Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Russia was an enigmatic Communist nation when I was a kid.  What little I knew of the USSR centered around the lack of freedom the people had.  I vividly remember my one-time conception of how the centrally planned economy and complete lack of freedom would result in some people being condemned to a lifetime of emptying garbage cans in some forlorn office building somewhere in the Soviet Union.  Reality, as I understand it, was slightly more forgiving.  One thing that fascinated me was the state-sponsored oppressors or the secret police that seemed necessary to keep the Russians (I knew nothing of the almost two hundred ethnic groups in the Soviet Union) under control.  It was so different from the life I knew in the U.S. and it involved secrecy, spies, and a powerful military that seemed more fiction than fact.

Book cover.KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents by John Barron tells some of the stories of the main Soviet agency of oppression and secrecy, the KGB.  It provides an overview of all the Soviet intelligence agencies, but focuses on the KGB, which the author assessed to be the brains behind all of them.  After the more academic portion of the book, it recounts a few fantastic stories.  Most of the stories, a few which I had read elsewhere previously, had to do with the stuff of movies.  The book contains the stories of Americans who betrayed their country and of Russians who betrayed theirs.  They are fascinating accounts full of sneaking around big cities, breaking into vaults, offers of money, international intrigue, “seductresses” (as promised by the paperback version’s typically sensationalist cover art), and, of course, spies.  It was interesting to read of a disgruntled U.S. Army soldier, his former prostitute wife, and his giving the Russians access to something they likely figured was impossible to access.  I was also really intrigued by the stories of Russians and other eastern Europeans who risked it all to do what they figured was their part in the battle against authoritarianism and for liberty.  One interesting story was that of a Czech who was sent to Canada by the Russians, but who ultimately decided that all he had been taught in years of intense training was not true now that he’d been in the West and seen how things really worked.

The book was really interesting to me since I have an interest in all things Russia.  It is, of course, dated, since it’s about the Soviet Union and the KGB instead of Russia and the FSB, but there are two reasons I thought it still seemed relevant, besides being fun to read because of the incredible stories (it’s Bourne, but it was real).  First, Russia today is closer to the Soviet Union than it’s been since the fall of Communism.  The types of operations described in the book are likely going on right now.  Second, and probably more important, the KGB and its tactics are part of any authoritarian government.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is slowly sliding down that slope.  As government grows and grows, it seeks to retain power, usually done by taking away the rights of the people.  People inherently desire freedom, though, so to sustain a government that does not have the freedom of the people as its raison d’être, that same government turns to oppression and the elimination of liberty to preserve itself.  We must always be vigilant about what we are allowing the government to do lest we become the victims described in this book.

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