The Spy and the Traitor | Ben Macintyre

Summary of: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
By: Ben Macintyre


Embark on an incredible journey into the heart of the Cold War’s espionage as we unravel the gripping story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Soviet KGB agent turned double agent for Britain’s MI6. In ‘The Spy and the Traitor,’ author Ben Macintyre sheds light on the inner workings of the KGB, the psychological warfare that dominated the era, and how Gordievsky’s actions significantly influenced the course of history. Discover how this extraordinary individual rose through the ranks of the KGB, only to aid the Western powers in understanding and communicating with the Soviet Union, ultimately contributing to the end of the Cold War.

Escape from Ideology

Oleg Gordievsky’s journey from KGB to the West

The book reveals the journey of Oleg Gordievsky, a lifelong member of the KGB, and his escape from communist ideology. Gordievsky was born into a KGB family, and his father’s role in identifying “enemies of the state” during the Great Purge never surfaced in their conversations. Gordievsky, however, was never at peace with the communist ideology that was fueling the KGB. His early influences included his gentle but nonconformist mother and his grandmother, who secretly practiced religion in a country where it was illegal.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Gordievsky began to liberalize his views, a change fueled by Khrushchev’s policies that allowed foreigners to visit and previously banned publications to be made available. He became more familiar with the West through foreign newspapers and periodicals in his institution’s library and listened to the BBC World Service and Voice of America at night. It was during this time that he met and befriended Stanislaw Kaplan, who shared Gordievsky’s skepticism of the communist ideology.

The friendship between Gordievsky and Kaplan shaped their lives, leading them towards eventually escaping to the West. Gordievsky became a double agent for the UK against the Soviet Union, a move that put his life and that of his family’s at great risk. However, his remarkable escape to the UK via Finland changed the course of his life. The book details Gordievsky’s personal journey and his eventual role in helping to end the Cold War.

Overall, the book encapsulates Gordievsky’s journey from loyal KGB member to the double agent working towards the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a riveting story of one man’s ideological transformation and eventual escape, set against the backdrop of the Cold War era.

Escaping the Motherland

Gordievsky’s journey from blind obedience to West sympathizer

In the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union was still largely a repressive regime despite Khrushchev’s push for reform. The government saw the West as an existential threat and monitored all citizens through the massive KGB that numbered over a million members. Brainwashing and conspiracy theories were rampant, but one man, Gordievsky, began to have doubts.

Gordievsky’s change of heart happened when he saw the Berlin Wall being erected while posted in East Berlin for six months in 1961. For him, the wall was a literal prison wall that kept East Germans locked up in a socialist nightmare, a stark realization that shook Gordievsky to his core.

Despite his doubts, he obediently reported for KGB duty in Moscow, but he had a plan. Once he finished his training, he made sure to seek out a position outside the Soviet Union. By marrying Yelena Akopian, also a regime doubter, Gordievsky increased his chances of being posted outside the country. They moved to Denmark, where Gordievsky managed the network of KGB spies.

In Denmark, Gordievsky found himself exposed to Western cultural values, including literature and music he had never encountered before. These exposures emboldened his already growing doubts about the Soviet regime and its oppressive practices. It became only a matter of time before Gordievsky turned his thoughts into action and became a double agent for the Western intelligence agencies.

Gordievsky’s turning point

After witnessing the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Prague Spring, KGB agent Gordievsky makes a covert call to Danish authorities, indicating his willingness to defect. However, the Danish Intelligence Service fails to recognize this clue and instead sets up a honey trap to blackmail him. Nonetheless, KGB’s surveillance of Gordievsky’s increased tailing leads to his recall to Moscow.


MI6 had been keeping an eye on Gordievsky, a KGB officer who showed “clear signs of political disillusionment” according to a debrief written by Stanislaw Kaplan, Gordievsky’s university friend who himself had defected to Canada. In 1973, Kaplan appeared at Gordievsky’s door in Denmark and shared his experience of defection, which Gordievsky sympathised with. Denmark’s MI6 station chief, Richard Bromhead, then approached Gordievsky during his regular badminton match and arranged a private lunch three days later. Gordievsky not only gave Bromhead the name of the person tasked with gathering political intelligence in his section but also revealed himself as that person. Gordievsky also confirmed that he had not mentioned their earlier encounter to the KGB, thus effectively turning into a double agent.

The Double Agent

Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB intelligence officer, began a secret life as a double agent for MI6 in his time at the Soviet Embassy in Denmark. He arranged regular meetings with his MI6 case officer, supplying them with valuable information about the KGB’s tactics and planting spies around the world. Gordievsky’s position in the KGB made him the perfect informant for MI6. He even began smuggling reels of microfilm out of the embassy for MI6 to copy.

Despite his embrace of Western culture, Gordievsky struggled with personal relationships. His marriage suffered as his wife refused to have children or cook for him. His life as a double agent remained hidden, even from his new love interest, Leila Aliyeva, who he met through the Soviet ambassador’s wife. Although they quickly fell for each other, Gordievsky knew he couldn’t risk sharing his dangerous secrets with her.

PIMLICO: The Great Escape

In 1978, MI6 orchestrated a risky escape for KGB defector Gordievsky from Moscow to Finland. The plan involved holding a British Safeway plastic grocery bag and wearing specific attire to signal MI6 officers, who would then smuggle him across the border to Finland. However, Gordievsky found his own way to the UK, where he enroll in a KGB course for learning English and eventually obtained a position at the Soviet embassy in London. During this time, he collected crucial information on the KGB’s operations in Britain, which his MI6 handlers were after. In 1982, Gordievsky, along with his family, finally boarded a flight to London.

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