book reviews

Books by Crazy Russians
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Biological Espionage:
Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West
Alexander Kouzminov
Greenhill Books, London, 2005


T his is another book about KGB spying, from a former member of Department 12 of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, now known as the Foreign Intelligence Service or FIS. Kouzminov claims to have been a high-level officer who left the KGB in 1992, eventually moved to the UK, and decided to get rich by writing a book similar to the best-seller Biohazard by Ken Alibek.

Unfortunately, unlike Ken Alibek or Vasily Mitrokhin (another former big-time Russian spy), Kouzminov reveals very little that is not already well-known about the KGB. At times, he seems deliberately vague about his duties, leading one to suspect that he could actually have been the KGB's janitor, and not a high level spymaster as he claims. Indeed, the story of a janitor might have been more interesting and more useful--which doors are opened by the same key, for instance, or which toilets were used to dispose of excess biological material, where the KGB buys its pencils, or what are the peccadilloes of the KGB bigshots.

As for the biological weapons themselves, what little information he gives is full of errors, distortions, and inaccuracies. To give one example, on page 153 Kouzminov discusses the outbreak of a disease on an Indian reservation in the American state of New Mexico in 1993. He fails to mention the name of the disease (hantavirus pulmonary syndrome or HPS), states inaccurately that only Navajo Indians were affected, and suggests that it might have been some sort of genetic weapon. Anyone familiar with this outbreak would know that this claim is ridiculous. HPS is caused by the Sin Nombre virus, which is a member of the well-known genus hantavirus. Contrary to Kouzminov's claim, HPS is not unique to Indians, but has been found in at least 30 states among people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Its source was identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a pathogen carried by an unusually large population of deer mice. At great expense, the US government found and eliminated the source of the disease. Of course, to wacked-out conspiracy theorists, and those who pander to them, such facts only further confirm their suspicions.

The author's grasp of basic scientific information also seems to be extremely weak. I find it difficult to believe this guy has a Ph.D. in biophysics as he claims (in the book, he claims to have written a Ph.D. thesis on neuropeptides). As for his spycraft, a master Soviet spy specializing in biological weapons would surely know that the correct acronym for their chief adversary, the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, is USAMRIID (not "USARMIID" as it is repeatedly spelled in the book).

Perhaps Kouzminov is feigning ignorance as a form of disinformation. By convincing us that the KGB was hopelessly incompetent, he could be trying to convince the world that Mother Russia is not a threat. More likely, though, Kouzminov just doesn't care about the facts: USAMRIID, Kouzminov disingenuously says, "has projects dealing with the cloning and expression of genes which code the synthesis of bacteria that cause anthrax." While this is undoubtedly true, sort of, it is simply more pandering to conspiracy theorists. All modern biology requires the use of cloned substances, which avoids the need to grow the deadly bacteria themselves. There is nothing sinister in cloning anthrax toxins. If the author were a real biologist, he would know this. He would also know that the phrase "code the synthesis of bacteria" is gibberish. His other information on anthrax is similarly ill-informed. His undocumented claims about Israel supposedly trying to create genetic weapons seem to be nothing more than wild speculation with more than a hint of anti-Israeli and perhaps antisemitic sentiment thrown in.

Kouzminov also dismisses the American concerns about biotech espionage, insinuating that they are up to no good. "It seems they have something to hide in their laboratories," he concludes. Kouzminov is supposed to be a master spy. Does his product really consist entirely of vague conspiracy theories copied from The Guardian? Or is he just indulging in petty politics? (Yes, this is a rhetorical question.)

Given the variety of inaccurate information in the book, one must also question the accuracy of the information he provides about Department 12. If the information in this book is representative of what the KGB knew about America, it would explain much about why their country was so far behind the West. Kouzminov says that even today the Russians are spying on the West, and the UK and USA in particular. But he also says that Russia is far ahead of the West in its biological weapons technology. If so, and given the fact that under President Nixon the USA abandoned its biological weapons program in 1969, and led the world in signing--and observing--the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (unlike the Soviet Union), just what are all these spies expecting to learn?

