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Reviewed in the United States on September 23, 2018
A truly superb work of true life spy craft. Other reviewers have more than adequately outlined the content of this work. I will just comment on my continued amazement at how during the Cold War so many liberals in the West were Soviet apologists blaming the West for all the world's problems. In the UK particularly, so many in the Labour Party took money from Moscow while undermining democratic institutions. The Soviet Union was a hell hole from beginning to end. How anyone could support it in any way is inexplicable.
The story is very interesting and well researched. Author Macintyre tries to dazzle the reader with an overwhelming quantity of extraneous and trivial details. This is his writing style and the second of his books that I have read. Because of this, I will not read any more of his work. This book is too long by about 100 pages.
This is the grayish world of the KGB agent during the Cold War era up to Reagan.
A bit too British-dry for me. Ex. The married Russian spy falls in love with a beautiful foreign woman. With that potential for drama, diplomatic and sexual intrigue and tension; it is told with all the passion of a police report.
Because of the excellent reportage and the author’s strong powers of observation Spy/Traitor could have with some rigorous editing been an A+ book. But, as typical with an old man -- he rambles on ad infinitum about matters not necessarily interesting.
Still what we might lack in spy vs spy excitement, we gain in important history about international intelligence operations. Mostly mundane work, spying is nevertheless crucial; think secret weapons, World Trade Center disaster . . . .
Stig Berland once described the life of a secret agent as “gray, black, white and dull with fog and brown coal smoke.”
"Rachel turned up the music: Dr. Hook’s Greatest Hits, a compilation of the American rock band’s records that included “Only Sixteen,” “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman,” and “Sylvia’s Mother.” The style of Dr. Hook’s music is often described as “easy listening.” Gordievsky did not find it easy. Even crammed into the boiling trunk of the car, fleeing for his life, he found time to be irritated by this lowbrow schmaltzy pop. “It was horrible, horrible music. I hated it.”
I bought this for my husband & he couldn't put it down. Then I read it too. It's based on intense documentary research as well as in-depth interviews with the Russian diplomat who spied for the British. Overall, it's well written and the facts revealed are amazing, in and of themselves. But the author also skillfully identifies & analyzes the often intense emotional relationships that develop between a "spy" and his/her handlers. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this book is the inevitable devastating toll such spying takes on the spy and his family. The most infuriating aspect of this story is the sheer incompetence of American intelligence professionals -- especially when compared to their British counterparts -- when it comes to rooting out their own high level mole, Aldrich Ames, who poses such a lethal threat not only to this Russian but also to American agents in Russian. (Oddly, Margaret Thatcher actually comes across as a relatively sympathetic figure, comparatively speaking..)
If you want to find out about contemporary security issues, consult the new expose of the U.S. Secret Service, "Zero Fail. " It's repetitive & not particularly well-written, but it paints a devastating picture of an agency that has been chronically starved for financial resources in recent decades while drowning in excess testosterone & self-protective male bonding. The result is an agency that discriminates against Black and female agents & has repeatedly failed to effectively protect Presidents & their families, from JFK through Trump, when it comes to garden variety crazies like the repeated White House fence jumpers.
Despite the bravery & commitment of many agents in the trenches, the agency has been awash in booze, prostitutes, adultery, and cover-ups. Even worse, the chapters on the Trump presidency reveal that some agents & supervisors brought their MAGA hats to work &others openly supported Trump on social media (instead of remaining "apolitical"). While the SS culture remains fatally flawed by cronyism, racism and sexism, most of the higher-ups devote their time to promoting & protecting each others' careers (& future pensions). Decade after decade, the result has been a series of humiliating security failures, massive burn-out by agents in the trenches, & chronic difficulty recruiting new agents.
The book starts with the absurd premise that the Soviets disfavored or even wouldn't allow the playing of or listening to Bach?! To anyone with any familiarity with Soviet and Russian musical tastes and traditions, this idea is absurd, even offensive. Clearly nothing in this book can be trusted, so why waste your time reading it?
