Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: Comrade Jim

I'm finally getting into some summer reading, and that always means football books. So here's the first of what I'm assuming will be many book reviews, on a new book called Comrade Jim.

The subtitle of this book is The Spy who Played for Spartak. It's a lovely short book if you can get past two things: he was never really a spy and he barely played for Spartak.

As a tall, gangly child growing up in Portsmouth, he often played centre-half for his school teams. He was never of a calibre to play professionally, but he enjoyed it and continued playing into his army days when he was drafted into the national service. He had been a bright lad, and had managed to secure a place in a grammar school and stuck it out through his A-levels, to the disapproval of his working-class mum's friends who thought that all that studying would make him "one of them, not one of us".

In the army, he was considered bright enough to be sent for Russian lessons - 8 months of intensive language study which would enable him to monitor Soviet radio broadcasts. Subsequently sent to Berlin, he listened in on communications traffic at airbases in eastern germany. This, it turns out, was the sum total of his "spying".

Indeed, far from a career in spying against the communists, he became one himself. The actual circumstances in which this occurred in 1959 seem somewhat hazy. He had a love of Russia instilled in him by his admittedly non-ideological teachers in the army. His Soviet studies teachers at Birmingham University seem to have been predominantly of the view that Bolshevism was bad for Russia. And he implies that he was quite aware of Krushchev's Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. And yet, there he is, applying for a Party card in 1959 and little more than two years later being sent by the CPGB to attend an 18-month course of training at the Higher Party School in Moscow, where he lived with (among others) the future hero of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek.

He was no pasing communist, either. Despite meetings in Moscow with many emigres who had spent years in gulags after false accusations, despite himself having been tossed out of Russia in disgrace following false allegations, despite having quite a clear view of the double standards of the nomenklatura, this is a man who held on to his party card until the CPGB itself finally collapsed in 1991 and who claims that the first time he rued having been a communist was in 2005, at the sight of the altar on which Isaac Babel was tortured to death during the Great Terror. Why it was Babel's death that made him rue this and not any of Stalin's victims - some of the 1,000 executions a day at the height of the terror in 1937-38, perhaps, or any of the seven million who died in the Ukranian forced famines - is not entirely clear.

During his time in Moscow, he played regular kickabouts with a number of people from various team's diplomatic corps. As he was gathering information for a planned PhD dissertation on Soviet sport and culture, he was often in contact with senior Moscow sports officials and football players, some of whom happened to see him at these kickabouts. Strangely under the impression that he could play at a top level (while in National Service he had played a few times with the British Army on the Rhine selects and the Russians appeared to believe that this was the equivalent to playing for the CSKA Red Amry squad), they asked him to come along to training with them whilst they were in the midst of an injury crisis. To his shock, they asked him to play two games in their colours at the massive Lenin stadium under the name Yakov Eeordahnov (foreigners still being highly suspect in 1962 Moscow). This was the extent of his Spartak career.

Doesn't sound like much of a book? Well, it has some padding, too. In one chapter he manages to toss off the entire Passovotchka story for no reason other than that he was in England at the time and later became a communist. In another he retells the Nikolai Starotsin story (although Jonathan Wilson more or less beat him to the punch on this two years ago in his book [i]Football Behind the Iron Curtain[/i]).

But mostly, it's just the curious tale of how one working class boy from Portsmouth managed to spend five years in Moscow rubbing shoulders with composers, gulag survivors, and ex-spies amidst the obvious insanities of post-Stalinist Russia. It's no less enjoyable and informative for the fact that the author seems not to question the rightness of supporting such a monstrous regime. And it has some nice little football stories thrown in - his excitement at the arrival of Alexei Smertin arriving in Pompey from Spartak is quite charming.

If you're ever wondering about the power of football to sell books, though, it's amazing to think how 180 minutes spent 45 years ago on a pitch 1500 miles from the UK can turn an old communist's memories from being unwanted and unprintable to being a reasonable publishing success. Amazing.


Blogger Richard Whittall said...

Glad you're back! I held a quiet candle light vigil but the wax kept getting on the keyboard and things got a little messy...anyway, that was me harassing you to return on the Hislop blogs awhile back.

Interesting book choice. I'm miles behind you as I've just now finally gotten around to reading Behind the Curtain in light of Russia's flashes of success. So I'm a bandwagon hopper.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Cheers Richard. I noticed your comment on the Guardian site and it was making me feel guilty about not posting for so long. Your candle was not in vain.

10:04 AM  
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