An old Muscovite joke has it that when a parrot flew from its owner's apartment, the owner immediately reported the escape to the KGB. When a bemused officer asked him why, the owner replied, "Because in case the little devil shows up, I want you to know I don't share his political opinions."
George Feifer, a longtime student of Soviet and Russian society, relates this joke as an example of dissident humor--but also as an indicator of how deeply entrenched the KGB was in daily life in the former Soviet Union. In this companion volume to the PBS television series, Feifer recounts the secret police agency's early days as an instrument of counterrevolutionary terror and its evolution into an organ of political action around the world. Feifer's book, which draws heavily on recently declassified KGB documents, has its share of surprises--for one, evidence that the spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg contributed almost nothing to the Soviet effort to develop atomic weaponry. Feifer carefully documents the KGB's role in keeping the subject peoples of the Soviet Union in line, at least for a time, while pointing to some notable failures, particularly the agency's inability to control star athletes and coaches such as Olga Korbut and Anatoly Tarasov. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Based on the PBS Red Files documentary series, Feifer's fresh reassessment of the former Soviet Union and the Cold War turns up some original and provocative material. Feifer (Moscow Farewell and Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb) organizes his inquiry around four topics: espionage, the space race, Soviet sports and the massive communist propaganda machine. His overarching theme--that post-Stalinist Soviet society was much more diversified and chaotic, its people more rebellious and individualistic, than is generally assumed in the West--is borne out by his sharp reporting. According to the Red Files research team, which had access to the Russian Republic's vast collection of films, photographs and documents, no fewer than 29 Soviet agents penetrated the Manhattan Project by recruiting Allied scientists who passed along atomic secrets to the Russians. Feifer maintains that newly declassified information, plus admissions of KGB agents (including Alexander Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg's handler), prove that the Rosenbergs were guilty of passing secrets about advanced U.S. radar and sonar to the Soviets--but these secrets were of little or no strategic value, he insists, adding that the Rosenbergs' capital punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime. Much more than a TV rehash, this informal, lively survey gracefully synthesizes recent scholarship, and all the book's photographs are from the Russian State Film and Photo Archives. Feifer closes with a disturbing look at contemporary Russia, a place of near-chaos, despair and poverty whose ill-informed, disillusioned people, susceptible to demagoguery, are led by die-hard rulers with scant interest in building a civil society. (May)
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