The Spy and the Traitor

More spy stuff because I decided to read a spy book from my library for every new one I reviewed.

Review: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre, 2018.untitled

For once, the subtitle on this one is not an exaggeration. The only other contenders I can think for “greatest espionage story of the Cold War” would be those of Oleg Penkovsky and, of course, Kim Philby who Macintyre also wrote a book about.

Like Penkovsky, Oleg Gordievsky was a Soviet intelligence officer who was a double agent for the West. Like Philby, Gordievsky made a daring escape to be with the country he secretly served. In Philby’s case, though, it was the considerably easier task of smuggling himself out of Lebanon and to the Soviet Union. Gordievsky was smuggled out of Moscow while he was under surveillance.

I certainly have not read every espionage memoir or case history ever written, but I’ve read a fair number, and Macintyre’s book is simply the best book on a spy case I’ve ever read. Macintyre not only has a nice turn of phrase but also delves into the psychology of the spy. This is a book that examines the complex motives – more complicated than the acronym MICE (money, ideology, compromise, and ego) would suggest – of the spy, and their intimate relationships with the case officers who “run” them. Macintyre shows the KGB and MI6 and the CIA as bureaucracies full, to varying degrees, of time servers, those psychologically unsuited for the work, and, of course, the usual bureaucratic tendency to bury failure or shift blame for it.

And he talks about the high personal cost Gordievsky paid for his defection to the West.

Yet, it’s also full of specific details like how to shake surveillance on the street or how the KGB elaborately secured access to their archives or how a KGB car could be spotted by its incomplete washing.

Macintyre, of course, had the advantage of being able to interview his subject. Gordievsky is still alive and has written his own memoir. Macintrye also interviewed those in the three intelligence services who worked with Gordievsky as well as his ex-wife.

Macintyre even gets away with something that I normally don’t like. He repeats himself at times. To be precise, he repeats himself like a novelist to develop his themes.

This may not only be the greatest Cold War spy case. It’s got almost all the possible complications: double agents in the CIA, MI6, and the KGB; rivalry between American and British intelligence; bureaucratic snafus; truth serum interrogation; and, of course, that daring exfiltration.

But Gordievsky did something no other spies got to do. He not only advised America to continue with the Strategic Defense Initiative because the Soviet economy could not counter it. He also stage managed, through covert briefings, both sides of the famous meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, the one where the British Prime Minister declared Gorbachev was a “man we can do business with”.

Gordievsky was born to the KGB. His father served in it. His brother was a KGB illegal who worked to suppress the Czechoslovakian Revolution and Gordievsky’s first thoughts of rebellion, his first overtures to Western intelligence services, was motivated by that revolution while he was stationed in Denmark. His first marriage was to a fellow KGB agent.

Since I knew the broad outlines of the Gordievsky case already and had heard Macintyre talk about his book, the chapter most engrossing for me, the part of the story I was unfamiliar with, was “Cat and Mouse” when Gordievsky, under suspicion of being a double agent based on information provided the KGB by CIA officer Aldrich Ames, returns to Moscow and the fear and anxiety of the surprisingly legalistic KGB attempts to prove his guilt or get a confession.

A theme of Macintyre’s book is the mirror images of Ames and Gordievsky, both spies and traitors. There is a fascinating encounter between the men and Gordievsky’s impressions of the man who, unknown to him, almost got him killed.

But Ames is far from the only intriguing character we meet in the KGB, MI6, and the CIA. Plenty of them are quoted about their impressions of Gordievsky and their thoughts on his case though many of the British characters are not identified under their real name.

Several black and white and color photographs are included as well as maps relevant to Gordievsky’s escape.


More reviews of espionage histories are indexed on the espionage page.

2 thoughts on “The Spy and the Traitor

  1. George Kelley May 15, 2019 / 5:21 pm

    The WALL STREET JOURNAL listed these books about spies and Russia:
    Red Famine
    By Anne Applebaum (2017)

    1. Among the five million victims of the famine that swept through the U.S.S.R. from 1931 to 1934, more than 3.9 million were Ukrainians. The calamity was brought on by Stalin’s crash collectivization: Across the country individual farms were replaced with communal ones in just three years. Resistance was greatest in Ukraine. To crush it, Stalin increased the already unrealistic grain procurement quotas. Starvation began in 1932 following the violent expropriation of everything edible. As whole villages lay dying, the borders with Ukraine were sealed and the roads cordoned off to prevent the hungry from escaping. Later, Stalin’s statisticians amended the death registries to erase any record of Ukraine’s famine on paper. Empty villages were resettled with Russian and Belorussian peasants; mention of the famine became prohibited. Anne Applebaum’s powerful book exposes the coverup of Stalin’s war against Ukraine.

