Maria Arbatova, the first woman writer with an openly feminist ideology she is known as "Erica Jong of Russian literature"(The Moscow Times).
Arbatova is a dramatist, novelist, blogger, and a leading activist in the Russian feminist movement. She has a degree in Philosophy from Moscow University, and also graduated from the Dramatic Arts Department of the Literary Institute. She has some 30 books to her name published in hundreds of thousands copies. These include My Name is Woman. A Visit from a Not So Old Woman, autobiographical novel I'm Forty, Chevrolet-Caprice (about today’s new rich), A Taste of India, etc. She is also the author of 14 plays staged in Russia and abroad and numerous articles in the press., her books and plays won the hearts of a wide audience. It was chiefly due to her efforts that the word "feminism" acquired legitimacy in the post-Soviet era. Since 1991, parallel to her literary and media activities, she headed a feminist club for psychological rehabilitation of women. And since 1996, her club “Women Intervene in Politics” has been involved in seeking a more equitable representation of women in the Russian political establishment. Joining the ranks of the liberal Union of Right-wing Forces, she made an unsuccessful bid in 1999 to win the elections to the State Duma and subsequently wrote an account of her harrowing electoral experience: How I Attempted to Get Elected to the Duma.
Arbatova’s books, her numerous contributions to the press and her public activities aim to do away with the discrimination of women in Russia. She received much praise for her literary and public achievements. In 1991, she won the All-Union Competition of Radio Plays for her “Initiation Ceremony”. In the same year, she was awarded Gold Medal by the Cambridge Bibliographical Society for “Contribution to the 20th-century Culture” In 1993, her story “Abortion from the Unloved One” was nominated for the Best Prose award. In 1996 she was nominated Laureate of the Bonn Biennale for her play “A Trial Interview on the Theme of Freedom” directed by the Bonn Drama Theater. In 1998, she was a winner in the Radio Drama Competition “The European Prize” for her play “Initiation Ceremony” directed by Radio Russia. In 2003, she was awarded a medal “For Service to the Homeland” by the National Welfare Foundation.
THE IRON PHILATELIST
By Maria Arbatova & Sumit Dutta Gupta.
A documentary novel, 370 pp.
THE IRON PHILATELIST is a true story of a living legend, one of the most successful Russian spies: Alexei Kozlov, retired from the intelligence service in 2000. The book is based on Kozlov’s own detailed accounts recorded and fictionalized by the authors. A documentary film, based on the novel, was televised on TV Channel One.
When eleven Western spies were swapped for a single Soviet agent at the height of the Cold War, it seemed like a thumping victory for Western diplomacy. But the Soviets were jubilant! This ransom was a bargain for retrieving Alexei Kozlov, a secret agent nicknamed Iron Philatelist.
Alexei Kozlov grew up in the nondescript town of Vologda in Northern Russia, graduated from the International Affairs Institute in Moscow, and could rely only on his talents, energy, and command of German early in his career to circumvent the elitist hierarchy of the Soviet system and clinch his first assignment as a KGB rookie in West Germany. During the next decade, Alexei Kozlov, alias Otto Schmidt, exploiting his irresistible charm and flair for learning languages, crisscrosses the globe as a shrewd merchandiser, peddling the latest dry cleaning machines on behalf of an Italian corporation. Assiduously developing his network, Otto Schmidt becomes a custodian of secrets in whom influential Jews and Arabs in the Middle East confide with total trust, and an inadvertent mediator in whom French colonists and Arab militants equally seek empathy in Algeria.
Only his collection of stamps, a hobby to which he is fervently devoted from childhood, had a wider geographical coverage.
In 1979, an intense double flash of light, that ominously resembles a nuclear detonation, is registered in the Indian Ocean. When the 'bastard' blast remains unclaimed by all members of the existing nuclear club, all suspecting eyes turn to the rogue nation that lies in the vicinity of the explosion: South Africa. An impregnable nation with no diplomatic ties to any country, except Malawi, South Africa was rich in uranium and diamonds, but poor in human rights. Civilized nations spat in reprehension at the inhuman apartheid regime, but secretly salivated at the prospect of conducting business with this resource-abundant land. Perhaps, the itch to know the truth about the suspected nuclear blast, like the prevailing racist ideology in South Africa, was most unbearable to the Soviets, and they employ their best agent, Alexei Kozlov, alias Otto Schmidt, to solve this nuclear whodunit.
