OUR MAN IN MOSCOW By R.A.D. Ford (University of Toronto Press,
MOSCOW STATION By Ronald Kessler
(Collier Macmillan, 305 pages, $27.95)
Among Western diplomats and journalists posted in Moscow, the Soviet Union is often described as a land of limitless impossibilities. Despite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program, that remark still fits a society that, to outsiders, can seem baffling and occasionally frightening. Many Westerners, enthralled by Gorbachev’s daring, now ignore unpleasant aspects of the Soviet government’s past and present policies. But two new books—Our Man in Moscow, by a remarkable Canadian diplomat and poet, and Moscow Station, by a former Wall Street Journal reporter—claim that rosy visions of Soviet reform should be tempered with a sharper awareness of the country’s history.
Those points are made with sometimes-brilliant precision in R.A.D. Ford's self-serving but engaging memoir, Our Man in Moscow. Ford, who speaks fluent Russian, spent 21 years as a Canadian diplomat in the Soviet Union. When he retired as ambassador in 1980 to live in Vichy, France, he had near-unparalleled access to senior Soviets. As a result, his memoirs, enlivened by mordant prose, brim
with anecdotes. At the funeral of Josef Stalin in 1953, Ford describes Stalin’s associates with comic flair: future leader Nikita Khrushchev, he writes, looked like a “busybody,” while former KGB chief Lavrenti Beria resembled a “reformed gangster.” Later, Ford, a professed admirer of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, recalls how Trudeau “in one of his more eccentric gestures” received a Soviet official in Ottawa who was a known KGB agent.
Our Man in Moscow also offers a timely recounting of past Soviet leaders’ attempts to cope with persistent problems. Although Soviets blame many current difficulties on “stagnation” during the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), Ford says Brezhnev was a “clever and energetic head” until he became ill in the mid-1970s. With the country now suffering severe food shortages, Ford recalls similar problems in the mid-1970s—and depressingly familiar unsuccessful reforms.
At times, Ford’s analysis is undermined by poor pacing: the book’s first half is a chronology of his diplomatic career, and the second half, discussing Soviet policies enacted at that time, seems repetitive. As well, some of Ford’s anecdotes serve only to illustrate the apparent importance of his views. In one instance, he credits himself with influencing President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But such unblinking self-assurance is less distracting in Our Man in Moscow than in Moscow Station, American journalist Ronald
Kessler’s otherwise well-constructed recounting of the penetration of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the mid-1980s by the KGB, the Soviet secret security force. Kessler recounts how ineptitude and bureaucratic infighting among the state department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Marine Corps allowed KGB women operatives to sexually entrap marine embassy guards. That permitted the KGB to gather information on embassy employees and classified activities. The result, he concludes, was a disastrous “penetration that decapitated the CIA and its operations in the Soviet Union.” And, he argues, little has been done since then to prevent a repetition.
Unfortunately, Kessler undermines his case by overstating it. And the book illustrates the difficulties of doing research on an event that occurred in another society on another continent. In discussing a marine who had sex with a female hitchhiker, Kessler speculates that she was a KGB plant because “hitchhiking by women is unusual in the Soviet Union.” In fact, both sexes routinely hitchhike in Moscow.
Still, Moscow Station offers a timely reminder that, even in an era of reform, foreigners in the Soviet Union should be wary. But Kessler’s perspective makes his smug stance on prevention of future KGB penetration even more annoying. By suggesting that he knows all the answers, his attitude is no different from that of the U.S. organizations that he condemns.
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