Review: Farewell

Farewell is about a soviet double-agent towards the end of the Cold War. He exposed a massive operation of technical theft, contributing to the economic pressure western powers were exerting on the Soviet Union. It is a fascinating portrait: what sort of man betrays his country. It’s also interesting as a window behind the iron curtain.

The authors take their time1 building the picture of Vetrov as a man… what drove him, his family life, his weaknesses until escalating into double-agent territory and then a dramatic finale.

After Vetrov’s documents made their way to western powers, their sneaky responses were fascinating:

  • they abused their knowledge of what targeted by the KGB to “send” components with bugs and viruses to cause damage to soviet technology.2
  • the US deliberately misled soviet scientists by pretending to invest in dead end technology.3

Honestly, this feels Stephenson-esque or like the Three Body Problem… it’s hard to believe that all this was going down around the time I was born. I also don’t think that Russia and China didn’t pay attention, you can see the same shenanigans repeated these days.4

Another anecdote that stood out to me: The soviets felt threatened by the US building the space shuttle, so they directed their scientists to build a clone of it called the Buran. They flew it only once… they didn’t know what to do with it!

The Buran spacecraft is a revealing illustration of this. Before questioning its utility, simply out of mimicry or out of fear of falling behind in the arms race, the Soviets launched their own space shuttle program, based on designs stolen from Western technology. This shuttle completed only one experimental spaceflight. When asked after the Cold War why they made that spacecraft, a few engineers answered they had no idea why, it was just about copying the Americans. (location: 3066)

The success criteria for the Buran seems to be was “build a space shuttle”… they had no greater outcome (like “do science in space.” Outcomes over Outputs, anyone?

I enjoyed the book. It was intriguing as a study in history, in human psychology, in learning a little bit about a time and culture that is still relevant today, and a little bit about spy tradecraft. I am still amused that Vetrov got away with it for so long by ignoring normal tradecraft procedure… because that’s what the KGB were looking for. 🤷

  1. It may be the translation from French to English, or the fact I was reading it slowly before bed. 

  2. Weiss’s plan allowed everybody to agree. He arranged to have software delivered to Line X through a Canadian company. This software was meant to control gas pipeline valves and turbines, and it was delivered with viruses embedded in the code by one of the contractors. The viruses were designed to have a delayed effect; at first the software seemed to work as per the contract specifications. The sudden activation of the viruses in December 1983 led to a huge three-kiloton gas explosion in the Urengoi gas field, precisely in Siberia where, ironically, Vetrov had just started his jail time for a crime of passion. (location: 4446) More readingCIA Trojan Causes Siberian Gas Pipeline Explosion 

  3. Convinced that the Soviets had a serious interest in that particular isotope, secret services of the Western alliance decided to encourage, in a subtle way, the Russians to err further. The American journal Physical Review and the British magazine Nature published a few articles signed by renowned physicists detailing the number and the diversity of osmium-187 energy levels. Then, technical papers on the subject stopped. When this happens in technical and scientific areas, it signals to all intelligence services that this is of strategic importance. Directorate T (the soviet technology espionage group) immediately ordered its operatives to follow that trail, and more specifically in France, where the KGB had attempted to recruit quite a few scientists. At scientific conventions, where intelligence officers spent a lot of time, renowned researchers from all over the world started discussing with credibility osmium properties, describing the metal as a good candidate for use in a possible “graser.” A few labs went as far as publishing posters claiming successful experiments conducted in highly protected research centers. And last, American labs conspicuously bought significant quantities of natural osmium from the Soviet Union, major provider of this metal on world markets. (location: 4488

  4. Report: China Used Computer Chips to Spy on American P.C. Systems