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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

“The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB”, by Christopher M. Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

736 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465003105

Christopher M. Andrew, an historian at the University of Cambridge, is not new to writing about the KGB with the assistance of prominent defectors, having written three books previously with Oleg Gordievsky, a former colonel of the KGB, Resident-designate and bureau chief in London (and a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service from 1974 to 1985). This time around Andrew’s coauthor was Vasili Mitrokhin, a major and senior archivist for the First Chief Directorate of the KGB (and a secret dissident), and their work was The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. Mitrokhin took notes on the files that passed through his hands and escaped to the West in the early 1990s with cartons of material that formed the basis of this book. The result of their collaboration is a dense-but-illuminating work and a must for anyone with a need and a desire to learn more about the ways in which the deplorable Soviet Union did things.

The book reads rather like a textbook and can be quite dry for people unfamiliar with the subject matter; for this reason it would be best if The Sword and the Shield were not the first book you read on the subject as it is not really meant for entertainment but more for serious research…and make no mistake, this is a very good research source with the information within blowing away any Hollywood spy movie. The section on Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby and the Cambridge Five alone would make a fantastic Hollywood movie with boatloads of intrigue, sex, betrayal and danger. And it is was all real. The important thing to keep in mind while reading this book is that all the information was taken from the archives of the KGB and is not some prepackaged trash designed for foreign audiences, fellow travelers or Soviet apologists. The result is a fascinating and shocking account of what the KGB and Soviet Union were up to in the 20th Century (among many of the revelations that will give the American Left heartburn was the revelation that while Joe McCarthy was overzealous in his quest to root out Communists, he was not as crazy as history has painted him out to be in relation to the scope of intentional Communist penetration of American government and society).

The authors are coy about naming some Soviet spies in the West, while others found themselves compromised by Mitrokhin years ago. There are no huge surprises here; that the KGB plotted to sabotage Western power networks, routinely conducted assassinations through the early 1960s, and maniacally persecuted religious groups should not shock informed readers. But the weight of detail and the solid retelling of well-known stories, such as Soviet recruitment of British spies in the 1930s, make for a fascinating read. Among the more interesting conclusions is that much of the invaluable information dug up by Soviet spies never made it through the filters of paranoia, ideology, and sycophancy created by the Soviet leadership.

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