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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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Psychiatry in the Former Soviet Union

chlorpromazine

[Here is a post by our first international guest poster. Leoned is from the former Soviet Union and has sent us this about his mental health experiences. End Of Terror is a worldwide struggle and campaign for better rights for mental patients, wherever you may be in the world. ENJOY! Wez G, End Of Terror]   I really experienced the disaster. And it happened not in Auschwitz and not in Dachau, but in the ordinary mental hospital. It happened yet in childhood. Adults branch staff mercilessly tortured, oppressed us, disadvantaged and without this children … One night I was awakened by the noise. Opening my eyes, I saw how two nurses are beating the boy, who lies at the window. The boy was trembling. « “Again Vovka has epileptic seizure», – someone said . “How epileptic seizure?!” – I blurted out: “But why to beat ?!” Then the nurse left Vovka for a second and turned to me: Shut up, otherwise, and you will be bad”. That nightly incident was bothering me for long time. I hoped, that gits will be punished. But all gone, as if nothing had happened. … Once, one nurse pegged me in punishment for disobedience. And did it in a special way: the hands were were fixed to the metal corners of the bed. She had said, that she’ll unbind me, when I’ll ask forgiveness and went away. The circulation was disrupted , the hands swollen. Endure was becoming increasingly difficult. Nurse had entered in the ward and asked, I am going to ask forgivness or not. I hadn’t answer and she left. The matter was already nearing to an evening. Soon the night shift had to come . I was very hoping, what this damned wretch will go, and the other nurse will unbind me. However, it soon became clear, that the damned wretch stays on the night shift. She had come into the room and announced by triumphant tone: «Well, do you intend to ask forgiveness?» I wasn’t able to endure anymore and asked forgiveness from this crud as she had wanted. After that I was feeling myself horribly humiliated. They constantly indoctrinated us, that at any rate everything will be as they want. Any meanness, any overwhelming nightmare – everything will be as they want. There was a teenage boy. He was suffering a severe form of epilepsy with mental retardation and…

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Review: A Spy Among Friends – Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friends

Telling the remarkable story of Kim Philby, who was probably the most effective spy in history, this book reads fast and furiously, a real page-turner. The book focuses on the dramatic relationship between two friends, both rising stars in the world of British espionage, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. The intrigue of Philby is that he was working for the Soviet Union after being drawn to communism through his time at Cambridge University, from where a ring of five key defectors were recruited. Philby managed to infiltrate MI6 at a top level, ultimately serving as the liaison officer between US and UK secret services in Washington DC. He had access to information from leading CIA agents such as James Angleton and through his public schoolboy charm he was adept at getting colleagues to drunkenly reveal all their secrets, secrets that he discretely passed to the KGB centre in Moscow, from where he took his orders. Even after the fall of fellow Cambridge conspirators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby managed to shake the tale of a particularly suspicious MI5 and continued to operate in the clandestine world of espionage. His ultimate confrontation with best friend Elliott, after the game was finally up, left the door open for him to finally defect to a relatively anonymous retirement in Moscow. He chose political ideology over loyalty to friends and the story of Kim Philby is one of ultimate treachery. In his wake he left much damage and must have throughout the Cold War caused the death of hundreds, even thousands of people who were involved in Western operations. The book tells a most exciting tale and its global spanning and most exceptional debauchery and intrigue make it a real life James Bond adventure. Certainly worth a read and proof that real life is often stranger than fiction. Five star rating.

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Review: Winter Is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped – by Garry Kasparov

winter is coming

Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, is clearly an intelligent man. Having retired from the game he has entered the world of politics and is a key human rights activist. The book explores his frustrations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It is a study of Putin and the way in which he has eroded the democratic institutions bought about by Perestroika and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. Kasparov tried to align a coalition of democratic oppositionists within Russia yet the force of the state and its poor human rights record left Kasparov no alternative but to fight as an exile from New York City. It is clear from the book that his chess success has made him different to the average Russian. His priveleged life as a global Soviet citizen has perhaps led him further to embrace Yeltsin’s opening up of Russia. I think he hearkens for a Western style democracy within Russia but perhaps Russia itself is not suited to such political freedoms and requires a degree of autocracy for it to effectively function on the international stage. Although I can identify many of the problems posed by Putin, I feel that he has successfully restored a great deal of lost power to Russia and will perhaps be remembered in posterity as a key figure in Russian history. Although he may be a dictator, he is no Stalin and his absolute rule has still brought about many benefits to the Russian State. Can the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine be equated to Hitler’s pre WW2 actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland? Kasparov sets out a case of why the appeasing Western democratic leaders have failed the Russian people in standing up to Putin and he spells out the dangers of the régime, crying out for help. I enjoyed the tactical surprises and clear prose of hearing one of the world’s great mind’s thinking process at work as I traversed the book although I feel that perhaps it is a little unfair on its target and fails to recognise some of the intricacies of superpower politics. It will be interesting to see where Kasparov takes his future life as indeed will it be interesting to see where exactly Putin steers Russia.

