On the day of April 22, 1954, reporters massed at a press conference in Bonn, Germany. They had been invited to meet Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov, a captain in the Soviet Union’s recently minted security force, the KGB. Well, a former captain. Khokhlov had arrived in Germany tasked with assassinating the leader of an anticommunist organization. Instead he defected, tipping off the target and then surrendering himself to U.S. agents. He was no longer at the center of a murder plot, but a press event.
The 32-year-old Khokhlov was a “slight, scholarly-appearing blond young man. He was neatly dressed in a dark blue suit. He wore glasses,” reported The New York Times. The Times reporter observed that the defector has been self-possessed and calm,”adroitly” fielding questions in Russian.
Although Khokhlov’s press conference came only weeks following another high-profile defection of a KGB officer in Australia, his activities had been thrilling enough to grab headlines. Better yet, he’d brought with him the exotic murder weapons built for the plot: 2 seemingly ordinary cigarette cases. “But they are ideal weapons for an assassin,” wrote the Associated Press at the time,”because of their innocent appearance, lightness and efficiency.” Flip the lid of the case back, and it revealed what seemed to be rows of run-of-the mill cigarettes. But press a hidden button, and a small four-inch-long pistol concealed inside will fire hollow-nosed bullets spiked with potassium cyanide. Upon being fired, the “resulting noise is no louder than the snap of the fingers and might pass unnoticed in the moderate conversation in a normal office,” wrote the AP.
Khokhlov later testified before the U.S. Congress regarding Soviet intelligence actions and became something of a media celebrity. His story inspired a four-part show in the Saturday Evening Post called “I Would Not Murder for the Soviets,” and in 1957 he published a memoir, In the Name of Conscience. This was the same year the KGB made an attempt on his life. After having a speech in Frankfurt, Khokhlov was served a cup of coffee, which he wrote in his memoir “did not seem to me as good as usual.” Shortly he felt exhausted, and a”strange weight oppressed” his stomach and heart. Khokhlov collapsed in a parking lot. He had been dosed with thallium, a slow-acting poison which causes significant pain before killing its victim. Khokhlov was lucky, however, and ultimately recovered following weeks in the hospital. His poisoning had coincided with the successful launch of Sputnik, and he reflected this in his book. “I, too, was an exhibit of the achievements of Soviet science,” he wrote. “Totally bald, so disfigured by scars and spots that those who had known me did not at first recognize me, confined to a rigid diet, I was nevertheless also living proof that Soviet science, the science of killing, is not omnipotent.”
Having defected from the KGB, endured a poisoning attempt, and spent decades in the media spotlight, it may be natural to presume Khokhlov was ready for some peace and quiet. And he did eventually fall into the life of an academic, beginning studies at Duke University in the 1960s. However, in the long run, it’s clear Khokhlov was not supposed to lead a normal life.
While studying psychology at Duke, Khokhlov discovered himself in the orbit of one of the college’s most eclectic personalities, Joseph Banks Rhine, or J.B. Rhine. Rhine was a botanist from Pennsylvania who went to study psychology at Harvard and became curious about what he called”extra-sensory perception”–the idea that the human mind had forces beyond the known senses. He analyzed clairvoyance, ESP, and telepathy, and eventually founded the Institute for Parapsychology at Duke. The laboratory (which still exists today as the independent Rhine Research Center) has the distinction of inspiring the scene from Ghostbusters where Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman tests his students’ clairvoyant capacities with a deck of marked cards. (In a weird coincidence, the assassination plot that sparked Khokhlov’s defection was called Operation Rhine.)
It was under Rhine’s tutelage that Khokhlov’s interest in the paranormal flourished, and it was also how he found himself at the Institute for Parapsychology on September 1, 1966, presenting a paper called “The Relationship of Parapsychology to Communism.” A number of paranormal researchers had assembled at the institute, whose base was a stately white house with a porch and balcony.
“In Soviet Russia substantial interest was stimulated in research into parapsychology,” Khokhlov began.
Russian character, Khokhlov advised the Institute’s attentive dinner guests, made for a people”specifically sensitive to matters relative to the mystical side of the human psyche” and”to a world beyond the sober reality of sense.” Then he lectured the group about Russian scientists that had undertaken studies of ESP dating back into the late 1800s. He told them that the Soviet authorities actively encouraged such analysis, and name-checked dominant Russians (from astrophysicists to philosophers) who affirmed parapsychological inquiry. He described studies where subjects were able to perceive pictures from over a distance of almost 2,000 miles. He concluded his talk on a hopeful note, stating,”The fate of the world today depends on the common understanding by the whole human race of what a human being really is.
Rhine printed the paper in a publication, Parapsychology Today, also provided the ex-KGB officer a place on his team once he’d earned his doctorate. However, Khokhlov declined. He later wrote in an email to the writer Stacy Horn, who chronicled the goings-on in the Institute in her publication Unbelievable, he had lost faith in Rhine’s propensity to get”pure statistical manipulations without touching the inevitable issue of human consciousness and its metaphysical essence.”
Khokhlov finally went west, to California. He became a professor at California State University, San Bernardino, in which he continued to research parapsychology. There he hosted talks about psychic phenomena (“If you think you’re a psychic, or just interested, come and feel the vibes next Tuesday,” read a note for a few of his workshops at the school paper.) He taught classes in experimental hypnosis, also delivered lectures on religious life. He gave interviews on parapsychology and about his KGB years to David Brinkley and 60 Minutes. The U.S. government tapped him to examine parapsychology in the Soviet Union on its own behalf.
Khokhlov turned into a U.S. citizen in 1970. Over the years, his interests expanded beyond parapsychology. He discovered computer programming and committed himself to environmentalism, finally launch a “computerized carpool” that matched students with other people nearby so that they could commute to college together.In 2007, the man who’d fled Soviet Russia and lived a poisoning succumbed to a heart attack at 84. His papers, including his work on parapsychology, reside in the Hoover Institute, a think tank at Stanford University.In Khokhlov’s writing, it’s simple to observe a direct line between his abhorrence of the Soviet system and his fascination with the scenic guarantees of the paranormal.”Nothing can arrest the disintegration of inhuman rule,” wrote Khokhlov in his 1957 memoir. In the final analysis, these elements will prove stronger than the rational’material’ forces.”