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Review: Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus

Soldier Spy

I initially bought the second book in this series, I Spy, but on learning that this volume preceded it I thought it apt to try this one out first. It’s not a huge book and is very accessible. The autobiographical account of a soldier from the streets, recognised for his unique skills and recruited to the frontline of British domestic terrorist services as an MI5 agent. Tom specialises in urban warfare of the 21st century. Surveillance and counter-surveillance operations are detailed. Sometimes an overuse, I felt, of the Alpha-Bravo codes that gets a bit confusing to a non-specialist, these operations span a variety of different cases across the UK, in MI5’s daily battles to preserve national security. We go from standard fighting Islamic terror cells, to murky traditional cold war -esque battles with traditionalist Russian agents, trying to steal military technologies on a vast scale from UK businesses. Tom isn’t frightened to mix it up, smashing hell out of a copper as part of his cover in an IRA pub in Scotland makes interesting reading. In the background of his flat out work where often he doesn’t even get to piss or eat, this brave young soldier tries to switch off at the end of the day and is a family man, on the pittance wages MI5 pays their employees he is left with the typical British task of every day workers of paying off mounting debts and grappling with mortgage etc. Eventually, the book sadly crumbles away with Marcus’ post traumatic stress difficulties getting the better of him ultimately ending in a medical discharge from the service. I feel it is MI5’s loss and not his really and hope he makes some nice dollar off producing decent readable material for years to come.

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Review: The Billion Dollar Spy – by David E. Hoffman

the billion dollar spy

This espionage thriller tells the true life story of one of the Cold War’s most valuable assets, a Russian spy working for the CIA in the heart of the Soviet military aerospace sector. Adolf Tolkachev made the first tentative moves to reach out to the Americans in January 1977, in the heart of Moscow. At first, due to a faltering lack of human resources in the spy game for the Americans, it was seen with suspicion and Tolkachev was viewed as a KGB dupe. After he started to produce information from his workplace, the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering, it was seen as a genuine defection and his material would prove absolutely vital in the arms race for the USA over a critical decade during the last years of the Cold War. Tolkachev became a billion dollar spy and his work would reach the Oval Office directly. In Moscow, the spying game is so difficult as it was seen as the hardest place on earth to work as an agent. Yet through cat and mouse cutting edge deception, the CIA were able to clandestinely successfully run their asset for a long time. It was only a crude defection from within that disrupted the operation and led to the arrest and execution of a Russian man who is a true hero for the West during this dark period. The story dovetails through risk and amazement and surprise yet is balanced out by the simple needs of a hardworking quiet family man that Tolkachev was. It is a well researched, gripping tale of a bygone era when Cold War espionage was at its critical heights.

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Review: MI6 – Fifty Years of Special Operations – by Stephen Dorril

mi6

This detailed 800 page book covers fifty years of MI6, the UK’s foreign espionage service. From relatively humble beginnings during the second world war, MI6 grew to become a leading foe of Soviet Russia and its notorious KGB. The book documents in detail issues that affected the service from the beginning and I especially was enamoured by the division of early chapters covering each of the spheres of influence where MI6 were working in the aftermath of World War 2. The book amalgamates knowledge I have of this service from other reading and often due to its sheer volume, will analyse in depth details that were previously unknown. It often is critical of the service’s failures and sometimes questionable morality in its operations. The obvious exposure of the country by moles within MI6 such as Kim Philby were very damaging to our nation. It is clear that there was much frustration during the Cold War with a failure to penetrate the Soviet system properly. Also, as the years have moved on, the critical importance of US intelligence – the CIA and NSA – to UK intelligence services – becomes paramount. Our declining empire has meant that MI6 has had to do all it can to keep our position as a global power propped up in the world. There is a very good section on the often blunderous years of operations in the Middle East, culminating in the Suez crisis which was a clear debacle. Moving into the modern era (Book concludes just before second Gulf War) the author successfully identifies future directions for the service and there is interesting coverage of MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson, who has revealed his life as an operative in a controversial book. I enjoyed this large book and feel that it will be useful for reference in any further research I may do on intelligence services.  

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Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of…

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Review: Fragile Empire – How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin – by Ben Judah

fragile empire

This is a very well researched study of Russia under Vladimir Putin. Always concerned with the political angle of this modern day Tsar, Judah studies the rise of Putin from a relatively unflattering career in the FSB through to him becoming an immovable rock in the Kremlin. Putin’s early years are interesting and I enjoyed the reminiscences of his early teachers. His whole calculated rise through the Russian political structure always displays a calculating and cool yet opportunistic politician. His consolidation of power has been very extreme and in spite of United Russia being a new form of one party state apparatus, endemic with corruption, there is no doubt that Putin is a force that is here to stay. What is perhaps surprising is that in spite of genuine mass popularity, the Russian people are now discontent with their leader and although they face steep obstacles, credible democratic opposition is emerging, headed by the interesting internet hero, Navalny. Russia’s move from democracy towards a quasi-Soviet style economy, the empire dominated by Moscow, paints an interesting picture of this huge superpower nation. I found the author’s trips around the hinterland to reveal some fascinating insights into Modern Russia and the problems that it and its people face. This is a very good book, if perhaps a little too biased against Putin, it is a worthy opinion of the situation of this new Russian empire.

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Review: The Last Empire – The Final Days of the Soviet Union – by Serhii Plokhy

the last empire

When the Soviet Union ended and thus the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991, it was probably one of the biggest political events of my lifetime. This well-researched, detailed book, by Ukrainian author Serhii Plokhy, details the last 18 months of the Soviet Union’s existence. After USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced throughout the Soviet Empire, the changing landscape of the union meant many things. Communism was in its death throes and there was a rise of democracy and nationalism and independence movements amongst the various states and peoples that populated the USSR. American influence became more important and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to populist democracies and ceased to be part of the wider Soviet Empire, American pressure continues on the remaining state as the Baltics sought to continue the domino effect. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were supported in their independence by US president, George H.W. Bush and this undermined the Soviet Union as a whole. Rising stars such as Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and other stars of independence in the EuroAsian nations of the Soviet Bloc, all were coming to the forefront. After a critical putsch, a military / KGB coup in August 1991 that sealed Gorbachev in his Crimea Dacha, these rising stars clubbed together to put down the Conservative hardliners who threatened the President, the Union itself and the status quo of the democratic freedoms they were enjoying. The Coup failed by Gorbachev was left irreparably weak and afterwards, especially the opportunist Yeltsin, capitalised on the successes of their newfound power and ultimately broke apart into a series of independent nations and states, finally managing to seal the death of the Party Centre and Union Centre itself with their creation of the CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, that would inherit the remnants of the Soviet Union’s power system. The high point of this most excellent detailed political history of the Fall of the Soviet Union, was the detail of the August coup against Gorbachev. This Machiavellian power struggle was an amazing opening of doors and it is a surprise that the whole dismantling of the Empire didn’t erupt into a ‘Yugoslavia with Nukes’ scenario that many were fearing. The book focuses very much on the role of President Bush and his interactions with Gorbachev and…

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