The author spends far too much prose on minor details. He will change the point of view in mid-sentence. Runs off on a tangent almost every other page. Has the typical British over-use of obscure words. I struggled to finish it.,
I have read many spy novels and this was one of the most chilling and revealing and after a while, almost difficult to read. Because this was not fiction, and I did not begin the book knowing the fate of the spy. It is an extremely well structured narrative, to the point that it reads as great fiction. The end of the book offers a very extensive list of references and further links, plus bibliography. It has completely reshaped my understanding of the KGB, and of the Cold War post 1970. It is simply an extraordinary feat of scholarship that is written for and accessible to a broad public. It is as good as any of the great fictional spy novels, and I won’t bother mentioning those names yet again. But it is that good, that riveting, harrowing and that wrenching.
Oleg Gordievsky comes from a family of KGB officers, attends special schools, marries a colleague, befriends others with similar suspect cultural interests and is sent as an attache to Copenhagen. Denmark is clean, stores are bright, people are friendly, books are readily available everywhere - even x-rated magazines! Gordievsky has been identified as a possible recruit by a recently defected friend. It takes a while to get Oleg to become an agent, but he is convinced that the Soviet regime is bad, that there is incompetence and corruption, that clumsy attempts at espionage are laughable. Soon he enters into an arrangement with MI6, Britain's foreign-intelligence service and becomes "one of the most valuable spies in history." The author asserts that Gordievsky's information "changed the course of the Cold War, crack[ed] open Soviet spy networks, help[ed] avert nuclear war ..." The book follows him from Copenhagen back to Moscow, through an affair and a divorce and marriage to his mistress, attempts to get posted anywhere outside the Soviet sphere, and FINALLY to London. His accurate information is shared on a very limited basis with the CIA - instantly suspicious and jealous of the unknown source. There are, of course several close calls and unbelievable coincidences and shenanigans until Oleg is recalled to Moscow for a routine consultation. Do the Russians know? Do they have proof? Oleg's fate is closely aligned with that of American spy Aldrich Ames. While the Russian is always shown as an idealist, convinced of the superiority of the West, Ames is the opposite - slovenly, drunk, unreliable, with a money hungry wife and maxed out credit card. There are plenty of supporting players worthy of any Bond movie, car chases, dropped messages, aristocratic heroes and sniffing German Shepards! Putin is a bit player in his earlier career. But I am still trying to wrap my mind around the ending ...
This is a great story in the hands of a master story-teller.
Oleg Gordievsky was a Cold War KGB officer who let his humanity, clear vision of what the Soviet system represented and a personal fearlessness lead him to turn coat and become a British agent reporting from inside the KGB apparatus.
This fascinating story is true and is as tense and dramatic as any Ian Flemming work (ok, without the sex, car chases and gun play). The book - based on over 100 hours of interviews with Gordievesky and countless other hours with British spy handlers, former KGB colleagues and Russian friends and his ex-wife detail the real life world of a master spy and excellent practitioner of spy craft.
Gordievesky would have in all likelihood remained on station beyond 1985 had another famous spy not turned him out. The CIA's Aldrich Ames figured out who MI6's most productive source was and told his KGB handlers (though their was possibly another source of exposure as well). Called back to Moscow, Gordievsky activated a years-old exfiltration plan that saw him lose his surveillance and rendezvous with a British team mobilized to meet him near the Finnish border and whisk him to freedom.
The spy training and craft, operational methods, recruitment of assets and interactions with his British handlers are all here. Also, the book provides an excellent insight into a part of the KGB that reveals it to be a slothful (though still deadly) bureaucracy where petty turf wars and jealousy had dulled the teeth of a once effective and ruthless organization. The recall to Moscow, interrogations, suspicions and eventual escape are tense and nerve wracking as the author has done a brilliant job of pacing in detailing a get-away fraught with danger.
Gordievesky is a hero to our side; still a target of the Russians headed by ex-KGBer Vladimir Putin. This man's information and insights helped with political planning and understanding of Russian thinking at the height of the Cold War. His work possibly enabled the British to blunt American and NATO enthusiasm for the Abel-Archer military exercise which a tottering Soviet leadership feared might be cover for a western first strike against the Soviets. He also provided advice on how to deal with Russian reaction to the Strategic Defense Initiative and according to the author was extremely prescient on how it would play out.
A fascinating and gripping account of a heroic man. Highly recommended.
