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A correspondent in Germany wrote to tell me about the bombing of his apartment by parties unhappy with his work in the peace making field.

I couldn’t find a corroborating abundance of small town fire stories in relation to the claim, but the correspondent sent along one online clipping, noting that state security services had sought to squelch coverage of the event while they themselves looked into it.

Another in the United States wrote recently, “At the mosque yesterday when a man ran in and shoved a rolled up wad of bills into the zakat box I wondered about how many of these people run their lives based on an underground economy.”

Hmmm.

I would have to say “I don’t know” to that last correspondent.

To the reader: that is all I have to report.

It has been a thin summer.


Schiemer, Maarten.  The Cry of the Kite.  Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1956.

This is the tale of another Egyptian coup, an account in fiction of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.  Strong in atmosphere and romance, engaging some in the daring of its hero, Dirk Celliers, and in the depiction of angry crowds, wild slaughter in the streets, and the burning of Cairo (“Black Saturday” today in the history books), it is itself more an impression than a parallel history in its own right — in fact, it’s light on the hinges — but it resonates with the latest rounds in Egypt’s political turmoil.

The reader will recognized the Egyptians of 1952 in many facets: the royal state (that Farouk ran and Mubarak would have established had he gotten away with it), the secular nationalist army, the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative culture, especially constraining for women and also defensive and dangerous with regard to their keeping, and then the roving crowds — out to tear apart the “Englesi” of the earlier age and boot the same out of the state’s affairs — and riots, bullets, fires, and the rending of hapless victims limb from limb, which today one might liken to throwing youth, aligned with one side or the other, off the roofs of buildings.

On a personal note: having inherited this work from a father who had degrees in economics, political science, and law and spent the bulk of his career in civil service, I found the pages uncut, which means the old man had acquired it, kept it on his shelf, smoked his pipe (back then) beneath it, but never read it.

Soldatov, Andrei and Irina Borogan.  The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.  New York: Public Affairs, 2010.

“Post-Soviet Russia” may have morphed the “Evil Empire” out of a few captive states but by no means did the collapse of the Soviet Union spell the end of its most durable internal business, political, and social relationships, much less the external ones that today sustain the Russo-Iranian-Syrian (Assad) arrangements that should have ended yesterday and been in the way to doing so in 1991.

Oh no on all of that.

This excerpt hails from Nick Fielding’s forward:

President Boris Yeltsin’s appointment of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, to head upt the FSB in 1998 marks the beginnings of a new era.  By 2000, as soon as he became president, Putin began to rebuild the intelligence services and to concentrate power in their hands.  While the FSB’s predecessor had been a “state within a state,” subservient to the Community Party, the FSB has in many ways become the state itself–its officers now directly responsible to the president, and its former members owning and controlling the commanding heights of the economy.” (ix).

I’ve commented elsewhere myself on President Putin but not quite like this (chapter title: “The Interests of the State Demand It: Spymania”):

In May 1999, Putin was the director of the FSB and also head of the Kremlin’s security council, a group of high-ranking officials who set national security strategy.  It was a time of instability in Russia, just months after the country had suffered a major economic crash.  President Boris Yeltsin seemed to be drifting.  One day Putin went to the offices of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a mass-circulation broadsheet daily.  At the newspaper, he gave an interview in which he was asked, “There is a concern that you and your friends might organize a military coup d’etat?”  Putin replied, “And why do we need to organize a coup d’etat?  We are in power now.  And whom would we topple?”  Then the newspaper interviewers suggested: perhaps the president?

“The president appointed us,” Putin said, with a half-chuckle.

Instead of an internal threat, Putin pointed to foreign espionage as Russia’s gravest enemy . . . .”

One might imagine what would come of that observation, but with The New Nobility one does not have to imagine anything, the research being well reported, from the refusal to grant visas to Peace Corp volunteers accused of “gathering information of social-political and economical character” and far on to the handling of affairs in the North Caucasus.

As I remain ever a man on a mission without a mission,  my easy recall of details from the book seems absent, everything being interesting and nothing being immediately or practically relevant except for one thing: the idea that Russia is again in the hands of autocrats who may be expected to commandeer their media, squelch political criticism and resistance, and generally discourage the development of a more open, robust, and vibrant democracy (for the record: I think Masha Gessen is a gift to mankind, Pussy Riot should have had the good sense to keep its act out of the church, Khodorkovsky fits the profile of a kind of Putin victim — either too rich to complain [I’m thinking of the “Putin stole my Superbowl ring” thing to which Putin has responded, recently, vociferously, and convincingly] or too remote in plutocratic station to inspire massive (proletarian to middle class) anger over the misdeed, and, at that, an anger strong enough to overcome the fear of the state’s ruling class).

