The Bizarre Story Of The American Who Starred In A Soviet Propaganda Film

In 1986, just three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the propaganda war was still raging between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. thanks in part to a vitriolic Soviet film: "The Man from Fifth Avenue" (via Time). The 90-minute-long documentary aimed to show that the land of opportunity was in reality filled with suffering, joblessness, and homelessness, and it focused on the seedier side of New York City and its downtrodden inhabitants.

Most outrageous of all, it starred one Joseph Mauri, a typical New York resident who appeared to have turned traitor. Mauri appears in the film, giving his forlorn commentary in between shots of porn cinemas, and piles of garbage. The commentary is fairly sensational and at one point during the movie, while discussing the plight of the homeless, Mauri pauses to say that Americans "don't have human rights here" (via The New York Times).

Throughout the documentary,  Mauri is depicted as a down-and-out New Yorker who had recently lost both his job and his apartment. Without a social safety net to speak of he was left to wander the streets. While we might be tempted to sympathize with this narrative, even given Mauri's apparent betrayal — as it turned out his story was a complete fiction.

You don't know how lucky you are (Back in the U.S.S.R.)

According to the official line, Mauri was invited to the U.S.S.R. after a news story about his unfair eviction appeared in the American press (via AP News). Americans who associate the Soviet Union with breadlines and poverty may be shocked to learn that Mauri's story was so impactful in the U.S.S.R., it pushed many Russian citizens to offer Mauri money (via Time).

At home, however, this tear-jerking tale was immediately eyed with suspicion — and stories soon hit the papers that Mauri was a fraud. It turned out, reporters claimed, that Mauri was not and had never been homeless — and that he even had a well-paid job at the New York Times.

Mauri gave an interview that same year, 1986, in which he attempted to defend himself against accusations that he actually lived on the Upper-West side in a rather cushy rent-controlled home. It was the producers of the film, he said, who painted him as jobless and homeless. Having made his excuses, the facts remained hazy and the real story would not emerge until the early 2000s.

Loyal at heart

If Mauri was not homeless, what reason could he possibly have had to tar himself as a traitor before the whole world? Well, in 2004, Time Magazine ran a story stating that the American defector (now in his early 70s) had finally offered a full confession. His motive: A beautiful blonde woman named Anna Golubkova.

It turned out that Mauri had been desperately trying to make his way back to the Soviet Union for some time, after being forced by the Russian authorities to end his love affair with an attractive lady in the resort city of Sochi. The inflammatory documentary gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for.

While men betraying their country for beautiful Russian women is hardly new — Soviet agents often used attractive women in the Cold War to break confidences, a phenomenon known as a "honeytrap" (via the History Press) — in this case, the KGB was not aware of Mauri's motivations. Only later, did Mauri confess to his handler, Iona Andronov, that he was simply using the story as a means to find Anna.

Andronov agreed to help Mauri find his long-lost love interest, who it turned out had already been married once and was now living with another partner. Speaking to journalists Mauri claimed that he stood by his decisions and that "I gave everything for the love of my life. I'll cherish that love till I die".