Gusti Stridsberg was a German-speaking author and intelligence officer who lived and worked in Sweden during the second half of her life. Her best-known work is her autobiography entitled Mina fem liv, published in 1962. This work also served as her international literary breakthrough.
Gusti Stridsberg was born in Tjernivtsi, in what was then the Habsburg empire, in 1892. She grew up in Vienna and, during the First World War, she served as a volunteer nurse. During that time she met Bernhard Jirku, who was a doctor, and they married in 1916. The couple settled at Hartenstein castle which, after the war ended, was part of Yugoslavia (modern-day Slovenia). After a few years the couple separated and Gusti Stridsberg carried on living at Hartenstein throughout the 1920s, learning Slovenian. In the late 1920s she published her German translations of the work of the poet Ivan Cankar. By then she had tired of the monotony of rural life and returned to Vienna. Her first novel, entitled Zwischen den Zeiten, was published in 1931.
Doktor Emers, the editor in chief of Der Wiener Tag newspaper had in the meantime become aware of Gusti Stridsberg’s self-assured use of language. He suggested that she travel to Moscow to produce a series of reports for the paper. Her response that she knew nothing of politics and even less about the Soviet Union made no difference to the editor as these were the very reasons that he wanted her to undertake the job. The Moscow reports she wrote served as her entry into the genre which many years later became known as ‘new journalism’ and came to influence her future literary output.
While she was in Moscow Gusti Stridsberg got a temporary job on the radio working on the foreign news desk. She also provided private English language tuition to a Comintern agent. Upon her return to Vienna she became enrolled as a supporting agent for the underground Yugoslavian communist party’s leadership based in Austria. Vilim Horvay, the secretary of the youth association who went by the pseudonym of Stefan Svarcman and is noted as Stefan in her memoires, served as her contact. The deepening political tensions in Austria made it increasingly difficult to work underground and Horvay was ordered to go to Moscow in 1933. Gusti Stridsberg had fallen in love with him and chose to accompany him.
During her second stint in Moscow Gusti Stridsberg came into even closer contact with the central organisation of the Comintern and worked in its propaganda department. Her excellent linguistic talents also resulted in her use as a simultaneous interpreter during the Comintern’s 7th world congress in 1935. Although she was invited to accept Soviet citizenship she turned the opportunity down.
The rapidly ever-worsening political climate in Moscow led Vilim Horvaj to understand that he would not be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He was, however, able to obtain permission for Gusti Stridsberg to leave, along with a poorly made false passport and train tickets for Paris. For some reason this journey went via Berlin and, in Saarbrücken, Gusti Stridsberg was arrested by the Gestapo, having apparently been forewarned of her intended journey. Combining her presence of mind and exploiting the fear of superiors engendered in those who worked for the totalitarian state, Gusti Stridsberg was able to get herself freed after a couple of weeks in prison.
In early 1937 Gusti Stridsberg – encouraged by Moscow – made her way to the republican faction in the Spanish Civil war. They appointed her deputy editor in chief of the Ayuda Médica Internacional, the organ of the international brigades’ medical branch. Gusti Stridsberg undertook most of the journalistic work, including reporting from the front. She met several Swedes in Spain, including the journalist Barbro Alving and Georg Branting and Sonja Branting-Westerståhl, both representing Svenska Hjälpkommittén för Spanien (Swedish aid committee for Spain). Her friendship with Sonja Branting-Westerståhl became very important to her. As the international brigades began to dissolve in the summer of 1938, and following 18 months in Spain, Gusti Stridsberg illegally crossed the border into France where she spent some time in Paris before heading north to Copenhagen. She finally came to Sweden in March 1939. Shortly afterwards she applied for a Swedish residence permit.
Gusti Stridsberg’s connection to Sonja Branting-Westerståhl and other Swedes was very important to her and, amongst other things, led to her involvement with Morgonbris, the organ of the Social Democratic party women’s association. Her first article for Morgonbris was published in the April 1939 edition and she went on to be a frequent contributor. She very quickly became established in Swedish society and within the cosmopolitan scene of wartime Stockholm. However, as a foreigner and a political refugee she was in a vulnerable position. Her subsequent marriage to the Spanish veteran Hugo Stridsberg was solely intended to give her Swedish citizenship and thus to protect her from the legal insecurity engendered by the exceptional wartime laws.
