The Penkovskiy Papers
Spy stories have been a legitimate literary genre ever since Joshua Ben Nun was sent into the Land of Canaan; at their best they combine elements of tension and surprise, of politics, intrigue, military adventure, and occasionally sex. The output reached high tide in the years after the first and second wars; some were partly fictional or exaggerated; others, as far as one could judge, quite realistic; a few became bestsellers. The cold war, on the other hand, has so far produced little authentic spy literature. There are of course good reasons for this; the clash of ideologies makes everything more complicated. Instead of good old-fashioned intrigue we get long-winded and boring political arguments. The great age of the individual spy seems to be past. Today’s master spy is neither a crack pistol shot nor necessarily a great womanizer, but a faceless man belonging to an anonymous organization.
Perhaps a more important reason is the reluctance of these organizations, in West and East, to let their members or ex-members rush into print. We have had to be satisfied with sketchy reports by defectors and written-up versions of trial reports, some superior, others on the level of popular journalism. I do not want to imply that there was actually a gentleman’s agreement between West and East not to publish; simply that bureaucratic machines everywhere usually have the same reactions. It came therefore as a considerable surprise when the Russians decided for the first time to break this unwritten law; some observers have attributed Gordon Lonsdale’s memoirs to the department of misinformation in Moscow which has of late shown increased activity. America and England almost immediately retaliated with The Penkovskiy Papers—another first in the field. It remains to be seen whether, when spies fall out, historians come into their own.
Gordon Lonsdale, a high-ranking Soviet spy, was arrested in London in March 1961 and sentenced at the Old Bailey to twenty-five years imprisonment. Three years later he was released and handed over to the Soviet authorities in East Berlin in exchange for Greville Wynne, the Englishman who had been involved in the Penkovskiy affair (about which more below). Spy, according to the dustjacket, is the whole truth about Lonsdale’s life. Apart from the undeniable fact that Mr. Lonsdale was born, the reader would be well advised to take nothing in the book at face value. Even the date of Mr. Lonsdale’s birth, not to mention his subsequent activities, seems to be open to doubt. According to Spy he was born in Cobalt, Ontario on August 27, 1924. But in a letter to his wife Galyusha, in January 1961, which fell into the hands of the British police at the time of his arrest, Lonsdale wrote: “I’ll be thirty-nine shortly.” The solution to this riddle is not too difficult: The man posing as Lonsdale was really born Konon Molody. But it would be unfair to subject Mr. Molody’s book to detailed critical analysis. In contrast …
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Spy Story February 17, 1966