This Day in Jewish History |

2009: KGB Spy Murdered in Moscow

Shabtai Kalmanovich spied on Israel for 17 years in the 1970s and ’80s, spending five years in prison for his crimes.

David Green
David B. Green
Shabtai Kalmanovich in Vilnius, Lithuania, 1999.
Shabtai Kalmanovich in Vilnius, Lithuania, 1999.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On November 2, 2009, Shabtai Kalmanovich was shot to death in a professional hit that has never been solved. As a young man he emigrated from his native Lithuania to Israel, spied on his adopted home for the KGB for 17 years, before being caught and sent to prison, and then returned to the Former Soviet Union, where he embarked on a new life as a high-profile businessman.

abtajus Henrikovicius Kalmanovicius was born in Kaunas, in Soviet Lithuania, on December 18, 1947. When Shabtai was in his early 20s, his family – which had requested permission to immigrate to Israel – was made an offer it didn’t refuse: exit visas in return for the son’s agreement to spy for the KGB once he was in Israel.

The family arrived in Israel in 1971. Although Shabtai had studied chemical engineering in Lithuania, in his new home he became involved in politics, specifically in the Russian division of the Labor Party. This work, and a job in the Government Press Office, gave him access to information about the Liaison Bureau, also called Nativ – the semi-secret government organization that offered assistance to Soviet Jews.

In 1977, Kalmanovich began working for Shmuel Flatto-Sharon – the businessman-turned-fugitive-from-French-law who became a one-man political party – during his lone term in the Knesset (1977-1981). Kalmanovich became his parliamentary aide, during which time he was involved in arranging a deal that allowed for the simultaneous release of an Israeli spy being held in Mozambique, an American imprisoned in East Berlin, and a Soviet spy in U.S. custody.

Kalmanovich began doing business in Africa, where he was effective at establishing relationships with some of the emerging strongman rulers. In Sierra Leone, he was involved in diamond mining and, it is said, in arms sales too. A construction company he owned did extensive business in the South African homeland of Bophuthatswana, which he also served as unofficial ambassador to Israel.

Even a cursory online survey of news reports about Kalmanovich turns up dozens of allegations of involvement in shady business deals in numerous countries, thanks to his links with business, political, military, intelligence and also entertainment figures.

Even as Kalmanovich, who clearly had a larger-than-life personality, was providing Israeli secrets to the KGB (including, say American sources, intelligence stolen by Jonathan Pollard on Israel’s behalf), he was also passing information in the opposite direction, spying on the Soviet Union for Israeli intelligence.

In 1987, business turned sour and, soon after, Kalmanovich found himself under arrest in Israel, where he was charged with illegal contacts with a foreign government. He confessed, and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Even before his arrest, Kalmanovich had arranged for Israeli negotiators to meet with representatives of the Lebanese group Amal, which held the Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad during his initial year or two of captivity, talks that did not lead to Arad’s release. It is supposedly these efforts, plus claims that Kalmanovich was very ill, that led to his pardon after five years, by President Chaim Herzog in 1993.

Kalmanovich had a miraculous recovery after his release, and in the 16 years between then and his murder, he was a very busy man. He relocated to Lithuania and, both there and in Russia, developed real estate, promoted entertainment events (including concerts by Michael Jackson and José Carreras) and owned and ran professional basketball teams, both women’s and men’s (Kalmanovich described himself as “bisexual” when it came to basketball.) These included Spartak Moscow – the women’s team that won the EuroLeague women’s championship three times during his tenure – and also the Ahva Ramle women’s team in Israel.

On November 2, 2009, Kalmanovich was waiting at a traffic light in Moscow in his armored black Mercedes S500 when a Lada Prior pulled up and opened fire on him. He was hit by at least 20 bullets and died immediately. His driver was also wounded. News reports said that $1.5 million in cash was found in the car.

Three days later, Kalmanovich was buried near the graves of his parents in Petah Tikva. His murder has never been solved.

Shabtai Kalmanovich lies in a body bag near his car on November 2, 2009.Credit: AFP

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