An Impeccable Spy review – wine, women and state secrets


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Owen Matthews’s rip-roaring account of the life of Richard Sorge is great fun, but shows how badly Stalin let him down

This is a golden age for spy biographies. Almost every month there is another fascinating portrait of an agent who fought or supported one of the great totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century. I think it is fair to say, though, that no matter how many of those stories get told, none will be as absolutely belief-beggaring as that of Richard Sorge.

Born in Baku, of Russian-German parentage, he grew up in Wilhelmine Germany, and served in the first world war. Injured on the eastern front, he grew progressively radicalised by the misery all around him, and became a communist. His is a story with uncanny parallels to Kim Philby, except he took the struggle to the streets for a while, even working as a miner in the Ruhr ...

Mr Five Per Cent by Jonathan Conlin review – the world’s richest man


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The story of the buccaneering Calouste Gulbenkian, wealthy oilman, who anticipated today’s unfettered global tycoons

What does the life of an Ottoman-born ethnic Armenian oil tycoon have to teach us about the modern world? Quite a lot, it turns out, judging by this fascinating biography of Calouste Gulbenkian, a dealmaker for the ages and, at his death in 1955, the world’s richest man.

Gulbenkian saw an oilfield only once, on a visit to Baku (then an oil-fuelled boomtown in the Russian empire, now the capital of Azerbaijan) as a 19-year-old graduate from King’s College London, but he was very quick to appreciate the importance of oil as a commodity, and the opportunity inherent in international competition for it. He combined excellent contacts in the Middle East with skills he learned as an entrepreneur in the City of London, and secured a 5% stake in all oil found beneath the ...

The Finance Curse: How Global Finance Is Making Us All Poorer – review


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The author and journalist Nicholas Shaxson gives a chilling account of the financial sector’s stranglehold on the UK

In its final decades, the Soviet Union was hooked on alcohol. It needed the revenue from selling vodka, and it needed the booze to keep its citizens happy. But there was a problem: the more Soviet citizens drank, the less they worked, and the more the economy withered. It was a vicious circle, with no clear exit, that helped doom the whole communist project.

I was reminded of this parlous trap while reading Nicholas Shaxson’s excoriating analysis of the City of London’s effect on our economy in The Finance Curse. Coming seven years after his groundbreaking Treasure Islands, which told the story of Britain’s tax havens, this new book broadens his assault on the foundations of the modern globalised financial system.

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The Spy and the Traitor review – a gripping tale of escape from the USSR


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Ben Macintyre tells the story of MI6 agent Oleg Gordievsky’s rescue from Moscow in 1985 with elegance and wit

Oleg Gordievsky is not a household name, but he should be. Not only did he make a significant contribution to the ending of the cold war, he did so as Britain’s most important foreign agent. A KGB colonel working for MI6, he exposed Soviet plans in Scandinavia, Britain and elsewhere and – most valuably – alerted leaders of the western alliance to Kremlin paranoia in the 1980s.

Without his insights, cold war rivalry could have tipped over into Armageddon, so it’s not too far-fetched to say that we all owe him our lives, whichever side of the old iron curtain we live on. He’s deeply implicated in the warming of ties between the west and Moscow as well. In a bizarre and perhaps unique piece of espionage, he essentially wrote the ...

Crashed by Adam Tooze review – a masterful account of the financial crisis


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The Republican Party in the US and Angela Merkel are among those singled out for blame in an analysis that makes clear the depth of the disaster

Donald Trump in the White House, Ukraine in tatters, Russia ascendant, Greece in ruins, fascists in the parliaments of Europe. The world is in spasm, and has been for years; so long, in fact, that it appears to have been going on for ever. That’s why you need to read Crashed.

It’s hard to think back to before the financial crisis began in 2007, to the time we used to call the Great Moderation, when employment was high, inflation low and progress was certain. That was a time of relative plenty: European governments could afford generous social spending, and America could immerse itself in wars (and we, in the UK, could do both). But the prosperity was illusory. With hindsight, that era might ...

Rich Russians by Elisabeth Schimpfössl review – where does all that money go?