The book really does read like a thriller and it is a fantastic telling of nonfiction material that is unique and the author makes it feel fast paced.
That being said, the story is drenched with an unyielding bias against... everybody? The author loves Britain that’s clear, and anybody who’s not Britain is dumb, stupid, and has no critical thinking ability. All the actions of our “heroes” are well thought out, meticulously planned, and perfectly executed. The villain’s (usually the KGB, the Soviet Union, and sometimes the CIA) actions are always clumsy and his plots lacking in rigor and thought.
The book is highly enjoyable if you are seeking nonfiction material that isn’t boring to read; however, if you are interested in learning something that is even remotely a reflection of an impartial truth this book is not for you.
Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB spy who underwent an ideological conversion and was the rare individual who passed secrets to the British not for money but for principle, according to author Ben Macintyre.
Certainly in the period from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Soviet Union had much more success in penetrating Western democracies than those democracies had in placing a mole in a closed Soviet society. Some Soviet success was rooted in the ideological attractiveness of Communism which reached its zenith during the depression of the 1930s and produced true believers from atom spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Julius Rosenberg to the “Cambridge Five” that included Kim Philby.
But in Macintyre’s telling, the KGB of the 1970s lacked the ideological fervor of an earlier era and was not as effective as it had been in previous decades. Nevertheless, in the battle of spy vs. spy, the Soviets found that with enough money they could buy spies. Those particularly susceptible to selling out were experiencing personal and professional disappointment, and money became a compensating factor in self worth.
Macintyre is at his best in describing British management of Gordievsky once he made contact to pass along secrets. Very few within MI6 knew of this Soviet spy, due to the lessons learned some years earlier. Kim Philby, who had risen to the highest levels of British intelligence, passed along names of those spying for the West to the Soviet Union. A great deal of thought was given to how and when to act on knowledge acquired through Gordievsky, so as to ensure that his cover was not blown. The British also found ways to discredit Gordievsky’s London superiors and thus open the path for their spy to be promoted to head the KGB in Britain.
Unfortunately, the Soviets had their own spy, Aldrich Ames, who had become the head of the CIA’s Soviet counterintelligence. Ames’ personal life was in disarray and he had met a woman with expensive tastes. He was therefore eager to sell information to the Soviet Union for money. It was Ames who blew Gordievsky’s cover and that of a score or more of those in Soviet Union who were working for the West. Many identified by Ames were arrested, tortured, and killed.
The author notes that spy bureaucracies, whether Soviet, British, or American are imperfect. The Soviets praised KGB teams that reported suspicious activity. Those that did not were sharply criticized. This hardly rewarded objectivity. When someone within the KGB made a mistake (as in losing track of Gordievsky’s movements), the inclination was to cover up the error. Such frailties led to bad decisions.
Similarly, in appointing Ames to a position of importance, the CIA failed to note the danger signs in terms of behavior and spending that should have revealed a traitor in their midst.
Macintyre provides the reader with a spine-tingling description of Gordievsky’s response to his and his family’s sudden recall to Moscow and to the interrogation he faced as a suspected spy. In an elaborate communication with London, a plan to spirit Gordievsky out of Russia was put into action.
The author is on debatable ground when it comes to analyzing the larger strategic implications of Gordievsky’s work for the West.
Macintyre agues that Gordievsky averted nuclear war in 1983 by warning his British contacts that Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, believed that the West was preparing a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. As the author observes, the first rule of intelligence should be never to ask for confirmation of something you already believe. In this case, Andropov was convinced that NATO war games, an exercise only, were in fact preparation for imminent war. When Gordievsky alerted the West to the fact that the Soviets were considering their own preemptive nuclear strike against the West, the war games were sharply curtailed.
Macintyre also argues Gordievsky advised Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on how to negotiate with Gorbachev. Not a lot of hard evidence is offered to support this contention, which seems a stretch.
In fleeing the Soviet Union, Gordievsky abandoned his wife and two young daughters. It was only years later that the British negotiated for his family to join the ex-spy in exile in England. But the marriage dissolved and at the end of the story we are presented with a lonely man living incognito somewhere in Britain. Putin reputedly is determined to execute former KGB officers who turned traitor. It is unlikely that Godievsky can relax in his old age, decades after his decision to spy for the West.