Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Cracking Open the Cold War Spy Novel

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Cracking Open the Cold War Spy Novel

Article excerpt

As America's very brief post-Cold War unipolar moment reached its apex in the war on terror, politicized intelligence claims, public opinion formation, social mobilization, and fiction-making once again affected the fate of millions. China and Russia have gone even further in proactively molding public opinion. Where have we seen this before? In hundreds of spy novels and films from the Cold War era. Stereotyping in the sense in which Walter Lippmann first used it - as a convenient simplification of complex realities to allow human beings in modern societies to function - is an ingrained psychological survival tactic that evolved with industrialized societies. In other words, it is an inevitable attribute of modernity. Immune to complete eradication, it can nevertheless be managed through careful analysis and deconstruction, which is where espionage fiction becomes particularly useful.

I have been teaching "The Cold War and the Spy Novel" course every year since 2010, and it has proved to be wildly popular with students despite the heavy reading assignments - a book a week preceded by a lecture to set up the historical context of its publication. Using works from both sides of the Iron Curtain, we explore the process of constructing stereotypes, the social role that espionage fiction played in the West and in the East, and the relationship between literary fiction and Cold War epistemology - politicized intelligence and public opinion formation.

Teaching about the Cold War in Washington, D.C., is particularly interesting, given that so much of it unfolded on this city's streets littered with Cold War landmarks. To give just one example, American University's student shuttle runs right past 4100 Nebraska Ave., where Soviet mole ?? Philby lived while he was stationed in Washington. I love to hear the gasps of surprise when I finish the story of the Cambridge Five and then show my students the house that every single one of them has passed hundreds of times.

A British phenomenon, espionage fiction branched off from the detective genre in the late 1890s when rising literacy, mass newspapers, and cheap books created a feedback loop affecting state policies. England's first professional spy writer, William Le Queux, contributed to the spy mania that led to the establishment of the Secret Service Bureau (the predecessor of MI5 and MI6) in 1909. Some of the evidence heard by the government committee that suggested its creation came from his books. But the first British spy novels were really about counterespionage because it was morally justifiable (British gentlemen were above spying but not above exposing foreign spies). Counterintelligence was also closest to standard detective work, which was already popular as the subject of fiction in Britain. The anxieties of imperial overreach contributed to the genres popularity, but the Great War made it a literary staple. The enemies would also evolve - the French in the 1890s, then the Germans, then the Bolsheviks and the Nazis - but the basic idea of defending home and hearth remained the same. With the Bolsheviks, however, a new relentless global struggle ensued without front lines, without rules, and with an enemy who infiltrated societies and undermined them from within.

The Soviets developed their own espionage genre in the 1920s with writers such as Marietta Shaginian, but the creativity came to an end during the 1930s, when depicting Soviet agents unmasking foreign plots settled into a predictable, formulaic pattern. One would think that the Soviets would have developed a vibrant espionage novel tradition, but writing about the NKVD and then the KGB was strictly controlled by the government, while probing a closed society's secrets was discouraged and sometimes punished. Although the Soviets published spy novels, they were chronologically stuck in the era of the Russian civil war, the 1920s, and then the Second World War. One exception to this rule was Yulian Semyonov, who wrote espionage fiction actually set in the time of his books' publication. …

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