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13 November 2018

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Stalin's Romeo

by Emil Draitser (Northwestern University Press)

This extraordinary biography of one of Soviet Russia’s most flamboyant and successful illegals, Dmitry Bystrolyotov (whose last name literally means “son of a fast flyer”), is gripping, entertaining and immensely informative.

Bystrolyotov contacted Draitser back in the 1970s, just before the author emigrated from the Soviet Union. Thirty years later, Draitser decided to follow up on the spy’s amazing story, and ended up being handed a cache of Bystrolyotov’s personal documents by a family relative. From these records and from extensive archival research, Draitser has reconstructed an era and a personality that is without equal.

From Bystrolyotov’s youthful adventures around the Black Sea coast, to his pre-WWII travels back and forth across Europe as a “night of cloak and dagger,” to his term in Norillag, one of the worst of Stalin’s slave labor camps, this is the sort of thoroughly engrossing espionage tale worthy of a Hollywood epic. The access to Bystrolyotov’s thinking and actions provided by his personal documents, and the care Draitser takes in reconstructing his astounding life (always having his B.S. meter close at hand), make this an invaluable memoir for understanding the workings of Soviet intelligence and Soviet foreign policy.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2010