Travelogue, spy story, cultural-historical meditation
by Andrew Sorokowski
For those growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Ian Fleming’s lead character James Bond represented a certain ideal type of man – daring, technically skilled, agile and resilient, intelligent and resourceful, sophisticated, and irresistible to women. The hero of “Monte Rosa: Memoirs of an Accidental Spy” bears some resemblance to this “international man of mystery.” But not that much.
After all, James Bond was basically a professional hit man with lots of fancy gadgets but little depth of character. “Monte Rosa” author Jaroslaw Martyniuk, on the other hand, is not only an Alpine skier, mountain climber, flamenco guitarist, art connoisseur, amateur historian, oenophile and mastermind of a Cold War undercover operation – but also an acute observer and well-read, thoughtful commentator on the state of European civilization. Not to mention a skillful narrator.
Born in the first year of World War II, Mr. Martyniuk spent his infancy in chaos and conflict: he learned his numbers by counting U.S. bombers over German territory and played with the metallic chaff they dropped to disorient anti-aircraft defenses. During a childhood in a displaced persons camp and then in lower-middle-class Chicago, he absorbed his family’s stories of hardship and persecution, and learned a few character-building lessons himself.
Perhaps his greatest character-building experiences, however, are his mountaineering exploits, with which the book begins and ends. These harrowing adventures culminate in the ascent of Monte Rosa, the highest peak in the Swiss Alps, which he completes at the age of 51 – just as Ukraine is declaring independence. It is fitting that climbing a mountain, an archetypal metaphor for personal struggle and enlightenment, should book end this memoir. Mr. Martyniuk modestly acknowledges his luck in often being in the right place at the right time – the word “accidental” in the subtitle refers to more than his espionage. But it is obvious that without diligent study, hard work and preparation, as well as decisiveness and willingness to take risks, he could not have benefited from the opportunities that presented themselves. “Monte Rosa” is thus, among other things, an instructive book for young adults setting out on their careers.
The heart of Mr. Martyniuk’s memoirs is his dozen years in Europe, chiefly Paris in the 1980s, where he worked for the International Energy Agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and then for Radio Liberty conducting clandestine Soviet audience surveys. During this time, he travelled extensively for both business and pleasure. Narrative verve and a memory for detail make this exciting reading, as we careen along serpentine mountain roads in Corsica, Montenegro or the Dolomites – not, it is true, in an Aston-Martin, but in a BMW 320-i or a Fiat Panda. We meet an array of colorful characters, from shady Soviet émigrés to mercurial artists and philosophers. Mr. Martyniuk has a knack for meeting people: his book is a veritable who’s who of the Ukrainian diaspora in late 20th century Europe, and his famous interlocutors range from renegade Soviet spy Oleg Kalugin to Twiggy.
Though occasionally repetitive, the narrative is enriched by digressions into politics, economics, history, art and architecture. Mr. Martyniuk is no mere gawking tourist: he researches everything he explores. Not all readers will agree with all of his views. But they are grounded in extensive reading and careful thought, and honed by hours of conversation in which, at least by his account, he is open-minded and willing to consider the most contrary opinions.
For those who have spent much of our lives dreaming of Europe, “Monte Rosa” is an exercise in vicarious experience. Our regret is only compounded by the author’s conviction that the Europe he knew and loved is gone forever.
Equal parts Alpine thriller, travelogue, spy story and cultural-historical meditation, “Monte Rosa” – whether shaken or stirred – is a potent literary cocktail.
Memoir, analysis, lesson for younger generations
by Myron B. Kuropas
I recently read a review copy of “Monte Rosa, Memoir of an Accidental Spy,” described as “The untold story of undercover interviewing of Soviet citizens in Western Europe during the Cold War,” by Jaroslaw Martyniuk.
The first chapter is devoted to the author’s 1991 preparation for and grueling climb of Monte Rosa, a glacier in the Swiss Alps higher than the famed Matterhorn. Cut off from the world, he was unaware of the sudden changes in the USSR: the arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev, the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the Ukraine Verkhovna Rada’s vote for independence.
“What Killed the Soviet Empire?” the author asks in the second chapter. He suggests we visualize the Soviet Union as “a 74-year-old impaired entity on protracted life support, appearing to be alive but already prostrate in a coffin.” Events big and small shaped the final collapse.
