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.
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.