Thursday, August 19, 2010

Legendary Charm Schools

After reading the novel “The Charm School” by Nelson DeMille recently, I was reminded that I had read about the central conceit of the novel’s plot—that the former Soviet Union had top secret spy schools that taught agents to act just like Americans, Brits, Frenchmen, etc.—back in the 1960s. An Internet search shows that the idea has, indeed, been around a while and has been the subject of many books, but nothing on the ’Net demonstrates that such “charm schools” ever really existed. The material on the Web is a mixture of fiction and questionable not to mention sometimes contradictory nonfiction. There are even reviews of some nonfiction accounts that claim these are hoaxes. This is not to say that the schools did not (do not?) exist; it just means that there is a great deal of mythology and legend surrounding these schools. No discussion of them on the Internet seems to prove their existence, but that does not mean that there are not somewhere reputable books and articles off the ’Net proving their authenticity.

After a fashion, we should not expect this information to be easily available and firmly authenticated. Firstly, the schools are always described as ultra-top secret. The Soviets would not have liked even the rumors to exist if the schools were real. Secondly, while you might think that Western intelligence services would want to expose the existence of such schools, they might not want to panic their citizenry by officially revealing that the person sitting next to you at the lunch counter might be a spy. better to let the information filter out to the public in the form of fictional books and television programs.

As I noted in my review of "The Charm School” at Shelfari, DeMille’s novel sets its spy school in the middle of Russia just off the main road between Minsk and Moscow, while the charm schools of legend were discretely placed in more remote areas. For example, the supposed location of the school for spies destined for English-speaking countries is said to straddle the former Soviet republics of Tatar and Bashkir (now Tatarstan and Bashkortostan respectively), not too far from Kazakhstan.

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