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Literature / AQUARIUM

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Aquarium is a 1985 book, Based on a True Story, by Viktor Suvorov, the pen name of Vladimir Rezun, a former GRU officer, who defected to the West in 1978. The book describes his life - with certain details changed, naturally - until he fled to the West.

The young Senior Lieutenant Suvorov, during an exercise, is noticed by the ascending Lieutenant Colonel Kravtsov, assigned to command the intel department of the army's staff. Kravtsov takes him to work under his command. After some time (during which he received some basic training with the Spetsnaz), he is noticed again - by the GRU. He is brought to the organization. The titular Aquarium is the glass walled headquarters of the GRU - and the first rule is "whatever is said inside, stays inside". After several years of training, he is sent to work abroad. Eventually, he gets into considerable favor. However, during an important mission, he hesitates to film something that would mean the downfall of his friend. Afraid of the repercussions, he flees to Britain.

Aquarium was first published in Britain, then published in America under the title Inside the Aquarium: The Making of a Top Soviet Spy. A feature film and a 4-part TV series based on this book were made by a Polish-Ukrainian-German team in the late 1990s.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Absence of Evidence: at one point, a superior asks Suvorov whether he knows what a certain section of the intelligence department is dealing with. Turns out he does - since he never received any data from them, the obvious conclusion is that these are units which only operate during the war. Combined with the available data about the section's officers, who are all very tall, that means these are recon and sabotage units. Well, the proper name for them is Spetsnaz, but of course that cannot be obtained by deduction.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: A sneak peek of a hidden compartment in a bag is used to tempt potential recruits. Of course, the new shiny bills there are not the cash actually used for payment.
  • Buried Alive: Suvorov is told about a man who was revealed to be a traitor. He begged not to kill him. Well, he was buried alive and died on his own.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: The first lesson Suvorov was taught in the Spy School - avoid this as much as possible.
  • Dead Drop: It is described that for most spies under diplomatic cover, all their work consists of either checking and filling Dead Drops, or driving around so that the police won't be able to pinpoint these. Actual contacts with agents are to be made as few as possible.
  • Defector from Commie Land
  • Demoted to Extra: At one point, a man says that Suvorov found himself a nice girl, who previously allowed no others near her. She is never mentioned afterwards. In reality, she became his wife, and he fled to the West with her and their two children.
  • Exact Words: See Buried Alive, above.
  • Gadget Watch: He uses one with a microphone during a training mission. Seems like using it during dinner was a mistake, with all the cutlery noise.
  • Gone Horribly Right: During his training, Suvorov had to recover a package stored in a secret spot, while avoiding the KGB. He is arrested as soon as he gets to the spot, despite believing himself to be clear. Turns out he was arrested for real - by KGB agents constantly watching the very good spot for foreign spies.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Suvorov mentions a Spetsnaz guy beating off four men with staves, while he was armed with a sapper's spade. According to another book by him, this style is a common skill in the Spetsnaz - the enemy is unlikely to be used to this.
  • Incomprehensible Entrance Exam: The protagonist's exhausting six-day entrance exam for the Soviet intelligence agency, GRU. The exam consists of thousands of questions, asked very rapidly (about one per minute), for 17 hours every day, with almost no breaks allowed. They include questions about random military topics ("What is the pressure exerted per centimeter of ground by the M-60 tank?", "Describe how would you modernize the B-58 bomber"), personality tests ("What is your favorite kind of woman?"), memory tests ("Here's 200 photographs, pick the people you've seen in this room exactly once"), or simple mental math ("What is 262 times 16?" with a (false) answer scribbled on the table in an attempt to trick the candidate). The main purpose isn't to actually test the candidate's knowledge in fact, people who score over 90% on the exam are rejected as "too smart" but rather their ability to perform mentally under extreme pressure.
  • It's Raining Men: Suvorov participates in a few Spetsnaz deployments by parachute.
  • Japanese Tourist: Referenced when Suvorov is looking through the records of hotels, to figure out which would be the best to plant agents in order to recruit the visitors. When coming across Japanese tourists, they ignore them, since a Japanese doesn't come twice to the same country.
  • Murder by Cremation: When he is recruited, Suvorov is shown a film of a traitor being burned alive.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The book shows the life of a spy quite different from what most people are used to.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: See Murder by Cremation.
  • Roman Clef: Appears to be the version of Based on a True Story in use here — a generally true story, but with certain details changed.
  • Shovel Strike: See Improbable Weapon User.
  • Spy School
  • Staring Contest: Suvorov described how, during his training, he was taught that no man can be recruited unless you can win a Staring Contest with him; otherwise, he has the stronger will. Suvorov spent quite a bit of time in the zoo, staring down tigers as practice.
  • Tank Goodness: At the start of the book, Suvorov is a tank company commander. The scene is rather memorable.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: At one point, when training in Spetsnaz, he is actually trained not to be afraid of snakes. According to him, before the training, he would rather eat a man than a snake when starving. After the training, he's still disgusted at snakes, but at least it's the other way around.