The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre details the extraordinary story of one of the most important Russian spy in history. There’s always the saying that a person had single-handedly changed the course of history, and nowhere could that be more true than with the story of Oleg Gordievsky. As with so many other spy stories throughout history, this almost reads as a fiction novel at certain points in the story. It’s just incredible and unbelievable at the same time. The amount of time and effort poured forth by both the author and Oleg himself to get this story out must have been a massive effort yet here we are with this book.
“The relationship between a person and the state is one thing, and the relationship of two loving people is completely different.” - Leila Gordievsky
The last 30% of this book must have been one of the most thrilling non-fiction I’ve read in quite some time. The events really did play out like a long movie sequence in my head. The author’s writing style leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s upfront and presents the facts with precision but, more importantly, without boring the readers with details that likely either won’t matter or will be forgotten soon afterward. The chapters always ends with you wanting to continue with the story without it needing to be a cliffhanger. At around 400+ pages, it’s still considered a fairly long read for many, but time just flew by while I was chopping away at the pages.
Once you knew a man’s weakness, you could snare and manipulate him. Disloyalty was not a sin, but an operational tool. - Ben Macintyre
One thing of note though is that the publisher shouldn’t have put the photos along with the captions in between the later chapters, which spoiled the ending. Obviously, many readers such as myself have zero clue on who Oleg is prior to reading this book, and so we had no idea whether he would have survived or not during his various return trips to Moscow. The pictures have clearly spoiled a few of those assumptions prior to the conclusion of the book. Although it was still exhilarating to read, nonetheless, certain pictures should have been published after the story had ended.
“Fear by night, and a feverish effort by day to pretend enthusiasm for a system of lies, was the permanent condition of the Soviet citizen.” - Robert Conquest
Make no mistake about it. The Spy and the Traitor makes for a must-read if you’re looking for some spy action. Although Oleg did very much to help the world better understand the mindset of the Russians during the Cold War, this story as presented by the author isn’t intended to be a deep dive into that psychology itself. If you’re interested in learning of the actual Cold War itself, more reading would be necessary elsewhere. As it stands, though, it still made for a breathless read for amateur history buffs like myself, especially during and after the second world war era.