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Be forewarned that this book can be tedious reading at times. Mr. Birstein has long riffs on the Soviet security services both before and after the brief life of SMERSH. While the unconventional sexual activities of such spy bosses as Lavrenti Beria and Genrich Yagoda make for salacious reading, they seem rather remote from the subject at hand. Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile read.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover, 2012).