This is the KGB travel operation ... spy me
In from the cold: Now they are no longer spreading the communist web old agents have turned to revealing their secrets
But the most bizarre book of the season, which was launched with a signing ceremony at the Moskva book shop this week, has to be The KGB's Travel Guide to the Cities of the World.
For decades, KGB agents were among the very few Soviet citizens privileged enough to experience life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Now, seven retired spies offer their tips on how to dress, where to eat and what to see to a new generation of Russians who are about to travel abroad.
The book, published with the permission of the Lubyanka, headquarters of the security services now called the FSB, is light-hearted and gives away no real secrets. Former agents in Paris, Rome, London, Cairo, New York, Mexico City and Bangkok simply recount anecdotes from their days in the field.
For a travel guide, the book is short on maps and pictures. But it costs only 19,500 roubles (pounds 3), well within the reach of ordinary Russians, most of whom are armchair travellers as their meagre salaries do not stretch to foreign jaunts.
The section on Cairo is introduced by Lev Bausin, who appears in a passport photograph looking unmistakably Soviet despite his disguise of Arab headgear. Mikhail Brazhelonov reminisces about the wonderful moules a la provencale he ate in Paris, but advises his fellow Russians to seek their restaurants away from the Montmartre area because it is overrun with noisy tourists.
His colleague in New York, Oleg Brykin, had a harder time. He remembers that his KGB allowance was so small that he had to take sandwiches with him on a train trip to Chicago. On another occasion, he nearly got eaten himself when he went to meet an agent by the lions' cage at the Bronx Zoo, only to discover this was a park where the animals roamed freely.
For British readers, of course, the most interesting chapter is Mikhail Lyubimov's memoir of his time in London in the early 1960s before he was expelled for "activities incompatible with his diplomatic status". After that, his career went from bad to worse, as he was the careless controller of the spy Oleg Gordievsky who spectacularly defected to Britain in 1985. But Colonel Lyubimov, who has already helped to supplement his meagre KGB pension by publishing one book of memoirs, looks back on it all with a gentle humour.
In order to contribute to the guidebook, he was allowed to return to Britain and he goes down memory lane with an old friend identified only as Chris from Hampstead. The two are riding into central London from Heathrow Airport. "Do you know who you've got in the back of the cab?" Chris asks the Scottish taxi driver. "He's a former KGB colonel, a dangerous spy who in his time recruited Tories left and right."
"Good on yer," says the driver. "Those damned Tories have ruined the country."
"Poor people from the north of England do not like the Tories," Colonel Lyubimov explains to his readers. "I felt very satisfied; I did not work in vain."
The colonel returns to all his old haunts, including Hyde Park where he used to chat up British women, passing himself off as a Swede. He visits the House of Commons and describes the debates there, which once thrilled him, as tame in comparison with the fist fights in today's Russian parliament.
Chris wants to take him to the musical, Les Miserables, but he says he has had his fill of revolutions and prefers to eat fish and chips, the best of an otherwise dull British cuisine, and go to pubs.
In the Sherlock Holmes pub on Baker Street he advises vodka-drinking Russians to persevere with whisky as it will reward them in the end. "Scottish whisky demands patience," he says. "It's like learning to love Richard Strauss. When you acquire the taste, you will go from Johnny Walker to the single malts."
The only piece of trade-craft that Colonel Lyubimov reveals is that Harrods is an excellent place to lose anyone who might be following you because it is crowded and has many entrances, exits, emergency exits and changing rooms. But he advises against shoplifting there. Because of the threat of Irish bombs, he says, the shop is as riddled with security personnel as a "cake is stuffed with raisins".
Colonel Lyubimov, who confesses to a "strange love for England", is, in many ways, more English than the average contemporary English person, although he mistakes Dr Samuel Johnson for a "great Victorian" in his section on the famous Cheshire Cheese pub off Fleet Street.
The colonel goes shopping to replenish his wardrobe with his favourite flannel trousers and tweed jacket, constantly quotes T S Eliot as he wanders the streets of London, and expresses nostalgia for empire - not only Soviet, but British too.
Some of the new Russians disturb him in his hotel. One asks him in broken English if she can borrow money until the next morning to continue her gambling. He replies in his best Oxford accent that he only has a credit card on him.
"Leave him alone," says the woman's husband. "Can't you see that he's just a mean Englishman?"
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