‘Spy’ Too Compelling to Put Down

Every good spy story has coded messages, secret info drops, tense crossings of international lines, sordid love affairs, stakes of life or death and the threat of world war, and a few good turncoats. Ben McIntire’s The Spy and the Traitor has that and more—and perhaps most notably, is nonfiction.

Don’t start this just before bed. Trust me.

Oleg Gordievsky is a good KGB agent—well, except for his fondness of Western music and literature. The son and brother of other good KGB agents, Gordievsky has his path laid out for him as the cold war reaches its most chilling depts yet. But Gordievsky’s faith in the Communist cause, already shaken by the brutality at the Berlin Wall, can’t withstand the Soviet Union crushing the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s bid for independence. Gordievsky, then stationed in Denmark, tentatively reaches out to Danish intelligence. 

That message is not received, but a British agent stationed in Denmark notes Gordievsky’s oddities and thinks the Russian might be blackmailable. Instead, the agent finds Gordievsky a willing, almost eager, traitor to his country for the benefit of MI6. Gordievsky is cautious, though, taking great pains to hide his tracks to evade suspicion. He succeeds and is promoted multiple times, increasing the amount of information he can pass along to the British. His rise through the organization culminates with Gordievsky very nearly being named head of the KGB’s Britain office. But Gordievsky’s not the only double-agent in the game, and he has to act fast when he’s sold out to the KGB in the last days of the Soviet Union.

The overall result is a tense and compelling story that could almost be mistaken for fiction by its pacing and access to the inner thoughts of Gordievsky and others. We learn how Gordievsky felt about his perfectly respectable but boring and incompatible first marriage to a fellow KGB agent, the conflict he felt about his shifting ideologies and the loyalty—and safety—of his family, and overall get a strong sense of Gordievsky’s strengths as well as weaknesses. I assume this close attention to character comes from McIntire combing through copious records, journals, and other documents, and possibly interviews with the surviving characters.

Normally, I would take careful note of the number of sources and the frequency of their citation to see how close an author sticks to source material; however, I read this as an audiobook. This meant instead of walking around with my nose in a literal book, I had narrator John Lee’s dulcet British-accented voice filling my ears for two solid days as I did the most thrilling chores of my life. This also means I can’t vouch for the quality of the research myself. If that’s the sort of thing you care about, you may prefer to get a physical copy of this book.

But I do recommend getting a copy from somewhere. We may not be chilled in a cold war anymore, but boundary-testing aggressions are still common. I have no doubt spycraft is alive and well in our terrorism-bound world, with technological advances only enhancing sneaky operations (RIP cat radio).

It’s a little more sophisticated than this, probably. No promises.

Reading about the powers and limitations of espionage, then, is necessary to understand the tension we feel today. (One amusing little tidbit: some agents use a codename out of a John le Carré book, further twisting the truth and fiction of espionage.) The Spy and the Traitor is timely in that way, though McIntire probably didn’t set out to give a history lesson on the craft. His focus is squarely on Gordievsky and the machinations swirling around him.

Gordievsky is an imperfect hero, certainly. He cheats on his wife, and then betrays his second wife by insulating her so fully from his second life. He jeopardizes his own safety sometimes through flashes of hubris. As the story progresses, he nearly destroys a daring and dangerous mission for want of fried chicken and a couple of beers. But he is also brave, with steely nerves and iron will. McIntire argues convincingly that Gordievsky is personally responsible for pulling the world back from the brink of nuclear war at least once. In a way, the book is as exhausting as it is fascinating, but it’s compelling enough that you’ll forget about any stress it causes. 

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