In the New World of Spies

  • The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service
    by Andrew Meier
    Norton, 402 pp., $18.95 (paper)
  • Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution by Robert Service
    PublicAffairs, 441 pp., $32.99
  • Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative by Emil Draitser
    Northwestern University Press, 420 pp., $35.00
  • Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West by Edward Lucas
    Bloomsbury, 372 pp., $26.00

To those who met them in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1935, the Swiss businessman Charles Emile Martin and his American partner, Cy Oggins, must have seemed an enigmatic pair. Oggins was a distinguished-looking man with craggy features, well-made suits, and a penchant for silver-topped walking sticks. He seemed to know a great deal about Oriental antiquities, and sometimes described himself as an art dealer. Martin was more discreet, preferring plain neckties and gabardine overcoats, though his wife Elsa was fond of elegant handbags and furs. Both men were polyglots, with a wide if vague range of European connections. Working in concert with a Milanese businessman, they had come to Manchukuo to sell Fiat cars and airplanes to the Japanese.
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US Election 2012: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – the upside-down election

The Democrats and Republicans have stolen each other’s clothes as they attempt to win over America’s voters

A quick quiz: which American political party talked about social issues, military families and foreign policy at its convention? Which American political party celebrated the achievements of its most recent president and spoke about his legacy? And which American presidential candidate declared, “I have never been more hopeful about America?” If you guessed “Republicans” to the first two and “Mitt Romney” to the third, you would be quite wrong. And that was the odd thing about this two-week American political convention season: the parties’ core messages are the same as ever, but their roles are now strangely reversed. Continue reading “US Election 2012: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – the upside-down election”

London Olympics 2012: we’re Olympic whingers – thank goodness

It was rather touching to watch British politicians finally rally round the Olympics on the eve of the opening ceremony last week, to hear Boris Johnson dismissing “a guy called Mitt Romney” who had dared imply that Londoners might not be entirely enthusiastic, and David Cameron cast doubt upon those who stage the Olympics in “the middle of nowhere”, thus prompting the mayor of Salt Lake City to hold a press conference and wave a map. Continue reading “London Olympics 2012: we’re Olympic whingers – thank goodness”

Just Send Me Word

  • Just Send Me Word
    By Orlando Figes
    Allen Lane, 333pp, ££20

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word:

We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs…

It was a unique family archive, the property of Svetlana and Lev Mishchenko, and it contained, among other things, packets of their love letters. Continue reading “Just Send Me Word”

Vladimir’s Tale

  • The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
    by Masha Gessen
    Riverhead, 314 pp., $27.95

On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian parliament, was murdered in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building. In the weeks that followed, obituaries, articles, and tributes to her life poured forth from all over the world. Starovoitova, almost everyone agreed, was different from the Russian politicians of the past and different from her contemporaries too. She spoke differently, moved differently, thought differently. She was frank, she was energetic, and she seemed genuinely interested in improving people’s lives. “Everything she said seemed fresh,” wrote The Economist. “Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics,” wrote The Independent. Continue reading “Vladimir’s Tale”

Palin is just what Romney needs – and the very last person he wants

The ebullient Alaskan Sarah Palin has something the Republican campaign clearly lacks.

Maybe you’ve read the book (Going Rogue), or perhaps you’ve seen the film (Game Change). In any case, you must know the story of how John McCain thought he’d picked a winner – a talented, unknown female running mate who would bring a touch of youth and charisma to his stodgy campaign – when he chose Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Continue reading “Palin is just what Romney needs – and the very last person he wants”

England’s cultural scene is glowing with optimism

Despite the austerity, or because of it, the nation’s artists and audiences are full of life.

There were queues outside the Royal Academy when I went to see the Hockney exhibition last week, and queues for returns again that evening, when I went to see the play One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Corden, on the penultimate night of its run. Twice in one day, in other words, I encountered mobs of people, pushing and shoving one another, desperate to get into a London cultural event. Those who had booked well in advance clutched their ticket as if it contained a winning lottery number. Continue reading “England’s cultural scene is glowing with optimism”

US Presidential campaign: Never has the good news sounded so bad

The sudden growth of the US economy spells trouble for Democrats as well as Republicans.

Now we have reached a truly critical moment in the American presidential elections – and I don’t mean the moment when the Republican candidate soars away from his party rivals (I’d give it a few more weeks yet, if I were Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, about which more in a moment). No, I mean the moment when the paradigm shifts and the election scenario everybody has anticipated abruptly changes – because real life has changed. Continue reading “US Presidential campaign: Never has the good news sounded so bad”

Corrupt elites are being named and shamed – by the people

Around the world, tyrants and thieving officials are running out of places to hide.

It will be a year ago next Wednesday that a Tunisian fruit vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi died, 18 days after dousing himself with paint thinner, setting himself alight, and inspiring a series of protests which we now remember as the Arab Spring. At the time, these protests were widely described as political. But in a recent, brilliant article for Foreign Policy magazine, the economist Hernando de Soto pointed out that these movements also had a very specific set of economic inspirations. In fact, Bouazizi was a frustrated entrepreneur, a would-be businessman who was unable to get ahead because of weak property rights, bad laws and rigged markets.

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