Kouzminov concludes by saying that information from all gene-splicing experiments must be kept secret and be accessible only to responsible researchers whose experiments are controlled by their governments. Even our home-grown environmentalist nuts like Jeremy Rifkin abandoned this viewpoint years ago. It just shows how far Russia still has to go in becoming a free society. It would seem that you can take the man out of the totalitarian state, but you can't take the totalitarian state out of the man.

The Perestroika Deception:
The World's Slide Towards the Second October Revolution
Anatoliy Golitsyn
(Harle, 1995)


G olitsyn claims to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was only a fiendishly clever plot by the KGB with the intent of taking over the West. Pretty clever strategy: destroy your own country so your enemy lets down their guard. At least they will have the element of surprise--or should I say shock--on their side.

Reinventing Collapse:
The Soviet Example and American Prospects
Dmitry Orlov
(New Society, 2008)


I n this short book, Dmitry Orlov gives new life to the stereotype of the ill-informed Russian who thinks his country invented the light bulb, the telephone and the typewriter. He goes on at length about what he thinks is wrong with America, and how much better it was in Russia under Communism. Orlov may be trying to slap America on the face to wake it up to the economic collapse ahead. Unfortunately, the slapping gets out of hand. It quickly turns into an all-out spank. By the time Orlov finally gets around to saying something useful, his credibility is almost as low as that of the President of the United States.

One could ask, why would America collapse and not China, France, or Turkey? The only reason Orlov gives is that America, like the former Soviet Union, is a superpower. But another reason might be that the economies of most other countries have, to a greater or lesser degree, already collapsed.

Yet the perspective of a Russian who witnessed the economic meltdown of the USSR in 1991 would be incredibly valuable. What were ordinary Russians thinking and doing before the collapse? How did they cope? The book jacket promises Orlov's first-hand observations of the collapse in Russia. Sadly, these are not forthcoming; most of what he says is about America, and available (in much greater detail) from any survivalist website. It's mixed with a certain amount of Eurojingoism resembling, more than anything else, the 1960s diatribes by Radio Moscow.

Those shortwave broadcasts were fascinating to listen to: a gemisch of crazily off-the-mark criticisms of America, occasional flashes of brilliant insight, and an even more frequent howler. Orlov repeatedly asserts the Iraq war was a disaster; yet even Democrats have now conceded that it has been, generally, a success. Certainly, the Democrats now in control will find a way to turn the ongoing war in Afghanistan into a defeat, just as they engineered our entry into Vietnam and our subsequent defeat there. But it's too late for them to make us lose in Iraq.

Even though it's tempting to blame (or credit) Gorbachev and Reagan, the Soviet Union collapsed for one fundamental reason: incentive-based economics produces more wealth than coercion-based economics. Kill incentive, by greedily raising taxes, by tolerating corruption, or by sending those who try to make a profit to Siberia, and you guarantee economic failure. This opinion is shared by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said that making the state's rule absolute made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive.

Orlov, in contrast, says that oil was the key ingredient in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Oil is certainly important. It is even more critical for America than it was for the USSR. Yet we could easily supply our energy needs for centuries, if we chose to, by building breeder reactors. If faced with the alternative of economic collapse, it is likely that America will choose to build breeders--it might choose survival regardless of the risks. This is particularly true now that North Korea has nukes. Once Iran gets them, the threat of nuclear proliferation will be gone. Ironically, by losing that battle we might ensure our economic survival. (Plus, our country will be so much easier to manage without those pesky cities.)

As some other reviewers have said, Orlov's writing style is funny. Advice from cynical former communists on how to run an economy always is. American Ph.D. candidates frantically deciphering Soviet scientific journals and scurrying back to their labs to reproduce their results? Funny! Health care in the USSR and Cuba better than that in the U.S.? What a kidder! Yet in spite of his crazy reasoning, Orlov correctly surmises that the approaching oil crisis and our upcoming financial crisis and hyperinflation, caused by the government's out of control spending, threatens our future. The collapse of our pork-based economy--which will be nothing like the phony mortgage crisis that we just passed through--is coming, and we need to be prepared for it. But turning America into a clone of the Soviet totalitarian state will only hasten it.

Some Russians, still feeling the sting of being the losers in a global battle for dominance, are sitting back, hoping against hope that our economy will collapse and prove their side was right all along, and giving us "advice" that will only guarantee it. We should not give them the satisfaction.