Near And Distant Neighbors : A New History Of Soviet Intelligence / Jonathan Haslam

There is no doubt that Haslam’s Near and Distant Neighbors is a comprehensive account of the Soviet Intelligence services. Not only does he examine the activities of the KGB, he broadens the scope to include military intelligence and the agency that worked on codes and ciphers. His focus is on the period from the October Revolution in 1917 through the Cold War years. In charting the labyrinth of Russia’s undercover intelligence world, the wealth of information he provides is impressive. It also at times left me feeling overwhelmed.

In the early days of the Soviet state, the government relied upon dedicated Communist agents in other countries to be their eyes and ears. But after the truths of Stalin’s regime became better known throughout the world, the Communist government was forced to rely on blackmail and bribery, rather than on ideological recruitment of its foreign spies. There is much of interest to be found in this well-researched book. For instance, I had no idea that Nikita Khrushev was functionally illiterate. It was also news to me that there is strong evidence the Russians were behind the failed attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.

No matter how obscure or minor, the book discusses every aspect of the Soviets’ undercover intelligence gathering. And that is my primary complaint about Haslam’s writing. He has forgotten that sometimes less is more. On each page, there seem to be several new Russian names to master. Many of the people mentioned disappear within a few paragraphs. This is a shame because by doing so, he sacrifices expanding upon stories that beg for more in-depth information. Because Haslam is trying to cram so much information into a compact sized book, it proves difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

For the patient and persistent reader, Near and Distant Neighbors reveals some wonderful nuggets on the history of intelligence gathering during the Twentieth Century. Unfortunately, Haslam’s presentation is far too academic and dry. In a better writer’s hands, this could have been a truly memorable book on a topic that deserves to be better understood.

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