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Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Sunday Book Review

Town Hall reports:

The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. displays a list of what are called Moscow Rules – commonly accepted guidelines for the good guys during the Cold War. Basically, they are based on a through-the-looking-glass approach to reality, where nothing is as it appears to be.

Some directories note as many as forty of these espionage nuggets, including things like, “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” (guess who inspired that?), or “Murphy is right,” or “technology will always let you down” (actually, I think that one’s true). But ten are in the commonly accepted list:
  • Assume nothing.
  • Never go against your gut.
  • Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
  • Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.
  • Go with the flow; blend in.
  • Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
  • Lull them into a sense of complacency.
  • Don’t harass the opposition.
  • Pick the time and place for action.
  • Keep your options open.
Author Daniel Silva [pictured] has brought these deep-background precepts to life in his latest novel that bears the actual name, Moscow Rules. His eleventh book is a bit of a departure from recent ones because it shifts from using the Middle East as a backdrop in favor of the intriguing world of present-day Russia.

The spy novel has come back home.

With the feel of a Cold War story, and a pace unmatched by most war-on-terror thrillers, this book is likely Silva’s best to date. Spy-Mystery-Thriller writers all have their favorite characters. John Le Carré gave us George Smiley, William F. Buckley introduced us to Blackford Oakes, Jack Higgins writes about Sean Dillon, and, of course, there’s Vince Flynn’s creation, Mitch Rapp. But in art restorer-Israeli top spy Gabriel Allon, Silva has a hero for all seasons, shapes, and sizes - a man who is intensely human, fiercely intelligent, and quite good at what he does.

In Moscow Rules, Allon finds himself moving with ease between worlds of religion, politics, and history. From the Vatican, to a CIA house in Georgetown, to the dark and dank inner-sanctum of old Soviet-style brutality in the Lubyanka, he’s a hero for everyone who still believes that there are good guys and bad guys.

Mr. Silva’s style matches the prose gold standard of Mr. Le Carré. He then, however, leaves the Brit far behind to wallow in his well-worn and historically inaccurate arguments about Cold War moral equivalency between east and west. Moscow Rules reminds us that the U.S. and Israel, though far from perfect, provide the world a vital strategic partnership against enemies of freedom. And it’s especially important to have such a relationship up and running when nations like Russia and Iran draw close to each other for their own ends and agendas.

In a sense, Daniel Silva has written a new Cold War novel. By that I mean, a story that’s very much about how an old enemy has come back from the abyss to taunt and haunt us once again. History is repeating itself. This time, however, the weapon we ultimately used to defeat that old “evil empire” – our economic strength – is no longer completely available to us. And it’s very available to them.

Today’s Russia is vastly different from the empire we tried to contain fifty years ago. It’s a place no longer marked by colorless uniformity and severe deprivation. Quite the contrary, today we find a land of great contrasts and contradictions. And we also find a nation recently flooded with petro-dollars. If the Soviets of old had been able to tap into that kind of resource-driven wealth, the Cold War would have never ended. And the rules of engagement, even history itself, would have been very different.

The fact is that Russia today represents a greater threat to the security of the world than it ever did in the days of Cold War bipolarity. And our old adversaries are taking great pains to reconstruct an empire, one that would include their strong presence, as was once the case, in the Middle East.

Daniel Silva’s story is told against this backdrop, and it has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Readers encounter stories that are reminiscent of recent real-life dramas such as the intriguing murder of former FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died while investigating the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The new Russia is starting to strongly resemble the old Soviet Union - only with nicer cars.

Along the way, the novel takes the reader on a jet-set paced ride to places like Saint-Tropez, Courchevel, Paris, London – but back time and again to Moscow. All the while it tells a cautionary tale, one that should be widely heard these days. It’s not just the Islamists we should be watching – and watching out for – we need to keep our eye on that big old bear roaming once again in the global woods.

As Russia becomes stronger and stronger, and as its leaders tighten the reins more and more on all aspects of national and international life, the world becomes a more dangerous place with each passing day. Vladimir Putin and his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, have an agenda. They have empires in their brains. And, if the past is any indicator of the future (of course it is!), they will also play by a sinister set of rules - the most important one being: the ends justify the means.

When it comes to characters out of Cold War literature and media, I can’t help but resonate with something said by Boris Badenov. No, he wasn’t a KGB leader. Nor was he ever on the wall overlooking Red Square as the missiles rode by on May Day.

Boris was a diminutive fellow with a distinct accent who, along with his wife and side-kick, Natasha, tried to foil the good guys, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose. He had a memorable saying I thought about as I read Daniel Silva’s book, Moscow Rules. It came to mind every time one of the bad guys did something rotten. In fact, what Mr. Badenov had to say should be heeded by both candidates for the presidency this year.He said: “Never underestimate the power of a schnook.”

1 comment:

Chrissy said...

Great post!

I recently picked up a book called Bear Any Burdens, by Ellis Goodman.

The book contains considerable historical information based on fact and takes place during the height of the Cold War, when Poland was under Martial Law and ruthlessly clamping down on the burgeoning Solidarity Movement.