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Posted August 31, 2008
Mesmerizing thriller--but so much more....
If you like LeCarre and Alan Furst, this is for you. All the drama and turns of a spy thriller, but one big difference: the story of the life--and death--of Cy Oggins is true. It must be one of the most bizarre, and important tales from history of US-Soviet relations.
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Posted February 1, 2010
Posted December 5, 2009
Thrills and Closure
Robin Oggins, 70 years old in 2001, was on the eve of retirement from a teaching career in New York when he heard from the author. During that first (telephone) conversation, Robin told Meier, "This is the call I've been waiting for my whole life." (p 9) Robin had not seen his father since 1938, in Paris, when Isaiah left his wife and seven-year old son for the last time. (p 12) Within a year, Isaiah would be arrested in Moscow, forced to serve an eight-year sentence for a crime he did not commit, and horrifically exterminated by direct order of Stalin in 1947.
Andrew Meier's moving narrative is structured in an interesting way and one more often seen in motion pictures than books. He presents chronologically (Isaiah's birth, childhood, school years, etc.) but then he "interrupts" the background with the first of a four part story series on the ill-fated years following Oggins arrest. The first story-Oggins time at the Lubyanka prison---is followed by more elaborate and surprisingly detailed accounts of his time at the Norilsk gulag, the Butyrka prison and his execution. Meier reconstructed these crucial years by conducting interviews with survivors and/or their children and delving into the government archives of the United States, China, England, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Russia and Switzerland. He even includes copies of some of the key documents. The National Security Agency documents (of the United States) included coded/decoded messages, but the truly shocking documents came from the various Russian agencies. It is hard for any American over the age of 25 to conceive of such Soviet forthrightness. (Verily, though, many of the documents were missing words or even whole phrases.) To American spectators of the Cold War or even its détente and final dissolution, the former Soviet Union (especially under Josef Stalin!) was a monolithic monster; an evil empire. What on earth could compel a young, bright, American* man to leave his home and his family and become a spy for the Soviets? (*Oggins, though the child of Russian immigrants, was born in the United States and never renounced his American citizenship.)
Meier attempts to answer that question by recreating the world in which Oggins grew. He carefully chronicles Oggins years in the small mill town of Willimantic, Connecticut. Like so many other mill towns across the United States in early part of the 20th century, labor unrest reflected the unseemly face of industry while revealing the growing attractiveness of socialism and communism. Oggins, as a very impressionable young man, came of age precisely as labor struggles reached his humble town. When he later studied at Columbia in New York, he met, associated with and befriended others who, like he, supported the great Communist ideal: the Comintern. Oggins even married a woman of the cause. Nerma enthusiastically joined her husband as an agent of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. They, like so many other Communist devotees in Europe, were part of an elaborate spy network, shuffling information (on every conceivable level) back to Moscow. However, when Nerma gave birth to their only child, a son they named Robin, she returned to the United States and essentially "retired." Isaiah, on his own, continued as a spy for the Soviet Union and spent years in France and China. It was during a trip to Moscow in 1939 that he was arrested by the very people he had been serving. Meier presents a comp
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Posted January 21, 2011
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