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Ex-Soviet Spy’s Bizarre Death and the Culture of Espionage

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In an incident that reports are linking to the unsolved murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, former Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko has died in a London hospital. The ex-KGB operative was allegedly the victim of a mysterious radiation poisoning.

Like the murdered Politkovskaya, the former Soviet spy had been a critic of the Putin government. He was granted asylum in Britain several years ago and had reportedly received death threats in recent weeks. Raising eyebrows is the fact that he was stricken soon after meeting with an Italian researcher who is thought to have been investigating Politkovskaya’s murder. There are numerous allegations that Litvinenko’s illness is the result of a Russian plot, though the Kremlin has vigorously denied any involvement.

There was a time, not so long ago, when such stories would have received far more attention in the United States. (It’s been much bigger news in the U.K.) Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets and their Western adversaries engaged in many covert operations throughout the world as each struggled to gain the upper hand.

One of the few highly celebrated cases during the height of the Cold War involved a Soviet spy named Konon Molody, who was better known in the Western world by his cover name, Gordon Arnold Lonsdale. Molody was convicted of espionage in the early 1960s. While he was in a British prison, however, a deal to “swap” him for a British spy being held in the U.S.S.R. was worked out. Molody was then returned to the Soviet Union, where he wrote a book about his exploits as a spy. He died in 1970 at age 48. (The book was republished in the West under the title Spy: Twenty Years in the Soviet Secret Service: The Memoirs of Gordon Lonsdale.)

The little information about such episodes that became public knowledge fueled a cottage industry of spy-themed movies and novels that remained popular for several decades. The gritty and mostly unpleasant world of spies and undercover operations was heavily romanticized in many of these works.

Ironically, Litvinenko’s death comes on the heels of a new James Bond film, in which the original Cold War context has been updated in an effort to appeal to contemporary audiences. In the world after 9/11, however, the spy stories — real and fictional — that were so successful for the decades of the Cold War seem increasingly quaint. Many people today seem to see a fundamental disconnect between the world of espionage, as it was imagined in the popular culture from the 1950s to the early 1990s, and the ominous world evoked in the phrase “war on terror.”

If the Cold War was a game of chess, albeit a sometimes deadly one, the war on terrorism seems like something else. For many people, it seems more irrational and less easy to manage, politically or psychologically. 


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