- - Friday, December 27, 2019

Ben Macintyre, a columnist for the London Times and the author of “The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal,” and other fine books on spies and espionage, wrote about a Russian GRU (military intelligence) assassination group operating in Europe that is the descendant of the Soviet assassination organization SMERSH, the counterintelligence unit that inspired Ian Fleming.

“If the idea of a ruthless spy-killing unit sounds like the stuff of fiction, that’s because it became precisely that,” Ben Macintyre wrote in his Times column. “In the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming portrayed Smersh (director of operations: Rosa Klebb) as a massive counterintelligence network that more closely resembled the KGB.”

Ben Macintyre wrote that the real SMERSH was effective in not only murdering Soviet traitors (some of whom were undoubtedly innocent, he noted), but SMERSH also instilled terror among potential enemies and enforced obedience in Soviet citizens.

“And now it is back, with a new name and a new remit but essentially the same purpose: to put the fear of God, and assassination, into Russia’s enemies, traitors and deserters,” Mr. Macintyre wrote. “According to intelligence sources, Unit 29155 is an elite sub-unit of GRU assassins that operated out of the Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, conducting a variety of wet jobs across Europe: notably the attempted poisoning in Salisbury of GRU officer-turned-MI6 spy Sergei Skripal, and the attempt to kill a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015.”

In Ian Fleming’s classic 1957 thriller “From Russia With Love,” James Bond was the target of a SMERSH plot to assassinate him and discredit British intelligence in a scandal. SMERSH sent out from Russia a psychopath assassin named Red Grant to kill Bond. Ian Fleming admitted that his plots were fantastic, but he also said they often lifted the tip of the veil to reveal the real world of espionage. 

Heidi Blake’s “From Russia With Blood” (a clever take on Ian Fleming’s “From Russia With Love” title), lifts the veil off a series of murders in the United Kingdom and places blame squarely on Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Ms. Blake, formerly assistant editor of the British Sunday Times (where Ian Fleming also worked years before), is the global investigations editor at BuzzFeed News and oversees an award-winning team in the U.K. and the United States. Her team’s investigation into Russian assassinations in the West was named a Pulitzer finalist in 2018.

In the foreword to her book, she explains how she flew to New York in 2014 to meet the BuzzFeed News investigations editor, Mark Schoofs. She was meeting the editor to discuss setting up an investigative unit at BuzzFeed’s’ U.K. office.

“I came carrying a newspaper clipping containing the first clues to a mystery I hoped the new team might solve,” Ms. Blake writes. “It described how a multimillionaire property tycoon had plunged to his death from the fourth-floor window of a London town house a few days earlier — becoming the latest in a group of men, including the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who had all died under bizarre circumstances. I was fascinated by what lay behind this expanding web of death at the heart of London — and so was Mark.”     

Ms. Blake goes on to note that as she was setting up the team, she received a call from the ex-wife of the tycoon who died in the fall.

“Her ex-husband had been murdered, she said, and by coincidence she wanted my new team to investigate. More serendipitously still, she was sitting on a large trove of documents detailing the activities of her ex-husband and his associates in the years before their untimely deaths.”

The author traces how a privileged few benefitted from the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and gobbled up the state-run utilities and companies at mostly rigged auctions and became oligarch billionaires. The author also traces the upward trajectory of a workaday KGB officer named Vladimir Putin who became a deputy mayor and later rose to become the leader of Russia.

The Russian government forged a partnership with Russian organized crime and the favored oligarchs, enriching the selected few. But as some oligarchs fell out of Mr. Putin’s favor, some were arrested and imprisoned, some died mysteriously, and some left Russia with their millions and moved to London. One such oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, attempted to undermine Mr. Putin from London. This did not end well for him. Nor did it end well for a former KGB/FSB officer who worked with the oligarch.       

“From Russia With Blood” is a well-written and well-researched book that reads like a thriller.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

• • •


By Heidi Blake

Mulholland Books, $15.99, 336 pages

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