There is Nothing for You Here. By Fiona Hill. Mariner Books; 432 pages; $30
WHO WAS the woman with the strange British accent testifying to Congress during the hearings for President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, suddenly in the spotlight and trending on Twitter? For the many who wondered, Fiona Hill now explains: she is a miner’s daughter from Bishop Auckland, a long-neglected town in the north-east of England, who, against the odds, went to university, won a scholarship to Harvard and became a leading expert on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For two years she was the top adviser on European and Russian affairs in Mr Trump’s National Security Council—hence her starring role in the probe into his efforts to smear Joe Biden via Ukraine. A few in Mr Trump’s White House cruelly dubbed her “the Russia bitch”.
Readers in search of fresh insider revelations about the Trump presidency may be disappointed by her new memoir. To be sure, she is damning about her former boss. He is a misogynist, a shallow showman and supremely selfish. “I don’t believe Trump was intentionally doing something for Putin or for anyone else,” Ms Hill writes. “Trump was only ever concerned with himself.” He is incurious about details, with the significant exception of matters relating to nuclear-arms control. His vanity and fragile self-esteem make him “exquisitely vulnerable” and a liability to the country. He abused his position to attempt a “self-coup” after his defeat to Mr Biden in last year’s election. But most of this is well-known, at least among the former president’s critics.
The freshness of Ms Hill’s story lies instead in the description of her background, and the unique insights she believes this gives her into global affairs—a very different perspective from most national-security experts in Washington. With the closure of mines and other local industries, Bishop Auckland became a forgotten place devoid of opportunity. People had jobs, not careers. Her family’s poverty prevented her from taking up a place at a private girls’ school, even though it offered to waive the fees; Ms Hill’s father balked at the cost of the uniform, transport and school trips. An interview for the University of Oxford was a disaster, as she felt hopelessly out of place. A familiar trifecta of English questions (where are you from, what does your father do, what school do you go to?) kept swatting her down.
She went instead to the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where she studied Russian. Eventually, America offered an escape from British pigeonholing of accent and class. Other obstacles stood in her way, notably because she is a woman. When working on reforms in post-communist Russia she was assumed to be a prostitute on entering a hotel for a meeting. As a speaker at a conference she was mistaken for a tea lady. In the White House Mr Trump supposed she was a secretary. For years she was paid less than men who were doing equivalent jobs.
Not only did Ms Hill overcome these difficulties, she turned them to her…