The only time in my life I got a job I didn’t apply for was at midnight and I was in my nightgown.
It’s not what you think.
In 1989, my family and I lived in Moscow when it was still the USSR. My husband, the first Voice of America correspondent to be sent to the Soviet Union, was on the phone with an ABC News friend to discuss an article they both had time to file. Our friend told Andre that he and the other bureau correspondent were so overwhelmed by the tsunami of news they had to cover that they were looking for a radio correspondent so they could both focus on TV reporting .
“Do you think Ellen would be interested?” He asked. “She already has a work permit.”
“Ask him,” my husband said. “I’m going to take her.”
And so at midnight, I got out of bed and went into the kitchen for a job interview over the phone, sort of. It didn’t matter that my only experience in radio journalism was having been married to a radio journalist: the bureau chief in Moscow persuaded the bosses in New York to hire me anyway and suddenly I was the resident freelancer – freelancer – for ABC Radio News, the largest radio network in the United States.
The hours were crazy, the work was non-stop, but it was exciting, and I loved it. However, I had never wanted to move to Russia. It was André’s dream mission, VOA had always wanted him in Moscow, and these things worried me. In fact, they terrified me because my husband spoke perfect Russian thanks to a Ukrainian grandmother and a Russian grandfather who narrowly managed to escape to France when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. The great André’s father, a naval officer, had been captain of the yacht belonging to Tsar Nicolas II who, with his family, would later be brutally executed.
But my real concern was this: three years earlier, Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist US and world news Report, who spoke fluent Russian like my husband and had family ties to pre-revolutionary Russia, like my husband, had been arrested by the KGB, charged with espionage and detained in Lefortovo prison for a fortnight. Daniloff claimed the papers found on him had been covered up, but the incident escalated into a top-level international crisis involving multiple tit-for-tat deportations by the US and USSR that lasted for years. .
And here we were moving to Moscow.
Could André be accused of espionage if he, for example, reported a story that the Soviets did not like and wanted to retaliate? You bet. Being a journalist was already considered easy cover for a spy. Moreover, our arrival did not go unnoticed: a journalist from one of the Moscow newspapers interviewed André and a photographer took a picture of us with our three young children in front of our hotel a few days after our arrival. The story and photo landed on the front page.
Our time in Moscow came to an abrupt end in December 1990 when André contracted a rare but reversible – and life-threatening – paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome after returning from a trip to kyiv. (Some people still believe the Sovs played a part in what happened to him, but we’ll never know, and we gave up years ago). Back in the United States, while he was recovering in Walter Reed military hospital and we were trying to rebuild our lives, I knew I wanted to write about our time in Russia. The place had gotten under my skin and I wondered if anyone would believe the fever dream that had been our life there: the appalling poverty and repression, the creeps of being constantly spied on, how we have learned to accept things that would seem quite bizarre in the West as normal life in Moscow. A New York agent scribbled a note at the bottom of his denial letter: Dial it. You’ll have better luck with fiction.
I ended up writing Moscow nights while we were in London, our next post overseas; it was published in 2000 in Great Britain. Although I made up the story of an American journalist who arrives in Moscow to find that her colleague and ex-lover has been murdered after stumbling upon a plot to steal a priceless and supposedly lost ancient painting looted by the Soviets in World War II, everything else in this book is true because it is taken directly from my diary. A few years ago the book was reprinted in the United States; Twenty-two years later, it almost feels like a historical mystery about a place that no longer exists.
Today, as the world is horrified and fascinated by the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the evil perpetrated by one man who has the potential to start World War III, I wonder when – not if – writers are going to do what we’ve always done: write about it. There is already a rich and deep mine of spy novels written and set during the Cold War, as well as a growing number of books with newer settings as Russia and the United States still play the spy game. cat and mouse, just like we’ve always done. Moreover, I don’t think we will ever cease to be fascinated by the country that Winston Churchill called “an enigma, shrouded in mystery, inside an enigma” as well as “an impenetrable and threatening land which plays by its own rules.
