Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century

Reposting this review because Farewell is the Jan 8 Kindle Daily Deal and on sale for $1.99 (the audiobook is only $0.99 with purchase of the kindle book.)

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth CenturyTakeaway: The actual workings of spy tradecraft is as odd as the fictional ones.

Farewell is the code name of one of the most important spy stories of the 20th century.  A Russian KGB agent, frustrated with his treatment by the KGB, turned over thousands of pages of documents to the French secret service (the FBI equivalent, not the CIA equivalent) and was perhaps more responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union than any other single person.

The story really is both incredible and fairly simple. Vladimir Ippolitovitch Vetrov, a talented athlete, a good student and a handsome young man is recruited to the KGB.  He is trained as a foreign operative and serves two terms outside of Russia.  But because of some of the problems of the KGB and some of Vetrov’s own problems he gets called back to Moscow and ends up as a technical analyst.

Frustrated by his lack of importance and the lack of respect he feels he is getting, he decides to become an informant and contact the French DST.  Working with a French secret service he is first given a handler (a businessman that is close, but not a spy) and then a single agent.  But it may have been the very lack of tradecraft that allows Vetrov to sneak out hugely important technical details of the Soviet infrastructure, military and spy systems.

This information was then used by Reagan and his security team to double down on the USSR.  The US both increased our military expenditure (to try and force the USSR into spending more than it was capable of spending to keep up) and fed bad information to the USSR on areas that the US knew were research dead ends.

It is a fascinating story, but not the best written one.  Farewell was originally written in French and then translated and updated into English.  The translation I think is probably pretty good, but like a real spy story it is big on details and angles and short on action.  So nearly half of the book is focused on Vetrov history, his relationship with his wife, his mistress, his son, and his early work experience.  And then right about half way through the book, finally the main action occurs and the rest of the book is spent dissecting what happened and why.

Part of me really is fascinated by the story and the almost excruciating detail.  But the other half of me just wanted them to get to the conclusion and be done. I think it showed lots of the problems of the Russian system (both the KGB and the Russian system of government that encouraged the paranoia and mistrust.)  But also it showed the problems of spying in general.  It is the paradox of the spy world that the agencies have to trust their spies because they literally cannot completely police the spies to make sure that they are not turning sides.

It is also interesting to see that what was important in the end was not the military strength or the spy tradecraft, but the research and economic issues.  (It feels like a similar story to Al Capone, it was the accounting that brought Capone down.)

This is a story that I recommend with some strong caveats.  It feels long and overly detailed because it is long and overly detailed.  It is not a great book, but it is interesting.

Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook Audiobook is discounted to $.99 with purchase of Kindle Book 

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