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The spy who loved us
December 2018 / January 2019

Passport to PIMLICO: Oleg Gordievsky’s escape was aided by a baby’s nappy and a dog (© Richard Wayman / Alamy Stock Photo )

Oleg Gordievsky’s life is a commentary on the central political drama of the 20th century. His father, his elder brother and he himself were all KGB officers. Guardian of the Soviet police state, the KGB was effectively the law of the land, privileged and feared at the same time. Thoroughly professional, disciplined and self-controlled, Gordievsky soon reached the rank of colonel, evidently a worthy member of the communist elite.

The invisible inner man was different. He was ready to destroy everything he was supposed to be defending. Posted in the early Seventies to the KGB station in Copenhagen, he met someone from MI6, the British agency for espionage and foreign intelligence, and agreed to hand over whatever secret information he could. When his superiors promoted him to be head of the KGB station in London, he was in a position to give away to the British all manner of Soviet illegal and subversive activities. Watchful as he was, he could not help being haunted by the knowledge that a slip-up meant the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of the head. Gordievsky had no way of knowing that Aldrich Ames, a defector from the CIA, had tipped off the KGB that he was a double agent but could not provide firm evidence. When the KGB summoned him back to Moscow, he guessed that they had their suspicions and he needed all his courage to obey. Two senior officers put him through the terrifying experience of being drugged with a truth serum and then cross-questioned. Managing not to confess, he accused them of reverting to the Stalinism of the Great Terror. Unexpectedly allowed to go home for the time being, he had the chance to make the vital telephone call to tell MI6 to come to his rescue. Now was the moment to implement a long-standing plan to smuggle him out of the Soviet Union in the boot of a car with diplomatic plates.

Next Stop Execution
is Gordievsky’s memoir and its publication in 1995 was a nine days’ wonder. He revealed that as head of the KGB station in London he had paid some £37,000 to Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party in opposition to Mrs Thatcher. In a travesty of justice, Foot sued and was awarded damages. Jack Jones, the most powerful trade unionist of his day, had also been a KGB agent, but most of the others exposed by Gordievsky were politicians and journalists of no particular interest. Not for Gordievsky, however, who throughout his years of exile and right up to the present has campaigned single-handed to make sure that the Cold War is understood as necessary resistance to the police state. Anyone who writes a book or even an article that apologises for the Soviet Union or criticises capitalism and democracy is likely to receive a short and sharp rejoinder. To surviving Soviet fans, he is of course a traitor. Vladimir Putin, a KGB old boy of quite another stripe, is on record with the sinister threat, “Traitors kick the bucket for themselves, believe me.” Salman Rushdie is not the only person living in this country under sentence of death from a foreign power.

In previous books, Ben Macintyre has portrayed characters who in extreme conditions have reversed loyalties to their state or their cause. Moral ambiguity clearly fascinates him, and intelligence services are the best places to go searching for it, just because their daily work employs bad means for supposedly good ends. In The Spy and the Traitor, the jargon of tradecraft sets the scene. Any suggestion to become a double agent is a “dangle”; true but harmless information that may be given to the enemy is “chickenfeed”; a safe house is known as an OCP, or Occupational Clandestine Premises, and much more besides.
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