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.