A True Story of KGB vs CIA in Cold War Ceylon :
The Karl Kasmann Caper
The memoirs of my boyhood friend Dr. Roger Rodrigue, now in
Australia, sparked my memories of the exotic Estonian Karl Kasmann, two
decades on from the late 1930s.
In hindsight, I realise that my youthful self had, unwittingly, been
a not-very-perceptive observer on the sidelines of a great spy story of
the Cold War, played out in Colonial and newly independent Ceylon.
Beginning In that twilight between the two World Wars Colonial Ceylon
was pretty hospitable to Europeans who were free to settle down here, if
they so desired. Among them, in the early 1930s, was Karl Kasmann from
the Baltic state of Estonia, bordering Soviet Russia.
What yarn he spun to the Colonial authorities, to explain his desire
to settle down in this corner of the British Empire, remains a mystery
for ever unless a diligent scholar is now inspired to dig into Colonial
archives in London Kasmann settled down in idyllic Kandy.
He was a gifted artist whose reputation as a portrait painter
gradually spread in the mansions and walauvas of the hill country. He
sealed his acceptance into the hospitable (to Europeans !) Burgher
community when he married Doris Karlenberg, a well-known teacher of
He also had an edgy relationship with Kandy’s other artist George
Keyt. I recall tagging along to the Kasmann home with my friends Bruno
and Roger Rodrigue whose mother, another Doris, was my teacher in
Karl was a broadly built man, though not particularly tall.The
Kasmann’s lived in a tall grey house up a flight of steps on a road
rising steeply from Peradeniya Road in Katukelle. While the adults
chatted, my two friends and I quietly rummaged among the stacked
canvases looking for the holy grail of a nude portrait.
SEIZURE OF THE “KALLARAND” The clouds of war were ominously gathering
in Europe. In 1938 Soviet Russia launched pre-emptive strike and marched
into little Estonia “incorporating” into the USSR. A duly “loyalist”
government proceeded to nationalise all British assets in the country.
The British, impatient but unable to strike a counter blow, were
handed a bonanza when the Estonian cargo ship “Kallarand” sailed into
Colombo harbour. The British authorities promptly impounded the ship as
retaliation against the Estonian Soviet Republic’s nationalisation of
British assets. Initially, the crew were interned aboard their ship.
Later they were allocated a bungalow in Kandy.
These sailors knew no English. Fortunately for them Karl Kasmann, the
only resident Estonian in Ceylon, became their ‘Interpreter Mudaliyar’.
When war finally broke out in Europe and Estonia became a war zone,
these sailors found themselves lounging in the ‘land of Lotos eaters’.
Roger’s memoirs describe the “hardships” these mariners underwent.
“The sailors at the ‘Kallarand’ had arranged parties to which our
families were invited. Initially these were on board their ship and
later at the house provided them by the Ceylon Government, and we had a
wonderful time together. They visited Kandy and stayed with us”.
I have a hazy memory of these occasions and burly, English-challenged
sailors belting out strange xongs. These men must have “suffered” the
most glorious internment in the history of that punishment! They were at
last, repatriated back home as post-war Russia was now, an ally of
I can imagine their sorrow in leaving these palm-fringed shores and
moonlit picnics for the grey and icy Baltic coast and dreary austerity
of Soviet Estonia But Karl Kasmann stayed back, now a citizen of the
Estonian Soviet Republic. POST WAR COLOMBO.
The war had changed Colombo for ever. The flood of foreign servicemen
had changed the once-staid little town into an exciting place with night
clubs, cafes and cabarets aplenty.
More upmarket society became aware of the latest films and books. Art
and artists had a ready market, especially after the ‘43 Group
exhibition. Soviet films and books began to appear and there flourished,
briefly, that fellow-travellers’ haven of the Friends of the Soviet
Union? which began when Russia was catapulted into the Great Patriotic
War and, thus, into alliance with the Brits and Yanks.
Many pro Indian Independence individuals and groups gravitated in
this direction. Independence dawned. Kasmann now seems to have left
Kandy, and his Doris to her piano.
In the early 1950s he held a joint exhibition at the Art Gallery with
George Keyt. I recall visiting this exhibition as an undergraduate and
viewing the portraits he specialised in, of bejewelled Kumarihamis and
flamboyantly garbed Nilames.
Many years later George Keyt, who never had a good word for any other
painter, brushed off Kasmann as a parvenu of little talent. Karl’s main
talent, said George, lay in seducing the kumarihamis he painted while
sojourning in their walauvas THE LOVELY LIEBOVITZ.
Claudine Liebovitz, a statuesque East European blonde now began
appearing in Colombo’s elite and high brow circles. She was photographed
with Ceylon’s movers and shakers, pleased as Punch to be hob-nobbing
with this blonde bombshell. But she was far from dumb.
Claudine was thoroughly well informed about artistic and political
developments the world over and spoke with wit and charm. Kasmann and
she became “an item” in Colonbo’s social whirl. But Coombo was no longer
a back-water in world politics. The Cold War was hotting up.
Anti-Communism was flourishing in the USA. Uncle Joe Stalin and his
minions were no longer noble allies but vicious saboteurs of the
American Way of Life. This message of the American Ambassdor fell like
manna into the ears of the unashamedly right-wing UNP government of that
time that fought elections on the slogan “Save Buddhism from the Flames
The jodhpur wearing John Kotelawela was Prime Minister. He saw an
opportunity to rid his country of Commie foreigners who were corrupting
our local Reds. And score brownie ppoints with Uncle Sam Topping this
list were the American Rhoda Miller, the Polish Claudine Liebovitz and
Rhoda was deported. It is now clear that the KGB must have
‘extracted’ Claudine? though nobody knows how. When our Thompson &
Thomsons arrived at her doorstep the bird had flown! KARL’S CAPER.
Flying out via Immigration at Ratmalana Airport should have been
impossible for Karl, but his handlers had it all worked out.
Mr Azeez, founder of the D. W. C was a close friend of Karl and
colleague in his “progressive” Left activities. As a Pakistani from the
Punjab he was as fair and burly as an European. He loyally went along
with the KGB plan and bought himself an air-ticket to Rome.
He then briefly disappeared from the scene. Karl Kasmann then coolly
produced Azeez’s passport and was waved through Immigration (well
sweetened, probably) and left Ceylon forever. My father’s friend M. T.
Jaimon, reputed journalist and Editor of “The Times of Ceylon” was a
frequent visitor at home where both gentlemen talked late into the night
on matters cultural. The car he drove intrigued me.
It was a compact pre-war Opel Kadet. I asked him how he had managed
to lay his hands on this rare model. “This was Karl Kasmann’s car. I
knew him from the time when we lived in Kandy. I moved with his crowd of
“progressives” in Colombo. One night he drove up to my home in this car,
and gave me the keys. “Keep this car to remind you of the good times we
had, old friend. We will never meet again in Ceylon. Good Bye !” Days
later I heard of his Great Escape.