Latest Reading: “The Spy and the Traitor” by Ben Macintyre

Former KGB Central Office – Tashkent, Uzbekistan – January 2, 2023

Macintrye had no access to MI6’s archives, which remain secret. But he has interviewed all of the former officers involved in the case, who tell their stories for the first time. He spoke extensively to Gordievsky, who is now 79 and living in the home counties – a remarkable figure, “proud, shrewd and irascible”. The result is a dazzling non-fiction thriller and an intimate portrait of high-stakes espionage.

The Guardian Book of the Week Review – September 19, 2018

Historian and author Ben Macintyre tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB (Комитет государственной безопасности – State Security Committee) agent who was giving MI6 Soviet secrets in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the Russian counterpart to the famous British double agent, Kim Philby. I love books about spies, partly because they are set in foreign countries and spies are usually expatriates. I also like the action and political intrigue. This is a non-fiction book about a real-life double agent and it was fascinating to learn the spycraft techniques of the MI6 and KGB during this time. The book describes details of how the agency communicates with spies, including meetings at safehouses, signals such as arriving at a busy bus stop with a Safeway bag on a Tuesday at 1:00 PM, etc. It was tense reading if Oleg was going to get caught as a “mole”.

I wonder how facial technology, the internet, drones, almost ubiquitous cameras, and other technology have changed spying. It was comforting to know that the CIA accurately predicted or knew when and what the Russians were going to do in the lead-up to their invasion of Ukraine.

The part of the book with the most insight for me was the description of the Soviet Union and the KGB. I am fascinated by the experiment of the USSR, probably growing up during the Cold War had something to do with it. I always remember the Olympics were a battle of East vs. West, Communism vs. Democracy. I also remember my middle school social studies teacher, Dave Carli, explaining the importance of the Salt II nuclear arms limitation treaty and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All this made quite an impression on me growing up. Some items I learned about the USSR and the KGB are below.

  • I never heard of the 1932 Sovietization of Kazakhstan. The Soviets expropriated food from farmers to feed Soviet armies and cities. Over 1.5 million people died in the resulting famine.
  • The KGB used the acronym “MICE” to guide them on what people to target to turn them into spies for the USSR. 1) Money 2) Ideology 3) Coercion 4) Ego. There also was the romance of it, the opportunity to live a second, hidden life.
  • “The Soviet Union was in effect an enormous prison, incarcerating more than 280 million people behind heavily guarded borders, with over a million KGB officers and informants acting as their jailers. The population was under constant surveillance, and no segment of the society was more closely watched than the KGB itself: the Seventh Directorate was responsible for internal surveillance, with some 1,500 men deployed in Moscow alone.”
  • “Gordievsky had secretly detested all that his father stood for – the blind obedience to a cruel ideology and the cowardice of the Homo Sovieticus.”

The book also had some great quotes and descriptions of espionage and intelligence gathering.

  • “Espionage attracts more than its share of the damaged, the lonely, and the plain weird. But all spies crave undetected influence, that secret compensation: the ruthless exercise of private power. A degree of intellectual snobbery is common to most, the secret sense of knowing important things unknown to the person standing next to you at the bus stop. In part, spying is an act of the imagination.”
  • “We are politicians. We are soldiers. And, above all, we are actors on a wonderful stage. I cannot think of a better business than the intelligence business.”

And as always, I would like to add these to my writing and speaking vocabulary.

  • avuncular – regarded as characteristic of an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance.
  • philistinism – a materialistic attitude accompanied by ignorance of artistic or cultural matters
  • unctuous – excessively ingratiating or insincerely earnest.

I took the photo above yesterday of the former KGB office here in Tashkent. It is now up for sale and developers are eying to turn it into residential apartments or a shopping mall. I toured the former KGB office in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2011.


Gordievsky did escape but decided to do without his family. He felt his wife was a committed Soviet citizen and would report him to officials and it would have been difficult to escape in a trunk of a car with is two young girls. They were separated for six years and it eventually led to a divorce. In my opinion, I would choose my family over ideology and although his information did help the UK/US and may have sped up the end of the Cold War a bit, the USSR was not sustainable and ended 4 years after Oleg defected. The government lost the revolutionary fervor of the Bolsheviks over the century, which I also am seeing in Cuba and in some part, China today. The leaders of revolutions get old and retire and new people come into power.

I asked ChatGPT to write a book review and this is what is came up with.

Spy and a Traitor by Ben Mcintyre is a thrilling and well-researched book that tells the true story of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who became a double agent for the British during the height of the Cold War.

The book is a page-turner from start to finish, as Mcintyre weaves together the complex and dangerous world of espionage with the personal story of Gordievsky’s motivations and actions. It’s hard to believe that this story is true, but Mcintyre’s extensive research and access to primary sources makes it all the more compelling.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the portrayal of the inner workings of the KGB and the intense loyalty that was expected from its agents. It’s a testament to Gordievsky’s character that he was able to overcome this loyalty and risk his life to work against the KGB and the Soviet Union.

Overall, Spy and a Traitor is a must-read for fans of espionage and Cold War history. It’s a gripping and informative look at a little-known piece of history that has had significant consequences for the world we live in today.

One thought on “Latest Reading: “The Spy and the Traitor” by Ben Macintyre

  • Do read Ben Macintyre’s Spy and Traitor. It is a must read for espionage genre cognoscenti and has even been lauded by none other than John le Carré as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. John le Carré certainly knew a ton about writing high quality espionage thrillers and Ben deserved that accolade in this instance. However, as a spy in his own right David Cornwell was an extraordinarily long chalk behind Oleg Gordievsky. Mind you, as the son of a fraudster, a known associate of the infamous London gangsters the Kray Brothers, David Cornwell was not necessarily as good at spying as he might have thought when looking in the mirror. An intriguing news article dated 31 October 2022 about all that (about Pemberton’s People in MI6 et al) is well worth reading in TheBurlingtonFiles website.

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