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STALINIST BIOGRAPHIES


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Hans-Otto Meissner
The Man With Three Faces
Sorge: Russia's Master-Spy

Pan, London, 1957
price: 2/6
192 pages + 4 pages of b/w photos

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Martin Ebon
Svetlana:
The Incredible Story of Stalin's Daughter

New English Library, London, 1967
price: 5/-
192 pages + 16 pages b/w photos


The jacket illustration to The Man With Three Faces is a work of absolute genius. On the one hand you have the title, on the other you have a picture of Richard Sorge accompanied by drawings of Stalin, Hitler and Tojo; together these facts can only be taken to mean that 'Russia's master-spy' was also a master of disguise. Why anyone would want to pass themselves off as even one of those war-criminals, let alone all three, is a bafflement and a bewilderment, but that's the clear implication.

And it's entirely without justification. The three faces of Herr Sorge are: (1) he was a German diplomat at the embassy in Tokyo during the 1930s; (2) he was secretly a spy for communist Russia; (3) he got a bit carried away with his position and may have become 'power-crazed'. Disguises? No, he didn't do that.

What he did do, however, was to save the Soviet Union, at least according to this account.

The crucial contribution centres on the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941. This, you'll remember, was at a time when Japan had not yet entered the conflict - it was engaged in its own empire-building, but at that point the so-called world war was effectively confined to the European powers. Even so, the tension between Japan (then occupying Manchuria) and Russia had the potential to explode at any provocation, and it was clearly in Germany's interest that it should do so at precisely the moment that the tanks of the Third Reich were rolling over the border from Poland. Under assault from the West, the Soviets nonetheless were obliged to maintain an army some two million strong in Siberia to defend its Eastern borders. Until, that is, a message was received from Sorge in Tokyo informing the Kremlin that Japan was not going to attack, that it had resisted German pressure to strike north at Siberia and was instead going to send its troops southwards.

The Siberian army was recalled, redeployed to the Western front, and proved critical in resisting and then reversing the German advance. And so the Nazi experiment was defeated by a German working for Moscow.

And Sorge's reward? The Japanese nicked him, tried him and executed him. Although this book suggests that possibly - just possibly - Sorge somehow escaped in the confusion of the times, and lived on in the Soviet Union.

just one of his faces
The acceptable face of espionage

Also living in the Soviet Union at that point was Svetlana Yosifovna Stalina, only daughter of the biggest mass-murderer of the 20th century. (Of Stalin's two sons, one was captured by the Germans during the War and died in a camp, the other was killed in a 1962 car crash.) Twenty-eight years old when Uncle Joe died in 1953, Svetlana remained in Russia for a while longer, but in 1967, whilst in India scattering the ashes of her late third husband, decided to apply to the American Embassy for asylum.

quality timeThereafter Svetlana became something of an oddity in the world. She did take US citizenship (and was briefly married to an American) but returned for a couple of years to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, and subsequently lived in Britain. Rootlessness seemed pretty much inescapable, given her paternity - there's not much you can do to settle down when your father's name remains loathed and feared in equal measure on both sides of the world.

The real flaw with Martin Ebon's book is that he didn't have direct access to Svetlana and - to be honest - it's only her emotional account that is ever going to be of interest. The 'facts' aren't going to help us much. And while the sleeve-notes claim that 'her fascinating and tragic life ... is told here as she herself cannot tell it', she had by this stage already given us Twenty Letters to a Friend, telling her side of the story. You're better off finding a copy of that one.


acknowledgements:
my thanks to Mr Jeremy Leahy for
The Man With Three Faces

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