Book Review: The KGB’s Fascination With Potions

by Joshua Foust on 3/12/2010

Originally posted to Steve LeVine’s excellent Oil and Glory blog.

It can be difficult to stand out in the somewhat crowded field of Russian scare-books. Whether arguing for the resumption of a “new cold war” or whatever conspiracy happens to be topical, recent years have seen an avalanche of books arguing that Russia is not the somewhat broken creature it is often portrayed in the West.

Boris Volodarsky, however, has a leg up. A former Captain in the GRU, he has first-hand access to many of the files, personalities, and programs one would need to discuss Russia’s international espionage activities. It is just this encyclopedic understanding that he brings to The KGB’s Poison Factory. Though often confusing because of the sheer volumes of names, pseudonyms, shadow programs, and overlapping personalities he puts into play, Volodarsky very clearly argues that the posture of Russian intelligence is essentially the same as has been throughout the 20th century.

Volodarsky argues that Russian intelligence holds as much venom for its individual detractors as for its international opponents, And it is venom that he seems primarily concerned with. Assassinations obviously can take many forms — the U.S. prefers flying robots these days. But Volodarsky argues that Russia has a special affection for poison.

And what a poison it is: The particular hallmark of Russian poisons, besides their creativity, seems to be their relatively long kill time. A victim will languish for weeks, even months, in sheer agony before either barely surviving or dying. Volodarsky describes this tradition while tracing Soviet and Russian poisoneers (for lack of a better term) through early uses of merely unusual plant extracts to the industrial development of unique compounds. The resulting potions are engineered specifically to mimic other problems, usually some form of gastritis, so that by the time doctors eventually realize what’s happened, it’s too late to fix.

The inspiration for Volodarsky’s history is the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB defector slowly poisoned with Polonium-210 in 2006. While it can be difficult to parse the complicated history that Volodarsky writes — this is a book by and for insiders — the picture that emerges is damning of Russia going back decades. This might be where the book would fit in the pantheon of anti-Russia books: Volodarsky argues that the post-USSR poisoning activities of Russian intelligence demonstrate a strong continuity between Soviet and Russian activities.

In fact, if we were to read this in the context of similar books of the Russian government’s capriciousness — those by Anna Politkovskaya, for instance — it would be easy to think that it is more dangerous to oppose Moscow today than it was, say, in the 1970s, even though there was much more concern over it back then. Since Vladimir Putin left the Kremlin, Volodarsky writes, the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, no longer has to report to the President — they only have to inform him, the prime minister. Given Putin’s almost legendary intolerance for dissent, and the environment he’s created, in which unofficial murders aren’t exactly approved but aren’t exactly punished, it is a pretty terrifying realm that Volodarsky explores.

Unfortunately, that exploration is a real bear to sift through. While the book is engaging as a work of espionage, I found it difficult to keep track of the tangle of personalities and operations. That is in part because Volodarsky’s footnotes aren’t exactly immaculate. Mixed with clinical discussions of operations are Volodarsky’s ideas about what constitutes good or poor tradecraft. While it’s certainly fun to see how central Vienna is to Russian-European espionage, my eyes glazed over during long expositions of place and timing. That’s not to fault Volodarsky’s writing. But for those who aren’t borderline obsessives with the mechanics of tradecraft, the endless detail can become exhausting. It is a little too inside baseball for a layman to pick up and comprehend, and Volodarsky doesn’t provide enough documentation for a layman to follow the breadcrumbs and learn more (though he does, to his credit, highlight other books for more information on individual kills.).

The KGB’s Poison Factory is still a fascinating to read. As long as you can slog through. Whether you’re looking for a concise history of Russian intelligence assassinations, or even a taste of how bewildering the intelligence hall of mirrors can be, it is a pretty severe indictment of how the former Soviet capital operates.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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