Spy vs. Spy: 15 Books on the Shadowy Past of Russia-US Relations

As a little kid, the Russian who intimidated me the most showed up on TV on Saturday mornings: Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale were the two Russian agents who schemed against Rocky the Squirrel. As I got older, I became aware of nuclear weapons and the fact that the Soviets and Americans had thousands of them pointed at one another, and that growing up in a town where Defense contracts were filled made us a “prime target.”

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, a lot of those fears went away, until America found a new nemesis: an abstract noun called “terror.” But with the resignation of Michael Flynn as one of this nation’s top security advisers due to a conversation with the Russians he failed to disclose, images of Boris and Natasha have moved into my head. If the implications were not deadly serious, the fecklessness of the current administration would be funny.

But if the resignation of Michael Flynn has pulled up cartoon characters in my imagination, the latest news – that the Russians tested a Cruise missile, a violation of a 1987 treaty – has intensified old fears I haven’t felt in a while.

It seems like a good time to take a look at the history of the spy agencies for the U.S. and Russia. The following books offer some general history, but also look at specific moments when moles were discovered and treachery uncovered.

  • The cover of the book The Soviet Century

    The Soviet Century

    Lewin is considered to be the best historian of the U.S.S.R. living outside of the former nation, and in The Soviet Century he picks apart multiple threads binding together its history. Lewin begins by examining the two separate systems of Lenin and Stalin, and how they collided with Lenin’s death and Stalin’s ascension. “Lenin aimed to steer Bolshevism back towards its origins in European social democracy. Stalin intended to build an all-powerful superstate, unitary and authoritarian.” Lewin mounts provocative arguments about how the USSR may have survived the revolutions of the 1980s — a sort of “what if” kind of history based on certain characters in Soviet history (such as Andropov) not dying premature deaths.

  • The cover of the book Legacy of Ashes

    Legacy of Ashes

    The History of the CIA

    Weiner blows the cover for the whole CIA, arguing that its history is a “litany of failure.” In Legacy of Ashes he paints a picture of a seriously overestimated and glorified department that has failed repeatedly in its mission to provide valuable security information to U.S. leaders. The reviewer at the CIA was not impressed by the rave reviews the book has garnered elsewhere: “Starting with a title that is based on a gross distortion of events, the book is a 600-page op-ed piece masquerading as serious history; it is the advocacy of a particularly dark point of view under the guise of scholarship. Weiner has allowed his agenda to drive his research and writing, which is, of course, exactly backwards.”

  • The cover of the book Spy


    The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America

    In the time that Robert Hanssen worked for the FBI, he turned over the names of fifty “human sources or recruitment targets,” leading to the arrest or deaths of those people. While many books have been written about the mole, Hanssen allowed Wise access to his psychiatrist, giving Wise insights into Hanssen’s character. Wise writes with authority on the multiple operations that were in play while Hanssen was selling out his country.

  • The cover of the book The Billion Dollar Spy

    The Billion Dollar Spy

    A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

    For years, the CIA had trouble getting agents to work in Moscow. Terrified of being discovered, they had few volunteers. Then Adolf Tolkachev stepped forward, and for six years he provided American intelligence with invaluable information. The Air Force estimated that just for its department alone, his intelligence had saved the Air Force two billion dollars. Tolkachev was driven by revenge, and Hoffman gives readers a classic — and true — spy story.

  • The cover of the book Command and Control

    Command and Control

    Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

    For those of us who came of age during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real. During the Reagan presidency, the rattling of swords was distracting, and the famous story of Reagan rehearsing a radio address by joking around that we were about to bomb Russia did little to settle us down. Schlosser tells the story of nuclear accidents that occurred as the U.S. built up its forces against the Soviets.

    In South Carolina, a family was treated after a nuclear bomb fell from a plane. The bomb failed to detonate, but they were burned by the explosives that were supposed to have caused a chain reaction. Schlosser’s book serves as a warning about how “out of control” the “command and control” of nuclear weapons really is. Sometimes, flocks of birds or balloons have set off alarms designed to monitor when Soviet missiles had been launched at the U.S., testing just how “fail safe” the system really was.

  • The cover of the book Cassidy's Run

    Cassidy's Run

    The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas

    Two agents died while tailing a University of Minnesota professor. The story was kept hush-hush; to reveal the details would have broken open a decades-long spy mission that went back to the Cold War. Nerve gas was at the center of a story known only to POTUS, his National Security Advisor, and just a few other people.

  • The cover of the book The Main Enemy

    The Main Enemy

    The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB

    The New York Times argued that if there were a book out there that revealed more secrets about the CIA, “it would be classified.” For those wondering exactly how spies outwitted spies, the answers lie in this book, which details how those who were being followed could throw their tails off their scent as well as how to ferret out the moles who worked in the CIA and sold secrets to the Soviets.

