The Spy and the Traitor

The greatest espionage story of the cold war.

By: Ben Macintyre

Published: 2018

Read: 2019


As the Cold War heats up, Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB agent, becomes disappointed with the brutalities of the Soviet system, develops an appreciation of Western freedoms while stationed abroad and decides to become a double agent. Once recruited by MI6, Gordievsky proves himself a highly efficient double agent, leveraging his high KGB rank. As Gordievsky reveals to the West the Soviet Union’s deep paranoia and fear of an unprovoked US first strike, the intelligence he provides helps to defuse profound misunderstandings at the height of the nuclear arms race and has a rare and direct impact on international relations. All of this comes at great personal costs to Gordievsky, who seems to be driven purely by a moral conviction to improve the faith of his home country.

Worth Reading:

The book provides entertaining insights into spycraft (it seems the movies are mostly right: secret drop-offs and long odds escapes involving people that are smart, eccentric and drink too much), the slippery world of non-stop trickeries and deceptions and, despite all that, the genuine affection that can develop among the various parties involved.

The book also highlights interesting traits of human psychology that are magnified in the lives of spies, such as the attractions of living a second, hidden life, the hunger for influence, the intoxication of knowing important things unknown to the person standing next to you and what motivates people to supplant one allegiance of trust with another, higher, loyalty.

It was interesting to read this book while watching “Chernobyl” (five part HBO series about scientists and politicians handling the fall-out of the 1986 nuclear disaster). Both provide scary insights into the real and imagined threats of the Cold War era and the humongous incompetence of the Soviet bureaucracy..

Practical Takeaways:

  • On selecting spies:
    • “Search for people who are hurt by fate or nature… Suffering from an inferiority complex, craving power and influence, but defeated by unfavorable circumstances… The sense of belonging to an influential and powerful organization will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them”.
  • On the limits of espionage:
    • “If the enemy has spies in your camp and you have spies in his, the world may be a little safer, but essentially you end up where you started (I know that you know that I know…)”
  • On totalitarian regimes.
    • “The individual is encouraged to consider the interests of society before personal welfare… A willingness to betray those nearest to you for the greater good is the ultimate mark of committed citizenship and ideological purity.”
    • When honest failure is likely punished, individuals in a bureaucracy that are faced with difficult problems typically do nothing and hope the problem will go away.

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