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Tuesday 9 April 2013
Review: Emil Draitser, Agent Dmitri - The Secret History of Russia's Most Daring Spy
I like Spy books but the first half of this one left me uneasy. I took me some time to work out why but I think the problem is this. We have two unreliable narrators: Agent Dmitri and his biographer, Emil Draitser.
Dmitri Bystrolyotov (1901 - 1975) wrote prolifically about his 1920s and 1930s career as a Soviet undercover agent working across Europe and even in Africa. But he wrote in the Soviet Union (mostly) in the 1960s and hoped to see at least some of his work published there. As a result, he tries not to give away too many secrets and also to depict his career in politically correct (and 1960s Soviet prudish) terms. But Spying, Political Correctness and Prudishness simply don't go together and Dmitri ends up as an unreliable narrator of his own life.
Emil Draitser has had access to all Dmitri's manuscripts and tries to correct their unreliability using other sources, interpretations, decodings and more candid parts of Bystrolytov's writings. But he adds in his own rather simplistic psychoanalytic interpretations and it may be these which made me think that Draitser is also an unreliable narrator. The publishing history of this book is also rather odd: it was first published by an American academic publisher (the reputable Northwestern University Press) but with a lurid title Russia's Romeo Spy. There is a dead website with the same title. In the UK it has been published by the reputable academically-oriented publisher, Duckworth, but with the down-market cover shown above. Clearly, we are also dealing with unreliable publishers who can't make up their minds what kind of book they are publishing.
The book only comes together in the second half which takes us through Dmitri's arrest in 1937, his interrogation under torture, his imprisonment in the Gulag (1938 - 1954), his rehabilitation in 1956 and his later life. Here the narrative is more assured - and often harrowing. Dmitri experienced the worst the Gulag could offer - Norilsk, war time hunger rations, false hopes of early release - and almost certainly owed his survival not only to his previous career as a spy but his medical qualifications, which allowed him to function for much of his Gulag sentence as a Camp medical assistant or doctor.
I think a better book could be written. Draitser argues that recent KGB / FSB authorised biographies of Dmitri - which (for example) fail to mention the torture - are not in this category - and about that, I am sure he is right.
One small detail aroused my interest. In the 1930s Dmitri was sent on a mission to French colonial Africa with a brief to check out French claims that, in the event of a European war, they could raise large forces of troops / mercenaries from among their black African colonial subjects. Dmitri's assessment was negative. But it was the case (this is not mentioned in the book) that later on Free French Forces did include troops recruited from the African colonies - and they are on record as behaving badly (rape, looting) in at least two instances: in Syria where they were used to suppress Nationalist uprisings against French rule and in the liberation of Germany. And it occurs to me that if you want to understand why post-colonial armies and militias in former French Africa behave badly, then you may have to go back to this earlier period when black troops were first deployed by their colonial masters.