Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers #113
October 12 , 2008
SPECIAL ON ESPIONAGE LITERATURE WITH JEFFREY SOKOLOW
The following notes, except if otherwise credited, are from Jeffrey Sokolow, who stresses that he is a reader, not a scholar, but that he has developed an interest in the spy craft of the Cold War, both histories and memoirs. This month, then, we’ll learn about some books we might explore in this area.
Jeffrey writes: “Since an old friend told me to read Gilles Perrault's THE RED ORCHESTRA (and later I discovered Leopold Trepper's memoir, THE GREAT GAME), I have had an interest in reading espionage literature. Why stories of clandestine work would appeal to me I cannot imagine. One rich source of information is participant memoirs. Two books by spouses of murdered agents are very worthwhile: OUR OWN PEOPLE: A MEMOIR OF ‘IGNACE REISS’ AND HIS FRIENDS by Elisabeth K Poretsky and WILLI MUNZENBERG: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Babette Gross. There are also two recent biographies of the remarkable Munzenberg, who practically invented the front group. Best after his widow’s memoir is THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLY MUNZENBERG, MOSCOW'S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST by Sean McMeekin. (The sensationalistic title is unfortunate.) A second biography by Stephen Holder is so tendentious politically that I really cannot recommend it.
“Another recommendation is SONYA’S REPORT by Ruth Werner. Werner was a very successful agent who remained loyal to the German Democratic Republic to the end. Her memoirs were published there before the Wall fell. It is an exciting read. Also recommended is SECRET SOLDIERS OF THE REVOLUTION: SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 1918-1933 by Ramond Leonard, the first full-length discussion of Soviet military intelligence, known by the acronym GRU. The majority of books...deal with the more glamorous and well-known Cheka (‘the unsheathed sword of the proletarian revolution’) and its successor organizations (OGPU, GPU, KGB) while ignoring military intelligence, which was even more active in the espionage field. Leonard deals with many of the people whose books I cited elsewhere (Reiss, Poretsky, Krivitsky, and others).
“Although not specifically about espionage, Aino Kuusinen's memoir (THE RINGS OF DESTINY: INSIDE SOVIET RUSSIA FROM LENIN TO BREZHNEV) is noteworthy. Her husband, Otto, was a Finnish Communist, a favorite of Lenin's who rose to be a member of the Soviet politburo whereas her path took her from the corridors of the Kremlin to the Gulag.
"Two Soviet master spies lived to write memoirs. General Orlov, who wrote THE MARCH OF TIME: REMINISCENCES, had a long life (he let Stalin know he knew who was who in the Cambridge ring but would keep quiet if he and his family were untouched) while General Krivitsky died in mysterious circumstances. Krivitsky’s book is IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE.
“Although written by a former FBI agent, A TIME FOR SPIES: THEODORE STEPHANOVICH MALLY AND THE ERA OF THE GREAT ILLEGALS by William E. Duff, a biography of the tormented priest turned master spy, is very sensitive and sympathetic to the protagonist's moral qualities. A short summary of the cases discussed above may be found in the first of these two works by Gordon Brook-Shepherd: THE STORM PETRELS: THE FLIGHT OF THE FIRST SOVIET DEFECTORS and THE STORM BIRDS: SOVIET POSTWAR DEFECTORS.
“Although I have not read it, THE LOST SPY: AN AMERICAN IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE by Andrew Meier seems of special interest.... According to the blurb, it's the story of Isaiah Oggins, said to be ‘a Columbia University undergraduate who joined the fledgling Communist Party in 1920. Recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1926, he went to Europe in the guise of an academic; his residences acted as centers for Soviet espionage. After 1930 he sailed to China and Manchuria for various undercover schemes, then traveled to Moscow in 1939 during Stalin's purges. Despite long, loyal service, he was arrested and sent to an Arctic gulag, and despite frantic pleas for Oggins's release from his wife, and more modest U.S. government efforts, the Soviets murdered Oggins in 1947 to keep his story from getting out.’
“The literature on the Cambridge spies Philby, McClean, Burgess, Caincross, and Blunt is vast. The most recent books based on long interviews with Philby and those based on the Soviet files are of most interest....The latest books I am aware of are these: MY FIVE CAMBRIDGE FRIENDS (by Yuri Modin -- written from the perspective of a KGB handler); THE PHILBY FILES by Genrikh Borovik and Philip Knightly (makes use of KGB files; ironically, the Center had its own version of James Jesus Angleton, who was so paranoid and suspicious that she led the Center to discount the reliability of their greatest assets); PHILBY: KGB MASTERSPY by Philip Knightly ( Knightly is a serious British scholar who spoke to Philby in his final year, when he wanted his story set down more or less accurately); and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF KIM PHILBY: THE MOSCOW YEARS by Rufina Philby, a personal memoir by Philby's widow.”
To this list of books, Woody Lewis adds, “I think Kim Philby is one of the most fascinating tragic characters in this space. There are so many stories wrapped up in his, and the influence, both ideological and literary (Greene, Fleming, Le Carre, et al), is beyond question. Even Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY, though concerned with Nazis and not Communists, shows the receptivity with which the ruling class approaches those systems that compete with western democracy, however one defines it.”
To which MSW would add another literary take on espionage in the twentieth century, John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE. See notes .