Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth

In this time and age, the events described in this thriller by Frederick Forsyth seem as from another age. And in fact, that was another age. In 1979, when this novel was published, the Soviet Union was the worldwide great power representing communism, with the Eastern half of Europe in its clutches. In addition to the client states such as East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc that were also communists, and some of whom had seen the might of the Soviet army when they had tried to move towards democracy, there were the states that were part of the Soviet Union besides Russia. In all, there were 15 former states that made up the Soviet Union, and it would only have been a visionary / fool who would have dared to claim that these countries will be separate countries within 12 years.
And this is one of the main stories of this thriller. The second largest constituent state of the Soviet Union was the Ukraine, and since it was the second largest, and had known independence before, it was ruthlessly sought to be made like Russia, and any elements of Ukrainian culture stubbed out; after all, if the people are as Russian as the Russians, then where will there be a need to start a separatist front. The Russians (the largest majority of the Soviet Union) used a combination of the Red Army and the feared KGB (formerly the NKVD) to sniff out and break any level of Ukrainian separatism, such that it never reached any dangerous point.

The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth
Frederich Forsyth also takes the opportunity to explain several aspects that form the basis of the thriller, namely:
1. The workings of the Soviet Politburo and the politics between the different members, especially about how the various members come to reach the peak of political life in the Soviet Union (politburo)
2. Some details about the concept of a super-tanker and the colossal damage that a super-tanker can do
3. The use of spies and their information in deciding what Governments that are in conflict with each other do, and how policies are made based on this information
4. And a very advanced topic for that age, involving the use of spy satellites to gather information about what is happening in the territory of another country
5. A lot of details about the spy-craft, about how to spy and control agents in hostile territory
6. And for me, something that was very interesting for me, namely details about what the SR-71 (the Blackbird) can do

The novel starts with the escape of a Ukrainian separatist (under attack from the KGB) from the Soviet Union. He meets a Ukrainian sympathizer who is fanatically in favor of Ukrainian independence and against the Soviet Union and the KGB. He takes this opportunity to go to the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the US and British discover that vast tracts of the Russian grain harvest is spoiled, and then you go to the Russian side and discover that a series of freak incidents cause the spoilage of vast chunks of the Soviet wheat harvest, causing a famine of immense proportions. And once the Americans and Western powers get to know about this, they would demand concessions on a large scale before providing the grain. The Soviet Union cannot afford to undergo a famine of this level since that may cause the one thing that any Soviet politburo dreads, the rise of the long suffering population at a level that the use of force cannot control. One option is to use the vast Red Army to attack Western Europe to get over this scarcity, and this becomes a issue about control of the Politburo.
At such a time, the new British SIS (MI6) head in Moscow meets and old flame; she is also in a position to be able to supply information about the workings of the Politburo, something that the Americans and British find very valuable. As things escalate, this information is of vital information in helping fine-tune the policies of the West.
As things move ahead, things threaten to spiral out of control. If the politburo source is used too much, she could get exposed; if it gets out that Ukrainian separatists have assassinated the head of the KGB, things could spiral out of control and risk giving the faction in the politburo the majority to go to war; and if the Ukrainian separatists use the vast super-tanker Freya that they now control and let the oil go into the ocean, it would be an environmental tragedy of the highest order.
At such times, what can happen. And this is the Devil's alternative, anything you do has a consequence, and will lead to a loss of life. And for politicians and leaders, taking the easiest path is the way to go. Coldness is an essential attribute of state-craft.
The concluding lines of the book are what would shake you when you read them - 'Ukraine will be free again'; and this is precisely what happened in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin took Russia away from the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union vanished into history.

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