- - Monday, October 8, 2018


By Ben Macintyre

Crown, $28, 358 pages

Who was the most important spy of the Cold War era? Ben Macintyre convincingly nominates Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who spied for MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) for 11 years, lastly as chief of the London rezidentura.

Mr. Gordievsky’s product went far beyond the usual spy take. As CIA chief Robert Gates stated, some Soviet sources provided information on military matters. But Mr. Gordievsky went significant steps further.

His greatest moment came in 1985, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accepted an invitation to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London. As a KGB officer, he briefed Moscow on what to expect from the British. As an MI6 source, he briefed the British on Soviet plans.

“Uniquely in intelligence history,” Mr. Macintyre writes, “a spy was in a position to shape, even choreograph, a meeting between two world leaders.”

As Mr. Gates states, “What Gordievsky was giving us information about the thinking of the leadership — and that kind of information was as scarce as hens’ teeth.” The intelligence underpinned “[President] Ronald] Reagan’s conviction that a greater effort had to be made not just to reduce tension, but to end the Cold War.”

The major conclusions that British and American analysts derived from Mr. Gordievsky was that Moscow’s hard line was due more to weakness than to ideological conviction.

Thus a confident Reagan realized he could abandon bellicose rhetoric and enter into meaningful talks with Moscow. His change of heart was shared by his chum, Thatcher, and the Cold War soon was tossed onto history’s junk heap.

Readers should rejoice in a very readable book by a skilled story-teller. Although an intelligence outsider, Mr. Macentyre enjoys the trust of MI6. He had unlimited access to Mr. Gordievsky for more than 100 hours of interviews. MI6 handlers who spoke with him sport choice British pseudonyms — “Bromhead,” for instance, who refers to his trade as “mucking about.”

On the surface, Mr. Gordievsky seemed natural for a KGB career. His father, a high-level KGB officer, was involved in the mass starvation that Stalin inflicted on the Ukraine in the 1930s, and then with the terror trials.

This family background, and an early schooling in German, prompted KGB interest in Mr. Gordievsky. He was initially reluctant, distressed by the lack of freedom in the USSR. His discontent deepened during a visit to Germany where he witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall.

Nonetheless, in 1962 he took the KGB oath, pledging “I commit myself to defend my country to the last drop of blood, and to keep state secrets.” He entered a loveless marriage to fulfill a KGB requirement.

During an early assignment in freedom-loving Copenhagen, he recognized that the USSR was a “vast, stile concentration camp a form of hell.” The Soviet crushing of a Czech freedom movement in 1968 was the last straw.

In disgust, he made an open-line phone call — using a pseudonym — in which he berated the Czech brutality. He knew he would be heard by Danish intelligence, and sure enough, the lead was passed to MI6.

In due course, the trail led to Mr. Gordievsky. And Mr. Macentyre’s account of how the officer known as Bromhead recruited Mr. Gordievsky as a spy is a textbook study of intelligence reality; indeed, these pages alone are worth the price of the book. The ability to convince a rival to betray his country is the ultimate test for an intelligence officer.

In debriefings, Mr. Gordievsky exposed the inner workings of the KGB. He named deep-cover officers around the world, and the methodology of creating false identities. MI6 officers were astounded at the quality — and quantity — of his information.

MI6 supplied Mr. Gordievsky’s take with the CIA, but not his identity. Nonetheless, an agency Soviet expert who desired to be certain of the source’s bona fides pieced together bits of information that fingered Mr. Gordievsky.

CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames somehow got wind of the identity and informed his KGB masters. Mr. Gordievsky was recalled to Moscow, where interrogators futilely tried to build a case against him.

With foresight, MI6 had devised an infiltration plan in which Mr. Gordievesky would be taken to the Finnish border in the trunk of a car driven by a British diplomat and thence to safety.

In terms of suspense, the flight through Russia is of thriller-quality, with embassy vehicles shuffling to and fro to evade surveillance.

The climax came at the Finnish border, where guards employ dogs to sniff out persons hiding in car trunks. An alert British embassy wife, wife of a driver, hopped out of the car and changed her baby’s diaper on the fender just above Mr. Gordievsky’s hiding place. The baby’s scent prevailed, and Mr. Gordievsky made his way to Britain — and freedom.

Now 80 years of age, Mr. Gordievsky is a “bowed, bearded old man” living anonymously in a village, shielded from Vladimir Putin’s murder squads — a brave man to whom all of us are indebted.

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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