If you think RT has been bending and twisting it some in Syria — and the war of images and words on the World Wide Web over that tragedy seems as real as it was in the paper-based days of NATO-Soviet discord — there’s no need to think “KGB”: Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации (ФСБ)” (Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii) or, in plain English, “Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation” will do.

“FSB”, however old its story — about two decades in the making at the moment — is the buzz for what may be the clouded image of a still new and rapidly evolving Russian intelligence and security state.

Le Carré, John.  “A Delicate Truth.”  New York: Viking, 2013.

It is raining today in western Maryland, and the apartment is dark and cool.  The air conditioning’s white shushing noise seems pleasant enough.  The dog in the apartment next to mine lets out a lonely howl while at my right elbow there’s a cool drink, Diet Coke and Cruzan white rum on ice with a slice of lime, and at my left elbow David Cornwell’s latest, which for pace fairly requires just the day I have got.

Of course, it picks up, by which I mean the book, if not my day.

And it resonates.

Le Carré’s latest tells the tale of war bureaucratized, privatized, loaned out by governments — here, Her Majesty’s Own — and in the hands of corporate robber barons with numerous hands, rivals among them, gripping the wheels and as many and more dipping into the cookie jar hidden from public view and debate.

Unlike the deckle-edged Schiemer book mentioned above (also “A Novel of Modern Egypt” — the modern one of 1952), my father read Le Carré’s books, so suited to those intellectuals maintained or trapped or both in the great bureaucracies of state and defense.  Possibly no other author creates the image of the political office, from bottom to top in relation to power, and its auditoriums, corridors, labyrinths, meeting rooms, hallways, residences, sidewalks, car parks, cafes, bars, and restaurants and the talk and signals of its tête-à-têtes and small groups better — and then tops it by making his heroes above average bunglers but ones with the finest and greatest of patriotic British spirits!

Silva, Daniel.  The English Girl.  New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

This one is like the Torah: the more close reading the reader and the longer the engagement, the more shutters fly off the windows, the roof disappears, the heavens open, and one sees a little bit of everything more clearly.

Unlike with the Torah, I was not enamored of either the extremity of spymaster Gabriel Alkon’s sadism at time nor the author’s indulgence in practicing random acts of violence through an anomic sidekick as well as the engineering of assorted shoot-em-ups: on the other hand, perhaps all of that will make it easier for a Hollywood writer with highlighters to find the good parts and yank them into something worthy of competing with the Broccoli franchise (more on that in a moment).

Opposite all that: Silva knows his politics and semi-wonks like myself may find ourselves on similar ground as regards with Big Picture Analysis in International Affairs.  Here on BackChannels, I hedge with the “may be’s” and the “seems to’s” but in this sprawling jet setter spy epic fiction, Silva pulls no punches.  From mafia to oligarch, prized fine art to torture, subtle spy craft to ugly explosion . . . it’s not only pretty good reading, it’s a great mirror in its underlying analysis of a global state of affairs.

Let it surprise you, says I, and damnation to any spoilers out there who may have said too much already.

* * *

I don’t spend all of my time on my bed reading.

Sometimes I get up, go into the living room, and watch a movie.

🙂

It has been a while since I’ve watched a Bond film, but I thought Skyfall was terrific but Quantum of Solace remarkably less so.  The difference for me: the sophistication of the plot and its cultural interests.

Skyfall tackles the “malignant narcissist” head on, the punch from the shadows — sub-state warfare — also, and updates the mirror on the modern post-modern world, one in which “M” is “Mom”, Ms. Moneypenny’s just about as good an operator in the field as Bond, Bond himself has an almost (maybe not almost) gay moment, and the desire of the dictator to surround himself with himself and control the world rings true to what we know about the real ones.

By comparison, Quantum of Solace seemed to me an extended shoot-em-up over greed with water supply involved.

Hmm.

Chinatown meets 007.

That method got old and certainly does not work for me five years after the release of the film.

A little conflict of interest here: I own a Barbour too, Mr. Bond.  I may not be able to fight like you but I’ll be as dry in a November rainstorm as any hero or villain on the planet.

Finally, in e-books: Hemingway and Gellhorn (for $2.99 how can you go wrong) and Spies for Hire ($10.38 for the Kindle, so perhaps interest should be sincere).  I’m enjoying the former; have not started the latter; but it might go down well with the Le Carré book.  Indeed, our states are in trouble if and when they compromise their monopoly on the development of military and political intelligence and, worse, when private enterprise comes to “run operations”.

It seems to me that nongovernmental interests may have other interests, including their own survival aided by their own extended relationships, at heart.

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