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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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Near and Distant Neighbors

Jonathan Haslam (FSG, $30)

It can be unsettling to learn, after years of reading history about certain events, to suddenly find that there were other subterranean forces at play, other actors involved, that the turning points or decisive factors you once thought so clear, are rather less so.

So it is reading Haslam’s dense (at times too dense, it can be very difficult at times to follow all the individuals, directorates, divisions and operations) and revealing account of Soviet intelligence from the Revolution to the Collapse.

The compilation and collation of information is impressive and this short review cannot fully demonstrate the broad coverage of this fine book. The fascinating counterintelligence operation that was The Trust (deceiving White emigres into supporting a fictive opposition movement in early Soviet Russia) is covered in great detail, as are the numerous successes and failures in intelligence leading up to World War II, intertwined as they were with Stalin’s personality and paranoia.

Haslam shows how the Cambridge Five played a critical role in turning WWII in the Soviet Union’s favor; how an illegal Soviet agent posing as a hairdresser helped foil the Bay of Pigs invasion; how a middle ranking agent became a vital backchannel in the Cuban Missile Crisis (and how truly close we were to war); how the Soviet reliance on human intelligence and dogged research gave them an upper hand for much of the Spy vs. Spy activity of the 1970s and 1980s; how a single KGB researcher, Yuri Totrov, could use largely public sources to develop a 26-point model that was nearly flawless in identifying CIA operatives in the USSR; how the Soviets were duped into a bungled coup in Afghanistan in 1989; and how the KGB smoke-screened its involvement in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Haslan also weaves throughout information on the largely mysterious GRU (military intelligence), revealing the often destructive rivalry between it and the KGB.

This is a book that no person interested in the history of twentieth century Russia can afford not to read. Yet its import does not end with the interpretation of history. For we cannot ignore the dire conclusions presented by Haslan, as he caps 270 pages of meticulously presented evidence with a dark description of the Russia that tried but failed, after the collapse of the USSR, to dismantle the power and reach of its security services:

“...although the goal of communism disappeared, methods tried and tested from the more distant past reasserted themselves with the wars against Islamic-led separatism to the south and the postimperial resentment at US supremacy. It is no coincidence that Putin’s emergence and speedy ascendance, culminating in his electoral victory in March 2000, coincide with both. By 2003, the siloviki (“men of power”), who were figures from the security services, held all the reins. They had come from out of the shadows for everyone to see, a caste that owed its very existence and identity to the history of the Cheka.... a state within a state retreating into the past with the destruction of pluralism and the recentralization of power, then exerting itself to determine the future through a process of stealthy expansion into the former territories of the Soviet Union.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2016