This reading group guide for Defectors includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Moscow, 1961: With the successful launch of Sputnik
, the Soviet Union’s international prestige is at an all-time high. Living behind the Iron Curtain, former CIA agent Frank Weeks, the most notorious of the American defectors, is about to publish his memoirs. Frank’s defection twelve years earlier shook Washington to its core—and forced his brother, Simon, to resign from a promising career at the State Department.
Now Simon is a respected New York publisher, and Frank wants him to come to Moscow and edit his manuscript. It’s a reunion Simon both dreads and longs for, but he can’t resist the chance to see his adored older brother. At first, Frank seems much the same—charming, charismatic, the smartest guy in the room. Then Simon begins to glimpse another Frank, still capable of deceit, still in thrall to the KGB, as he’s pulled into Frank’s twilit world and a scheme that will test the bonds of brotherhood one last time.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The defectors have declared their loyalty to Russia and lived there for years, yet they are clearly not fully at ease. How do you think they would answer the question “Where is your home?” Why?
2. Like many immigrants, the defectors have left their homeland for another country by choice. The reasons for leaving one’s birth country can be extremely varied, but are the defectors’ reasons for leaving similar to those of other immigrants? How do these groups attempt to integrate into their new homelands? Compare and contrast.
3. For what reasons did Frank become disillusioned with the USA and defect to the Soviet Union, and how does the USSR meet his expectations once he gets there? Can a nation state ever live up to the myths of its founding or are these ideals unattainable?
4. Often Frank refers to the KGB as “The Service.” Does using this vague terminology suggest anything about his character? Are there other instances where Frank obfuscates a simple truth or phase to keep from betraying his allegiance or opinion?
5. On Simon’s tour of Moscow, Frank points out two buildings and tells Simon the story of their construction: “They brought two sets of drawings to Stalin, to choose, but he just said yes, fine, and nobody had the guts to say ‘which?’ so they built them both, one on top of the other.” (pg. 31) What does Frank’s story illustrate about Russian society under Soviet rule, and why do you think Frank points this out to Simon?
6. On page 42, Hal, an American reporter, says he’s interested in the defectors not for “what they did” but “what they’re doing now,” likening them to “ghosts” and their predicament to a “ghost story.” Why do you think he draws this metaphor? Why is Hal interested in the aftermath of their decision to defect rather than the act of betrayal itself?
7. What risks are reporters like Hal taking to document the stories of the defectors? What is the importance of revealing these stories to the general public? Can reporters or publishers tell accurate stories when information is so heavily censored?
8. At one point, Simon and Frank visit Patriarch’s Pond, the setting for many famous scenes in The Master and Margarita
, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel satirizing the Soviet Union. What are some of the incongruities and absurdities of life under Soviet rule that Defectors
9. Thanks to many vivid descriptions and scenes, a picture of life in Soviet-era Moscow begins to emerge in Defectors
. What sense do you get of the lives of the Russian people who exist just off the page, and who perhaps don’t have the same access to elite power brokers as Frank, Simon, and Jo?
10. As the novel progresses, Frank entertains the idea that Simon is there to try to turn him back into an American intelligence agent. In this moment is he being paranoid or logical?
11. “Catch up and overtake . . . That used to be the slogan, remember? Catch up and overtake. The West. In industry. Production.” (pg. 88) What would the one-line political slogans for the United States and the Russian Federation be today?
12. On page 99, Simon and Frank discuss a case of a spy inadvertently giving up information and getting twenty years in prison. Does the punishment for treason—decades of imprisonment or even death—match the gravity of the crime? Use the current examples of treason cases in the US—Edward Snowden or Bowe Bergdahl—to guide your discussion.
13. On page 114, Simon tells a small lie to cover for his brother Frank. How does Frank put Simon in situations where he feels the need to lie without ever explicitly asking him to?
14. Frank says jokingly that he is “running” Simon, making him into one of his operatives (pg. 132). Do you believe he is actually joking here? What techniques does Frank use to obscure his intentions and beliefs throughout the novel?
15. Later in the novel, Simon observes in wonderment: “And for a second he felt what everyone here must feel, living under house arrest. For imaginary crimes.” (pg. 145) What “imaginary crimes” do you think Simon is referring to? What contributes to Simon’s growing sense of feeling entrapped?Enhance Your Book Club
1. At one point, Frank ruminates on the game of spies and predicts the future of the Soviet Union: “We survived the Americans, all the loonies flying around with their bombs. We’re sending satellites into space. We’re catching up. One beat-up old agent switching sides isn’t going to bring the house crashing down. If it ever would have.” (pg. 77) Looking back with hindsight as a benefit, did espionage during the Cold War change the course of the economic, technological, or historical fate of the countries involved?
2. Part of the research that went into the writing of Defectors
was based on the “Cambridge Five,” five Englishmen who defected to Russia during the Cold War, including “Kim” Philby, who went on to write a memoir. Read Philby’s memoir or journalistic accounts and consider how his experiences are similar to the ones that the characters in the novel have?
3. The Cold War has spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, from classics such as The Hunt for Red October
to the currently popular The Americans
. Why do you think Hollywood returns to the Cold War and its spy games so often? What scene from Defectors
would you most like to see on screen? What does Defectors
add to your understanding of the time period that you haven’t seen before in other mediums or interpretations?