    The Forsaken
    By Tim Tzouliadis (2008)

    2. Trapped in Stalin’s Soviet Union, thousands of Americans vanished into the Gulag—a tragedy Tim Tzouliadis uncovers through letters, memoirs and government documents. In 1931 the New York-based Soviet trade agency received 100,000 applications from Americans seeking to emigrate to the U.S.S.R. American communists were part of this migration, but the majority were skilled workers seeking to escape the Great Depression. They were lured by the promise of jobs—not least at the “Soviet Detroit,” a huge automobile factory built by Henry Ford in the city of Gorky. Some migrants managed to escape before Stalin’s mass arrests began in the mid-1930s, but the majority were trapped, their passports confiscated. Only a handful eventually returned home. Equally tragic is the little-known story of American POWs: Liberated from the Nazi camps by the Soviets, they were sent to Siberian uranium mines. American captives remained in the Gulag through the 1950s.

    Newsletter Sign-up

    Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
    By Peter Pomerantsev (2014)

    3. This ironic and insightful portrait of post-Soviet Russia is set during the country’s oil-boom years. In the early 2000s, money flowed quickly into the capital, ending up in the hands of a select few. Moscow was a city in fast forward, where “boys become billionaires in the blink of an eye.” But the oligarchs depended on government patronage for their wealth: If they opposed someone in the Kremlin, their company would be given to the president’s friends. Corporate takeovers happened regularly; firms would be raided by men with Kalashnikovs. The business owner Yana Yakovleva became a pawn in the war between two powerful Kremlin factions and was falsely accused of drug dealing. After seven months in a crowded cell she was released—not because justice prevailed (nearly all people charged in Russia are convicted), but because one FSB general had destroyed another and in the end both were sacked. Moscow changes fast. Wrecking balls demolish the downtown’s historic buildings. Property prices are determined by proximity to Red Square and the center of power. The Night Wolves, Russia’s equivalent to the Hell’s Angels, ride through the city on Harleys wearing icons of the Virgin Mary and quoting Stalin. Mr. Pomerantsev’s title expresses the essence of the new Russia, where nothing is true and everything is possible.

    A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia
    By Alexander N. Yakovlev

    Translated by Anthony Austin (2002)

    4. A former high-ranking Soviet official and head of the Party’s propaganda department, Alexander Yakovlev broke the official code of silence in 1972 by publishing an article about the perils of nationalism and anti-Semitism in the U.S.S.R. He was swiftly removed from Party work and exiled to Canada as an ambassador. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought him back, Yakovlev became the key democratic reformer who initiated glasnost. His unprecedented access to the government’s secret “bloodstained documents” revealed to him the true history of the Soviet state. He learned of mass arrests and executions without trial, practiced routinely under Lenin and Stalin; of the destruction of peasantry, clergy and intellectuals; of brutal ethnic deportations; of Soviet POWs dispatched from Nazi concentration camps to the Gulag. The book is Yakovlev’s impassioned testimony against the regime he had devotedly served. “I had been honest in my previous faith, and I was equally honest in rejecting it.” The Soviet state, he charges, had exterminated more than 60 million people. “From horizon to horizon Russia is sown with . . . the nameless graves of its citizens, felled in wars, killed by famine, or shot at the whim of the Leninist-Stalinist fascist regime.”

    An Armenian Sketchbook
    By Vasily Grossman

    Translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler (2013)

    5. In 1961 the KGB confiscated Vasily Grossman’s antitotalitarian novel, “Life and Fate.” Uncertain what to do next, Grossman accepted a translation project and traveled to Armenia. Its “biblical” landscapes, including Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark is believed to have reached land, delighted him. His strongest impression was at a village wedding where guests spoke of the suffering endured by both the Jewish and Armenian people, who had been victims of genocide. “I bow to the ground, before the Armenian peasants who, during the merriment of a village wedding, spoke publicly about the agony of the Jewish nation under Hitler.” When Soviet censors demanded he remove from his book this and other passages about the Holocaust and Armenian genocide, Grossman refused. Because anti-Semitism remained an undeclared Soviet policy, “An Armenian Sketchbook” could not be published until the Gorbachev era.

    • marzaat May 15, 2019 / 5:54 pm

      Thanks, those all sound good, especially The Forsaken. I was aware of American immigration to the USSR and some American POWS held there into the 1950s, but I’ve never read any book length works on the subject.

      By coincidence, I happen to be reading Dostoyevsky’s Demons (which I will not be reviewing — there have to be limits to the blogging madness). The seeds of the Russian secret police are there in the revolutionary group it depicts.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.