Book review: A Dark Path To Freedom - Ruzi Nazar, From The Red Army To The CIA, By Enver Altayli

Enver Altayli
Enver Altayli
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A Red Army officer during the Second World War, a fugitive in postwar Germany and then a high-ranking officer in the CIA, Ruzi Nazar led a truly remarkable life, and in A Dark Path To Freedom, Enver Altayli, one of Turkey’s leading specialists on Central Asia and a friend of Nazar for more than half a century, has turned it into a breathtaking book.

Nazar was born in Turkestan in 1917, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. He was called up into the Red Army in 1939 and was in action from the moment the Germans invaded Russia in 1941. Wounded, he was hidden and nursed by a Ukrainian farmer’s family, and when he recovered the only way for him to save his life was to defect to the German army along with other Turkestanis (Tajiks and Uzbeks), where they became members of the Reich’s Turkestan Legion.

The section dealing with this period is the most powerful part of the book, grim but also inspiring. There are stories, for example, of how the Muslim Legionnaires saved many Jews who, like themselves, were circumcised. By secretly giving Russian-Jewish PoWs Turkish names and life stories, they convinced the SS that these men were Muslim Turkestanis who could be signed up for the Legion.

In the chaos at the end of the war, again hidden by farmers, this time in Germany, Nazar avoided capture by Allied troops and the fate of being returned to the Soviet Union and to the firing squad. He emerged from hiding at the time of the Nuremberg trials, secretly assisting in the prosecution of SS officers, and within months he had been given passage to the United States and work with the CIA.

In the 1950s Nazar made programmes in Uzbek for the CIA’s Radio Free Europe and was infiltrated into conferences on the non-aligned nations, where he agitated on behalf of ethnic minorities inside China and the Soviet Union. Thereafter he was posted to Turkey, Iran (where he was part of the operation that freed six US diplomats hidden in the Canadian Embassy, the subject of the 2012 film Argo) and Afghanistan, where he argued unsuccessfully that the US should not align itself with the jihadist groups fighting the Soviets. In 1992, when Washington recognised the free Republic of Uzbekistan, Nazar was able to visit his homeland for the first time since 1940.

Based on weeks of recorded interviews, this book chronicles the life of a man who, in his 99 years, experienced first-hand many of the crises of the 20th century, contributing to the resolution of some of them. Many will value it for the profound and challenging perspectives it takes on colonialism and nationalism; others for Nazar’s recollection of a night he spent with Elizabeth Taylor.

*Book review: A Dark Path To Freedom - Ruzi Nazar, From The Red Army To The CIA, By Enver Altayli, Hurst Publishers, £25