A New History of Soviet Intelligence
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Intensely detailed history of the Russian spy services, from the revolution through glasnost.

Haslam (History of International Relations, Cambridge Univ.; Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall, 2011, etc.) focuses on myriad individuals who rose and fell within the competing factions of Russia’s spy services after 1917. As the communists had to build an intelligence structure from scratch, under assault from czarist remnants and neighboring states, they developed a simple system of “illegal” (covert) or “legal” (diplomatic) rezidenturas posted abroad in both political and military intelligence, divisions kept separate and subject to meddling by a paranoid Stalin. Haslam portrays the first generation of Soviet spies as colorful, tough zealots, largely liquidated during the terror of 1937-1938. The author argues that the Russians were only able to survive the German onslaught of 1941 due to their success in purloining intelligence from the British—notably from Kim Philby’s infamous circle. After the war, a pattern developed of the Soviets lagging in technological fields like cryptolinguistics yet countering Western espionage with superior human intelligence. “Berlin held centre stage in the Cold War for many years,” writes Haslam, “but the United States was always the principal objective.” Yet the endgame proved swift: when the Reagan administration ramped up military spending, “the two rival services, the KGB and GRU, failed to do what was vitally necessary in terms of evaluation” of the apparent military threat, ultimately leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. Haslam concludes by observing how, with Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy, “the history of the Soviet intelligence services thus becomes…a vantage point into the story of the present.” The author writes authoritatively, deftly managing his labyrinth of ruthless personalities, but the large historical canvas can be overwhelming.

A well-executed narrative of the mechanics behind the Cold War that may be a bit too dense and/or dry for casual readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-374-21990-1
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2015


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