The tension and intrigue of a thriller, spy novel is irresistible for so many of us. What about reading a spy memoir? Can real life spying stand up to artistic license to kill? In this case, yes. I enjoyed reading all about the life of a real German, Russian spy in America during the 1970’s and 1980’s. You’ll find his spying skills were very different from today’s Russian hacking accusations.
The author was born in 1949 in East Germany, into a small family suffering the impacts of the end of World War II. This very East German Albrecht Dittrich had no idea he would grow up to take on an American name and life. He describes in painful recollection the destitute life he lived with his brother and parents, the lack of love, and the early and continued indoctrination into Marxism, Leninism and the glory of a future with international Communism. The indoctrination included villainizing Germans living on the other side of the Berlin wall. How the oppression affects the different members of this family during the slow rebuilding from the war is a sobering story.
Brilliant in school, Albrecht caught the attention of KGB. The recruitment process is a fascinating read. The skills that he learns, and the tests he’s put through are meant to prepare him for assignments that are at first well understood by his KGB mentors. Later it’s interesting how they try to prepare him for spying in America, which is an environment they really knew very little about.
When Albrecht is sent to America to spy, he has to leave his entire life behind as if it never existed. He had to find an American identity he could become, and so he became Jack Barsky. His family and friends were given a made-up cover story and could not contact him at all for years at a time. As a young, idealistic and fully indoctrinated man, he was able to successfully become a totally different person with a new history and a mission he believed in. This book allows you to see how he did it. As time goes on you see how this decision wears on him. It’s amazing to watch first the strength of his commitment to do his duty, and then it’s spellbinding to watch how the pent up emotion, regret and discovery of love penetrate his plans and change them.
When Jack Barsky turned his back on the KGB, it was suspenseful to see if they would come after him. I really enjoyed this book, including the part where the FBI catches him. The FBI agent’s Afterword is also very good at the end of the book. I have to admit, the last few chapters when the author describes settling into a “normal” American life, I quickly lost interest. Guess I was really into it for the old-fashioned intrigue, and I’m glad there was plenty of that.
Thereby hangs a tale . . . .
Wendy Kendall is a writer, project manager and volunteer at the Edmonds Library. Follow her via her blog here or on Twitter @wendywrites1.