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Two Spies, Two Opposing Sides, One Fast Friendship

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The next gambit went less well. Vasilenko and Platt met for drinks with an F.B.I. agent, known as “Johnny Disco” for the white suit he wore when teaching disco dancing, and a C.I.A. code clerk, known as “Captain Dougie,” at a waterside restaurant. Unfortunately, Johnny Disco couldn’t hold his liquor. “This here is real vodka, this here is a real K.G.B. guy,” he loudly declared at one point, adding, “Those are real C.I.A. guys and I’m F.B.I.!” Platt threw $100 on the table and ordered everyone to leave. Unfortunately, two men at nearby tables were colonels in Air Force intelligence. After they reported the incident, Platt managed, just barely, to salvage his career.

Russo’s previous books include “The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Making of Modern America,” and Dezenhall is the co-author of “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong.” The fact that neither is a historian brings a certain freshness to their narrative. Fast-paced and lively, “Best of Enemies” is suitable for the general reader with an interest in Cold War espionage, although its chatty tone and the authors’ evident admiration for their subjects can become tiresome.

Platt played a key role in the 2001 capture of the former F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, one of the most notorious traitors in American history. Moscow wrongly blamed Vasilenko for the loss of their agent, since his friendship and business links with Platt made him a prime suspect. Vasilenko was arrested in August 2005, the start of a five-year nightmare odyssey through the brutal Russian penal system, until he was traded for several captured Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman. Platt died in 2017 and Vasilenko now lives in the United States.

“Best of Enemies” can be read as a lament for a world in which mutually assured destruction brought a strange kind of stability. The two nuclear superpowers may have fought proxy wars, but they always stepped back from the brink. The Cold War was a dangerous time, but it was a time with rules. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a Soviet leader authorizing the kind of slapdash operation that took place in Salisbury, England, when a deadly poison was used in an attempted assassination, then left in a perfume bottle to kill an innocent bystander. “It was a world of rowdy soldiers, jocks, lotharios, Machiavellians, venal cops, bitter bureaucrats wearing porno mustaches and aviator frames,” Russo and Dezenhall tell us. That world is long gone, leaving in its wake something much more perilous.

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