In addition to spy classics by John LeCarré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, and Jack Higgins—and yes, I know I’m omitting a bunch of names—here are some newer books and some old favorites.
red widow by Alma Katsu
The must-have spy novel by CIA insider Katsu is the story of two female CIA agents whose paths cross when one of them is tasked with finding a mole inside the Agency’s Russia division. Katsu also deftly explores the harrowing and harrowing choices that come with a life of secrets, lies, and, at times, betrayal. Already in pre-production for a TV series with Fox.
The secrets we kept by Lara Prescott
A terrific thriller that earned an Edgar nomination for Best First Novel and was inspired by the true story of a CIA conspiracy. Irina, a Russian-American secretary in the Agency’s typing pool, is tasked with smuggling the greatest love story of the 20th century, that of Boris Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago—in Soviet Russia where it had been banned. Mentored by a glamorous and experienced CIA agent, the two women become involved in unexpected ways, but also once again prove the powerful belief that there are books that can change the world.
Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva
When a pro-Western Russian journalist with information about a ruthless oligarch’s plans to sell Russia’s most sophisticated weapons to al-Qaeda is murdered, Israeli spy/assassin-art restorer Gabriel Allon surrenders. in Moscow. Determined to prevent the deal from coming to fruition, Allon’s fast-paced international search takes him to Europe and Russia in search of information on the time and place of the delivery in order to avoid the worst terrorist attacks. murderers since September 11.
The Red Sparrow Trilogy (Red Sparrow, Palace of Treason, Kremlin Candidate) by Jason Matthews
Set in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Matthews – a 33-year-old CIA veteran who died in 2021 – weaves the story of Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy and trained seductress (a sparrow) who is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash , a CIA officer stationed in Moscow. The two begin a passionate affair and eventually Dominika begins a double life, working for the CIA and turning against her hated masters. Putin – whom Matthews called a great character whose goals are the stuff of spy novels – is a recurring character. red sparrow won an Edgar for best first novel and was made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence. Matthews’ years of experience and extensive knowledge of espionage have prompted comparisons with John LeCarré and Ian Fleming; The New York Times wrote that his books were “an introduction to 21st century espionage.”
The House of Russia by John LeCarre
This book has a special meaning for me because the movie with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer was shot while we lived in Moscow (including a scene that took place in the hotel where we lived) and perfectly captures the dull life and gray of that time. . Barley Blair becomes an unwitting spy for British intelligence when he attends the Moscow Book Fair and is pressured to find out if a manuscript given to him by Katya, a beautiful woman he eventually falls in love with, contains the truth – that the author has nuclear secrets that he is willing to share with the West.
The Charm School by Nelson DeMille
A few days after we arrived in Moscow, a journalist friend handed me this book and I read it – by mistake – in the evening before going to sleep, scaring myself to death wondering what was or could be true. . In the woods outside of Moscow there is a sinister place known as “The Charm School” where American prisoners of war teach KGB agents how to be model American citizens in order to infiltrate our country by as undetected spies. When three Americans – an Air Force officer, a young woman in charge of liaison with the American Embassy and a CIA chief – set out to find out the truth about what is happening in the Borodino woods , they are caught by the Soviets who run the place. I won’t spoil the surprise ending. Do not read the book before going to bed.
The inconvenient journalist – A memoir by Dusko Doder with Louise Branson
The only non-fiction book on this list and, full disclosure, Doder and Branson (husband and wife) are lifelong friends. The poignant account of a night in 1984 when Doder, an acclaimed Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, reconstructed signs from the Kremlin that Soviet Communist Party leader Yuri Andropov was dead. Doder was the first to report the story, which the CIA dismissed, but when it was later discovered to be true, people wondered how any journalist could manage to pick up the most successful spy agency. largest and most sophisticated in the world. Finally, a story insinuated by the CIA in Time The magazine claimed that Doder, who had emigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia, had been co-opted by the KGB. Although he fought Time in court, Doder’s working life fell apart and he never worked anywhere again. Critics describe the book as a thriller, but it’s also a well-written meditation on one man’s unwavering belief that the truth must be told regardless of the sometimes excruciating cost and price that might be demanded.