When I embarked on a PhD ten years ago, I had no idea how much I would grow to love archives and how one thing would lead to another. I completed my research in 2010, it was then published as a book (“The Last Ambassador: August Torma, Soldier, Diplomat, Spy”, 2011), but things did not stop there.
August Torma, whose life I had been researching, was the Estonian ambassador in London. Deeply unhappy because his country had been stolen from him by the Soviets in 1940, he kept the flame of Estonian independence alive for decades. He, however, was a retiring man who left few personal papers behind. That meant that for a proper biography I had to study all the people he had come across, in the hope that they might reveal something of the man I was focused on. I wrote down a great number of names, some incomplete at that stage, and then worked through the list. Among them was Brian Giffey, an eccentric British intelligence officer who had spent eleven years (1929-40) in Tallinn. Gradually I learnt that, while in Estonia, Giffey had fallen in love with a local girl and married her. And that Anni Oras, as her maiden name was, had a cousin, Paul Oras, who had worked for Soviet intelligence.
At first I tried to write these two men, Brian Giffey and Paul Oras, into one book because I was so struck by the coincidence and symmetry that I perceived. What a find! Two men related by marriage were both working for the secret service, but on the opposing sides! This seemed too good to be true. With time, however, it became clear that my idea would not work. The men had never met, had not influenced each other’s work – they had in fact not that much in common. There was much more personal information on Giffey and, by comparison, he emerged as the more colourful man, overshadowing Oras.
In the end I decided to separate the men and rewrite their biographies as two books: one on Giffey in English (“Portrait of a Secret Agent”, 2014) and the other on Oras in Estonian (“Paul Oras – punane admiral”, 2016). Oras was born of Estonian parents, his father was a banker in Tallinn, but the son became an ardent communist who had a fantastic career as a Soviet negotiator and naval attaché in several countries. His career, however, was cut short in 1937 by Stalin’s wave of repressions, but even when imprisoned he was useful to the Soviet Union as a naval engineer. It’s quite a story.
Now that the books have been published, this is where my road ends. The three men who knew each other, or knew of each other, have finally had their life stories published. I am well pleased I have been able to do something for them because they all deserve to be better known. Now, however, I have to start afresh and find a completely new lead if I am to go back to archival research and work on another unsung hero. I am thinking of Nikolai Köstner who worked in Switzerland and Egypt for years. No known intelligence connection, not yet.