Taking exception to Prof. Serhii Plohky’s comment during a 2014 lecture that the United States had little to do with the break-up of the USSR, Mr. Martyniuk argues: “In reality, America had been involved in undermining the Soviet Union for decades.” In addition to CIA-funded Radio Liberty and publications such as Suchasnist and Prolog, contributing factors included convulsions: the Hungarian Uprising, the Prague Spring, Poland’s Solidarnost, Pope John Paul II, Chornobyl, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, the nationality problem, a drop in oil prices, and Ronald Reagan who predicted that the “evil empire” would soon find itself on “the ash heap of history.” Speaking in Berlin, President Reagan admonished the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Many Western so-called “experts” failed to comprehend the deep resentment among nationalities within the USSR because they viewed everything through the prism of the Soviet press. The Soviets, they assumed, obliterated old, retrograde nationalisms and replaced them with the universal “Soviet man.” The myth of eventual “confluence” between the U.S.A. and the USSR was also widely believed.
Mr. Martyniuk was born in German-occupied Modrynec, Poland, to Roman and Natalka Martynets. His uncle, Dozyk, joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), was captured and sent to the infamous labor camp in Kolyma. Dozyk’s mother, Maria, was sent to a Soviet labor camp in Vorkuta; she died in Siberia. Many years later Mr. Martyniuk met his uncle who, once freed, was forced to live in Crimea. Dozyk shared a song he learned while a slave laborer: “Kolyma that wonderful planet, 12 months winter, the rest summer.”
Like thousands of Ukrainians familiar with the meaning of Soviet “liberation” the Martyniuk family fled with the retreating German army, ending up in a displaced persons camp in Regensburg. En route, they tried to convince the Slovaks who provided them shelter that the advancing Soviets were “liquidators not liberators.”
Once in the DP camp, they were still not safe. The Allies had reached an accord at Yalta, kept secret at first, to repatriate, by force if necessary, all Soviet citizens found in Germany after the war. Thousands of displaced persons were shipped back to Soviet slavery, a horrendous injustice known as “Operation Keelhaul.”
Life for the Martyniuks in Regensburg was pleasant enough. There were Ukrainian schools, a clinic, a library, newspapers, a drama troupe, religious and cultural institutions, and political parties, the ubiquitous Melnykivtsi and Banderivtsi. “A slice of Ukraine,” writes the author, “had been transplanted to Bavaria.”
Thanks to an aunt who had once lived in Oklahoma, the Martyniuks eventually landed in Lombard, Ill., and later in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Jaroslaw attended Ukrainian Saturday School and became active in Plast. Graduating from the University of Illinois, where he majored in accounting, political science and finance, he landed a position with Amoco Oil in downtown Chicago. Along the way, he studied French and worked on the campaign of Boris Antonovych, a Ukrainian attorney who was elected GOP state representative of the 19th District.
Mr. Martyniuk’s life changed dramatically in 1979, when he became the principal administrator of the oil industry division of the International Energy Agency (IEA) headquartered in Paris. Later, he went to work for the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD), becoming a flaming Francophile after living in France for so many years. He traveled extensively, met fascinating people, went skiing and mountain climbing. All is duly noted.
After six years with OECD, Mr. Martyniuk landed a position with Radio Liberty, specifically with its Soviet Area Audience and Opinion Research (SAAOR) arm, charged with the mission of estimating Soviet citizen media responses to Western radio. At first, Soviet visitors to the West were the primary source. Given the deep-seated suspicions of the Soviets interviewed, contact was casual, later calibrated and assessed. Mr. Martyniuk coordinated and monitored the work of interviewers in several cities, no easy task as it turned out.
Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in greater numbers following the Helsinki Accords. Among those the author met was Jakov Suslensky, once imprisoned by the Soviets, whose life mission was to improve relations between Jews and Ukrainians. Mr. Suslensky traveled the world including DeKalb, Chicago and the Ukrainian National Association headquarters in New Jersey. He was warmly welcomed by Ukrainian Americans, ignored by Jewish Americans.
The author offers us many fascinating tidbits from these interviews. Asked about the nationality question, a Ukrainian journalist complained: “The Moskali are gods and tsars in all of the national republics… the national groups are completely under their thumb…”A Georgian dancer was convinced that the Soviet leadership was not interested in Russification but in Sovietization. Reflecting on the putrid food situation, a pensioner recalled: “A worker in the Leningrad kombinat told me that one ton of meat was made into 15 tons of sausage.”
Throughout his text Mr. Martyniuk serves up interesting personal thoughts on a variety of topics: France under President François Mitterand (economic basket case); Pablo Picasso (Communist pervert and amoral misogynist); OECD staff (pleasant, incompetent moochers), etc.
My favorite takeaway Martyniuk reflection deals with American education: “Sadly, the only history taught in schools today is revisionist history infused with misleading postmodernist ideas, poststructuralist theories, insidious cultural relativism, and invidious political correctness.”
Now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as from the publisher at xlibris.com, “Monte Rosa: Memoir of an Accidental Spy” is a highly recommended read and a lesson for younger generations.