Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (2018, Viking)

Oleg Gordievsky’s life was defined by the KGB. He was born into a KGB family. His father was a KGB officer active in the Stalin purges. His older brother was a KGB agent. His first wife was a KGB agent, his second one the daughter of a KGB general. He was guided into the KGB, recruited while at university. With his skill in languages he progressed through the ranks of foreign intelligence serving in Germany at the time the Berlin wall was erected and in the Soviet embassy in Denmark. Despite outward appearances he was also deeply unhappy with the Soviet regime and the oppression of its people. He was recruited by British intelligence in the early 1970s while in Denmark and quickly proved to be an adept and valuable spy. Playing the long game, the British refrained from contact when he rotated back to Moscow, and were delighted when his next posting was to the embassy in London. Conspiring with their most important spy, MI6 removed Gordievsky’s opponents in the embassy by getting them ejected back home. In turn, he was appointed as the head of UK KGB operations, but was suddenly recalled back to Moscow ahead of formally taking up the role. Despite the faint tinkle of alarm bells, rather than defect Gordievsky returned and was placed under investigation. The spy raised the alarm, holding a Safeway’s plastic bag outside a Moscow bakery. The British sprung their escape plan into operation aware that that they’d never previously smuggled a Russian out of the country and their charge would the most wanted man on the run in the state. The British plan was both relatively simple in conception and dangerous – two couples would head for the Finnish border, picking up the spy on the way, and cross with him in the trunk. They even bought a baby with them. The problem was that they had a KGB escort the whole way.

Ben Macintyre tells Oleg Gordievsky’s life story, focusing in particular on his years as a British spy in the 1970s and 80s, and his defection to the West. As the account reveals, Gordievsky was as important to the British as Adolf Tolkachev (The Billion Dollar Spy) was to the US. Both spies were betrayed by US citizens working as Soviet spies, although Gordievsky managed to escape Moscow and flee to the West. As a member of the KGB foreign intelligence service Gordievsky had access to key internal intelligence and overseas operations and at the time of his defection was a colonel about to take up the job of KGB resident in London. Macintyre charts in detail his recruitment in the early 1970s, his eleven years of spying, through to his daring escape from the Soviet Union, and the important effects of his intelligence gathering and personal insights. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were strong admirers of his diplomatic and political suggestions for guiding how they handled the Soviet leadership. For research Macintyre interviewed Gordievsky multiple times, as well as former colleagues, his MI6 handlers, those involved in his escape, and others involved in his life. He then spins his evidence into a compelling narrative, detailing Gordievsky’s motivations and actions, how he was handled, and the value of his spying to the West. The result is an engaging account of a man driven by a desire to see the fall of a regime despite the personal cost.

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