This book review is from Volume 7 of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies (1994), pp. 208-210. The original pagination has not been kept intact and the paragraphing has been altered for web use. This web edition 2001 Dennis R. Papazian.


Edward Alexander. The Serpent and the Bee: A KGB Chronicle. Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1990. Pp. xvi + 279.

The Serpent draws poison and the bee honey from the same flower.

- Armenian Proverb

The definitive work on the role of the Soviet KGB (Committee of State Security) in the Cold War and in domestic Soviet politics, particularly as regards Armenia, has yet to be written. Such a study will have to wait until the KGB archives, central and republican, have been fully opened. Be this as it may, there has been no shortage in recent years of serious books by Soviet defectors, former American spies, individual citizens, and interested American scholars dealing with the subject.

Most of the works about the KGB in the USSR at least mention the role of the KGB in Armenia, but without meaningful detail, while they tend to be a bit more specific about the functions of individual Armenians who have been involved in the higher ranks of the Soviet security system. The larger question, also not yet fully answered, is whether the activities of the KGB, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and the other intelligence agencies of the major and minor powers made a significant difference, particularly in the outcome of the Cold War. The probability is, with a few notable exceptions during and following World War II, that they did not. The U.S. won the Cold War because of internal contradictions in the Soviet system. Along the road, of course, many individuals and groups suffered and died, due in part to the activities of these "agencies."

Be that as it may, spying was, and continues to be, a big business. This fact is due in part no doubt to the natural tendency of bureaucracies to persist and to find work of one sort or another to justify their existence. The humit (human intelligence) side of the work consisted in recruiting people "from the other side" to be used for intelligence gathering or as "agents of influence," that is, to spread propaganda. This recruitment consisted in attempting to attract, or "turn," both foreign spies and people in a position to make or influence policy. A goodly part of an agent's efforts, accordingly, was spent cultivating contacts. These personal contacts might continue over decades, since hope springs eternal and agents must have something to do to occupy their time and justify their employment. These contacts, of course, were solicited--or at least acquiesced to--by both sides, each side hoping to take advantage of the other.

The techniques of recruitment consisted of the use of friendship, appeals to ideology or patriotism, the prospect of status, simple blackmail, or money. In the period of Edward Alexander's contacts with Soviet agents, psychological rewards were most frequently used, while at present money is the primary inducement.

In the process of mutual cultivation, a kind of "camaraderie" might develop, a mutual respect between two professionals doing their job well even though they are in competition. It is in this light then, that we must read Edward Alexander's fascinating book, The Serpent and the Bees: A KGB Chronicle.

Edward Alexander, a graduate of Columbia University, served in a psychological warfare unit during World War II. After the war, the U.S. State Department asked him to organize Caucasian language units for the Voice of America and then appointed him chief of the Armenian section. Later, he transferred to the Foreign Service where he dealt primarily with Soviet and East European affairs until his formal retirement in 1980. He has published extensively in scholarly and popular journals. Since 1980, Alexander has remained active in a variety of positions relating to the U.S. government.

Alexander's book reads like a novel but is based on hard facts. It begins in West Berlin in 1963, while the author was on has first diplomatic assignment, when he was approached by a Soviet KGB agent of Armenian nationality attempting to recruit him by playing on his Armenian sympathies. The courtship continued for fifteen months with meetings in pleasant spots on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Spies, like businessmen, often have good budgets for "entertainment."

These pursuits of Alexander by KGB agents continued even after he left Berlin--while on official business in the USSR; during his brief visit to Soviet Armenia; back in Washington; during trips to Moscow; again in Washington, this time by KGB agents assigned to the Soviet Embassy and to TASS (the Soviet news agency); and in Greece--with intermittent attempts to get him to pass over to the other side.

Alexander provides a gripping behind-the-scenes look at U.S.-Soviet relations, the challenges of foreign service life, the problems faced by KGB agents and their families, as well as a sympathetic look at post-Stalin Armenia where true patriots were trying to maintain their ancient heritage and to reach modernity despite the heavy hand of Soviet totalitarianism.

Edward Alexander believes that the interests of Armenia and the Armenian people are best served by freedom. Accordingly, there is no conflict between his staunch American patriotism and his abiding love for the Armenian people and the Armenian homeland. Freedom for Armenia, obviously, was not something the KGB could offer.

The nomenclatura (ruling establishment) of the USSR has survived in the emerging republics in new democratic and nationalistic clothing. It is to be hoped, and in the case of Armenia expected, that this transformation is authentic. Thus we should not be surprised to see the progeny of some of these oldtime Armenian KGB agents, who enjoyed a high status, emerge on the current scene in prominent roles.

Edward Alexander's revealing book can be highly recommended to those, scholars and non-scholars alike, interested in the Soviet past and Armenia's future. It offers insight which one can garner from few other sources, and it is one of those books hard to put down once you begin to read it.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn
Dennis R. Papazian

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