The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Cold War fiction, Russian villains haunted our imagination. Now they look almost quaint.


When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, espionage fiction lost its most reliable villains. No other society was so invested with espionage (a long, dark history stretching back to the czars) and no other intelligence agency as feared (and successful) as the KGB. With their passing, the Cold War novel had seemingly lost its raison d’etre. Writers moved on to other trouble spots. Even John le Carré, who virtually invented the Cold War spy novel, looked for stories in Africa, Panama, the Caucasus. But no ground was as fertile for espionage fiction as Russia, no adversary as worthy as the KGB. And now they were gone.

Except they didn’t go. Russia became a diminished power in every other way, but espionage was built into its DNA, and the KGB, whatever its initials, continued to make mischief, often in melodramatic ways (poison, no less). The golden period of penetrating the highest corridors of power in London and Washington, of moles and double agents and atomic secrets, may have ended but the Cold War, even on life support, kept going.

Updates from the war in Ukraine

Ironically it was Vladimir Putin, having done so much to keep it alive, who finally closed the chapter on the Cold War by turning it hot. With the invasion of Ukraine, we have clearly entered a new, dangerous and wildly unpredictable era of East-West relations, the old norms and rules of the game just so much dust. What happens when villains turn real, posturing face-offs become actual tank attacks? There’s no telling what fiction this new war may inspire but it won’t be the old cat-and-mouse intrigue that played so well before. Central and Eastern Europe are no longer a chess board, agents no longer pawns. And yet the appeal of Cold War fiction lingers. The Cold War is the devil we know and it still holds a powerful grip on our imaginations. All these years later, why are we drawn to these stories?

When Russia was the villain: How this moment echoes the era of Cold War spy novels and ‘Rocky IV’

There is always, of course, the temptation of revisionist history, the chance to finally get things right. We can see more clearly after a battle than when we’re in it. But the Cold War is the recent past, not settled history, and its failings and even absurdities were recognized at the time. It’s true that for many writers there is the familiarity of the world they knew growing up, but this is hardly a case of nostalgia for a simpler, more comforting time. One of the hallmarks of the Cold War novel is that it takes place in the gray, morally ambiguous space between black and white. There are no simple answers. The hero is often in crisis, his personal life a mess, his job a pile-on of compromises and ethical short-cuts, his loyalties strained and wavering. But it’s precisely these pressures and contradictions that make this material so rich for fiction. The Cold War gave spies a complexity — and a prominence — they would never have again. They were the ground troops, proxy soldiers, risking capture, even death, in the field, all the while increasingly uncertain that the war they were fighting was the one they wanted to fight — or that it could be won.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

This is inherently dramatic stuff, subject to as many variations as there are people, and it came at a time when the troubled agent had the stage to himself, before he became an adjunct to technology. There is a curious charm now to seeing Cold War tech — the listening devices, the bulky recorders, the invisible ink — because it seems to come out of another century (as, of course, it does). At the old Stasi headquarters in Berlin, once the most feared place in the city, the tech exhibits feel designed for children. But for novelists that means they’re also easily understood. How many of us really know how cyberattacks work? We can write about the effect, but how they’re engineered? The Cold War was the last great era of human intelligence. Like the best of its fiction, it was character-driven. Tradecraft may have been primitive — the dead letter drop, the briefcase exchange — but it was more dramatic, more personal, than watching a screen.

How to read Vladimir Putin

Even more important, though, is the role of ideology. There’s a lot at stake in Cold War stories because the characters are often acting out of conviction. Spies betray their friends, their country, not for the money, but for what they see as a higher cause. Recruited in the 1930s, when communism could seem a solution, some of the most famous Cold War spies served their KGB controls almost as an act of faith, communism their secular religion. And as with any religion, this opens up a host of dramatic situations — of apostasy and betrayal, doubt and disillusion. None of them ever recanted. Kim Philby remained devoted to the end (though his loyalty was more to the KGB than to the Party). Klaus Fuchs defended Party dogma even as the Party was turning his East Germany into the surveillance state par excellence. Of course we can never know what they really thought. But isn’t that why we have fiction? To speculate, to get into somebody else’s shoes, try to determine our own moral boundaries.

In ‘The Spy and the Traitor,’ a tale of Cold War espionage that’s both thrilling and true

It’s not surprising that writers want to be part of the literary tradition the Cold War fostered — when you’re in the world of Graham Greene or le Carré, you’re in good company. And it’s useful for the genre to examine how we got here. History may not repeat itself, but it can have a powerful echo. Still, what now? If the Cold War as we knew it is really over, espionage fiction will inevitably become less Eurocentric and turn elsewhere for its inspiration. And where better than China, a rich, adversarial society with its own love of the clandestine, its determination to dominate the new century. There must be hundreds of stories waiting, maybe even a new golden age for espionage fiction. But that, of course, depends on what the Russians do next.

Joseph Kanon is the internationally best-selling author of 10 novels, most recently the Cold War thriller “The Berlin Exchange.”

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.