The lives of spies and double-agents are the stuff of good cinema for the majority of people. Based on its very nature, it’s rare that espionage news with real-world import leaks into the public eye. Kim Philby or Mata Hari might be names known by a few, but certainly James Bond comes more readily to mind for the overwhelming majority. It’s thus that the average person has little knowledge of real international intelligence. Pulling together what he believes to be The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre’s 2018 The Spy and the Traitor tells the real life story of Oleg Gordievsky. Romance, drama, escape—Mr. Bond could not do any better.
Born into a KGB family (his father an administrator in Moscow and his brother an undercover international spy), Oleg Gordievsky would go on to follow in their footsteps. Trouble is, his own political views would get in the way. Stationed in Copenhagen early in his career, the difference in quality of life was too much for him to handle. Life in the West, with its freedom of speech, free market, and lack of paranoia were far more to not only his personal philosophy, but also what he believed was good for Russian people. Contacted by a British secret service agent soon thereafter, The Spy and the Traitor is Gordievsky’s absolutely amazing story.
Like a le Carre novel in real life, Gordievsky’s tale could not be more full of drama. From clandestine rendezvouses to near-miss escapes, brutal interrogations to the most dangerous of lies, if anything but the Cold War were happening things might be considered normal. But put Gordievsky’s life in the context of continual nuclear threat and the most tense international rivalry the world has ever seen, and Gordievsky is lucky not to have had a heart attack or a more severe drinking problem.
If you’re looking for a spy story made all the more striking for its real-world occurrence, look no further than The Spy and the Traitor. Macintyre teasing out the important information, nicely framing scenarios, and filling the reader in on relevant bits of historical context that influenced the situation at hand, it is an informative, well-paced, fact-based account of a Russian spy’s decades of assistance to the West, and the price he paid. Biographies rarely come more exciting, but I’m not sure Gordievsky would say the same.