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Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century – Book Review

FarewellTheGreatestSpyStoryoftheTweinAuthor: Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud (trans. Catherine Cauvin-Higgins)

Publisher: AmazonCrossing, P.O. Box 400818, Las Vegas, NV 89140, Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris

Copyright: 2009, [ISBN: 1611090261]

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, June 30, 2014


Summary: The man who undermined the corner-stones of the Soviet Union and allowed America to proclaim victory over an atavistic form of government. The familiar traitor versus patriot dilemma of history from the perspective of an individual life in the modern super-state. Edward Snowden anyone?

Prelude to the Decline

Since the end of World War II, American political discussion has been titillated by talk of America’s decline. Endemic of such discussions was the 1960’s presidential race in which the “missile gap” was the yardstick by which American power was measured—the superiority of the Soviet Union’s ballistic missiles versus the ballistic missiles of America. There was no missile gap. Even if there were, it only takes one to make a couple of square miles of any part of the terra firma a desert. Hitting the same area twice or thrice does not make it more of a desert. It would still be a radioactive desert. Politicians have always conflated power with force. As if power and force were equal. (For us non-physicists, power is all about potential, force is the application of power).

Before the “missile gap” yardstick it was the more generalized “weak on communism” canard bellied about with impunity by any politician lacking anything constructive to say on more pressing issues. The net result of using this particular indicator of potential American decline is that it forced otherwise rational men and women to make thoroughly irrational decisions. By the time America jumped into the Korean War and slid into the Vietnam War, the trajectory of American history was following the same path of every other “superpower” in recorded history. Hence, more fuel for discussion of America’s decline. In essence, what was once a world of opportunity for America has now become a world fraught with danger. When confronted with danger, as any politician will tell you, you must be cautious and circumspect. Hence, discussions of America’s decline.

Misdirection and Nursery Rhymes

As this review of FAREWELL: THE GREATEST SPY STORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY was being written, NBC news aired its extended interview with Edward Snowden. Snowden is the thirty-year old former National Security Agency (NSA) employee who has, to date, released means-and-method details of America’s electronic surveillance program. The released information not only shows the extent of NSA collection activity of American telecommunications metadata—phone numbers, times, etc.—but the collection of international telecommunications data. While it is not known with certainly whether the release of this information has hurt America’s security, it certainly has hurt America’s reputation. Throughout my reading of FAREWELL, which tells the story of Vladimir Ippolitovich Vetrov, a trained Soviet Union spy, I could not help but think of Snowden and the differences between these two men. The question raised was whether I was initially correct in my view of Snowden. Was he a traitor as opposed to just a zealous, befuddled patriot? Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud’s FAREWELL fortuitously provided all the information needed to make a final judgment.

Elsewhere, I have written that Edward Snowden is a traitor. There are plenty of people—perhaps a majority in fact—who would disagree with this label. They cite the example of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the RAND Corporation and former military analyst, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 detailing America’s strategic misadventure in the Vietnam War. Whatever one thinks of Ellsberg’s act, the sentiment “traitor” just does not pop up. A Patriot, even an over-zealous patriot—maybe. But by no stretch of the definition could Ellsberg be branded a traitor. With Snowden, there is a gray area that quickly morphs to black—case closed.

The Soviet Union One-Percenters

Kostin and Raynaud set the framework in which Vladimir Vetrov struggled through 1950s Soviet society early in chapter one. This framework, the social hierarchy of nomenklatura (ruling class), including the apparatchiki (government officials) and the “workers” at the other end, would color the trajectory of events throughout Vetrov’s life. Perhaps without meaning to, the authors paint a lyrical epic on the scale of a Greek tragedy encapsulating the “everyman” of our modern era. In this sense, FAREWELL is about the life of the individual in the modern State—any state—where there are rulers and the ruled. That the Soviet Union of the day was a peculiar institution of rulers-and-ruled is more happenstance than circumstance. The threads of history run deep and are interwoven merely by perspective: A tapestry of what is seen and felt, not a fabric of chronological events.

Vetrov was born in 1932 Stalinist Russia. By the time he was able to participate in organized sports he decided that he wanted to be part of the nomenklatura. People are ambitious. Most people are. Vetrov, guided by his illiterate mother and factory worker father, decoded the pathway to a better life and devoted himself to athletics at an early age. The ruling Soviet hierarchy, like the ancient Greeks before them, like the Romans after the Greeks, used sports and athleticism to help forge a cohesive society. Vetrov was very good at sports. The authors report that while in school, Vetrov was receiving 120 rubles a month as a 100-400 meter runner. It was “the salary of an engineer or a physician”. He earned more than his mother.

