My Review of The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets


The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America's Top SecretsThe Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets by Svetlana Lokhova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On October 31 2018, the Justice Department of the United States issued charges against two Chinese nationals for being intelligence operatives for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) and attempting to steal the design for a US jet engine. The two had been attempting to hack into the company computer system and steal a joint US/French jet design for a commercial engine similar to one the Chinese were developing. The Chinese had been conducting this operation for over five years. Not only did they attempt to hack the system remotely, they also convinced two Chinese nationals that worked for the company to install malware on the company systems to assist in the attempts.

At the time I was reading The Spy Who Changed History and promised a review in a week or so. This is that review. A bit late but I needed to finish the book and I hope you’ll think the wait was worth it. The reading of the book definitely was.

The activities of the MSS highlight the precarious and desirous position that American knowledge, industrial secrets, and ingenuity still hold as the pinnacle of intellectual know-how. Today the Chinese, among likely many others, risk intellectual resources and manpower as well as potential real jail time in order to gain an advantage over the US and other countries. For the Soviets, after the horror of the First World War and the shocking self inflicted damage of their own civil war, the stakes must have seemed even higher. They felt exposed and vulnerable with no allies, let alone friends, in sight. It would be in this context that a group of Soviet scientist would risk not just their own safety but what they believed was the safety of their homeland in an attempt – not in their eyes to level the playing field – to bring themselves up to parity with the rest of the world. As Svetlana Lokhova points out in her book and mentions when lecturing on this topic, Stalin himself felt the Soviets to be 100 years behind the rest of the modern world. If they failed to catch up, and catch up quickly, they faced being wiped out when the next war they knew was imminent commenced.

To these ends, a remarkable and a remarkably unremarkable man was sent to gather not just the industrial secrets but the industry itself that would save the Soviet Union. Stanislav Shumovsky was sent with a small group of Soviet scientists and engineers in 1931 to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get advanced degrees. Stan, as he was known, was a hero of the Soviet civil war and a brilliant aviation engineer and scientist in his own right. In the following years he would not only garner a degree from the prestigious university but also contacts which he would utilize to gain the clandestine knowledge his country needed in order to survive. In the process Shumovsky truly won the race for America’s top secrets. He also won the opening battles of the cold war and in the process developed the process by which the Soviet Union wound spend the next several decades mining the west for the information they needed.

Shumovskys story is fascinating, spanning the formative years of Soviet espionage through the hard fought intelligence battles of World War 2 to his culminating triumph of the Cold War; the development of both atomic weapons and the means to deliver them. However it is not just Shumovskys story. Although he plays an exceedingly large role in this missive, the story belongs to all the spies, agents, collaborators, and Soviet patriots. All these people risked their very lives sometimes, if not jail time or at least public and diplomatic embarrassment.

This is probably the primary, albeit small, issue I have with the book overall and with how Svetlana Lokhova has portrayed the overall story. This book is about more than just the singular achievements of Stanislav Shumovsky. Although I can see from a marketing perspective how focusing on a singular element of the story makes for easier comprehension. I grant also that Stanislav Shumovsky was primary in developing the system the Soviet Union used for decades. As well written as this book is and as engaging as Ms. Lokhova makes the story, it occasionally comes off as jarring when the story strays from Shumovsky as we are geared to expect this to be his story.

The only other issue I had with the book was its handling of the passage of time. With a story this complex and detailed and covering not only the nearly 20 years Shumovsky was active but also providing us back story going back another roughly 20 years, keeping proper flow is difficult. Occasionally during short passages Ms. Lokhova jumps back and forth in the timeline. This makes it difficult to keep track of where in the overall timeline a particular passage is happening or to what other event it relates. I do, however, expect very high standards in the storytelling when I read histories and historical analysis and am holding up Ms. Lokhova to the likes of Ben Macintyre. I must admit she comes very close to the mark.

With this latest revelation of espionage by the Chinese MSS, the ongoing interference in elections by the Russians, and the Saudi operations in Turkey; it would be excessive to reiterate the words of George Santayana about remembering the past. As I mentioned in my review of The Spy Net: The Greatest Intelligence Operations of the First World War, those of us who study history and unfortunately Americans in particular suffer from what Professor Christopher Andrews of Cambridge University calls H.A.D.S. or Historical Attention Deficit Syndrome. As a student of Professor Andrews, the freshman literary and historical outing of Ms. Lokhova admirably helps us remember. I look forward to seeing more work from her.

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