Why New York City Has a Plaza Named for A Soviet Spy

New York Rep. Samuel Dickstein (right) with President Calvin Coolidge. Dickstein was an agent for the Soviet Union at the time. (Library of Congress)

Samuel Dickstein was everything a politician from the Tammany Hall political machine was supposed to be: a New York City alderman, a New York state assemblyman, a congressman representing New York City and fiercely loyal to the party.

Unlike other Tammany Hall politicians, Dickstein wasn’t so loyal to the United States. Today, we know the congressman was also a spy for the Soviet State Security agency, then known as the NKVD.

A little strip of New York City real estate between East Broadway and Grand Street in southern Manhattan is still named for Dickstein, despite what we know about the former congressman today. When it was named for him, however, there was no hint that he passed sensitive information to the Soviet Union.

He was born in the former Russian Empire, in what is today Lithuania, to Jewish parents. The family immigrated to the United States in 1887, escaping the anti-Jewish sentiment pervasive under Russian Tsar Alexander III.

Dickstein went to law school in New York City, got a job at a prestigious law firm and soon got involved in local politics. His ascent was astonishing. In less than a decade of public service, he found himself elected to Congress.

Things back in Russia had not improved over the course of Dickstein’s life. Since his family’s escape, Tsar Alexander had died and passed the throne to Nicholas II. Nicholas II abdicated during the February Revolution of 1917, and by the end of that year, the Bolsheviks came to power. A month after Dickstein was elected to represent New York in the House of Representatives, the Soviet Union was founded in 1922.

Once in Congress, Dickstein was vehemently opposed to fascism and aggressively attempted to root out any un-American, fascist propaganda directed at the citizens of the United States. Long before Sen. Joseph McCarthy began the red scare, Dickstein railed against subversives attempting to overthrow the government.

A small plaza in southern Manhattan is named for former Rep. Samuel Dickstein.

No one was safe: American supporters of the Nazi movement, fascists overseas and even communists took the brunt of Dickstein’s rhetoric.

Despite all of his bluster, Dickstein began securing American passports to give to Soviet agents trying to work inside the United States -- for a price. It cost roughly $3,000 to secure a passport through Dickstein, equivalent to more than $55,000 in today’s dollars.

He then offered his services to the NKVD, precursor to the Soviet KGB, for $1,250 per month (around $23,000 in 2021) to deliver information gleaned from his congressional committee. If his prices seem high, you’re not alone. Even the Soviet Union thought so. They gave Dickstein the codename “Crook.”

Still, according to a 1999 book from authors Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein, the Soviets paid him. What they got in return isn’t known, however. What is known is that Dickstein is the only known member of Congress to be working as an agent for a foreign government.

Dickstein’s fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives didn’t trust him or like him very much. Not because they would ever suspect him of being a spy. They didn’t like him because he threatened to fight witnesses who testified before his committee. They also hated his exaggerations, which only were eclipsed by McCarthy in the years to come.

By 1945, they’d had enough. Dickstein was stripped of his committee seat and left Congress soon afterward. He finished his career as a justice on the New York Supreme Court, where he spent the rest of his life. Manhattan’s Dickstein Plaza wasn’t named for him until 1963, almost a decade after Dickstein died, ostensibly to honor the old jurist.

The Soviets stopped paying Dickstein when he left Congress in 1945, but his service to the USSR went unnoticed until 1999, when Weinstein and Vassiliev published “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- the Stalin Era.”

The book had unprecedented access to old KGB archives, which revealed the extent to which Dickstein had aided the Soviet Union. But more than 20 years later, Dickstein Plaza is still named for a KGB spy.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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