I am becoming an unashamed Ben Macintyre groupie, having just devoured yet another of his smashing books in record time.
“The Spy & the Traitor” is the truly extraordinary account of the life and career of Oleg Gordievsky, head of the KGB’s London station in the 1980s, and a British spy, who was spirited out of Moscow by the British, under the noses of the Russians.
Mr. Macintyre’s readable, incredibly well-researched investigation reads just like a spy thriller – except that this is the real deal. Mr. Gordievsky is not the product of a John Le Carré novel, but a man who risked his life to spy for Britain, and is still alive, living a quiet sheltered life in the UK.
Mr. Macintyre – as in all his books – wears his scholarship and research lightly, telling an exciting tale in a simple, uncomplicated way. He brings to life the highly secretive, often convoluted world of spy craft – like this procedure for making contact:
“The instructions it contained were detailed and explicit: Guk should indicate his willingness to cooperate by putting a single drawing pin at the top of the right-hand bannister of the stairs from platforms three and four on the Piccadilly line at Piccadilly Underground Station; Koba would acknowledge receipt of the signal by wrapping a piece of blue adhesive tape around the telephone cable of the middle telephone box of a row of five on Adam and Eve Court, off Oxford Street; he would then make the dead drop, a canister of film containing secret information, taped under the lid of the cistern of the gents’ lavatory in the Academy Cinema, Oxford Street.”
There are some funny moments amongst the grim, dangerous game being played out between Moscow and London, like the reaction of Gordievsky to the impenetrable accent of one Ron Brown, a Scottish Labour MP, who had attracted the attention of the KGB:
“Brown had a Scottish accent as thick as porridge. He was colourful, convivial and, to Russian ears, almost completely incomprehensible. Gordievsky, who had difficulty enough following the Received English pronunciation of the BBC, took Brown out to lunch on several occasions, and sat nodding intelligently, grasping one word in ten, while the Scotsman burbled away in his native brogue. “For all I understood, he could have been talking Arabic or Japanese.” Back at the “rezidentura”, Gordievsky wrote up a report that was pure fabrication, based on what he thought the Scot might have said. Brown may have been leaking top-grade secrets; but, equally, he might have been talking about football. Brown’s guilt, or innocence, remains a historical mystery, hidden forever behind his impenetrable Scottish accent.”
But by and large this is a book telling a deadly serious story. It is a story of spying and betrayal and nerves and secrets – and also of great foresight and planning and loyalty on the part of Gordievsky’s dedicated British minders. The story of his exfiltration from Moscow makes for gripping reading, and (whatever one’s political views) the strategy and risk-taking by the British is a masterclass in professional dedication.
A thrilling, engrossing read, made all the more powerful in view of the current political crisis between Russia and much of the world over the invasion of Ukraine. Plus, of course, the fact that Mr. Gordievsky is still alive…