The Spy and The Traitor is touted in its subhead as "the greatest espionage story ever told." That isn't just publisher hype. The real events and the story of Oleg Gordievsky, KGB officer and diplomat reads like something from a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum story...except it's true and marvelously documented. Raised by a father and older brother who both served devotedly and unquestioningly in the KGB (dad worked through Stalin's purges and survived in the KGB's precursor agency). Loyalty to the service then would seem to be a given--betraying the agency and its million members (you read that right) would be like sabotaging the family's business. Yet events and history continue to flummox human expectations.
First the invasion of Hungary, then the erection of the Berlin Wall (which Gordievsky was present to see) and finally the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia all drove this KGB officer further and further away from the party. Exposure to the West in Copenhagen and later in London provided a first hand taste of liberty and freedom. It served as the final push into the eager and eternally grateful arms of his M16 handlers. The double agent provided them with not merely a trove of concrete information but invaluable insight into the workings of the KGB and planning of the Soviet Leadership. It is no exaggeration to say Gordievsky was our Kim Philby. The details of these meetings, contacts, "drops", etc. and how spies operated from the end WWII until the dissolution of the Soviet empire is fascinating and novelistic in the telling. Gordievsky's escape or "exfiltration" from the USSR by M16 is nothing short of breathtaking--a Bourne Identity moment.
Best of all though is the historical and moral context that gives readers a perspective of events' meanings. Ben McIntyre is a masterful storyteller and detailed chronicler. He thoroughly but concisely points out the import and value of Grodievsky's insights--particularly warning the Brits and thereby the Americans that the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov genuinely believed the West was intent upon a first nuclear strike. Appreciating that paranoia can be as perilous as animus, first Thatcher and then Reagan worked to assuage Soviet fears. It was Gordievsky who prepped both sides for successful summits in the 80s and it was he who counseled wisely to neither disband nor include the USSR in the SDI or Star Wars initiative. Rather, ratchet up the pressure and they would go bankrupt trying to keep up, which is precisely what happened.
Gordievsky certainly didn't single handedly end the cold war--there were dozens of events and officials who played a significant role. But Oleg Gordievsky was surely in the first rank of those who made a valuable contribution earning the appreciation of Reagan, Thatcher, the CIA, M16 and yes, QEII (the monarch, not the ocean liner). Best of all, McIntryre doesn't put a patriotic gloss on his subject's behavior. What Gordievsky did was of enormous benefit to democracy and the West but it destroyed his marriage, implicated his wife and children as well as family and friends who all paid some price for his defection. In short, his actions both saved and ruined lives and the choices he made can be rightfully regarded as both morally defensible and appalling or enraging to those who knew him. Unsurprisingly, his marriage failed and most Russian friends regard him with disdain and disgust. In the western intelligence community he is a hero.
This is terrific, important history and a wonderfully well-told tale. Enjoy!