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Jonathan Ball

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Irina Filatova Launches The Hidden Thread with RW Johnson at the Centre for the Book

RW Johnson and Irina Filatova

The Hidden ThreadJonathan Ball publisher Jeremy Boraine welcomed audience members to The Centre for the Book last night for the launch of The Hidden Thread by Irina Filatova and Apollon Davidson. Boraine commented on how we are living in an age of instant gratification, especially with regards to information, and said that The Hidden Thread is a step away from this, as it is the result of decades of research, travel and writing by Filatova and Davidson. He went on to say that they have succeeded in writing a book that is entirely sound on an academic level but is also accessible to the layperson. There are travelers, soldiers, spies, ballerinas, criminals: it’s not just an academic study but a story of people, he said.

Boraine then introduced Filatova and her husband, the journalist and historian RW Johnson, who joined her to discuss the book. Johnson honed in on the information in the book relating to the extent of the role which the KGB (the Soviet Union’s Committee of State Security) played in establishing a connection between South Africa and the then Soviet Union. Filatova explained that the connection was made when a Soviet intelligence officer was caught in South Africa in the early 80s and a deal was made to return him. It was during this exchange that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the KGB established a connection that was to continue for years during the height of apartheid. She had spoken to former NIS head, Niel Barnard, who couldn’t remember the exact date that the meetings stopped, but that it was in either 1986 or 1987. Filatova says that she thinks it was in November of 1987.

Johnson then asked Filatova to talk about people in the top level of the Soviet Union who toyed with the idea of ending support to the ANC and instead backing South Africa’s white nationalists. Filatova stressed that although the discussion at the launch was centering on the relationship between the KGB and the NIS, this is not the main focus of the book but as her husband is a journalist, he likes sensationalism. Filatova explained that the idea that the ANC was not strong enough to come into power had started to develop among some people. Although this was not a defined idea within the organisation it was a powerful trend. They started thinking that the Soviet Union needed to diversify and establish a relationship with the white government so as not to be behind when the transition came, if the ANC didn’t make it into power.

The discussion then turned to Sidney Bunting, who played an instrumental role in the formation of the Communist Party of South Africa, with Johnson saying that his story was the saddest thing in the book. Filatova agreed that he had been treated abominably by the party, after devoting his life to it, saying that he was kicked out on completely artificial charges. She then spoke about how the International Communist Organisation in Moscow dictated to the Communist Party of South Africa without knowing much of what was actually going on in the country. It was from a meeting in Moscow that the party slogan, “Independent Native Republic for all South African Nations”, came. Johnson asked whether there was any truth to the rumour that this slogan was suggested by James La Guma, who was allegedly a police spy, and that it had been fed to him by his handler. Filatova said that she and Davidson combed through the evidence and found nothing to suggest that he was the first to mention that slogan, however she did say that there is a report describing how someone, who is not named, fed the police information about a communist meeting and she says that the report could only be referring to La Guma.

The discussion wrapped up with Filatova talking about the cooling off of South Africa and Russia’s relationship in the early post-apartheid years and a lively Q&A session with the audience, which included one of the first South African diplomats to Russia and an MK veteran who was among the hundreds to have studied in Russia during the struggle.

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