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Cy Oggins was born in 1898 to Russian-Jewish parents who had emigrated to America. He became a communist and worked as an undercover agent firstly for the Comintern, the body tasked with spreading revolution abroad, then for the Russian security and intelligence service, later better known as the KGB. Arrested in Moscow in 1938 on trumped-up charges during one of Stalin's purges (by this time Oggins presumably knew too much), he served eight years in the Arctic Gulag under the usual, scarcely credible, conditions. Then, when he should have been released, he was taken to Moscow and gruesomely liquidated - the official word for it - as one of the medical experiments conducted by the Russian equivalent of Hitler's Dr Mengele.

Oggins was a footnote to the Cold War but his fate was symbolic enough to resurface in 1992 when Boris Yeltsin made details of the case available to the US Government. But not all details. The mystery as to who exactly this American who spied for the Russians really was, what he did and what happened to him, intrigued Andrew Meier sufficiently to spend eight years researching it. Oggins could hardly have hoped for a better qualified obituarist. As a meticulous investigative journalist, a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and an admired writer on Russia, Meier knows whereof he writes, though he could not have known quite where his journey would take him.

That began in the Connecticut cotton town where Oggins grew up and where poverty and industrial unrest soon tipped him leftwards on the political spectrum. At Columbia University, where debate over US participation in the First World War was the big issue, he anglicised his name and sided with the anti-interventionist radicals. Leaving Columbia, he became more deeply involved in political activism and married another activist, a four feet, eight inches tall firebrand called Nerma. Meier paints a brief but vivid picture of early 1920s radical socialism and political violence in New York.

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