Saturday, March 14, 2015

Snowden Book Reviewk

By Stephen Wilson

Book Review: The Time of the Octopus by Edward Snowden's lawyer Anatoly Kucheren (in Russian)

NSA whistle blower/fugitive Edward Snowden

(Moscow, Russia) - A new  novel has been just published by Eksmo by the lawyer of political fugitive Edward Snowden. Although it claims to be simply a work of fiction, 'with no connection with real events or characters', the prominent photo of Snowden on the cover misleadingly suggests otherwise. The book, 'Time of the Octopus', reflects a deep psychological drama being experienced by a desperate fugitive with an unsure future than new revelations about the American state.

Everyone is reputed to have their own 'double'. That is , theoritically there exists a Russian version of Stephen Wilson wandering aimlessly about Moscow (God help the poor man). So when I thought I saw Edward Snowden casually walking around Moscow on two occasions, I told myself, 'It can't be. It must be a look alike.' This was my initial feeling when I first approached a new book by Snowden's lawyer, 'The Time of the Octopus'.  Why was this the case? Well, when I caught sight of  Kucheren's book I saw Snowden's photo in the front cover as well as the words, 'All the truth about the flight of an American agent ' and then after turning the first few pages read, 'The plot and main hero of this story appears to be the fruit of the imagination of the author, and that any connection with real lives and events is just a coincidence'.  Are you confused? Perhaps it is more accurate to describe this as a novel of fiction strongly inspired by the real events of the author's life. We should leave it at that! 

Readers who are anticipating a detailed description of the background to the Snowden case or any new secrets may be disappointed.

Nevertheless, in terms of capturing the tense psychological drama and atmosphere being experienced by Snowden it is penetrating.

It goes without saying that on June 2013, Edward Snowden, a man who had spilt the beans about a dubious Surveillance program, flew from Hong Kong to Moscow's Sheremyetova airport where after being stranded in the transit zone, was offered provisional refugee status for one year. Attempts by the American authorities to extradite him have failed miserably. Snowden is still in Moscow. In a recent interview, Kucherev stated, 'Everytime I meet with Snowden I notice people are following us. It would be unfair to make any allegations against anyone. Perhaps they are journalists,' the tactful and amicable lawyer states. Certainly, if you glance at some of the tabloid Russian newspapers you can find speculative stories about Snowden's life.


The novel is about a fugitive called 'Josha Cold ' ,who ,being wanted by the American authorities turns up at Sheremetova airport and is stranded in 'the Transit Zone. ' Cold writes a request for political refuge in Russia and awaits their response anxiously. A lawyer turns up to not only to defend his case but to offer him 100% moral and mental support. So a real friendship begins to unfold where Cold tells the lawyer about his life and what motivated him. Much of the novel is about Cold's difficult childhood and adulthood and why he gradually loses faith in how the American government is 'serving' its own people.

However, there is some drama in the sense that Cold finds it very difficult to trust the Russians and doesn't know whether they will stand by him to the end.

The novel begins with Cold in the transit zone of the airport where he is fleeing from an angry American government after he has leaked many files. A Russian lawyer has been assigned to take care of him. The Russians are at first confounded by this strange man.

They ask 'Who exactly is this guy? Is he a hero? Is he a traitor?' or A victim of devilish political intrigue?'  Cold seems so  inscrutable.

He doesn't even drink alcohol so the lawyer drinks alcohol while Cold swallows some mineral water. Part of the drama of this novel lies in the suspense arising from what will be Cold's next move and will he be handed over to the Americans. At times in the book, Cold almost loses his nerve and says, 'I would rather kill myself than face torture'. His lawyer doesn't console him by claiming, 'American jails are more comfortable than Russian prisons.'

The Americans attempt to persuade the Russians to hand over Cold with assurances that he won't be tortured and will obtain a fair trial.

They regard him as a 'criminal who has betrayed the secrets of national security.' Torture is forbidden by American law' and Cold won't face the death penalty'. 'Cattle trembled the voice of Cold. He turned deeply pale ... Two faced cattle'...Cold goes on to explain that the American secret services use psychological torture to destroy the personality of an accused person.

The Novel is in a sense a polemic against the all powerful and awesome might of the American state. The American state is compared to a monstrous octopus whose tentacles stretch out to take and drown people all over the globe. We hear how the Americans have developed a sinister surveillance system where one special centre absorbs and gathers information from citizens from all over the world (BRISM) where spies monitor you e-mail, or mobile phone
number, or car license, passport or insurance documents. One of the main detailed criteria of BRISM is to define the required John Smiths, by weeding out thousands of other citizens. Such a program can afford not to waste time and the efforts of thousands of workers by simultaneously gathering information from many people from all corners of the world.  The author concludes that America's war against Al Queda has led to not only to harming many peaceful citizens, but has created a monstrous and all powerful octopus which is strangling the whole world.

Anatoly Kucheren is the lawyer representing Edward Snowden who wrote a book.
One of the best books which confirm Kucheren's conclusion is Naomi Klein's,The Shock Doctrine, the Rise of Disaster Capitalism'.

In this work, she reveals how the American state uses torture in not just Guatanamo bay, but all all over the world in sinister secret prisons where the accused have no rights or assess to lawyers. Even former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld freely admits and condones the use of torture.

In Britain, the most monitored people in the world, there are 30 million surveillance cameras which works out as one camera to every 14 people. George Orwell, who wrote  '1984', about an all watchful Big brother state has turned out to be sharply if only partially prophetic.

What I liked about Kucheren's  book is his opening description of the 'Transit Zone', which is compared to a stationary Noak's Ark and where all kinds of different people are stuck for years. 'For those in the transit zone - this is the single place on the earth where they can feel themselves relatively free' he writes.


Cold tells his lawyer about his childhood and how he had two school teachers who strongly influenced him. One of them, a history teacher called Stenford, is a brilliant story-teller who presents the American Indians as the aggressors who attack, scalp and assault peaceful immigrants. Later, Cold begins to doubt this. Another teacher turns out to be a bully who punishes children 'by collective punishment'.

If one student is late, all the rest of the class must be forced to stand.

Cold points out that he is not a traitor, but adores America and attempts to explain to his lawyer about aspects of American culture .'To be successful, to be a winner, this is the main thing in life, just so that a person can become a master of his destiny'. Cold even states, 'I am namely grateful to God that I was born in America, in a rich, happy and one of the most rewarding countries in the world. In a word, I love my country, this is no pathos, I myself even don't understand that there are people in other countries which express contempt for my country'. Since this is a work of fiction it is difficult to know whether this is the actual voice of Cold or Snowden. But given the fact that he is reputed to be yearning to return to America, it could well be. He may well be homesick and miss his country. So this book might be seen as being against the American state rather than the people or conventional value system of striving for success.

One interesting extract in the book touches upon the stereotype of the Smiling American. It states that Americans are under obligation to constantly smile all the time and if they don't they are already violating some taboo! It is as if not smiling is breaking the law. This might be the sincere belief of the lawyer but I think most Americans would find this a travesty and absurdity!  What is true is that many Russians don't feel any obligation or desire to smile and think that a lot of Americans are being 'forced'  to smile! Most Russians
don't like being asked 'to smile'. I recall a Russian student of mine being at a lecture in France being told by a poor well meaning American teacher, 'Cheer up Masha, smile ! '  The indignant Masha replied, 'Look, I'm not American'. The Lecturer was taken back! He even bought Masha a bottle of wine.

So the 'Time of the Octopus'  is not just a 'spy thriller'. It is a novel about two cultures confronting and attempting to understand each other. So Kucheren's novel deserves to be translated from Russian into English for that reason alone.

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