An Espionage Mystery in the Caucasus

Book review: The Spy Who Was Left Behind, by Michael Pullara (Amazon / Book Depository)

Lawyer Michael Pullara was bothered by the official narrative of the 1993 murder of Freddie Woodruff, a CIA agent and diplomat working as station chief in Tbilisi, Georgia at the time of his death. Pullara spent ten years investigating and researching the incident and its myriad oddities; The Spy Who Was Left Behind is the culmination of that research, and pieces together what likely occurred.

It’s not necessarily surprising that Woodruff, deep in international intrigue by the nature of his work and the era, was a casualty of the atmosphere prevailing in Russia and the former Soviet republics in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As one example, Aldrich Ames, infamous CIA agent turned KGB mole, had even visited Woodruff shortly before his murder. What is surprising is how and why a nearly unbelievable coverup of the truth of Woodruff’s murder occurred.

Woodruff was shot in a car during a weekend “sightseeing” excursion, on a Georgian mountain road, with a driver with KGB and government connections and some other questionable, curious companions. They were near a checkpoint, and shortly after his death, a somewhat clueless and drunk young soldier named Anzor Sharmaidze was arrested and eventually charged. He confessed to firing the shot that hit Woodruff without any provocation – “a random act of violence” as per Georgian authorities. Case closed.

Except for a seemingly endless string of inconsistencies, impossibilities, overt lies, retracted confessions made under duress and disappearing witnesses with espionage-heavy backgrounds. As some examples (and these are grains of sand on a beach considering the extent of the evidence Pullara uncovers):

The absence of a bullet hole in the Niva meant that Sharmaidze could not have fired at the back of the car and struck someone inside. The presence of rigor mortis meant that Woodruff died long before Sharmaidze allegedly appeared at the scene of the crime. The official version of the murder was impossible.

Both the US and Moscow were a little too eager to accept the flimsy official explanation, and it seemed that suspicion lingered around the incident from the start. Still, no one was willing to pursue any inquiries, and Sharmaidze spent 12 years in prison, then was released and rearrested, despite claiming his confession was the result of torture. “In many ways, the bullet that killed Freddie Woodruff had ricocheted and hit Anzor Sharmaidze,” Pullara observes, sadly accurately. In addition to wanting to know the truth about Woodruff’s murder, Pullara feels he can’t ethically abandon the case, as complicated as it becomes, knowing that an innocent man is still in prison.

He seems to be the only one asking questions, as even the US government is uncooperative. About one piece he unearths, he writes, “[It] was exculpatory evidence. In the hands of a skilled trial lawyer it could be used to liberate an innocent man from prison. And I was a skilled trial lawyer.” His motivations are clear, although the connection with Sharmaidze is an odd, somewhat disconnected thread, maybe because he’s suffered so much and it’s hard to come back from that.

It’s a classic US-Russia spy story with all the twists and elements of intrigue that entails. Which is a double-edged sword for me, in that when I can follow it I’m engrossed, and when I can’t follow it reminds me of why I tend to avoid spy narratives. This one gets dense – it’s not for the easily distracted. Pullara is a careful writer, but with such a wealth of information, dates, names, topics and shifting politics packed into this narrative, confusion is inevitable despite his efforts at making it readable.

The narrative follows his investigation, so we see the story as it appeared to him – as the pieces are fit together, as theories fall into place and older ones are discarded. Multiple trips to Georgia were necessary and the culture shock involved, personally but even more in law and business, were a compelling aspect. I liked the glimpses of the Georgian justice system, where Pullara, an experienced litigator, is confronted with a familiar framework but a wildly unrecognizable system: “I had seen a familiar form, a regional court, and assumed that it was invested with a familiar substance, judicial independence. It was an amateur’s mistake.”

Pullara learns from mistakes and miscalculations (“I had read Rudyard Kipling and knew that only a fool tries to hustle the East”) and exhibits admirable bravery in the undertaking. I’m not sure investigating corruption in a former Soviet republic in an incident that even the US government has washed its hands of, despite involving a diplomat, is a task I’d pursue.

The book also includes enlightening and necessary, if complicated, history of Georgia as a young post-USSR country, and its troubled, unstable leadership under the thumb of Moscow. Not surprisingly, and this shouldn’t be a spoiler, but this one goes all the way to the proverbial top, so we get important insight especially into Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, former presidents of the fledgling nation.

The story of what happened to Freddie Woodruff is a tangled web to unweave, but after a decade of effort, research, and admirable legwork, Pullara seems to have found the answer. It’s a sticky, detail-heavy story getting there, but one that was worth telling. 3/5

The Spy Who Was Left Behind:
Russia, the United States, and the True Story of the Betrayal and Assassination of a CIA Agent
by Michael Pullara
published November 13, 2018 by Scribner

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository


14 thoughts on “An Espionage Mystery in the Caucasus

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  1. I always struggle with true spy stories too – it’s hard for authors to explain what happened without getting involved in so much complex detail and shady stuff that my eyes glaze over a bit. Sounds as if he’s done a pretty good job, though

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He does a decent job but there’s just SO much here, out of necessity. My eyes were glazing a lot and I couldn’t explain more of the plot to you than exactly what I wrote here, to be honest! I’m not sure I’d pick up another true spy story anytime soon, I guess I don’t have the focused concentration for them. I think it’d be a dream book for those who love that kind of story though!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! The story itself was intriguing but between so many details, confusing narrative, political back and forth, I felt like a lot of it was whooshing right by me. I don’t think I’ll be picking up any spy narratives again anytime soon! But I so admire what the author did, I can’t imagine undertaking investigating this scenario, it seemed a surreal, uphill battle all the way.

      Liked by 1 person

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