The authors also recount that, years later, Vetrov would remembered “the subservient attitude of teachers toward the children of those Communist big shots”. Vetrov saw through the gauze of egalitarian rules and platitudinous rhetoric to see a system at work. The “work” was the same as it had been since the beginning of Russian history in 862 AD: a ruling class and a worker class. Marxism and Leninsm (Communism) were merely wallpaper to hide the reality of a rigidly class-based society. Despite this, in 1951 Vetrov was admitted to the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School (MVTU—the MIT of the Soviet Union) as a future Soviet industrial engineer.

Mediocrity as the Slipstream of History

The significant other in Vetrov’s life and the other person who would play an important role in the story of FAREWELL was Svetlana, his wife. They married in December 1957 after having met at the Dynamo athletics club. Like Vetrov, Svetlana was a star athlete, being selected for the 100-and-200 meter USSR national team in 1956. How much and what part the marriage of Vetrov and Svetlana played in future events in the story of FAREWELL is ripe for what-if conjecture. The authors certainly explore the territory. We suspect however there is some dissimulation going on behind their probing. Both Svetlana and Vetrov were not faithful to their marriage. Depending on how you read it, Svetlana’s extramarital affairs prompted the aging and frustrated Vetrov to engage in an affair of his own. Unlike Svetlana’s mundane dip into infidelity, Vetrov took a plunge that in no small way cost him his life. This marital aspect of Vetrov’s story stands in chilling contrast to the historic and world-changing impact of his job as a KBG agent. The former condition is mundane and run-of-the-mill and the later extraordinary and panoramic. The two aspects blend and blur into a tragic soap-opera in which the observer is left amazed at the continual strength and resiliency of the human spirit.

Kostin and Raynaud tell the story of FAREWELL without literary contrived drama. There are no superheroes. Ordinary men and women doing ordinary jobs. This is how FAREWELL reads. When we read that Vetrov worked at a plant assembling and maintaining first generation computers and that he was bored with the job, we are not surprised that he responded to a recruitment drive by the KGB to expand its ranks. How else would an ambitious man move up in a stratified and intransigent social and economic ladder? Be on the lookout for opportunities and take advantage when possible. So Vetrov became a KGB agent because the opportunity presented itself. He did not create the opportunity. It came to him. An opportunity because he had a “proletarian background” and technical expertise. In the right time, at the right place. Happenstance.

Vetrov started his two-year KGB training at the Dzerzhinsky School in the fall of 1959 when he was twenty-seven years old. He made the correct choice about a year later when he decided to stay in KGB training after first secretary of the party, Nikita Khrushchev, gave thought to erasing vestiges of the Stalin era by down-sizing the KGB. By staying Vetrov was offered the opportunity to train for a position in the highly sought after First Chief Directorate (PGU) of the KGB. He completed his intelligence officer training in 1962 and worked at the USSR State Committee of Electronic Technology (GKET) until 1965.

In August 1965, Vetrov arrived in Bourget Airport in Paris with his wife and son Vladislav. He was a KGB spy specializing in technology espionage under the cover of a Trade Representative. The authors walk us through this early part of Vetrov’s career with a plethora of relevant details. Those details, minor in themselves, are the bedrock for events to come over the next twenty or so years. In short, Vetrov became a patriotic cynic.

Kostin and Raynaud point out the culture clash the Vetrovs experienced upon their arrival in France. The clash, neither more nor less intense than for others arriving from the Soviet Union at the time, was not so much a clash of ideology or values but of opportunities. From a culture in which the ruling elite—the Communist Party—dictated paths of achievement for everyone (the class society), to a culture in which chaotic opportunities could be yanked from the ether by an inventive and ambitious man or woman was an enormous change for a person of Vetrov’s disposition. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: an amazing if somewhat spurious human attribute.

In France the Vetrovs learned the pathos of living beyond their means. The long term consequences were to fuel the cynicism which apparently smothered within Vladimir Vetrov from his earliest days as a student-athlete. The short term results were more emphatic.

Vetrov became a wheeler-dealer. He was a go-to guy for those in the Soviet trade and diplomatic mission who lacked his drive and ambition—or the need for such attributes. The practice of “getting a percentage of each transaction” conducted on behalf of the Soviet Union was not yet a means by which Soviet citizens assigned official duties interacted with industrialists. Kostin and Raynaud state that such behavior did not become common place until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power (1985 to 1991). The Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev was more oriented toward trading needs for wants. Skill at walking this shadowy aspect of commerce is what made Vetrov the go-to guy. He was also apparently very good at his job as a collector of Western bloc technology.

Vetrov was able to procure at a discount “merchandise in very high demand among Soviet citizens . . .” He used his position to get these desirable goods not only for himself but also for his co-workers. He got a reputation. Of course his activity was noticed beyond the boundary of friends and co-workers. “By 1968, the ground shook under Vetrov’s feet,” the authors state. He was accused of “trafficking”. Whether this accusation was the result of someone informing on him or his activities being the normal investigative product of Soviet authorities, the authors are unsure. The possible scandal was squashed in any event. Vetrov would remain in his Paris assignment for another two years. If Vetrov’s life was condensed into a title of The Rise and Fall of, 1968 would be the zenith. What follows is the fall.

