The Spy and The Traitor represents Macintyre’s finest work to date and has the makings of an instant screenplay. The recent poisoning cases of Sergei and Yulia Skripal remind us of the long tail that continues to wag long after the official end of the Cold War, a time when the world split in two. In the 1960s, a Soviet double agent, Kim Philby, defected to Moscow, leading to the deaths of his colleagues and destroying the British spy network against Moscow’s interests. Britain spent 20 years licking her wounds, determined for revenge. It came in the shape of a keen cross-country runner and increasingly senior KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky.
The Spy and the Traitor arrives at a moment when the machinations of Russian intelligence are the subjects of almost daily news stories. Russia and its ex-KGB president seem brutally dominant in the intelligence sphere. Ben Macintyre offers a refreshing reversal of that theme: In this story, it’s the Russians who get turned inside out by a British mole. It’s the Kim Philby case, in reverse. The subtitle of Macintyre’s latest real-life spy thriller calls it The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. Like pretty much everything in this fine book, the description is accurate.
The Spy and the Traitor is the latest of Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction narratives about spies of the last century, operating in wars hot and cold. The spy of Macintyre’s title is Gordievsky, the traitor is the American C.I.A. agent Aldrich Ames, although, in fact, both men were spies for, and traitors to, the country they served ... Macintyre has terrific material to work with, and in general he keeps a firm grip on it. But in recounting every aspect of espionage tradecraft, in addition to each problem that arises in the courtship of Gordievsky by British intelligence and the histories of all of the many MI6 agents who ran him, not to mention the ever-so-complicated details of Gordievsky’s “exfiltration” from the Soviet Union, Macintyre’s story sometimes bogs down. On the other hand, God is in the details, and it’s hard to imagine that there could ever be too many of those when the full account of our current engagement with Russian espionage and the Americans who have enabled it is finally written.
As Ben Macintyre observes in The Spy and the Traitor, the world of the professional spy attracts people with a predisposition to egotism, romantic fantasy and deception, then intensifies those feelings with its rules of secrecy and its culture of hidden power. 'A degree of intellectual snobbery is common to most' spies, he writes, 'the secret sense of knowing important things.' Equally common is a sense of loneliness and resentment toward the same system. / All spies crave undetected influence, that secret compensation: the ruthless exercise of private power.' ... In retelling the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who spied for Britain from 1974 until his exposure by Aldrich Ames in 1985, Mr. Macintyre is also traveling well-worn ground. But for a number of reasons The Spy and the Traitor is far less successful in offering a new understanding of the mindset of the double agent.
Although none of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with Cold War history, Macintyre tells the story brilliantly. His book’s final third is superbly done, the tension mounting relentlessly as Gordievsky realises the KGB are on to him, survives a gruelling interrogation and triggers a long-prepared escape plan by signalling to his MI6 contacts with, of all things, a Safeway carrier bag. In a mercilessly gripping narrative set-piece, he throws off his KGB leads, makes his way to the Finnish border and ends up hiding half-naked in the boot of a British couple’s car. For Gordievsky, the ending is bittersweet. But as with any good spy thriller, it would be a shame to give it away.
Macintyre’s prose is elegant and enlivened with occasional asides that are eminently quotable, as well as inevitable nods to the classics of the spy genre, above all John le Carré (one spy is 'Our Man in Copenhagen'), but there is a key difference between the old master and Macintyre. Le Carré’s cold war novels are full of an amoral bleakness; both sides are so worn down by the cold war that there is little if any difference between them. The Spy and the Traitor, however, is in no doubt that Gordievsky was serving a cause that was just and correct with 'an adamantine, unshakable conviction that what he was doing was unequivocally right.' His decision to hand the KGB’s secrets over to Britain was a 'righteous betrayal' ... We are back in an age of tensions between the west and the Kremlin and we need people such as Gordievsky just as much as ever.
...After being admitted to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations and groomed for service, Gordievsky revealed radical leanings toward democracy. Recruited as a KGB officer all the same, he was an appalled witness to the building of the Berlin Wall, but it 'did not prevent him faithfully carrying out the orders of the KGB.' Then came the invasion of Czechoslovakia and a home visit to a country that seemed to be increasingly poor and shabby in what he called a 'totalitarian cacophony.' At this point, Gordievsky was ripe for the turning. He became a valued asset of MI6, identifying Soviet spies and fellow travelers ... Oddly timely, given the return of Russian spying to the front pages, and a first-rate study of the mechanics and psychology of espionage.
Macintyre recounts the exploits of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB agent turned British spy responsible for 'the single largest ‘operational download’ in MI6 history,' in this captivating espionage tale. Building on in-depth interviews and other supplementary research, Macintyre shows Gordievsky expertly navigating the 'wilderness of mirrors' that made up the daily existence of a Cold War spy—passing microfilm, worrying that his wife will turn him in to the KGB, battling an unexpected dosage of truth serum ... Macintyre has produced a timely and insightful page-turner.