Ignaty Reif was born in Kovel, western Ukraine. His father, a grocer by trade, was grooming his son for the family business. But when the October Revolution came, it opened up endless opportunities for ambitious young people, and Ignaty, who was studying in Kiev at that time, became passionate about politics and joined various revolutionary organisations.
In 1918, Ukraine was occupied by German troops, and Kiev was in the hands of the puppet regime of Hetman Skoropadsky. Reif joined the underground, the backbone of which consisted of Left Socialist-Revolutionaries and anarchists. When the sham regime collapsed, Reif became a major figure in the effort to establish Soviet power in Ukraine.
Reif’s achievements in the revolutionary movement were noticed, and in the early 1920s, his career started to take off. In 1922, the 20-year-old was sent abroad as a librarian at the USSR Permanent Mission in Berlin, where he maintained clandestine contacts with members of the local organisation of the German Communist Party. He was then called back to Moscow and appointed head of the secretariat of the editorial office of Pravda newspaper. In 1925, he joined the Economic Department of the OGPU, and soon after moved to the Foreign Department.
The high point in his career came in 1934 when he was made the deputy head of the London Station under Alexander Orlov, who was overseeing the Cambridge Five. When, on the recommendation of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean joined up with Soviet intelligence, it was Ignaty Reif who became his first handler.
Reif’s work as deputy head of the London Station did not last long: in February 1935, British authorities expelled him from the country.
Upon returning to the USSR, Reif worked in the central office of the intelligence service, where he supervised the activities of the Cambridge Five and the entire London Station, rising to the rank of captain of state security, which corresponded to the rank of army colonel.
Reif was arrested on 29 July 1938, accused of participating in a counter-revolutionary organisation. The investigation was carried out in record time, lasting just one day. On the night of 30 July, Reif was executed.
Ignaty Reif was rehabilitated in 1956, like many of his fellow intelligence officers who were innocent victims caught up in Stalin’s purge.