Sep 22, 2009
The Terminal Spy:
A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal, and Murder
(New York: Doubleday, 2008)
The Terminal Spy deals with untraceable assassinations, a terrible tradition in the Russian Federation that comes from the Soviet Union. Assassination is something Whittaker Chambers (among many defecting communists) feared. In today’s Russia, it has arisen to international prominence anew with the apparent assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.
From the time of the Russian civil war and the Kronstadt Rebellion,* the Soviet Union engaged in both military and intelligence that included assassination. This ranged from rounding up foreign agents for return to Moscow show trials (or simply execution) to assassinations pinned on others. One such assassination helped motivate Chambers to defect and escpate: the murder of Ignace Poretsky (AKA Ignace Reiss, leading even more directly to Walter Krivitsky‘s defection).
None of this history appears in The Terminal Spy, but this book does help show a grim cultural continuity in Russia. The history of Russia (like many modern nations) includes the assassination of four czars. However, unlike its recent rival, the United States (which has suffered its share of assassinations of leaders), Russia (under the Soviets) developed modern methods of untraceable assassination as a national science. The Soviets tested this capability in early days on American spy Cy Oggins (a friend of Chambers’s — see review of The Lost Spy). A test of their latest capability in untraceable assassination techniques — namely, Litvinenko’s exposure to Polonium 210 — is the subject of the present book. New York Times veteran Alan S. Cowell narrates the events leading up to Litvinenko’s assassination with a style that follows spy thrillers a bit too closely for comfort. Facts are facts, however, no matter how similar to fiction, and The Terminal Spy is a must-read for any interested in the spy business.
* “Kronstadt”: see “Louis Fischer’s Concept of ‘Kronstadt’“