Oleg Gordievsky, the ultimate spy story — and Ben Macintyre, the best writer to tell it

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

Spy stories, whether the stuff of fictional thrillers or, as in the case of Sergei Skripal, the real deal — often leave a question nagging. For all the tales of tradecraft and tension, double agents and drama, what difference did one person’s decision to spy really make? That is not the case with Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky’s story is remarkable because it has all the drama of a fictional tale and yet also conveys why a single person’s choices can make a difference.

Gordievsky was a rising star in the KGB, but one who became disillusioned with the regime he was serving — particularly as he watched the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968. While serving in Copenhagen, he tried to signal to western intelligence that he might be willing to work for them. MI6 — thanks to some help from Danish intelligence — spotted him. Yet it took some time to close the deal, MI6 unsure as to whether he was the real deal or a ‘dangle’ set by the KGB to entrap them. Eventually the two sides reached an agreement, and Gordievsky began providing secrets in Denmark. But when he returned to Moscow the relationship was put on hold. The risk of discovery was too great. Then he was posted to London.

He arrived at a time when the Cold War was at risk of heating up — with Reagan’s rhetoric of an ‘Evil Empire’ fuelling fears in Moscow that the West was preparing for a first strike. Gordievsky convinced MI6 that the Soviets were far more fearful of a western attack on them than was understood. In turn this intelligence found its way to both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who would use it to adjust their strategy, reducing the risk of the Cold War turning hot. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to London, there was a remarkable moment when Gordievsky was briefing both sides about the visit, with the guidance of British intelligence — helping to build a relationship between Thatcher and Gorbachev that would prove momentous.

But the fact that the Brits had a top source in the KGB whose intelligence impressed their own President created jealousy in the CIA, who set up a team to try to identify their ally’s source. Unfortunately for Gordievsky, one of those working in the CIA’s Soviet counter-intelligence division was Aldrich Ames — the traitor in the title of Macintyre’s book. Desperate for money, he passed on the indications that Gordievsky might be working for the British to the Russians. Recalled to Moscow, Gordievsky was drugged and interrogated. But lacking proof, the KGB allowed him to go about his life under surveillance. Gordievsky then triggered an escape plan that few in London thought likely to work. It climaxed with Gordievsky being smuggled in a car boot over the border into Finland by MI6 — cheese and onion crisps and a nappy from one of the team’s children used to distract the guards and their dogs at the checkpoint.

The story has been told before — including in Gordievsky’s own autobiography — but Macintyre’s account brings it to life in vivid technicolor with fascinating new details. He tells it with all the verve we have come to expect from such an accomplished writer. As well as Gordievsky himself, Macintyre says he has had the assistance of all the living MI6 officers who worked on the case. This provides an unusually detailed sense of what the relationship between an agent and a spy service really looks like. It reveals the moments of tension and misunderstanding between the two sides as well as the close bonds that grow up. Those associated with MI6 sometimes like to say that their successes are secret and their failures are public. The reality is that the Secret Service has always known how to make the most of some of their successes, understanding this is vital to preserve its reputation in Whitehall, with partners (especially the Americans) as well as the public.

Macintyre reveals that the MI6 officers agreed to speak but under the cloak of anonymity, and they are given pseudonyms which in one or two cases are a little odd. Gordievsky’s main case officer in London is described as ‘James Spooner’ even though he has been named elsewhere as John Scarlett, later chief of MI6. And a quick search on the web will reveal some of the others (Macintyre acknowledges one, a Viscount, was outed by a fellow peer in the House of Lords in 2015).

Beyond the importance of Gordievsky in terms of his intelligence, the book tells a very human story about one man’s decisions. Gordievsky never told his second wife about his betrayal and when she finally comes to London, after a long struggle with the British government, their marriage does not survive. It is a reminder of the personal costs of espionage.

Spying involves betrayal. A person revealing secrets they are supposed to keep. And so one side’s hero is another’s villain. In Russia, Gordievsky is often viewed — like Sergei Skripal — as a traitor who sold out his country. And to Britons, the MI6 officer turned Soviet spy Kim Philby will symbolise treachery, while to many in Moscow he was a man who followed his ideals. Mikhail Lyubimov is one of the few people who can claim he was close friends with both Philby and Gordiesvky, having been Gordievsky’s colleague and friend in the KGB and also Philby’s mentor and minder after he fled to Moscow.

A few years ago I sat with Lyubimov in his flat in Moscow. Trinkets from his time as a spy in Britain in the 1960s sat on his shelves. I asked how he would compare the actions of the two men. Philby was never a traitor, Lyubimov maintained, in a piece of complex logic that only spies can manage. This was because Philby had never actually changed sides, he said, instead deliberately joining MI6 in order to penetrate it. But he had harsher words for his other former friend. ‘Gordievsky is a traitor. This is clear because he worked for the KGB, then he went to the British side,’ he told me.

Soon after, I went to see Gordievsky. In his quiet suburban house, I sat across the table and put to him Lyubimov’s assertion that he was a traitor. A flash of anger crossed his face. For a moment I was worried I had made a mistake — then it passed. The answer he gave was one that stayed with me — the answer of a man who had made his choice and had no regrets. It was also the answer of a man who had no time for those who would draw moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War. ‘The betrayal question is pointless because it was a criminal state,’ he said of the Soviet regime that he had turned against. ‘The most criminal element of the criminal state was the KGB. It was a gang of bandits. To betray bandits was very good for the soul.’

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