Review | The Spy and the Traitor, By: Ben Macintyre

I’ve been on a bit of a spy book spree in November. I quickly gobbled up Le Carré’s posthumous Silverview, having grabbed a copy on the day of its release. Something I don’t often do unless I’m really excited for a new book. However, the non-fiction espionage title I’m reviewing here is a couple years old at this point. In Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, we are dealing with the most important real-life spy story in the 20th century.

This book is a essentially a biography of the infamous KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky. It was this Soviet master spy whose double-agent status in the 70’s and 80’s single-handedly lead to the prevention of many of the worst-case scenario’s of the nuclear arms race. MacIntyre’s gift for scrupulous research and detail are a worthy match for the subject matter of expert trade-craft in the clandestine world of international espionage.

Whether you are familiar with the Gordievsky tale or not, you will be very well aware of the world events in which he played such an important role. That’s probably what makes this such a great page-turner for most audiences. I’m a fan of this subset of non-fiction, but I think its appeal should carry over to a wider readership, especially those who are old enough to remember a lot of the events described throughout the Reagan/Thatcher era of the 1980’s.

Macintyre goes into a lot of detail in this work. It can get a bit drawn out, and boring at times. That may be more a result of the nature of a very long and painstaking process that is the subject matter, than of the author’s work. In fact, I think Macintyre does an excellent job of keeping some of the less-exciting areas of spying moving right along. Gordievsky is painted as one of the KGB’s best and brightest from his early days right out of college. It’s fascinating to learn of his stationing in Copenhagen in the early/mid 70’s, where his somewhat common fascination with the luxuries of western life, were combined with a intrinsically held sense of Soviet inhumanity, which was finally galvanized by his witnessing of the brutal tamp-down of the Czech independence movements of the era. This all led to the Russian spy’s decision to turncoat, and ultimately become the greatest asset the western intelligence services ever possessed throughout the Cold War (mainly MI6).

Equally appreciated is the way the author weaves current day pols and public figures into the story. Some of today’s most powerful figures have ties to this long, and complex history. It was Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin himself that was stationed in some of the KGB offices that are involved in the plot at some of the same times. He was a much less influential figure at the time, but he was still a part of the vast intelligence apparatus that has proven to hold very long-term grudges with those who crossed the line. Also, this sense of betrayal – and revenge – that Gordievsky’s spying left on the Soviet/Russian intelligence community has distinct current-day ramifications. It is amazing to think, yet likely true, that some of the poison attacks in London and other continental European cities from the past five years are tied to “traitors” with associations to Gordievsky’s work and legacy. Furthermore, the old spy – now in his eighties – still lives in MI6 protection in England, and some of the attacks on other dissidents from recent years are thought to be thinly removed from vengeful hands directed at Gordievsky still (Sergei & Yulia Skripal in 2018). Despite a 30 year remove since the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the spy services (KGB, GRU, etc.) have such a long memory, the games persist.

If you’re looking for some thrilling, international man-of-mystery goodness, this is about as good as it gets. In fact, my paperback copy boasts an accolade from no less than the master himself, “The best true spy story I have ever read.” – John Le Carré. That’s high praise indeed.

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