Spy vs. Spy

A surveillance photograph of Oleg Gordievsky taken by the Danish intelligence service during his posting in Copenhagen, circa 1966
Private Collection
A surveillance photograph of Oleg Gordievsky taken by the Danish intelligence service during his posting in Copenhagen, circa 1966

“The best true spy story I have ever read,” says John Le Carré of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre. The tale of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who spied for the British for eleven years and was exfiltrated in 1985 from Russia to Finland in the trunk of a car, is certainly one of the most gripping of its kind. Yet it has already been told authoritatively by Gordievsky himself in his autobiography, Next Stop Execution, published in 1995 (and republished in 2015), which included a nail-biting description of the double agent’s desperate flight from Moscow after his betrayal by an American agent of the KGB lurking in the CIA. So why has Macintyre told it again? And does he provide new information about Gordievsky or new insights into the business of espionage?

The son of a long-serving operator for the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, Gordievsky was bred to the service. His older brother was a KGB man, too. Gordievsky was a model student: tough, athletic, personable, and intelligent. Educated in the top Soviet institutes, where he learned Swedish and German (he picked up English later), by the time he was in his early twenties he had been sent as a translator to the Russian embassy in East Berlin and was soon posted as a KGB agent in Denmark.

But a streak of rebellious independence began to come to the fore. Already unsettled by seeing first-hand the erection of the Berlin Wall, designed to stop East Germans from leaving their supposed socialist paradise in droves, he was bowled over by the high standard of living in Denmark, where he found not just material goods but also culture and personal freedom. Doubts about the superiority of the Soviet Union soon began to creep into his inquiring mind. The trial in 1966 of the dissident Soviet writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel further undermined his waning faith in the Communist cause. In 1968 the suppression of the Prague Spring by Soviet forces turned him completely against his homeland’s ideology. Delving into literature and history books banned in Russia but readily available in Denmark, he underwent a wholesale conversion to the Western values he was meant to be helping to destroy. Among his eye-openers were the short stories of Somerset Maugham and Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War.

Rightly assuming that he was being bugged by the Danish intelligence service, he began to make ferociously anti-Soviet comments in the privacy of his Copenhagen apartment that were bound to be noticed. In due course, he was accosted—on a badminton court—by a British intelligence agent and readily…

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