Issue #08/63, April 22 - May 6, 1999  smlogo.gif

Book Review

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By John Dolan

The Haunted Wood:
Soviet Espionage in America--the Stalin Era

by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev
Random House
New York 1999
Book cover
The Haunted Wood ought to be a great book. Its subject, Soviet espionage in the US in Stalin's time, has been the subject of some of the nastiest, most paranoid debates in recent American History, and the stories Weinstein promises to tell about "highly placed Americans who assisted Soviet intelligence": promise to be delightful. Here are some of them, as described on the book's jacket:

*The passionate daughter of the US Ambassador to Nazi Germany;
*an influential member of the US Congress; ...
*a flamboyant Hollywood producer-director...

How can you make stories like that boring? To be fair, not all these stories are so badly told in The Haunted Wood. In particular the tale of the Hollywood producer, the incredible, delightful Boris Morros, is so wonderful that no narrative lapses could render it dull. Morros's encounter with Soviet intelligence is a paradigmatic folk-tale in which the sly, greedy yokel turns the table on his betters. Morros managed to get the KGB to bankroll his low-rent Hollywood schemes and still make himself into the hero of his own very profitable memoir, in which he appears as FBI double agent.

But there are too few such wonderful stories here, and too much waste of material. The Haunted Wood is yet another disappointing venture into what ought to be the most exciting literary material of our time: the files of the defunct KGB. When the Soviet Union dissolved, every spy-novel fan in the West was drooling at the prospect of getting a look at the KGB archives. Granted, we Deighton and LeCarre fans are a drool-prone group anyway, but the opportunity was truly remarkable: the whole secret history of the twentieth century was in those files. and now they would be opened up.

But something went wrong. The files must have been opened, at least to the CIA. There was just too much demoralization, poverty and terror in the Russian bureaucracy in the late eighties to keep them shut against American ideological triumph--not to mention American money. You could buy a KGB colonel for peanuts in those days. And those who couldn't be bought were likely to be as naively pro-Western as their counterparts in the British civil service had been naively pro-Soviet in the thirties. In short: somebody from the west has access to all those files. By now we should know the answer to vexed questions such as the JFK assassination. The KGB files should have told us by now whether Lee Harvey Oswald was with the Russians, the Cubans, or nobody but himself.

But where's the book that sums up what was in those files? I haven't come across it. The Haunted Wood claims to be a definitive history of Soviet espionage in the US from the thirties to the early fifties, and is certainly much better documented than earlier studies of the same theme, but the very depth of documentation makes it difficult to read. It is a meticulous book, but in such a way that it manages to make inherently exciting material almost dull. The Haunted Wood was co-authored by Allen Weinstein and one Alexander Vassiliev, who claims to be a former KGB agent, but the style is Weinstein's and one suspects that Vassiliev's role was that of a glorified translator and research assistant. Weinstein's style rules here, and Weinstein's narrative style has always been more solid than exciting.

That solidity and attention to detail was responsible for the success of Weinstein's bestseller, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. In that book, Weinstein reexamined the case of Alger Hiss, whose distinguished career in the State Department was destroyed by right-wingers led by the young Richard Nixon, who accused Hiss of being a Soviet spy. For decades, most Americans accepted that Hiss was an innocent man whose life was destroyed by one of the most unattractive cabals in American history. Weinstein, a formidable researcher, sifted all the evidence and proved that Hiss was in fact guilty. It was not a conclusion anyone enjoyed, particularly since it vindicated the much-despised Nixon. But Weinstein assembled such an overwhelming case that something really remarkable happened: people who had firmly accepted Hiss's claims changed their minds. It takes a powerful book to change convictions which were almost as deeply rooted as those surrounding the Dreyfuss Case, and Weinstein was justly praised for managing it.

But the Hiss case had a natural narrative form in Hiss's life and career. This allowed Weinstein to disguise his weakness as a storyteller and showcase his talent as researcher and advocate. The Haunted Wood has no such focus. It covers the activities of hundreds of Soviet and American agents and officials over a twenty-year period. The story proves too complex for Weinstein to manage. Names and code-names pile up without structure, to such an extent that Weinstein supplies a "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of the book and, two hundred pages later, simply gives up trying to maintain a coherent narrative and resorts to another list of characters. That is essentially the form of this entire book: a newly-corrected list of names of those involved or suspected of involvement in Soviet espionage in the US.

In a vexed, paralysed question like that of Hiss, detail and fairness are everything. In a sprawling tale like The Haunted Wood, there must be some narrative form imposed on the material. That this is feasible was shown by Peter Martin's autobiography, Spycatcher, which covers a slightly later period in Soviet espionage from a British counterintelligence officer's perspective. Martin and his coauthor managed to make the story exciting and clear. Weinstein and his coauthor try to tell a similar story from the American perspective, and fail. The comparison to Spycatcher is particularly interesting because Weinstein fails to cite Martin's book, and because Weinstein claims that his access to VENONA messages--Soviet espionage documents deciphered after the discovery of a Soviet codebook--is a first. Yet Martin cites VENONA material throughout Spycatcher. Weinstein's materials are newer than Martin's--many of his VENONA messages were only declassified in 1995--but it hardly seems fair to imply, as Weinstein does in The Haunted Wood, that using VENONA material in a book covering the forties and fifties is entirely new.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is the way it came to exist. In the early '90's, the FSB actually allowed Weinstein and his coauthor to look over the KGB's files on American agents. Think of it! The main Russian intelligence agency allowed a former KGB agent and an American researcher/author to examine its predecessor's secret files. Only when "relations between the United States and Russia became strained" in 1996 did the FSB cut off Weinstein and Vassiliev's access to these files. One can interpret this remarkable episode in two ways: either as evidence of the extraordinary demoralization of Russian society, its complete acceptance of US hegemony, during the early nineties; or as part of a disinformation program by the FSB designed to protect surviving sources in the US. The most likely answer is the simplest one: the FSB was simply so desperate to please the US that it opened its files without reserve. But there's something tantalizing about the disinformation hypothesis, particularly when one looks at the pattern Weinstein's research reveals. In its simplest form, his story is that the Soviet Union had a number of dedicated and highly-placed agents in the US in the 1930's, but lost touch with most of them during the Great Purge, when their controllers were called home and killed. The USSR recreated its networks after the German invasion in 1941 and soon had another network supplying it with information, particularly information on the US nuclear program. That second structure was destroyed by the defection of two key agents and the increase in US security/counterintelligence in the late 1940's, and by the early 1950's Soviet intelligence was virtually without sources in the American government.

No other history of Soviet espionage with which I am familiar argues for such a cataclysmic decline in the postwar years, and it seems a bit much to believe that the defection of two American agents really wiped out the bulk of Soviet spying in the US for so many years. It requires no great leap of faith for the spy-novel fan to imagine the FSB feeding Weinstein the full files of defunct networks of the 1930's in order to persuade this influential researcher that those networks ceased entirely to function by the 1950's, a relatively recent period whose agents may yet live. At any rate, that hypothesis, however far-fetched, makes for a lively story--and a lively story is what is lacking in The Haunted Wood.

Thanks to Shakespeare Books.

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