“A Very Dangerous Woman” — or, what makes a good spy?

budbergbook3dfront-2_med_hrA Very Dangerous Woman, by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield OneWorld Publications, 2015. $27.99 hardback, ISBN 978-178-0747-088. Also available on Kindle. Amidst all the hullaballoo about the Edward Snowden leaks and Chinese hackers’ regular breaches of supposedly-secure US government sites, it is worth reminding ourselves that the best information tend to come from human intelligence sources – good old spies. The best of them can juggle deception and commitment, securing access not only to files and figures but other people: to overhear conversations, act with initiative, ask questions, report on manner and nuance, and in general help us understand people, not just data points. They tend to give us the best stories, too, and the tale of Baroness Moura Budberg is a splendid one, not least as she herself was such an assiduous mythmaker. What emerges from this entertaining and well-researched book is a picture of a woman at once a big-game hunter of larger-than-life men (her bag included Robin Bruce Lockhart the spy, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells the writers, and not one but two Baltic aristocrats) and also a devotee of a high life and a fast reputation. (more…)

Moscow Correspondence (3): ‘Donbas: 365 days of the ATO’

On one of my last days in this trip to Moscow, I went to the VDNKh (no one seems to call it by its new, post-Soviet title of VVTs, even the posters read VDNKh). It was a cold, wet day and most of the people around were workers sprucing the place up for the later spring and summer, but my objective was the Ukraine pavilion which, with a certain vicious irony, is now the home of ‘Donbas: 365 Days of the ATO‘ [Anti-Terrorism Operation — what Kiev calls its military campaign against the rebels]. Past some of the toughest security checks I encountered this trip, I found an exhibition which took the undoubted horrors of the campaign (and let’s be honest, Kiev pulled few punches, and the often-indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets has helped harden rebel sentiment in the region) but often turned it into a haunted house-style horror show in the name of propaganda. We’re talking replicas of bombed out strobed with red lighting, pictures of dolls in rubble, the works. In many ways, I suppose, this is a metaphor for much of the worst kind of Russian propaganda: taking a basis of truth, but then turning into a macabre spectacle of one-sided caricature. An interesting experience, and worth the time spent schlepping there through the rain, but an unsettling one for both the intended and unintended reasons.

Moscow Correspondence (2): Taste and Hear the Patriotism

As the 70th anniversary Victory Day celebrations near (counted down on the video display board on Kutuzovsky Bridge), themes of victory, the Great Patriotic War and the St George’s ribbon proliferate. Here is just a small sample, from concerts to ice creams.

Moscow Correspondence (1): Russian Railways on the Patriotic Bandwagon

While I’m here in Moscow for a couple of weeks teaching a course for MGIMO-University, I’ll take the opportunity to post some random observations. The first is that the “70 years since the end of the Great Patriotic Bandwagon” is as predictably a Big Thing as one would expect but also, and I suspect not least thanks to the current national (or at least Kremlin) mood become a competition of sorts. Equally predictably, Russian Railways (RZhD) boss Vladimir Yakunin, everyone’s favourite KGB veteran/Putin chum/Orthodox Chekist booster, is not going to let such an opportunity pass by and RZhD “we are proud and remember” billboards greet you at the airport and dominate several city landmarks, including a massive video one that provides a veritable multi-stage history of the railways and WW2…

At Sheremetevo airport

At Sheremetevo airport

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

“Putin’s Third Term: Assessments amid Crisis,” at GWU, on 11 March

Putin's Third Term Flyer

All welcome, but do please RSVP as indicated on the flier

‘Russia, Ukraine and the new “Hot Peace” with the West’ – Prague, 17 March 2015

Galeotti_PIDEC

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