The Gulag Shawshank: Lev & Sveta Mishchenko in ‘Just Send Me Word’

The proverbial ‘out of the fryingpan into thefire’ could have been minted especially for Lev Mishchenko, one half of the extraordinary couple at the heart of Orlando Figes’ Just Send Me Word. Before completing his science studies in Moscow, he was whisked away to the Nazi front. Soon after, he was captured and spent considerable time as a German POW. As a German-speaker, he was able to make himself useful – though he resolutely refused to become a German spy. That wasn’t enough to prevent him from being convicted as one on his release – for which his sentence was death, commuted to 10 years hard labour in Siberia. (more…)

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When the powerful need a friend: Inside The US Presidents’ Club

One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. (more…)

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Memories, Diaries and Surveillance Reports: Reflections on Garton Ash’s “The File”

So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. (more…)

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The Saigon School of Missiology and Graham Greene’s QUIET AMERICAN

It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided  convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. (more…)

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Q’s Espionage Festival: 3. Soviet Spies, John Stott and fleeting encounters

This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home. (more…)

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The intrusion of musical grace and Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. (more…)

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Q’s Espionage Festival: 2. A review of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I was in fear and trembling before watching this movie. Not because of any potential hide-behind-the-sofa moments – but because I so wanted the film to succeed, but feared it would fail spectacularly. For the BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley is one that i’ve watched countless times. And it never ceases to surprise and thrill. Even though cinematically the look and feel seems very dated, the production doesn’t age. So when I heard about the new film, my heart groaned slightly. But fortunately, I really shouldn’t have worried. This film is a triumph. (more…)

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Q’s Espionage Festival: 1. Gordon Corera’s The Art of Betrayal

BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. (more…)

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The Soviet Utopia and the assimilation of Biblical Imagery

I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. (more…)

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Playing with guns, shooting with guns: from Washington to Saigon?

It was one of the most disturbing but iconic photographs of the Vietnam War. Long before the virtual world made such things even conceivable, it was an image that quickly went viral, via newspapers and magazines. Perceptions of the conflict were never quite the same again.

This if of course Eddie Adams‘ ‘Saigon Execution’, taken on 1st Feb 1968. It won Adams a Pulitzer Prize. But he would live to regret ever having taken it. (more…)

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