TOWER OF SECRETS by Victor Sheymov
In 1980, Victor Sheymov was the head of worldwide classified communications for the KGB. A brilliant engineer and wily political operative, he rocketed through the ranks by a combination of blackmail and
technical expertise and was one of the few senior KGB officers allowed to travel overseas.
But 1980 was also the year the CIA smuggled him out of the Soviet Union, together with his wife and daughter in an unprecedented and daring exfiltration operation. The CIA has never described the means used to get the Sheymovs out. All we know is that the operation led the Soviets to believe the family was dead, saving them from being hunted
TOWER OF SECRETS (the title refers to the tower inside the original KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Prison) is Sheymov’s own account of his career, KGB power and paranoia, and escape. It’s a memoir disguised as a thriller and absolutely riveting.
Published in 1990 as the USSR crumbled--after the Sheymovs had been living in the US under false names for 10 years--TOWER OF SECRETS is written in the third person, a device that Sheymov explains in his intro as the best means of standing apart and viewing his decisions critically. It also allowed him to fudge still-classified details. FYI, the book’s
depiction of his escape is remarkably similar to the real-life exfiltration of Oleg Gordievsky from Moscow by the British in 1985.
With all that out of the way, let me tell you, TOWER OF SECRETS is page-turning. It opens with Sheymov meeting his future wife while suffering the effects of being poisoned by a brother-in-law trying to get a permit to live in Moscow. The event sets the stage perfectly for both his devotion to Olga and his cold-blooded approach to problems.
As a senior KGB officer, Sheymov lives in a cross between a mousetrap and a fishbowl. KGB surveillance is everywhere: roving unmarked cars, fixed observation posts, uniformed officers on street corners, and a network of informants. Along with this looming presence, there’s dire consequences for failure and rampant hypocrisy. Every day he experiences the
hallmarks of a thoroughly corrupt system perpetuating itself through fear, blackmail, and favors.
Sheymov pulls you into this labyrinth of paranoia. Friends are assassinated for speaking out, owning the wrong books, or even being in the wrong hallway at the wrong time when the head of the KGB goes by. Family members have no way to protect each other except with silence.
He realizes that someday he will make a misstep and be denounced by his 5-year-old daughter who is indoctrinated every day at school. Soon he and Olga plot their escape during evening walks away from their bugged apartment. The tension is excruciating, matched only by the pace throughout the entire book. You will be in that time and place, without
TOWER OF SECRETS trumps every other Cold War cat-and-mouse thriller out there. Its authenticity is undisputed. Highly recommended.
BTW, this is Independence Day weekend in the US. The Sheymovs risked everything to get to a country with civil liberties and personal freedom. Victor Sheymov became a US citizen in 1985, was awarded the US Intelligence Medal, ran a computer security company, patented communications technology, and consulted for the National Security Agency. He died late
last year and is survived by Olga.