Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Agent Dmitri - Emil Draitser - Guest Book Review

Published by Duckworth

Guest review by Mandy Jenkinson

Dmitri Bystrolyotov was one of the Great Illegals, a group of Soviet spies operating in the West between the two world wars. He was recruited in the 1920s and went on to lead a quite extraordinary life. He was a larger-than-life figure, courageous, charismatic, a master of seduction (he invented the modern “honey trap”), handsome, resourceful, and above all a committed Communist, dedicated to the service of his motherland.

Much of the trajectory of his life as a spy seems stranger than fiction, and that, for me, was one of the problems of this book. Emil Draitser has done an impressive amount of painstaking research, but still relies in part on Bystrolotov’s own memoirs, and Bystrolyotov is an unreliable narrator par excellence. He contacted the author back in the 1970s shortly before Draitser’s emigration hoping he would take on the task of writing his biography. Thirty years later and with increased access to the archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, Draitser set about the task. He admits to not being able to verify some of the events, but too often allows himself the luxury of speculating. Reconstructed conversations (which always sound false and stilted), cod psychological explanations of Bystrolyotov’s motives and actions, too much reliance on the memoirs, all made me distrustful.

Reading the tagline “The Secret History of Russia’s Most Daring Spy”, I expected the book to be more thrilling and exciting than it actually is. I was soon bored by the accounts of one incredible exploit after another. I found the book more interesting after Bystrolyotov’s ill-advised return to the Soviet Union, where instead of being feted for all he had done for his country, he fell foul of Stalin’s paranoia and was arrested and sent to the Gulag. His ordeal in the far North makes for some gripping reading. But essentially I just couldn’t engage with this man. He never truly came alive for me. Perhaps that’s inevitable with someone who spent much of his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t, and just as it’s impossible to really enter the heart and mind of many another super-spy, such as Kim Philby, perhaps such a biography is always doomed to partial failure. I would have liked to see more illustrations, but perhaps theses weren’t available.

Nevertheless, in spite of my reservations, this is an intriguing look into the world of high-level espionage, and a glimpse, at least, into the secretive world of Soviet intelligence. A pity about the lurid cover, though, one hardly appropriate for a serious biography.

Many thanks to Mandy for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library. Mandy is an omnivorous reader who enjoys reviewing, for newbooks magazine as well as elsewhere, and enjoys discovering new authors.


  1. Great post, very informative. Alas not a book that interests me, I couldn't agree more about the lurid cover.

  2. Bystrolyotov does indeed sound like he was an interesting man who lived a very interesting life.

    It is not surprising that upon his return to the Soviet Union that Stalin threw him onto the Gulag as this was the fate of so many people who fought for the Soviet Union under his rule.

    I think that it is acceptable for a biographer to speculate if he or she points out that they are speculating. I never liked reconstructed conversations and I think that it is best for non -fiction writers to avoid them.

  3. The cover grabbed me as soon as I saw it so I'm glad to know ahead of time that the book is far more serious. I'm definitely interested in reading it but will go expecting a more serious if somewhat flawed biography.


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