  • The cover of the book Deception


    Lucas believes that the west does not take the Russian spy system seriously enough. He details the complexity of its operations, and focuses on how its spy network was able to place agent Anna Chapman in the west without detection, and how it took years for Chapman to have her cover blown.

  • The cover of the book The Man Without a Face

    The Man Without a Face

    The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

    Fans of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” will be familiar with no-nonsense Russian journalist Masha Gessen. Many of us believe that Vladimir Putin must have been a maverick at the KGB; turns out, he started there at an incredibly boring desk job. Gessen argues that Putin becomes what people project him to be. He doesn’t have a real face. But she also addresses one of the great problems in Russian politics: despite his unpopularity with the Russian middle class, there is little they can do to push him out of power.

  • The cover of the book Code Warriors

    Code Warriors

    NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union

    While Alan Turing and his team of code breakers at Bletchley Park have been celebrated in book and film, the code breakers who worked for the U.S. government in the same time period is relatively unknown. Thanks to Budiansky’s book, the covert code breaking that the U.S. practiced on Soviet correspondence with the Japanese during World War II is brought to thrilling life. Budiansky also examines the activities of Edward Snowden, and explains the latest theories of encryption and breaking codes.

  • The cover of the book Red Spy Queen

    Red Spy Queen

    When someone from the C.I.A. itself reviews a book, it might be time to educate yourself about Elizabeth Bentley. Bentley met with Soviet spies for years in the 1940s. The NKVD called her “Smart Girl,” but when they started pressuring her, Bentley went to the FBI for help. Bentley did it to save her own skin — she was able to offer her services as an informer, instead of being executed as a spy. What makes Bentley’s case even more interesting in this age of “alternative facts” is that she became a consummate liar, using her skills at prevarication to point the finger at others while covering up her own role in illegal activities.

  • The cover of the book Executing the Rosenbergs

    Executing the Rosenbergs

    Were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg guilty of passing along secrets about nuclear weapons to the Soviets? As the U.S. government prepared to execute them for treason, protesters across the globe demanded that the Rosenbergs be spared, arguing that their conviction was the result of anti-communist hysteria, rather than a trial based on the rules of evidence. Clune intended to write a different book, but wrote “this one” about the Rosenbergs when she discovered 900 previously unread documents.

  • The cover of the book The Zhivago Affair

    The Zhivago Affair

    The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

    In 1945, poet Boris Pasternak began his first novel. In 1955, he finished Doctor Zhivago, the story of a doctor who supports the Russian Revolution, but as he lives through the fight between the Whites and the Reds, he tries to turn away. The story mirrored Pasternak’s own troubled history in Soviet Russia, and the KGB was determined that the book would never make it to the West. They arrested his lover and threw her in prison. Zhivago was full of lines that would get Pasternak sent to the gulag in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The story of how the novel made it out into the west is a nail-biter, a real literary thriller.

  • The cover of the book The Invention of Russia

    The Invention of Russia

    The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News

    As a highly regarded Moscow correspondent for The Economist and a native of the Soviet Union, Arkady Ostrovsky has a deep understanding of how politics really function in present day Russia. In this book, Arkady examines the many complexities of Vladimir Putin’s rule, and explains how Putin has shaped Russia’s current ideologies. The new paperback preface analyzes Putin’s influence on the U.S. election, the Trump-Putin access, and how Putin’s methods of discrediting the media entered American politics.

  • The cover of the book Red Famine

    Red Famine

    Stalin's War on Ukraine

    Though this book doesn’t specifically touch on Russia-U.S. relations, it draws on the lingering consequences of Stalin’s rule, and foreshadows many political issues occurring today. When Stalin forcibly relocated millions of peasants, there was a catastrophic famine – the most lethal in European history. Within two years (1931-1933), there was an astounding loss of at least five million people in the USSR. In Red Famine, Applebaum argues that Stalin’s actions were deliberate – he was attempting to eradicate the Ukrainian peasantry. Stalin’s crime uncovers ugly truths about cruelty and power, and provokes thought about the state of the U.S. today.

  • The cover of the book The Future Is History

    The Future Is History

    How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

    Russian-American award-winning journalist Masha Gessen explores Vladmir Putin’s rule over Russia and reveals the inner workings of the regime in her latest book, The Future Is History. She revolves her narrative around the lives of four people who actively tried to work against the autocracy, but ultimately failed. Masha’s in-depth reporting of Russia’s circumstance is impeccable, and is a timely read for everyone, especially those in the U.S. who are concerned about the current political situation. This powerful story serves as a reminder to us all – indeed, the future is history.