A few years ago, I enjoyed reading A Spy Among Friends, a narrative non-fiction account of the life of Kim Philby, the British spy who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963. Ben Macintyre’s latest book ‘The Spy and the Traitor’ looks at the reverse scenario in which high-level KGB agent, Oleg Gordievsky, defected from the Soviet Union to Britain, spying for MI6 for over a decade after being recruited in 1974, before his recall to Moscow and audacious escape back to Britain.
Gordievsky’s early career saw him posted to Copenhagen where he was first approached by MI6. He rose through the ranks of the KGB foreign intelligence service eventually becoming their top man based in London and the intelligence he supplied to Britain undoubtedly shaped the response to critical events in the second half of the Cold War. After he was betrayed and recalled to the Soviet Union, an emergency escape plan known as Operation Pimlico was put into action when Gordievsky gave a key signal by standing on an avenue in Moscow holding a Safeway supermarket carrier bag, hoping he was conspicuous enough to be noticed by his MI6 handlers but not by those in the KGB who wanted him dead.
The case is frequently described as stranger than fiction. It certainly has all the dramatic elements and psychological tension of a good thriller – constant suspicion, fear of betrayal, personal costs to family life – and also shows how the vast majority of day-to-day espionage involves a long and tedious wait for a signal to be dropped. There are even some elements of humour in the things that go wrong (the misunderstanding of Gordievsky’s first attempt to make contact with MI6 in Copenhagen is memorable) as well as the things that go right (such as the dirty nappy which inadvertently saved the day when Gordievsky was smuggled out of the Soviet Union). Most of all, it becomes clear that the skill and dedication of the agents who helped Gordievsky along with a great deal of luck were critical to the success of the rescue mission.
Macintyre didn’t have access to the MI6 files on the case which will probably remain secret for a very long time, so his account primarily draws on extensive interviews with Gordievsky and other agents involved in the case. Now aged 80, Gordievsky still lives in the UK under an assumed name and 24 hour protection, all too aware that he will forever be regarded as a traitor by the Russian state.
Deservedly shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year, ‘The Spy and the Traitor’ is a gripping account of one of the most compelling espionage cases of the Cold War.