Monday, 16 February 2009

LIT (Non-Fiction): Peter Konstantinov - 'London Days, Moscow Nights'

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and a thawing of relations between East and West, the Spy Memoir has become a popular genre. Peter Konstantinov's book enters this particular corner of the marketplace under an appropriately deceptive guise - at first glance it seems a straightforward tale of espionage but it is in fact something rather stranger.

Peter Konstantinov left Vladivostok for Great Britain at a young age during the 1950s, fleeing Stalin's regime. At that point he was Pyotr Konstantinov but the family name was altered to Constantine in an effort to integrate better into the notoriously xenophobic British society of the time. Although arriving in the country with limited means they thrived in post-war Norwich and eventually young Peter Constantine was offered a place to study Philosophy at Oxford University.

It was there that representatives of MI5 approached the student. They knew of his origins and decided that if he could infiltrate Soviet intelligence services he might make a fitting double agent. Peter Constantine leapt at the chance and within a short time "Pyotr Konstantinov" found himself in Moscow as a British mole in the KGB.

Here is where the story becomes interesting: the KGB, not knowing of his prior commitments, were impressed on numerous assignments by their new agent's mastery of the English language and knowledge of British culture and decided that Konstantinov might become an excellent asset within the British intelligence services. "Peter Constantine" was sent to London soon after.

It appears that at this point the now confused and conflicted spy's personality underwent a drastic tearing in twain: at times he was Pyotr Konstantinov, KGB inside man in London and at others he was Peter Constantine, British agent undercover in Russia. He fulfilled both posts to his superiors' admiration, passing information back and forth and pursuing intricate operation of espionage and counter-espionage that at times resulted in stalemate, second-guessing and thwarting his own manoeuvres to the frustration of both sides. Both agencies came to the conclusion that there must be a leak in their midst and ordered Constantine/Konstantinov to deal with it. Part two of the book ends with Konstantinov in Russia planning a hit and assembling his team, after which they travel to London and storm Constantine's apartment in Baker Street to find he is nowhere to be seen. Realisation dawns and an almost farcical scene ensues with the young spy rushing about the place like a rumbled politician, hiding several framed photographs depicting the target and slamming a door in a surprised neighbour's face so that she might not inadvertently blow his cover. Afterwards in Moscow there is a similar incident in which Constantine riggs Konstantinov's car with a bomb that the latter later discovers ashen-faced and with the utterance "We must be dealing with a real professional here. Damn that Constantine".

Although at times difficult to follow the book is undoubtedly a gripping exposé of the machinations of the intelligence community but it is at its most powerful as a depiction of a man utterly divided to the core.

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