- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006


By William C. Fuller Jr.

Cornell University Press, $39.95, 286 pages

On March 18, 1915, Lt. Col. Sergei Nicholaevich Miasoedov appeared before a special field court-martial that had been convened in Warsaw. Standing accused of espionage on behalf of Germany, the trial was swift, lasting only a matter of hours. By the next day, without having been permitted any defense, the 49-year-old former Separate Corps of Gendarmes (Russian militarized policeforce) officer was hanged.

“In the aftermath of [Miasoedov’s] barbaric execution,” William Fuller writes, “‘spy mania’ swept the Russian Empire. The tsarist police detained scores of people, searched hundreds of apartments and confiscated thousands of pages of documents.” These arrests eventually involved the upper echelons of the Russian Empire, including Gen. V.A. Sukhomlinov, the minister of war who was arrested for espionage the following year.

Though the narrative of “The Foe Within: Fantasies of Treason and the End of Imperial Russia” revolves around the trials of Miasoedov and Sukhomlinov, Mr. Fuller’s expansive and detailed book tells a more complex story.

Mr. Fuller writes that the Miasoedov affair in particular “helped lay the groundwork for the February Revolution of 1917.” He also shows that from that case — more details of which have been brought to light since the declassification of Russian archives in the 1990s — we can learn a great deal about prevailing “popular attitudes and mentalities.”

He writes, “One of the most interesting puzzles connected with the [Miasoedov] case is that extremely flimsy evidence was received with such mass credulity … The belief that traitorous conspirators were responsible for the bulk of Russia’s misfortunes obviously satisfied some deep psychological needs.

“But the particular form that spy mania assumed in Russia during the war years was conditioned by a profound ambivalence about capitalism, by both overt and latent anti-Semitism, and by certain cultural stereotypes about women.”

He also notes that the there are “features of the Miasoedov/Sukhomlinov cases that eerily foreshadow and anticipate the legal practices that would become common in the Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, he asserts that “it would be obscene to equate the abuses perpetrated in the Miasoedov case, bad as they were, with the terror and mass murder unleashed by Stalin in the 1930s.”

“The Foe Within” is a book of remarkable breadth and detail. Part military history, part Russian history, its greatest strength rests in Mr. Fuller’s observations about human nature in a particularly tense time and place. In its pages, readers meet spies and businessmen, innocent players with shady associates, tsarist generals, war profiteers, noblemen and peasants and a cross-section of individuals who were led to their undoing by their sexual appetites.

From every strata of society anecdotes abound, but among the most interesting are those that involve the Imperial family. The spy mania that engulfed Russia at the start of World War I, it is shown, had particular implications for the monarchy and its ultimate collapse:

“Rumor had it that the court was a hotbed of Germanophiles and defeatists. The court camarilla, which contained shady financiers, sclerotic generals, and the unspeakable Rasputin, was said to have the emperor and empress in thrall to its serpentine intrigues. Some saw it as particularly sinister that Alexandra was by origin a German and that she had blood relatives in Germany, including her brother Ernest, the reigning duke of Hesse-Darmstadt. A typical joke of the time turned on the extensive skepticism about Alexandra’s true loyalties:

“The heir to the throne cries every day. When he is asked why he answers, ‘Why shouldn’t I cry? The Russians are beaten, Papa cries and I cry with him. The Germans are beaten, Mama cries and I cry with her.’”

However, as Mr. Fuller shows, suspicion, misery and blurry alliances were hardly limited to the court. Ordinary men and women — albeit with ties to the power elite — suffered. And, in an atmosphere of heightened paranoia and suspicion, simple bad behavior or dubious judgment had its cost.

A case in point involves Sukhomlinov, whose pretty young wife Ekaterina Viktorovna, brought to the elder war minister excitement but also baggage that included a failed marriage, ill health, complicated ties to Rasputin and a penchant for extravagance, allegedly “more than 100,000 rubles a year.” But as Mr. Fuller points out not all blame can be laid at the feet of the careless bride.

“Tales of Ekaterina’s excessive spending … fit too conveniently into one of the most enduring narratives spun about the Sukhomlinov affair: that, at bottom, it was the story of an officer, once honorable and upright, who was ruined in the very twilight of his life by the insane whims of his young bride. It is a story in which Sukhomlinov plays the role of the dupe and Ekaterina Viktorovna that of the ‘Dostoevskian’ woman and seductress.

“One official report drafted after Sukhomlinov’s arrest put it this way: ‘Falling under the influence of a depraved and cynical woman, he [Sukhomlinov] lived exclusively for her and for her caprices.’”

In “The Foe Within,” Mr. Fuller shows himself to be as adept at portraying and analyzing human frailties as he is at penetrating the internecine struggles of court and duma. By the end of the book, the fate of each of the principals is accounted for, some having met chilling and tragic ends, others managing to have survived.

Mr. Fuller is clear about pointing out that while not everyone was a spy in World War I Russia, there were spies. Nevertheless, little could match the fever that took hold in this particular climate, at this particular time: “Russian patriots of every tendency became obsessed with unmasking and destroying the inner foe.” And sometimes, to put it mildly, things just went too far.

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