From secret police files retrieved from the archives in post-Soviet Russia to the horror of Stalin’s purges, Secrets and Spies: The Harbin Files unravels the complex historical forces which shaped a family’s destiny.

Secrets and SpiesHarbin in north China was once the heart of a vibrant Russian community of diverse cultural and political origins. But by the mid-1930s, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria drove many Russians to seek refuge elsewhere. For the thousands who returned to their motherland in the Soviet Union, it was a bitter homecoming. At the height of Stalin’s purges, they were arrested as Japanese spies. Some were shot, others sent to labour camp, few survived. Among them were members of the author’s family.

Driven by curiosity and armed with chutzpah, Mara Moustafine fronted up at the headquarters of the former KGB in post-Soviet Moscow and asked for help to discover what had happened. She got more than she bargained for. The family’s secret police files, retrieved from archives at opposite ends of Russia, revealed the horror of the purges as well as startling secrets about their lives in turbulent years in China and the Soviet Union. What was fact? What was fiction?

Written with sensitivity and humour, Secrets and Spies skilfully weaves personal and political, past and present to give an insider’s perspective on the life of ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Secrets and Spies: The Harbin Files is published by Penguin Random House Australia.


Community Relations Commission Award

Literary Award 2003‘Secrets and Spies is at the same time a memoir, a detective story and a work of historical investigation. The author arrived in Australia with her parents in 1959 from Harbin, the Russian community in Northern China, but many of her family had returned to Russia. What began as a vague yearning to connect with family across continents and generations led to the files of the KGB and years of painstaking research. Gradually, through the author’s determination and a certain amount of good fortune, more and more information was uncovered and the fate of family members during the years of Stalin’s purges became clearer…. The reader journeys with the author on this quest. It is a passionate and compelling story of one immigrant’s quest to fully understand the forces that shaped her and her family both here and in other parts of the world.’
– Judges Comments





‘This extraordinary tale of travels, survivals and burdens of suspicion will fascinate readers’
– Thomas Keneally, author of ‘Schindler’s Ark’

‘Secrets and Spies is a cry from the heart. Every page took me further and deeper into an experience listening to the horror stories of people who, though their souls had taken a beating and had survived Stalinism – the darkest of the dark years. Mara Moustafine uses extraordinary descriptive power to bring back to life a family she has never met. She has transformed Stalin’s victims into people you can almost touch and speak with, so detailed is her portrayal of their lives, so deep her own angst at the tragedy which beset them. Secrets and Spies is a protest – indignation at the inhumanity of one of this century’s worst evils. A tribute to Moustafine and the past she has turned into a present.’
– Monica Attard, ABC journalist and author of ‘Russia: Which Way Paradise?’

‘Secrets and Spies is an extraordinary book and contains an enormous series of moral lessons…I’ve read many family histories but none of them have the maturity and depth of this one. Often a family history is filled with personal anguish but there is a simplicity to it which makes it difficult to draw from it what is really happening in the wider world. Because of her background, Mara Moustafine is able to set the scene of a family drawn into the vortex of the most tragic events of the last century. She has the capacity for clinical, independent-minded research and broad moral judgement that enables her to do justice to the horror of her family’s story.’
– The Hon Kim Beazley, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia

‘Moustafine’s gripping chronicle balances the personal impact of discovery with skilled geopolitical analysis…Secrets and Spies certainly delivers on its promise of unveiling lethal conspiracies. But it is the Darwinian struggle of ordinary people against overwhelming historical odds that grabs the attention.’
– Felicity Bloch, Sydney Morning Herald, read in full

‘The search for what happened to her relatives was harrowing because so many perished, but the tale she tells is gripping and extraordinary.’
– Stephen Vines, Far Eastern Economic Review

‘The book unfolds rather like a murder mystery…Moustafine’s procedure resembles that of the forensic scientist as she disinters archival material, noting, comparing, verifying and applying her own critical judgment. … Her investigations were remarkably successful… mainly through her own thoroughness, tenacity, scholarly training and linguistic ability.
– Rod Beecham, Australian Book Review read in full

‘Mara Moustafine’s search … takes her, and the reader, on an odyssey that spans Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and China from Manchuria to Shanghai, providing glimpses of history rarely explored in western books. Her family’s migration from Byelorussia to … Manchuria …and the multi-cultural society that developed in those eastern outposts create an exotic background for the political football the region eventually proved to be.
– Erna McCulla, Asian Review of Books read in full

‘Secrets and Spies … offers an eloquent insight into the destructive power of xenophobia. Anyone reading it will be better equipped to recognize and resist its recent recrudescence.’
– Stephen Holt, The Diplomat, February-March 2003


Noviy Zhurnal 2003 – Zhanna Dolgopolova
Rossiya i ATR 2004 – Galina Kanevskaya
Gorizont Review


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