One of the many problems with The Spy And The Traitor by Ben McIntyre is that it’s a long book, comprising in the region of 150,000 words. Half of these could be cut without changing the factual content or significance of the work. In theory, it deals with the biography, career and significance of Oleg Gordievsky, and is described on the cover as The Greatest Espionage Story Of The Cold War.
Oleg Gordievsky was a spy, working for the KGB in the Soviet Union. But he wasn’t. He was in fact a double agent working for MI6 in Britain, who did not share his identity and apparently much of what he revealed to their allies in the CIA. Gordievsky has also been described as a triple agent. That means he was in fact working for the KGB all along. Perhaps… In fact…
It is this last phrase that really poses problems for Ben McIntyre’s book. No doubt it is heavily and well researched. No doubt his sources are impeccable. But the reader notices straightaway how the author is never content to describe what is actually happening. Throughout, Ben McIntyre puts words into people’s mouths and thoughts into their heads. He seems to know, verbatim, what was going through someone’s mind 30 years ago on a Thursday at 3:30, although usually he won’t tell us who is thinking, since their names are still secret.
These intelligence types are also taken at face value, without ever really proving they possess that quality that forms part of the label. How about, for instance, an escape plan that involves a rendezvous on the upper floor of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, where the contact will be recognized by his grey hat? Fine, until we learn that the wearing of hats is forbidden inside the church. One wonders when the practice was introduced! And whether it might have been researched… The contact is also to be recognized by wearing something grey. One wonders what percentage of Muscovites wear something grey every day. One might just bet on a large number. And just to add insult to injury when the plan was effected the upper floor of Saint Basil’s Cathedral was closed for a decoration. Now that’s what I call intelligence. But it would probably not pass for competence.
When Gordievsky takes over as head in London, his predecessor presents him with his briefs in a sealed box. When opened the box is empty. The author has numerous explanations for this, but ignores the obvious one, that the new incumbent had already been rumbled and was being humoured.
But by far the most egregious detail of this disappointing book is the repetition of allegations against the British politician Michael Foot. Just once in the text the author does point out that he never passed on any secret, never committed anything that might even be considered as a crime and gave away nothing that was sensitive. Just once the author mentions that Michael Foot sued the Sunday Times for repeating the allegation and won. So, the KGB had a file on Foot. No doubt they had files on Margaret Thatcher and The Queen as well. One must draw one’s own conclusions.
Throughout we follow Gordievsky, his family his colleagues and in forensic detail we learn which windows they sat in, what foods they eat whilst reading classic novels and other sensational revelations. What is lacking – actually it hardly ever appears – is any significant analysis of what information the spy was passing and exactly how it might have contributed to events that probably would have happened the same way without such revelations. One is left in no doubt that these people take themselves seriously. The book, on the other hand, deserves something quite different.