November 24th, 2012

Entering a massively reinforced shelter built for the president and his entourage in the North Carolina mountains, Eisenhower remarked to an aide, "My God, until now, I didn't realize how scared we are."

From The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower by Evan Thomas.

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A Spy in the Archives

November 26th, 2010

As a young historian, Sheila Fitzpatrick spent quite a bit of the late 1960s deep in the Soviet archives:

[…] On another occasion, I found prewar telephone directories, listed by title, in the catalogue of the Lenin Library. They used to publish such things every couple of years before the war (though not after), and it occurred to me that one way of estimating numbers of Great Purge victims – a topic of great speculation and few hard data at the time – might be to compare the lists of Moscow telephone subscribers for 1937 and 1939. I did not, of course, order only these years ('1937' on a library slip always rang alarm bells), but finally the volumes I really wanted arrived, and I set about painstakingly copying out every tenth name for a random sample. I think they saw what I was doing: for the next decade, whenever I tried to order telephone directories, I was told they were unavailable, lost or had never existed. But by this time, I had learned patience and the wisdom of Soviet citizens that nothing is for ever. When perestroika came, I got my telephone books back.

All this affected my formation as a historian: I became addicted to the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the game of matching your wits and will against that of Soviet officialdom. How boring it must be, I thought, to work on British history, where you just went to the PRO, and polite, helpful people gave you catalogues and then brought you the documents you wanted. What would be the fun of it? Knowledge, I decided, had to be fought for, achieved by ingenuity and persistence, even – like pleasure, in Marvell's words – snatched 'through the iron gates of life'. I thought of myself as different from the general run of British and American scholars, with their Cold War agenda (as I saw it) of discrediting the Soviet Union rather than understanding it. But that didn't stop me getting my own kicks as a scholar from finding out what the Soviets didn't want me to know. Best of all was to find out something the Soviets didn't want me to know and Western Cold Warriors didn't want to hear because it complicated the simple anti-Soviet story.

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Mapping Manchester

August 26th, 2009

To anyone who lived through the Cold War, it's not really a surprise that the Soviet Union had prepared meticulous plans for conducting an invasion of the UK.

It's the little details that pique your interest:

1974 was a terrible year for Manchester, with United relegated to the second division for the first time in four decades and power cuts forced by the three-day week declared by Edward Heath's collapsing Tory government.

But the city would have been even more jittery had it known that in Moscow Soviet generals were eyeing the A56 between Deansgate and Stretford and checking that T-72 battle tanks could use the Mancunian Way.


The maps were analysed to get a sense of Soviet spies' efficiency, which fell down on the intricacies of the then-developing industrial estate at Trafford Park. Like many local visitors, the mapmakers got lost in the maze of new factories, and decided to steer their tanks past on the A57 and the Chester Road.

It's enough to make you wonder whether the occasional wacky set of travel directions from Google Maps or the AA Route Planner is part of a campaign of misinformation rather than a consequence of an inadequate algorithm or shortcomings in their mapping data.

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