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A study, based on interviews, on how oligarchs are reinventing themselves as a cultural elite finds room to skewer their self-aggrandisement and patriotism

Everyone loves to write about rich Russians: their yachts; their football clubs; their dalliances with our politicians; their basements. In fact, there are probably as many British journalists with strong opinions on Russia’s gilded class as there are actual oligarchs in Knightsbridge, but all of us have a problem: very few of the super-rich will talk to us. After all, why would they?

Enter the Austrian-born and British-based sociologist Elisabeth Schimpfössl, who has scaled the pinnacle of Russia’s economy and come back down with Rich Russians, a tightly observed study of this extremely small but spectacularly wealthy group. The book is based on interviews with 80 of Russia’s richest people, a third of them owning more than $500m in assets, and among them some billionaires.

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Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal – review


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First published in 1964, Segal’s lightly fictionalised account of her time in England as a Jewish refugee is both moving and newly relevant

Refugees are often talked about, but rarely listened to. From Washington to Budapest, we hear a lot about the immigrants plural, but too little from the immigrant singular. And that is why this novel is so moving: a refugee takes the microphone and puts herself at the centre of her own story. It was first published 54 years ago and yet feels as timely as any book I’ve read this year.

A lightly fictionalised autobiography of a 10-year-old Jewish girl’s arrival in Britain in 1938, it is told with the wide-eyed acceptance of a child living through horrible times. When the Nazis took power in Vienna, Lore Segal’s parents put their little girl on a train to England, convinced it was the only way to save her ...

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia review – a kleptocracy in the making


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Mark Galeotti’s timely account of the Russian underworld charts its rise from Soviet-era gangsters to Kremlin collaborators under Putin

I once met a former dissident who spent eight miserable years in a Soviet labour camp. While there, he contracted tuberculosis and ended up in an isolation centre, a prison within a prison – a place of danger and squalor even by the standards of the Soviet camps.

Kirill was a Muscovite, intellectual and Jewish, all characteristics likely to attract special treatment from the prison guards and their stooges, who he still called by the prison term “bitches”. His life was saved, however, from the unlikeliest of directions. A vor-v-zakone – a “thief-in-law” Soviet mafia boss – offered him protection in exchange for conversation and games of chess.

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The Long Hangover by Shaun Walker – review


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This account of how Putin’s new Russia rose from the ruins of the Soviet Union is judicious, humane and highly entertaining

Everyone’s talking about Russia again, troll farms, sanctions, money laundering, and all the rest of it. In a way, whatever the topic of the day, we’re just trying to answer one simple question, which is: WTF? There has been a wide acceptance among officials in both Europe and North America that we have collectively allowed our focus to slip since the end of the cold war. Our governments’ lack of interest has led us to misunderstand Russia’s development, misinterpret its economy, and misjudge its leaders. The results of these errors are all around us, most notably in the question of whether Putin was able to hijack the American ship of state, and hand the tiller to a popinjay.

Many people are to blame for this slipped focus, but one ...

Collusion by Luke Harding review – did Russia help Trump become US president?


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A fascinating account of the alleged links between Trump and Russia tracks the story back to its origins and separates the evidence from the fake news

When I was a boy, I liked to listen while my parents and their friends discussed when they had first heard about various significant events: the murder of John Lennon, the assassination of JFK, the Cuban missile crisis. Although the events were grim, there was something comforting about the conversations. Yes, all these terrible things had happened, but here we all were, sitting around, having a cup of tea.

Trump is a man so ill-suited to the presidency that he can’t even hate-tweet the right Theresa May

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A Very Expensive Poison review – definitive account of Litvinenko murder


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Guardian reporter Luke Harding uses a wealth of new material to retell this amazing and horrifying story

Alexander Litvinenko died almost a decade ago, yet his poisoning may still prove to be Britain’s murder of the century. It was one of those events that, with hindsight, gains ever greater significance until it seems both to sum up an era, and to herald a new one. As an agent in Russia’s FSB, Litvinenko blew the whistle on systemic corruption and was persecuted for it. As an exile, he exposed how the Kremlin elite makes its money. That elite “probably” (the word used by Sir Robert Owen, the judge who held an inquiry into his death and who published his report in January) killed him as a result.

In murdering Litvinenko, Russia’s post-Soviet establishment exposed itself as cruel, incompetent, reckless, venal and corrupt. In its response to the murder, Britain’s rulers ...