Rife with accounts of bravery, duplicity, passion (both political and romantic), self-sacrifice, defection and outright betrayal -- with consequences ranging from humiliation to imprisonment, on occasion even death -- the meaty topic of Soviet espionage in the United States during the 1930s and '40s offers the high drama and captivating detail of an irresistibly intriguing book. "The Haunted Wood" is not that book.
In 1993, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR, a KGB successor agency) contractually granted historian Allen Weinstein, founder and president of the Center for Democracy in Washington, along with expatriate Russian journalist Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent, access to previously unavailable Stalin-era Soviet intelligence files. Permitted to transcribe documents but not to remove them from SVR grounds, the authors made more than two dozen visits to Moscow between 1994 and 1996 gathering the material they present in "The Haunted Wood." The time they spent honing this material appears to have been considerably less.
As history, the book is valuable in terms of the sheer amount of previously classified data it cites. But the organization of all this data is haphazard and difficult to track. Names, dates, facts and figures are sprayed at the reader like a sneeze. Historically prominent undercover operatives -- Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers or Elizabeth Bentley, for example -- are discussed with no greater or lesser emphasis than a number of players on the Communist fringe. Whereas the somber saga of atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is dismissed in a few pages -- with the account of their 1953 execution coming in a footnote! -- an entire chapter, melodramatically titled "Double Agent/Hollywood Hustler: The Case of Boris Morros," is devoted to the puerile machinations of a self-serving, Russian-born U.S. film-industry flunky whose "espionage" activities were inspired not so much by Marxist dedication as by a desire to promote his show-business career.
Ironically, the historical circumstance that allowed Weinstein and Vassiliev to write their book -- the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. -- is precisely the phenomenon that robs their research of much of its vitality. Without the matrix of a Red Scare to provide dramatic tension, the specifics of so many of the Stalin-era Communist spy maneuvers seem prime-time-TV slight. Two undercover operatives identify each other at a prearranged public place on the basis of a yellow pencil one of them has placed, per orders, between two blue ones in his pocket and a copy of a Bennett Cerf book the other carries under his arm; imagine how much more colorful such a disclosure would have seemed had it been made while the Cold War was hot.
Still, for serious students of U.S.-Soviet relations, "The Haunted Wood" contains nuggets of raw information unobtainable anywhere else. For an interpretation or a humanization of these nuggets, however, wait for another book -- John Le Carri this ain't.