The authors also raise another salient feature marking the social atmosphere of Soviet citizens assigned aboard at the time. In the Soviet diplomatic core, the practice of stuffing “suitcases packed with various items such as caviar, jewelry, and expensive crafts, to sell them on the black market in the country of destination” was one way of generating a higher personal income. Svetlana, Vetrov’s wife, “according to malicious gossip”, learned as much as she could about the practice. The authors include this tidbit of information to lay a foundation for one possible reason Vetrov was abruptly recalled from the Soviet diplomatic mission in Montreal, Canada some five years later.

Traitors and Heroes

In the exquisite detail authors Kostin and Raynaud use to attempt to expose Vetrov’s life, the reader is able to view Vetrov as a person rather than a facsimile of an archaistic and dead political system. It is only in looking at this minutia of Vetrov’s life that you can fully appreciate the magnitude of his betrayal of the Soviet Union. It is only in looking at this minutia that you arrive at the conclusion that Vetrov was indeed a traitor to the Soviet Union, but he was also a person—flaws and perfections in one package. Compared to the behemoth of the Soviet apparatus watching over and directing the essentials of his life, Vetrov was insignificant. Yet, Vetrov, at the right time in the right place, did more to end the Soviet state than any other individual with the possible exception of President Ronald Reagan who was determined to out-spend the Soviets into oblivion. To the spy agencies of the West, recipients of what the authors call “strategic information” in the form of over “three thousand pages of secret and top-secret documents to the DST [Frances’ Directorate of Territorial Surveillance], most of it coming from the KGB”, Vetrov was a valued asset, approaching the status of our modern day definition of a “hero”.

One Man’s Hero, Another Man’s Traitor

FAREWELL is one of those books you read expecting to find little gobs of political punditry masquerading as political history. FAREWELL avoids this slight of hand by focusing on Vetrov. The book reads like an investigative report. The benefit of this for the reader is a portrait of this one individual confined within the modern state which is easily extrapolated to any individual in any modern state. Any individual like Edward Snowden for example.

Once we move beyond the stirring rhetoric of patriot and traitor, we are left with the individual. More precisely, the fragile but bristling ego of the individual. Working within an impersonal government bureaucracy (the KGB), Vetrov exercised his skills and drive to serve that bureaucracy for the greater cause of the Soviet system itself. It was a system he had long ago lost faith in. When the failings of the system—the class distinction, the patronage ladder—extended into the bureaucracy in which he toiled, he had had enough. Of Vetrov’s predicament, Kostin and Raynaud write on page 182 of FAREWELL:

“In his professional life, the brilliant agent he had been at one point came up against Brezhnevian favoritism in the seventies, when belief in communist ideals was reduced to a hypocritical façade necessary to get ahead in one’s career. Life in a communist regime also made it necessary to pretend you believed in the office ideology, promising a radiant future to triumphant socialism, a picture that was far from the harsh reality of daily life.”

Traitor or patriot? Vetrov was trapped in a system in which there were four possible routes of completion. He could have pursued compliance and obedience, following the path others who felt as he did. He could have engaged in rebellion and protest, ending up like a Pavel Litvinow (grandson of Joseph Stalin’s foreign minister) with innumerable years in Siberia, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian but not Russian. He could have committed suicide. Or, he could have pursued revenge and auto-retribution. Vetrov chose, perhaps inadvertently, this last course. No citizen of the Soviet Union could label him a patriot. Patriots are not selfish nor are they self-centered to the point of self-loathing. From the minutia of Vetrov’s life, far beneath the towering acts of espionage with their history shaking consequences, we have a portrait of a man who really did not like himself.

What routes of finality were available to Edward Snowden if he thought the Government for which he worked was violating the U. S. Constitution? More importantly and off-subject, why should the average U. S. citizen be more afraid of their government collecting information about them than a private enterprise with accountability only to a few participating share holders? In regards to Snowden, I stand by my original judgment.

One Response to Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century – Book Review

  1. Dear Lynard, I must say that your review is extremely thorough and demonstrates your deep understanding of the book and the characters. Thank you for taking the time and appreciating the “exquisite detail.” I believe that now that you went through the investigation by Kostin & Raynaud you should truly appreciate the portrait of Vetrov that comes to us through the imagination (and genuine knowledge of the facts) of French author Michel Louyot who just published The Snow Violin (June 26, 2014, Leaky Boot Press, U.K.):
    It is a portrait of a man as his handler, Monsieur Paul, knew him and befriended him.

    The Snowden situation is definitely to be analyzed in the light of the Farewell operation.

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