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Review: The Art Of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service – by Gordon Corera

art of betrayal

They say that truth is often stranger than fiction and this book that I have given a 5 star rating reads very fluently and tells the real story of British secret service agents as they engage in the art of espionage across the globe. True heroes and heroines emerge as you quickly flutter through the pages. From SIS’s early war history through to the heavy espionage focus against the Soviets during the Cold War through to the closer to present military escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, spies are always at the centre of international events, the front line defences of any country and they are especially important to Britain with the remnants of its empire. The shocks of betrayal are often harsh and blunders in espionage can prove very costly. Although the reality is often different to the popular perception of James Bond, some of the adventures and intrigue of the real espionage world are profound tales that push the human spirit to its limits. I think that the most fascinating tale of the book, one which has haunted the halls of Whitehall and Washington to this day, is that of the Soviet super-spy Kim Philby, of the Cambridge Five. Philby rose to the highest echelons of the secret service on both sides of the Atlantic at the height of the Cold War, all the time working discreetly for the Soviet Union, attracted ideologically by Communism. His deceit actively cost the lives of many and severely disrupted many critical operations. The book details not just Philby but also the defectors coming in the other direction and there are some great depictions of the tasks performed by MI6 and MI5 operatives who had to handle these defectors and also run foreign agents behind the lines. The book leaves a hunger for further research and I shall be looking carefully at the fictitious works of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, both of whose real lives feature in this book as they were both at one time secret agents. The book to me tailed off a bit after the excitement of the Cold War and the last chapter on the political blunderings of the failed Iraq War intelligence was a trifle mundane yet overall the book lived up to all expectations and was laid out very well with a very flowing narrative.

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Review: The New Cold War – by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas My rating: 4 of 5 stars This book is a study of Russia in the post-communist era. It documents the rise of Vladimir Putin and identifies the ‘new cold war’ that envelopes Russia’s relations with the outside world. I found the book to be detailed with information and I was surprised by many of the features of the new Russia. I hadn’t realised that under Putin the Russian economy had been growing really well nor had I an appreciation of his soaring approval rating with his people. The Russian dominance of the energy market, in particular, gas, is quite daunting. I really enjoyed the chapter that focussed on the actual way this energy market is structured. The new Cold War won’t necessarily be fought in terms of military might and arms races. The Russian military strength is very dilapidated and they spend 25 times less on their military budget than the US. The new war will be fought in the markets with hard-hitting Kremlin-supported oligarch cash and the high profits from the energy market. I was surprised at the overall effect how that, since 1989, Russia has reverted back to its old Iron Curtain Soviet ways, despite me imagining that it was all freedom and capitalism there now. ‘Sovereign Democracy’ has quite different values to the political system we understand. The author has done his best in this book to explain what makes Russia tick and how we can possibly overcome a dark new era of global hostilities. View all my reviews

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Review: The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy – by Marifeli Pérez-Stable

The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy by Marifeli Pérez-Stable My rating: 3 of 5 stars I’m doing a university essay question on the Cuban Revolution so felt that this was a good text to read ahead of doing my assignment. The book certainly covers the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath in a lot of detail. It is a modern history of Cuba. However, whereas other works on the Cuban Revolution focus on perhaps the more glamorous side of the actual taking of the island and the chief protagonists, this book delves a little deeper and assesses the actual politics of the revolution and its real implications. Every finding is backed up with real data and the author, who initially was very supportive of the revolution, is clear in her latter condemnation of its impact. Cuba is, for sure, an anomaly among world states. I found the impact of ‘Fidel-Patria-Revolucion’ and the development of Cuban ‘conciencia’ very important in the whole ideology of the new Cuba. The anti-imperialism of the regime is clear, but Cuba’s almost solitary dependence on sugar left it open to all sorts of fundamental problems. It cosied up to the Soviet Union during the Cold War but this left its own impact as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union broke apart. It is very bizarre how Cuba the revolution has survived intact but what future lies ahead? This book gave me a lot greater understanding of what the revolution meant specifically to the Cuban people and its lasting legacy. It’s a thorough read and though occasionally it does bog you down in detail it is an academic text and this can be expected. View all my reviews

