In January this year Norway opened their archives on a strange case of
superpower politics. 50 years before, in 1968, DeWitt S. Copp, editor of
the rightwing newsletter Washington Report, had published a book on what he
referred to as the "murder" of the American citizen Newcomb Mott. The
events leading up to what was in the Norwegian government's view a
controversial publication were indeed strange and unusual, shrouded in
secrecy and odd twists of fate, leading to the death of said American on a
train heading for Siberia, where he was to be detained for 18 months.
While Newcomb's death was ruled suicide by Soviet authorities, Copp refused
to accept their conclusion, and published the commentary "The Murder of
Newcomb Mott" in Washington Report on May 23, 1966. After receiving
favourable response, Copp decided to expand his views into a book-length
manuscript. He made contact with the Norwegian embassy in Washington,
asking them to read his manuscript and comment as they see fit. However,
Norway's embassy in Washington was highly skeptical to Copp's venture.
Writing to the Foreign Ministry in Oslo they note that such commentary on
the embassy's part could serve to acknowledge Copp's conclusion. Then, on
June 23, 1967, Norway's Foreign Ministry responded that "we should keep a
sound distance from any cooperation with the author of the Mott and Boris
Gleb business." As the book was published the following year the embassy in
Washington writes smugly home that the manuscript doesn't contain "any
criticism of Norwegian authorities." They do not mention that Copp has
maintained his view that Mott had been murdered by the Soviets and that
American authorities had been reticent in their dealings with the matter.
But what was the backdrop of this for Norway delicate and sordid incident?
Who was Newcomb Mott and what was Boris Gleb?
This story begins in 1960 when the Soviets had approached Norway, knowing
well of this country's expertise in building hydroelectric power plants,
asking for assistance in constructing a plant on what Norwegians call
Skoltefossen on the Soviet side of the border. While the workers traveled
daily across the border, Norway opened a temporary border post. The workers
were often attended to by Soviet intelligence, and when they returned they
received as much care from Norwegian police and military officers. In
December 1963 the power plant was opened, and the Norwegians were quite
happy to be able to close the temporary border post.
But then greater superpower politics intervened. The 1962 Cuba missile
crisis brought a new urgency to East-West relations. Then, as Bresjnev took
over from Krusjtsjov in 1964 and the US dramatically increased their
presence in Vietnam, the small, now closed, border post in the far north of
Norway gained new actuality.
There was a small village on the Soviet side of the border, Boris Gleb,
where the government had decided to open a bar with cheap, tax free spirits
for tourists. If the Norwegian and other Nordic governments would allow
their citizens to go there on day trips, the Soviet Union would allow them
visa free travel. As the parties approved the deal a rush of Scandinavians
arrived to drink hard booze of both Russian and Western extraction. The
Oslo papers wrote about "dead drunkenness," "alcoholic farce," and "the
vodka route to Boris Gleb," while others acknowledged that what happened on
the Soviet side of the border wasn't always happy events. However, the
Soviets had their own reasons for this singular show of hospitality: the
state received a welcome supply of foreign currency, visitors were
repeatedly approached by state agents, and already enrolled agents could
more easily stay in touch with their contacts in the other side of the Iron
In other words, everything went fine and things were acceptable to all
involved until one day the American book salesman Newcomb Mott arrived in
Helsinki and heard about Boris Gleb. Was he curious? You bet. Did he want
to go there? Sure. From what we know he asked around, and found out that
Scandinavians could visit this Soviet village without a visa.
What happened when he went there on his own was that he got caught jumping
a fence and arrested, and then the question arose as to whether he knew
that only Scandinavians could go on visa free travel to Boris Gleb and if
he knew who it was that had told him. Was it someone in the Helsinki hotel?
Was it one of the Finnish citizens that traveled along side him? Or was it
someone from the Norwegian authorities?
Mott was tried and sentenced to 18 months of hard labour in Siberia,
despite protestations from him, his family and the Americans. On the train
heading East he was found dead with a bloody razor blade next to him. The
Soviets ruled it suicide, and while some Americans, such as Copp, disputed
the conclusion, we will probably never know for sure how he died. From the
newly opened archives we nevertheless now know a bit more of the delicate
backdrop to this case, and how some very small words can have potentially
explosive effects on superpower relations.
When the Soviets enquired about Mott, the Norwegian Border Inspector Odd
Stub Aune wrote in a letter dated September 7, 1965 that Mott "knew that he
couldn't transverse the border with a regular passport, and it is therefore
possible that he has tried to cross in some other way." The Soviet Attorney
interpreted the letter as documenting that Norwegian authorities had warned
the American, and that they had informed him of the regulations. Therefore,
Mott was sentenced for intentionally violating the visa regulation, despite
his protestations of ignorance.
Now, how would the Americans react if they found out that Norway's Border
Inspector had made what some people in the Foreign Ministry regarded as a
blunder in his letter to the Soviets? Norway decided not to comment, not to
get involved, in short they tried their best to put a lid on the whole
matter. They did not want their small country to become the centrepiece of
a direct conflict between the world's nuclear powers, and particularly not
if it were to emerge that Norway had been just a tad too cooperative with
Fortunately, when Copp's book was published it was the American authorities
that were criticized for not investigating the matter sufficiently. The
Foreign Ministry in Oslo could draw a relieved breath of fresh air. Once
again the tiny country on Nato's Northern Flank had avoided being drawn
Mvh. / Yours sincerely,
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