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The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev

3 January 2008

More books on espionage? Just the one left for the moment — this one’s nonfiction, at least.

Shortly after I’d first read Miranda Carter’s excellent biography of Anthony Blunt, I decided it would be a good time to return to this book, which I’d started several times but hadn’t managed to finish. I assumed that my sluggish reading pace came because I simply wasn’t devoting proper attention to it to make the reading experience worthwhile. So when I picked it up again at a point when I had more time, I ended up re-evaluating my initial reaction to the book — albeit not necessarily in the book’s favour.

The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev

Having returned to this book, I concluded that my lack of interest seems to spring from the book’s rather misleading subtitle. The Crown Jewels seems to me to be less about the actual secrets found in the archives than about the people who put those secrets there in the first place. Unfortunately, the writing style of the book doesn’t make this different topic nearly as interesting as it could be.

The Crown Jewels seems to hint that the book will be about the specific kinds of secrets passed to Soviet intelligence by various British spies and Soviet agents over the years. There are certainly enough British intelligence secrets present in the pages, but the presentation of the material is done in an awkward, jerky style that buries the secrets themselves in a hodgepodge of confusing and ill-defined codenames and often goes off on any number of tangents. Specific events of spying and theft, some were quite crucial to the expansion of the Soviet network in Britain, are picked up and dropped into the text and never really explained. Perhaps the authors presume that the reader already has some background knowledge of the history of Soviet espionage in Britain. I understood a good deal more of this book’s material on Anthony Blunt because I’d read Carter’s biography, but if I had tried to pull the information from West and Tsarev’s book and then apply it to the biography then I’d be very confused indeed. I do know that Carter consulted The Crown Jewels in the writing of the Blunt biography, and yet I have a feeling that the consultation was more for fact-checking and date-confirming purposes than for any other reason.

The best sections of this book include archival materials from formerly unaccessible KGB files — the documents are found in the appendices and block-quoted in the text itself. In my opinion, if this book was about two hundred pages longer, then it could be a remarkably impressive study of Soviet espionage in Britain from Bolshevik days until about 1960. As it is, the book reads as if it has been pared down by an overly ruthless editorial process and some less-than-careful revisions on the part of the authors. Much of the tasty meat of the spy game has been removed, leaving a jumbled heap of the bare bones of names and dates that don’t truly satisfy. A pity, really — it’s plain that there’s quite a lot of interesting information out there for those who are interested in the history of Soviet espionage in the United Kingdom.

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