Oleg Gordievsky, the subject of this “wonderful” book, was the “most significant British agent of the Cold War”, said Luke Harding in The Guardian. For 11 years, between 1974 and 1985, he passed Russian secrets to MI6 while working for the KGB, first in Copenhagen and later in London.
Even more remarkably, he became the only British agent ever to be exfiltrated out of Russia, after his KGB bosses had grown suspicious and recalled him to Moscow. Gordievsky’s story has been told before, not least in his own “gripping” 1995 memoir, Next Stop Execution. Yet Ben Macintrye’s book “complements and enhances” that account. Based on interviews not only with its subject (who is now 79 and lives in the Home Counties, still “under sentence of death”), but with every MI6 officer involved in the case, this is a “dazzling non-fiction thriller”.
Gordievsky (pictured in 1997), the son of an NKVD colonel, was initially an enthusiastic recruit to the KGB, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Doubts only began to surface after he was posted to Copenhagen in the mid-1960s: “The Danish capital was so much richer than Moscow, while his love of books and classical music opened his mind to new ideas.” Gordievsky took his first step towards defecting after the Red Army had crushed the Prague Spring of 1968: he vented his fury to his wife, over a phone line that he knew to be bugged by Danish intelligence. “Eventually”, the message got through to MI6, and he was recruited by a “tall, friendly Englishman” over lunch. During his active years, Gordievsky passed on secrets of “unimaginable value” to the UK.
He revealed, for instance, that in the 1980s the “paranoid” Soviet leadership was planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the West. He also exposed various Soviet “agents of influence”, such as Labour’s Michael Foot — who allegedly dined with, and took cash payments from, the KGB.
Gordievsky’s career culminated with a plot twist “so implausible that it could happen only in real life”, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. In Moscow, he realised that the authorities were onto him, and triggered a long-prepared escape plan. An MI6 agent smuggled him out of Russia in the trunk of the family car, and he was brought back to London for a “hero’s welcome”. At a time when the news is dominated by the “machinations of Russian intelligence”, Macintyre’s “fine” book offers a “refreshing reversal”: “In this story, it’s the Russians who get turned inside out by a British mole.”