Library Life


The Spy and the Traitor

A compulsive, dramatic cold-war spy story that’s all true!
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If you are looking for someone to tell a real-life tale of spies and espionage, you need look no further than Ben Macintyre, and his most recent book The Spy and the Traitor.

Macintyre is an associate editor on The Times and the author of other books about real life espionage such as Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat. The Spy and the Traitor reached the Top 10 of the Sunday Times Bestseller list in 2018.

And although he employs the research and story-telling skills of a journalist, Macintyre’s book reads like a novel, and as the story unfolds it becomes a compulsive page-turner. Master spy novelist John Le Carre describes it as “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

This is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, the high-flying KGB agent who turned against the system and organisation that nurtured him, and spied for MI6.

Gordievsky became a double agent while stationed in Denmark – not for money or a luxury lifestyle (which motivated many like him) but because he believed the West embodied democracy and freedom. He felt these virtues needed to be protected against the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union which he came to despise.

Gordievsky was brought up in a KGB family; both his father and brother served the Soviet security service throughout their lives. And Oleg himself reached the pinnacle of that career when he was appointed the KGB head of station in Britain in 1985; one of the plum assignments for any career officer in the KGB.

Macintyre provides so much personal detail you almost feel he was there watching the spy’s life unfold from childhood. As he acknowledges this owes much to the wholehearted cooperation of his subject.

Gordievsky provided extensive material to the author, at least 20 interviews resulting in more than 100 hours of recordings. Macintyre was also able to meet all the main MI6 officers who handled the Russian in addition to undertaking extensive documentary research.

The seemingly loyal, competent KGB officer was considered so valuable a security asset by MI6 that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was kept aware of his activities (although she never knew his identity, referring to him only as ‘Mr Collins’).

He had played a vital role in creating a positive relationship between Mrs Thatcher and the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And he may even have helped prevent a nuclear war when he told MI6 that the Russians were convinced the West was seriously considering a first-strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

Another revelation from Macintyre’s narration of this intrigue is how much depended on the way individual players acted out their roles. Gordievsky’s recruitment in Denmark is portrayed as a romantic seduction. And everything was always indirect, so as not to give the game away and possibly scare off the quarry.

Such was the case concerning an old university friend, Standa Kaplan, who had been convicted in absentia in Czechoslovakia of spying and who had defected to Canada before he could be jailed. Suddenly, and without warning, Kaplan showed up on Gordievsky’s doorstep in Copenhagen. Gordievsky immediately knew that some Western intelligence service had sent Kaplan to sound him out and he reacted very cautiously.

“In every courtship, it is important not to appear overeager. But Gordievsky’s caution was more than mere flirtation technique. Though he had wondered whether Western Intelligence would contact him following his outburst over events in Czechslovakia in 1968, he was still not entirely sure he wanted to be seduced, or who was wooing him.

“No declarations or promises had been made, but an invisible line had been crossed. Gordievsky reflected: ‘I knew that I had given away enough for him to file a positive report.’”

Over an agonisingly long period, this led to Gordievsky being recruited by MI6, eventually being posted to the London KGB station where he prospered and eventually gained promotion.

But when he returned back from Britain to Moscow to hold meetings about his new position as head of the London station, he discovered that someone in the KGB had raised the alarm against him. He was brutally interrogated, and faced imprisonment, torture and execution.

MI6 triggered a well planned but audacious scheme to smuggle him out of the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1985 he came across the border with Finland, escaping detection in the boot of a car with British diplomatic plates.

It was an operation which displayed some Monty Python flourishes involving a plastic Safeway bag, a Mars Bar, cheese and onion crisps and a dirty nappy! (Yes, you’ll have to read the book to find out more.)

But escaping from Russia meant Gordievsky had to turn his back on everything and everyone that he had known: his young wife and children, his mother and sister, and many close friends from the KGB and elsewhere.

Macintyre leaves no doubt that despite entitling his book The Spy and the Traitor he remains an ardent admirer of Gordievsky’s integrity and bravery; contrasting him vividly with the American spy, Aldrich Ames (still in prison) who was responsible for telling the KGB that Gordievsky was a double agent.

“On the surface Gordievsky and Ames behaved in similar ways. Both turned against their respective organizations and countries… both betrayed the oaths they had made at the start of their careers… but Ames spied for money; Gordievsky was driven by ideological convictions… Gordievsky risked his life for a cause; Ames wanted a bigger car.

“Ames chose to serve a brutal totalitarian regime for which he felt no affinity, a country where he would never have considered living… Gordievsky tasted democratic freedom, made it his mission to defend and support that way of life… finally settling in the West at huge personal cost. Gordievsky was on the side of the good. Ames was on his own side.”

The enigmatic Russian spy continues to live somewhere in hiding in the UK, and has never been back to Russia since escaping in that car boot 33 years ago. Somewhere in a suburban house behind a high hedge, the former KGB colonel benefits from 24-hour surveillance and protection, beefed up after the nerve agent attack on fellow spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury last summer.

Who knows, the ex-KGB colonel may be living quietly and inconspicuously not far from Oundle!

But Gordievsky must continue to be vigilant, never knowing if the KGB has found him, just biding their time until they seek a final revenge. His freedom comes at a high price.
Report by Monsieur T, with the help of his mysterious associates