Nicholas Shakespeare

Novel explosives of the Cold War

Orwell’s searing satires as well as samizdat works from Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak proved powerful weapons in the fight against communism

One autumn night in 1991, I stood on the rooftop terrace of a tacky villa in Saranda once owned by Albania’s Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, beside three elderly former SOE officers who were returning to Albania for the first time since 1945. In an image that summed up the waste and the horror of the Cold War, David Smiley stared out over the dark water at the lights of Corfu, from where, on a similar night in October 1949, he had sent a group of dissidents, code-named the ‘Pixies’, to launch an insurgency — and wiped his eye in silence.

Smiley’s men had been ambushed as they landed, and then killed, on the tip-off from Kim Philby, the highest Russian agent to infiltrate British Intelligence, and in charge of anti-communist espionage. It was left to Smiley’s fellow SOE companion, Julian Amery, to murmur reflectively: ‘We might have saved Albania. We didn’t, and Albania became the Orwell caricature of communism.’

Philby looms large in Duncan White’s ambitious and constantly rewarding survey of writers who battled to get read in the Cold War. Although not strictly speaking an author, Philby was a mark of how far each side was committed to penetrating, understanding and subverting the other; a perversion, if you like, of the empathy that is the writer’s necessary condition, and which defines White’s chiefly Anglo/Soviet cast of novelists, poets and playwrights.

In the wake of the second world war, Russia and the West feared the domino effect of enfeebled countries like Albania falling into the clutches of imperialist capitalism or communism. Each side deployed literature as a frontline force in their struggle. For the CIA, which covertly funded magazines such as Encounter and Mundo Nuevo, books were ‘the most important weapon of strategic (long-term) propaganda’; for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a different context, his precious notes and drafts of The Gulag Archipelago ‘were as dangerous as atom bombs’.

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