Thursday, March 15, 2018

Luke Harding: Five books that expose the secret world of spies

A man’s agonising scream is filmed. He is tied to a metal stretcher and is fed, alive, into the crematorium of the GRU, Russia’s military spy agency. His crime? Betrayal of the motherland. The victim? A colonel who “deceived us”. The video – shown to new recruits – features in the opening chapter of Aquarium, a novel by the Russian writer Viktor Suvorov. Suvorov was himself a GRU operative. He defected in the 1970s and lives in the UK. Another GRU officer was Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned last week with his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. Aquarium is a classic of spy literature, part bildingsroman and part insider account of an organisation famed for its brutishness and fanatical secrecy.

None of Putin’s spy chiefs have written memoirs. One imagines it will be several decades before they do. In the meantime there is Pavel Sudoplatov, Stalin’s assassinations director, who gives a candid account of his profession in Special Tasks, published in 1994. Sudoplatov explains how he organised the murder of the state’s enemies, including a Ukrainian nationalist (done personally with exploding chocolates) and Trotsky (killed with that ice-pick). Sudoplatov justified these exotic crimes on the grounds of Leninist ethics: morality was what served the party. Later he regretted that communism chewed up so many innocents, observing: “Victorious Russian rulers have always combined the qualities of statesmen and criminals.”

Putin spent the late 1980s in the GDR in Dresden. His more talented foreign intelligence co-worker, Yuri Shvets, was sent to the US. Shvets’s memoir, Washington Station, is a disillusioning account of his life as a KGB spy abroad and his attempts to recruit a US mole. His cover job as a correspondent for the Russian news agency Tass is more enjoyable than his espionage work. Meanwhile, his bosses back home are gerontocratic fools. Recalled to Moscow, Shvets visits the KGB’s legendary poisons factory, from where novichok, the deadly nerve agent used on Skripal, may have come. Tellingly, the KGB plotters who tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 met in the secret lab.

When it came to surveillance, one friendly Warsaw Pact agency outdid even the KGB: the Stasi. The world of East Germany’s secret police is vividly evoked in Anna Funder’s Stasiland, written more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She meets elderly unrepentant former Stasi officers, and their victims. Why did so many in the GDR became informers? The answer, one Stasi man tells her, was because they enjoyed being “somebody”.

In The File, Timothy Garton Ash tracks down those who spied on him as a student in early 1980s East Berlin. It’s a meditation on the cold war, European history, unreliable memory and our mutable younger versus older selves. Garton Ash casts himself as a “spy for the reader”. Imagine his delight when he discovers his Stasi watchers gave him the code-name “Romeo”. Somewhere in the KGB’s Lubyanka HQ are similar files compiled over decades on prominent western figures (such as Trump). Fodder for future memoirs, should the Putin regime ever go the way of the USSR.

see also