A Train to Potevka Reviewed
With all the talk lately of renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow, perhaps it's time for Americans to read about what the Cold War was like from someone who actually worked as a covert operative inside the Soviet Unon. Utah native Mike Ramsdell has done a great service to history by providing his first person account of what it was like to be a covert operative inside Russia as the Soviet Empire collapsed around him.
The author of A Train to Potevka is not someone either Russians or Americans would think of when the phrase "CIA agent" comes to mind. Rather than being recruited from an Ivy League or other Eastern U.S. school, Ramsdell attended the University of Utah, where he came to his Mormon faith as an adult. After attending college on an ROTC scholarship, Ramsdell served as a military intelligence officer in Germany in the early 1980s. During his time in Bavaria, Ramsdell befriends a Czech-born naturalized American officer named Yuri Novotny. When Ramsdell's friend Yuri gets caught stealing classified documents from a NATO base on his watch, he learns a traumatic lesson about the desperate decisions people were often forced into as a result of having relatives trapped behind the Iron Curtain and the human toll from the superpower conflict.
Ramsdell makes no bones about the Soviet Union being exactly what President Ronald Reagan said it was - an Evil Empire, based on the lie that there is no G-d. The economic, and more important, spiritual consequences of seventy years of scientific socialism are evident throughout the book. Yet the same spiritual sensibility that fuels Ramsdell's loathing of the materialist, "godless" Soviet system opens his heart to see the kindness and generosity of ordinary Russians, who were just struggling to survive. From the beginning of his assignment in Russia, Ramsdell understood that the deprivation in the Soviet Union was not just material but spiritual in nature.
A Russian train station
In chapter one, Ramsdell's covert assignment becomes a race for survival when his cover is blown deep in Siberia. Ramsdell and two other CIA operatives had been assigned to capture a notorious gangster nicknamed "Kostya the Cat", who had cost American taxpayers millions of dollars by bugging the U.S. embassy with thousands of listening devices for the KGB. Unfortunately, one of Kostya's Chechen bodyguards betrays his CIA handlers, and the station chief in Moscow orders the mission to be scuttled. Ramsdell's colleagues take the first available Aeroflot flight to Moscow, but he is ordered to stay behind and make sure that their apartment is completely sanitized. This is when the book opens, with Ramsdell suffering a severe beating from one of Kostya's thugs.
Dazed from a loss of blood and having thrown away his pistol for fear of being caught by the MVD, Ramsdell has no choice but to take the first available train out of town, on the trans-Siberian railway. Ramsdell worries about maintaining his identity as a German oil company executive, since foreigners almost assuredly would take the express train or fly Aeroflot. Instead of these accommodations, Ramsdell joins the peasants and factory workers on the slow train across Siberia. Most of his fellow passengers are refugees fleeing starvation on their collective farms and villages for the cities of European Russia.
Ramsdell's best descriptions are of babushkas, children, and grandfathers shuffling through the cold, crowded train, surviving on vodka what little they can carry for sustenance. Remembering a horrible case of food poisoning from the last Soviet train he ate on, Ramsdell swears off the dining car. When someone steals Ramsdell's sack of food, a Russian boy kindly provides him with one potato, and this and a few other items sustain him for several days until he arrives at the village of Potevka, where the CIA has supposedly set up a safe house.
When he arrives at the small cabin, Ramsdell finds only rotten apples in the cupboard and no fire wood to ward off the brutal cold. Ramsdell is forced to chop wood then go from house to house in the village, begging to buy food with inflated rubles that will soon be worthless. The villagers are fearful of being reported and aware that he is a foreigner, so they mostly ignore him, until one kind-hearted fellow finally provides the starving CIA operative with a piece of black bread. With his food running out, Ramsdell turns to G-d and prays for a miracle to survive. You'll have to read the book for the rest of the story.
Overall, I think Train to Potevka is a great page turning yarn, and provides a real life contrast with Tom Clancy's fictional Cold War heroes. Ramsdell concludes with a benediction for the Russian people, and expressing optimism about their future.