THE EXTENT TO which the Cold War influences the thinking of my generation, now into our sixties, is remarkable. More than the ideological polarisation, it is really the hidden cloak-and-dagger stuff that continues to be a source of fascination.
It was the televised version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, first broadcast by the BBC in the autumn/winter of 1977, that got me hooked to thrillers centred on espionage. The Cold War has ended and the old Eastern Bloc is now history. Spy thrillers too have changed course and are now more concerned with the Islamist threat and cyber warfare. However, the charming innocence of the Moscow-versus-Washington encounters have an enduring charm.
I thought of the Cold War recently when I was invited to speak at a symposium on Indo-Russian ties. This was the first occasion I spoke at a seminar involving Russia and in the presence of officials from the Russian Embassy. One of the points I made was that in India there are just too many people, particularly in the political class, who view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an extension of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. They tend to carry their baggage over from their ‘progressive’ past to the present.
To me, this hangover presents a lot of problems. The Indo-Soviet ties of the past, particularly during the Indira Gandhi era, didn’t merely mean the Soviet Union coming to India’s assistance during the Bangladesh War—when the Nixon-Kissinger duo had decided to blackball India—it also meant things more sinister.
The first was the unabashed intervention of the Soviet Union—either directly or through other Warsaw Pact countries such as the German Democratic Republic, Poland or Hungary— in giving patronage to ‘progressive’ Left-leaning groups and individuals. The CPI was an extension counter of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU), even after the Comintern was abolished. But the political support extended to factions within the Congress, especially those individuals who were either anti-US or favoured greater state control of the economy.
The second sinister aspect of the old Indo-Soviet relationship was the deep penetration of Soviet intelligence in the Indian political (and, presumably, military) establishment. The magnitude of this penetration has been carefully documented by Christopher Andrew in the second volume of The Mitrokhin Archive, based on the copious notes made by Vasili Mitrokhin from the KGB archives, which, alas, are not available to scholars.
In any other country, such explosive revelations—including multi- source leaks of sensitive Cabinet papers, covert funding of the media and Soviet-funded political dirty tricks—would have triggered a political storm. Indeed, the British government, which has custody of the notes Mitrokhin smuggled to the West in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, anticipated a huge fuss. This despite the fact that Andrew was given strict instructions to not name any politician who was either still living and active or whose relationship with Soviet intelligence would have caused an unmanageable fuss.
Curiously, there was not even a whimper. I think someone raised the subject in the Lok Sabha, but the Speaker ruled that the House could not discuss a work of fiction. The media too remained inexplicably silent. It is hard to attribute a political motive to this silence since the Soviet Union was no longer in existence. I can only attribute this total lack of curiosity— the identity of some of those who fed Soviet intelligence with classified information or were ‘agents of influence’ could easily have been guessed—to professional laziness.
This is quite unlike the West, where interest in the Cold War is alive and kicking. Last week, for example, saw the publication of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre. It narrates the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB functionary who functioned as a double agent—the Soviet counterpart of the Cambridge spy Kim Philby. What Gordievsky revealed about the KGB’s methods is fascinating. But more riveting were his disclosures of British politicians who routinely supplied intelligence to Moscow and were paid for their services. The most sensational of these disclosures concern the veteran Labour Party politician Michael Foot, a man respected as both an intellectual and parliamentarian. The debate over Foot’s supposed role—whether he was really a spy or just a foolish man who didn’t mind a little extra income—is bound to throw up wonderful nuggets of information.
History can be enthralling when stories such as these find their way into the media. Why aren’t Indians similarly inquisitive?