Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The brief and dangerous life of a spy

I've never been a huge fan of James Bond movies or spy stories, but maybe I just haven't given them much of a chance. I remember seeing "For Your Eyes Only" with my cousin Corey at the old Crossroads Mall theaters (the one that was deep down in the basement) and loving it. In fact, I think we enjoyed it so much we went back and saw it again. And a year ago I read Operation Mincemeat about how the British fooled the Nazis about where the Allied invasion would be - a very interesting story that was heavy on covert operations. And I recently enjoyed Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth CenturyVladimir Vetrov was a brilliant and high-ranking intelligence officer (spy) working for the KGB's Directorate T which specialized in scientific and technological espionage. While posted in France he recruited others to betray their country, but when his own career stalled - due primarily to nepotism within the Soviet bureaucracy - he became disillusioned with his country's leadership and offered his services to the French. France didn't even have the structure or manpower to gather intelligence within the USSR, and what's more, Vetrov turned to the DST - the French equivalent of the American FBI - which was not even legally allowed to conduct foreign operations. Because of this, the transfer of KGB information from "Farewell" (Vetrov's code name) to his French "handlers" was carried out in the most unorthodox manner, ignoring all the normal rules of spy craft, and done right in the heart of Moscow. It resulted in a perfect operation that succeeded spectacularly - for a time - where more sophisticated ones would have immediately failed.

As far as the story goes, calling it "The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century" is probably a bit of marketing hyperbole, but there's plenty of evidence to support the assertion that Vetrov's actions contributed to the end of the Cold War. It certainly gave President Reagan and the United States the ideal information to undermine Soviet spying operations as well as targeted disruption of the Russian economy. The nearly 4,000 secret documents Vetrov shared detailed the extent of Soviet infiltration in numerous countries (naming 250 agents), as well as the huge amount of research and information technology it had stolen. It also plainly revealed that the Soviets had become woefully inadequate at developing their own technology. And it makes "Farewell" an interesting piece of the end of the Cold War.

Originally published in France, the translation to english is occasionally awkward and cumbersome. But while casual readers might find this a stumbling block, those interested in espionage and Cold War history will understand and appreciate the international air (and perspective) it gives the narrative. It's fairly long and especially detailed, and since parts of the story are still secret (although numerous interviews with family and others involved with the case have presented their sides of the story) there is a fair amount of speculation. In fact, it took me a while to get used to the way the story is told, with frequent statements such as "we aim to show..." or "we do not believe this version of events..." The authors also analyze Vetrov's actions from a psychological standpoint, with mostly convincing conclusions. I found it to be a very interesting insight into the inner workings of the USSR during those tense years of the early 1980s and the lives of its citizens. And I have to admit, the occasional spy story can be pretty interesting.

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