Alexei Botyan, Soviet Spy Hailed as ‘Hero,’ Dies at 103

Alexei Botyan, Soviet Spy Hailed as ‘Hero,’ Dies at 103

As far as many Russians are concerned, Alexei Botyan, a Soviet spy during World War II, was a hero whose daring actions saved the Polish city of Krakow from destruction by the Nazis.

But the Poles, and a number of respected historians, have a different take. To them, Mr. Botyan (pronounced buh-TYAHN) may have been a fine intelligence officer, but he had nothing to do with saving Krakow. They say that the city was spared the fate of Warsaw, which was destroyed, because the Germans had to leave quickly, ahead of the advancing Red Army, and blowing up Krakow was not a priority.

The conflicting accounts of Mr. Botyan’s role during the war have been revived with his death on Feb. 13 in Moscow at 103. Tass, the Russian news agency, reported the death but gave no details.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin hailed him as “a legendary intelligence officer” and a “true patriot.” Mr. Botyan was buried with military honors in the Avenue of Heroes at the Troekurovsky cemetery in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, who has sought to build national pride by painting an illustrious past for his country, began mythologizing Mr. Botyan as the savior of Krakow in 2007, when he awarded him the nation’s highest honor, the Hero of Russia medal. “Old Krakow — Europe’s most beautiful city — was preserved for Poland and the entire world culture, in many ways thanks to your personal courage,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Botyan began recounting his story to state media at age 90.

As recently as January, a publication called Russia Beyond the Headlines, which reflects the official government view, ran an article headlined “How One Soviet Intelligence Officer Saved Krakow.” It said that Mr. Botyan had “single-handedly rescued the city from total annihilation.”

Through intelligence work, the article said, Mr. Botyan learned that the Germans were stockpiling explosives in a castle outside of Krakow. If the Red Army advanced into the city, it said, the Germans planned to use the explosives to blow up bridges and dams, flooding Krakow and wreaking havoc among the Soviet troops.

“Risking life and limb,” Russia Beyond said, Mr. Botyan persuaded a German officer at the castle to switch allegiances and help foil the German plot. Mr. Botyan supposedly gave the officer a mine with a detonating fuse; the officer, in turn, gave it to a subordinate, who placed it in a munitions stockpile inside the castle.

“At 5:20 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1945, the stone walls of the ancient castle were blown away by a powerful explosion that buried several hundred German soldiers and the plan to destroy the city,” Russia Beyond said.

Mr. Botyan was quoted as saying, “Saving Krakow is the most important thing I ever did in my life.”

But historians say this story is fiction.

The Red Army had entered Warsaw, which the Germans had reduced to rubble, on Jan. 17 and was bearing down on Krakow. The Germans blew up bridges and sealed a dam to slow the Soviets and buy themselves time as they retreated.

“But there is absolutely no evidence that the Germans intended to demolish a dam to bring about Krakow’s destruction,” Mark Kramer, a Soviet specialist and a Cold War historian at Harvard, said in a phone interview.

Blowing up a major dam would have required extensive engineering work and the planting of munitions — operations that would have taken time and delayed the Germans’ retreat.

The castle that the Germans used as an ammunition depot was blown up. But historians say it was destroyed either by Polish resistance units or by accident.

“It was certainly not blown up to keep the Germans from using the ammunition to harm Krakow,” Mr. Kramer said. “They had plenty of explosives in Krakow and wouldn’t have had to rely on those in the castle, which was 70 miles away.”

Moreover, the Germans were already evacuating before the explosion occurred, he said, and “clearly had no intention of using the ammunition or taking it with them.”

Paweł Machcewicz, a Polish historian, said in an email that Krakow was saved not by Mr. Botyan but “by the rapidity of the Soviet advance and the German retreat.”

“The Germans had indeed the plans to blow up many buildings in the city and a part of its infrastructure, but they did not have time to implement them,” said Mr. Machcewicz, who is the founding director of Poland’s World War II Museum and a visiting scholar at Yale.

When Mr. Botyan was honored in Moscow on his 100th birthday, the Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita wrote, “Polish historians generally question the Russian version of events, a version that appeared when Vladimir Putin was in power.”

Ivan Zolotar, the commander of Mr. Botyan’s intelligence unit, made no mention of the incident in his war memoirs, Mr. Kramer said, and never singled out Mr. Botyan as having performed any special deeds.

“This whole supposed escapade wasn’t even mentioned until the award was given,” he said. Mr. Botyan “was a capable intelligence officer, but his role in the closing months of the war has been markedly overstated,” Mr. Kramer said. “He helped train officers. The notion that he single-handedly saved Krakow is absurd.”

The Botyan legend, with its inherent assertion that the Soviets saved Krakow, Poland’s showcase city, continues to fuel bad relations between Poland and Russia, Mr. Kramer said. The two countries have grievances against each other going back centuries; Mr. Putin even suggested this year that Poland was responsible, with Hitler, for starting World War II, neglecting to mention the secret Soviet-German pact to invade Poland and carve it up.

Alexei Nikolaevich Botyan was born on Feb. 10, 1917, in the village of Chertovichi, when it was part of the Russian Empire. While growing up, the village was part of an independent Poland. It is now part of Belarus.

At the start of World War II, he served in an air-defense unit of the Polish army and saw combat against the Germans. After his unit surrendered to Soviet troops, he joined the Red Army and became a Soviet citizen, according to the S.V.R., Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Mr. Botyan joined the secret police known as the N.K.V.D. (it later became the K.G.B.) and was trained to conduct intelligence operations behind enemy lines. He was sent to Poland in 1944, when the Red Army pushed the Germans out of the Soviet Union.

After the war, he worked as an intelligence officer abroad. He retired from the K.G.B. in 1989.

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