Stockholm’s significance as a neutral outpost – to both journalists and intelligence agents – grew following the German attack on the Soviet Union and the entry of the USA into the Second World War. Gusti Stridsberg became an accredited correspondent of the Toronto Star. In December 1941 she met the Soviet press-attaché Zoja Jarzeva, who was actually an NKVD officer tasked with organising sabotage groups based in Sweden. Jarzeva needed a supporting agent and presumably found no-one more experienced than Gusti Stridsberg. She then worked for the Soviet intelligence agency in Stockholm for the ensuing four years, using the codename of Klara. Her duties expanded from the identification of individuals suitable for undertaking acts of sabotage to providing political information using the cover of her role as a newspaper correspondent. On her own Gusti Stridsberg dealt with the extremely sensitive relations between the Soviet intelligence agency and the Finnish so-called peace opposition, aimed at breaking the alliance between Finland and Germany.
Gusti Stridsberg was highly thought of within the Soviet intelligence agency and by the end of the Second World War they viewed her as their most important agent in Stockholm. However, Stockholm lost its position as a place of significance to international intelligence work once the war ended and the Soviets were keen to move Gusti Stridsberg to Yugoslavia. She too was keen to go there, but for entirely separate reasons. In Belgrade the Soviet intelligence agency tried to persuade her to work for them in Yugoslavia. She requested time to consider the move whilst secretly crossing into the Western allied zone in Austria with help from the Americans. This behaviour led her to become viewed as a potential double agent and the Soviets broke off their ties with her. Yet another factor in this break with Moscow was that Gusti Stridsberg had learnt that Vilim Horvay had been seized by NKVD and had been executed before the war had even begun and that this had been kept secret from her.
Gusti Stridsberg managed to evade the extensive Swedish surveillance operations of the war years. It was not until two KGB officers – Jevdokia and Vladimir Petrov – defected to Australia in 1954 that the Swedish SÄPO was supplied with information about the agent who worked under the code name of Klara. The two aforenamed Russians – who were a married couple – had been stationed in Stockholm and Jevdokia Petrova had taken over the contacts with Gusti Stridsberg, alias Klara.
In September 1955 Gusti Stridsberg was summoned by SÄPO and interrogated thoroughly by Inspector Otto Danielsson. She admitted that she had worked for the Soviet intelligence agency but denied that her activities had been directed against Sweden and consistently refused to reveal who she had recruited or collaborated with. During the course of the investigation a gradual change in approach was introduced, moving from interrogation to more of a conversation. The records include several themes and episodes which later formed central elements of Gusti Stridsberg’s autobiographical work Menschen, Mächte und ich (published as Mina fem liv in Swedish).
It was not until many years after Gusti Stridsberg’s death in 1978 that intelligence agency contacts first became known through the Soviet intelligence telegrams which were made public in 1996 by the American NSA (National Security Agency). The material is dense and has in part been responsible for both Gusti Stridsberg and her daughter being falsely identified as agents in San Francisco. The two of them appear in telegrams between Moscow and San Francisco because the Soviet intelligence agency transferred money through Gusti Stridsberg’s daughter who was living in Berkeley, in order to provide Gusti Stridsberg with a legal source of income.
Gusti Stridsberg was an important German-language author and journalist. She was a cosmopolitan who had mastered several European languages and was able to navigate various cultural and social milieus. She was one of the most skilful but therefore also one of the least known intelligence agents who worked in Stockholm during the Second World War years. Her Soviet control officer Jevdokia Petrova has described her as “extremely intelligent and resourceful”. Further, Gusti Stridsberg belongs to the long overlooked category of female foreign volunteers who served in the Spanish Civil War.
Gusti Stridsberg died in Lidingö in 1978.