An extraordinary Cold War spy story a screenwriter couldn’t make up

The Spy and the Traitor is a factual Cold War spy story.

Throughout the Cold War, the “special relationship” between US and British intelligence was uneasy. In the 1950s, the defection of the Cambridge Five devastated MI6—and undermined American trust in the British. When Kim Philby fled to the Soviet Union in 1963, both MI6 and the CIA lost confidence in themselves and each other. Then, the CIA’s long-serving head of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, succumbed to paranoia because Philby had been a close friend for many years. Angleton subjected the CIA to an unrelenting hunt for “moles” that wreaked havoc on both sides of the Atlantic.

The greatest threat of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis

Some, but hardly all, the damage had been repaired by the mid-1970s when a senior KGB officer named Oleg Gordievsky began spying for MI6. Then, Gordievsky turned up evidence in 1982 that the USSR was on the verge of starting a nuclear war. KGB Chairman (and soon to be General Secretary) Yuri Andropov was convinced that a NATO war games exercise was preparation for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. As a result, he was on the verge of unleashing the Soviet rocket forces to pre-empt the Americans. The warning Gordievsky conveyed to MI6, which was passed along personally to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, caused both the British and American leaders to tone down the hostile rhetoric that had triggered Soviet fears—and fatefully launched the CIA on an investigation to uncover the identity of Britain’s anonymous superspy. It was the CIA’s success in discovering Gordievsky’s name that led to his undoing three years later. The CIA’s own traitor, Rick Ames, passed the name along to his KGB handlers, forcing the Russian spy to flee the USSR.


The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben MacIntyre (2018) 345 pages

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“A figure of profound historical importance”

In The Spy and the Traitor, Ben MacIntyre recounts Oleg Gordievsky’s little-known story. The spy was the son of a KGB officer and a mother who clung to Christianity. His older brother followed their father into the KGB, and it was only natural for Oleg to do so as well. For decades, he served the Soviet Union loyally. But two events broke his resolve: the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the violent suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. “Witnessing the building of the Berlin Wall had been shocking enough,” MacIntye notes, “but the invasion of Czechoslovakia offered even more blatant proof of the true nature of the regime he served.”

An extraordinary Cold War spy story

Finally, in 1974, Gordievsky volunteered to spy for MI6. The volume of information he conveyed to the British over the next 11 years was staggering. As MacIntyre writes, “The pantheon of world-changing spies is small and select, and Oleg Gordievsky is in it; he opened up the inner workings of the KGB at a pivotal juncture in history.” The Spy and the Traitor is truly an extraordinary Cold War spy story. Unfortunately, the spy’s contemporary, Aldrich (Rick) Ames, revealed Gordievsky’s betrayal to the KGB and ended what was by all accounts a uniquely productive relationship between the Russian and the British. MacIntyre judges Gordievsky to have been “a figure of profound historical importance.” It’s hard to dispute that judgment.

An escape from the USSR that was made for the movies

Much of MacIntyre’s account of Gordievsky’s work as a spy focuses on his escape from the Soviet Union after Ames revealed his identity to the KGB. Earlier chapters in the book are skillfully written and move ahead quickly enough. But the pace picks up as the author relates the incredible story of the spy’s “exfiltration” from the USSR by MI6. Following an emergency escape plan laid a decade earlier, Gordievsky managed to flee from Moscow with the help of a large cast of characters from the British Embassy, his handlers in MI6 headquarters in London, and two members of Danish intelligence. It’s an extraordinary story. A screenwriter couldn’t possibly make up anything more exciting.

About the author

Ben MacIntyre is a British historian and journalist who has specialized in writing about espionage. The Spy and the Traitor is his 12th book. Since 2010, four of his books have been made into documentaries for the BBC. He also writes a column for the Times of London. In researching The Spy and the Traitor, MacIntyre “interviewed Oleg Gordievsky . . . on more than twenty occasions, amassing more than one hundred hours of taped conversations.” He also spoke with “every MI6 officer involved in the case.”

For additional reading     

Previously, I’ve reviewed four of Ben MacIntyre’s books:

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