A Different Kind of Spy Novel
By Terry Brewer
COMPLETELY COVERED IN ICE from the sleet, snow, and pounding wind, the old train from Siberia, with its baggage of refugee passengers and frozen freight, looked like something alive as it struggled against the angry storm. It had the appearance of a huge white serpent, its large yellow eye peering out into the darkness, slowly twisting and weaving its way past endless snow-covered towns and villages on its 6,000-mile journey across Great Mother Russia.
Fierce arctic winds blew heavy snow out of the north as the first major storm of winter caught up with us just outside the Russian City of Sverdlovsk. In some places the snow lay four and five feet deep across the tracks.
I was the only foreigner on board the train – an American intelligence agent – desperate to get to an agency safe house several days away, somewhere in the middle of Russia.
In the last three days my world had been turned upside down: our agency's covert mission in Siberia had been compromised, my operational cover exposed, and my role as the person who had persuaded certain Soviets to work for us as informants had been revealed. At this very moment, both the KGB and Russian mafia were trying to find me.
Safe – at least for now – on board the cold, overcrowded train, trying to rest my aching, wounded body, I sat at my seat mesmerized, staring out through the ice-framed windows. As I watched the storm and the endless, frozen desolation of Siberia slowly pass by, I struggled to make sense of the improbable events of the last 72 hours, amazed at how fortunate I was to still be alive.
The preceding paragraphs from A Train to Potevka could be the beginning for any modern spy novel. There is something unique, however, about this particular novel by Mike Ramsdell because it is based on actual events. What was that again? True fiction? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Typical spy novels are designed to entertain by exaggerating the reality of espionage work. This is because real spy work is not glamorous and genuine spies are not characteristically super-attractive people. They tend to be, well, like you and me: dull, frumpy, overweight, or balding. They are average-looking people engaged in a not-so-average line of work. Yes, undercover spy work is dangerous. But it could probably better be described as many long weeks and months of tedium and stress interrupted by brief moments of panic and danger.
Real spy work is secret, and because it is secret we commonly hear only about a few of its failures. Successes, such as the theft of the German enigma machine during World War II, remain a secret for many, many years. Let’s face it, spies are not very talkative about their trade. That is why writers have to make up so many things about them.
This book is something different among the litany of spy novels on the market. Mike Ramsdell, a former intelligence officer, has written a book about some of his own experiences while working as an agent in Russia . His A Train to Potevka provides a rare glimpse into the authentic world of espionage--one not clouded by mystique and glamour. Potential readers need not be concerned. Ramsdell’s book is anything but boring. You will find, however, that this book’s entertainment value comes not from action-packed conflict, though there is some. Look more for suspense, surprise, and wonder and you will find it.
A Train to Potevka is the story of a failed covert intelligence mission in Siberia, which drove Mike to flee for his life across the frozen vastness of Russia on a train full of refugees. His flight takes him to Potevka, a small Russian village deep in the country, where he must face hunger, cold, loneliness and his own personal demons. There, his life takes a new turn because of a simple, paper-covered box. Ramsdell takes opportunity in the book to describe the environment found in Russia during the early 1990s and includes helpful explanations about key elements of the story, such as the KGB, the Russian mafia and US foreign policy at the time. He also shares his view of the Russian people--a special people experiencing their own hopes, travails and sorrows while trying to cope with the radically changing times.
A Train to Potevka is categorized as a novel because, even though the events described occurred years ago, much about them remains classified "Secret" even today. Parts of the book are fictionalized to bring disjointed events together and to keep things hidden that must remain hidden.
The back of the book tells us that A Train to Potevka “is a story of sacrifice, failure, hope, and second chances.” That it is and an excellent read for people of all tastes and perspectives.