked on a committee in the Swedish foreign ministry to save Raoul Wallenberg’s life. Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews from death, but Wallenberg was arrested on January 17, 1945 and disappeared. There was a big controversy when Wallenberg was brought to Moscow and was said to have died in a Soviet prison, and several inmates of Vladimir prison testified he was there in the 1950s.  Makinen found staff members who identified Wallenberg from photographs and Makinen determined he was under special treatment in the prison. Sweden declared him dead in abstenia dated for 1952. It is said he rescued over 100,000 jews but that is a story for another time. Makinen continued to work on his case as part of his life’s work.


 Photo 5- copy of Soviet investigation in Ukraine of Marvin Makinen.

Makinen is still thriving to this day at 83, is married, has two children and at least one grandchild. He has a PhD from University of Oxford, and is still the president of an organization called the “Independent Investigation in Raoul Wallenberg’s Fate, Inc.”


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Chapple, Amos, (2021), How the K.G.B. caught America’s ‘Volkswagen Spy’, Radio free Europe,

Chapple, Amos, (2021) How the K.G.B. caught America’s ‘Volkswagen Spy’; A story of cold war espionage, Soldier of fortune,

Topping, Seymour, (September 5, 1961), Soviet jails U.S. tourist as spy; to try him as a western agent, NY Times,