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Review: The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is a definitive history of the Spanish Civil War. The book has been regarded by the Spanish themselves as one of the best-researched volumes on this dark period of turmoil in their country’s history. The breakdown of democracy saw the split of the nation and a leftist democratically elected government was forced to deal with the rise of a militaristic fascist rising headed by Franco. The precursor to World War 2, this civil war attracted the interests of the rising Fascist movement across Europe with the Caudillo’s forces being supplemented and supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. They got to test out their modern weaponry in the field of action and a lack of international support for the actual government left them with little alternative but to rely on the Soviet Union for their support. This led to the republicans being over-reliant on the Spanish communists who struggled to take over and erode democracy from their own angle, constantly infighting and vying for strength with the other elements of the Spanish left; the Anarchists and the POUM. This history details how all the events unfolded and describes how each of the key battles was won and lost. There was a ferociousness during this conflict which only civil wars attract. The horrors of modern war truly unfolded disasters such as Guernica only emphasised how critical air support had become. The German Condor Legion and their Meschersmitts, backed up by Italian Fiats, consistently demolished the Republican resistance and paved the way for an overall Nationalist victory. Poor military judgement, combined with Stalinist purges of even the more successful Russian generals, left the Republicans constantly making errors in their military tactics. The lack of proper international support (with the exception of the volunteer International Brigades), in particular from Britain led to the inevitable crushing of the elected government and their forces. Appeasement was in the air as Western politicians tried to avoid the inevitable European conflict that was brewing and the Spanish were sacrificed. It was a war of experimentation which left the Spanish people at the mercy of the violent forces which dominated the time. Franco consolidated his own power well and was relentless and unforgiving, not accepting any olive branch of peace when offered and pursuing an ultimate military victory so…

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Review: Free Fall: A Sniper’s Story from Chechnya. Nicolai Lilin

Free Fall: A Sniper’s Story from Chechnya. Nicolai Lilin by Nicolai Lilin My rating: 4 of 5 stars I really enjoyed Nicolai Lilin’s first book and was keen to get stuck into this follow-up. It is really quite a different story and focusses on his career as a Russian soldier in the Chechnya war. The same vivid, friendly writing style is eminent and the reader becomes attached to the colourful characters Lilin describes. The first-hand horrors of war are very striking and there are some really gruesome scenes. The story flows from battle to battle whether it be mountain warfare or more typical urban warfare. Lilin’s military comrades seem as tight a crew as the criminal gang from his youth and their dark adventures are really exciting and quite gruesome and dark. He has a clever way of seeing light in even the darkest of scenarios, an existential view on his predicament. The writing is paced quickly and the descriptive detail gives a clear image of the author’s wartime adventures. It’s a great read and I truly hope that Nicolai Lilin goes on to write further stories of his interesting life. View all my reviews

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Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell My rating: 4 of 5 stars This short book is regarded as one of Orwell’s key classics. It was written at a time when criticism of the USSR in Britain was not encouraged as they were critical wartime allies. Orwell got through the net and his revolutionary animals at ‘Animal Farm’ are his way of assessing Stalin’s Russia. From initial success in their revolution to overthrow the humans, the animals build up their community with new laws, a utopia is created, where they are free from their former masters. Through the subsequent rise of a dictator, the dissemination of propaganda, the purges, wars and rewriting of the laws, we see a community rise and fall to a point where the ruling pigs more or less merge with the humans they superseded. Animal Farm contains some great characters which one gets attached to. The revolution can be seen through varies eyes, from the bleating sheep to hardworking horses, from the rats to cunning pigs. If one has an awareness of the development of the communist Soviet Union, you can see how Orwell has built his tale. Even without any knowledge of the Russian Revolution, the book can be taken as a story in itself, without the subtlety of underlining politics, the book is a quaint tale of a fantastical overthrow of the rulers of the farm and how a new life of self-governance is created. I enjoy reading George Orwell and Animal Farm is a thoroughly decent book. Recommended. View all my reviews

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