Otto Schmidt arrives legally in Malawi, ostensibly for business, and starts making acquaintances among members of a local club for Whites. He meets Tiana, an emotionally unstable, attractive woman who shows an inexplicable interest in nuclear physics, and an explicit interest in Otto, especially after he saves her from a gun-toting black mob in the club. Otto tactfully avoids her feminine wiles, but comes to know her close enough to be privy to her tormenting secret: her husband was part of a team of Israeli scientists who clandestinely aided and abetted South Africa in acquiring The Bomb, and was probably liquidated for his indiscreet behavior.
South Africa is teeming with racist colonialists and their haplessly segregated victims; with swindlers, speculators and prospectors of all colours and nations and every intention; with local witches and quack doctors, concocting their curative brews with herbs and human organs; and ruthless businessmen, feeding off the fat of the land. Otto has a hunch that his catch lies in these murky waters, and so he places a job ad in a local newspaper, announcing his need for a professional pilot who can paratroop his dry-cleaning machines even in the most inaccessible parts of the country. Among the hundreds of applications he receives, Otto is intrigued by one response – from a pilot who claims to have served in a Special Squadron of the South African Air Force.
Ugo Lastman turns out to be not only an expert pilot, but a boisterous and boastful buffoon. To give his resume an extra edge, Ugo swears that he was party to a nuclear blast, and promises to produce a photograph at the next meeting to quash Otto's skepticism. The scheduled meeting never takes place as Ugo falls prey to a round of indiscriminate firing by black militants just meters away from their meeting point. However, when the firing stops, Otto retrieves from the dead Ugo's wallet a clear photograph of a nuclear mushroom. Now Otto has incontrovertible proof of the nuclear explosion, which he hurriedly dispatches to the KGB headquarters in Moscow. Mission fulfilled, it is now time for Otto to tie up the loose ends and slip out of the country unscathed. Otto organizes a farewell cruise in a luxurious yacht on the river Vaal for his new acquaintances and friends, partly to assuage his guilt before Tiana, and partly to declare his leave of absence. However, when the merry company reaches the shore, Otto notices a cordon of tough men from the South African Counterintelligence Agency waiting for him. Otto is arrested on charges of terrorism, an allegation that precludes the need for observing any legal formality while dealing with the suspect.
Despite the sadistic tortures to which he is subjected day and night, Otto brushes aside all allegations against him, believing that South African Counterintelligence has no proof of his true identity. He is later cross-examined by a battery of intelligence officials from Germany, Italy, France, Israel, Britain and the U.S.A, but Otto refuses to cooperate although he is aware of the hazards of remaining anonymous for long: his impatient hosts could simply liquidate him without being held accountable for his death.
His hosts soon start employing third-degree measures to loosen his tongue. E.g., Otto is forced to stand upright without support for 26 hours when any tottering leads to bouts of beating; he is tied to a scalding-hot iron cage in the 500C heat of the desert, and then incarcerated in a dark cell until the skin on his hands crack and bleed from the lack of light. He is transferred to the death row; from a cell adjoining the gallows, he gets a close-up view of the execution theater; one day a loop is tied round his neck and only pulled out at the last moment. In his twilight state between life and death, only the ghost of the legendary Zulu chief, Shaka, visits him with some frequency and communicates with him in a mysterious sign-language. In more lucid moments, Otto finds consolation visualizing his father, a school teacher, physically handicapped after the war, daily braving on crutches, hail or storm or snow, the ten-mile distance from their home to his school. One day, during a regular interrogation Otto is confronted with a photograph of his expired wife, Tanya, and his own bearing his real name on the back. He understands that any further denial is futile, and curtly admits: “My name is Alexei Kozlov. I'm a Soviet officer and that's all you will learn from me.” He sticks to his word for another year until the Prime Minister of South Africa, Peter Botha, publicly announces in December 1981 that Alexei Kozlov is being held in confinement in South Africa.
Thus began Alexei Kozlov's release and return to Russia, where he was first placed on 'quarantine' and then rehabilitated. Later he learned that he had been betrayed by the ex-officer of the KGB Oleg Gordiyevsky, who had defected to the UK.
After four years of quiet life Kozlov asked the Intelligence Service to send him back into active service. It may have been a preposterous request for an uncovered agent, but it worked. Kozlov spent another decade in an undisclosed European country as a resident, but that's a different story.
Sumit Dutta Gupta, citizen of India living in Moscow, writer and financial analyst, Maria Arbatova’s husband.