WWII has ended But the danger has just begun for a spy caught between political superpowers.
Paris, November 1945. John Russell is walking home along the banks of the Seine on a cold and misty evening when Soviet agent Yevgeny Shchepkin falls into step alongside him. Shchepkin tells Russell that the American intelligence will soon be asking him to undertake some low grade espionage on their behalf - assessing the strains between different sections of the German Communist Party - and that Shchepkin's own bosses in Moscow want him to accept the task and pass his findings on to them. He adds that refusal will put Russell's livelihood and life at risk, but that once he has accepted it, he'll find himself even further entangled in the Soviet net. It's a lose-lose situation.
Shchepkin admits that his own survival now depends on his ability to utilize Russell. The only way out for the two of them is to make a deal with the Americans. If they can come up with something the Americans want or need badly enough, then perhaps Russell will be forgiven for handing German atomic secrets over to Moscow and Shchepkin might be offered the sort of sanctuary that also safeguards the lives of his wife and daughter in Moscow. Every decision Russell makes now is a dangerous one.
14 December 1943
This night train was not like the one that had brought her to Berlin all those years ago. You could walk down that train, stare out of the wide corridor windows, move from carriage to carriage, eat dinner in one set up as a restaurant. This train was just a series of self-contained rooms, each with a pair of long seats and two doors to the outside world.
Their room had been full when they left Berlin. There were herself and Leon, two elderly men wearing old-fashioned collars, a woman and her almost grown-up daughter, and two Hitlerjugend on their way home from their annual convention. Baldur von Schirach himself had presented the medals they'd won in a Reich-wide orienteering contest.
So far their papers had only been checked the once, during the long stop at Frankfurt an der Oder. Two drenched officials had come in from the pelting rain, dripped on all the proffered documents, and grumbled their way back again. Hers had survived a dozen inspections in Berlin, ...
This is not a heartening look at post-war Europe by any means. Nor is it a reassuring view of war, period. And at times characterization and plot take a back seat to setting the scene of the abject devastation of people's lives, friends, family and homes. So, has Downing written a novel or an anti-war polemic? Maybe it is a little of each. For many of us, recent wars have waged nearly invisible damage on our everyday lives; perhaps Downing's work is intended to deliver the feel if not the reality close to mind. He succeeds.
(Reviewed by Donna Chavez).
Downing's portrait of post-World War II Europe highlights the wrangling that took place between political and economic leaders over who would get domain of which pieces of land, all rendered nearly unrecognizable by bombs. Indeed, history has told us that even during the thickest action of the world war these leaders kept themselves busy strategizing about what kind of post-war Europe would be in each entity's best favor. Thus, once a treaty was signed, all that was left, as they say, was the shouting. But while the dust settled, all was chaos. As freelance journalist Paula Fox writes in her memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005):
The cold [in 1946 Warsaw] was so intense that like many others I took to wearing...
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