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 persuaded to switch sides. He then served as a double agent for the British from 1974 to 1985, until he was betrayed, almost certainly by Aldrich Ames, a mid-ranking counterintelligence officer in the CIA who offered his services to the Russians for money (and who, Macintyre reckons, received $4.6 million from them in the course of his double life).

Macintyre’s witty yet nerve-racking description of Gordievsky’s exfiltration after he was called back to Moscow from London in 1985 under a sudden cloud of suspicion—probably the only time a KGB double agent was smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a Western agency—is full of telling details. The most enjoyable is how the wife of the British spy in whose car he was hidden managed to divert the attention of the KGB border guards’ Alsatian dogs inspecting the Finland-bound vehicle by the timely changing of her baby’s smelly diaper on the trunk, in which the terrified Gordievsky was doubled up under a blanket.

Additional details concerning the “turning” of Gordievsky by the British, not included in his own version, are supplied by various British MI6 agents involved in the operation. An oddity is that Macintyre has been obliged to give them pseudonyms, some of them ludicrous, presumably at the request of MI6 in return for supplying information. Anyone familiar with the story will realize that “Viscount Roy Ascot” is Raymond Asquith (now the Earl of Oxford), the MI6 station chief in Moscow who drove one of the two getaway cars, since he is helpfully described as a great-grandson of a prime minister. Another handler of Gordievsky, named “James Spooner,” is plainly John (later Sir John) Scarlett, who headed Britain’s interagency Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office in the crucial run-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2002 (and later headed MI6).

Among other amusing additions by Macintyre to what was previously known is the revelation that the British Foreign Office, particularly its then recently accredited ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge, was ferociously opposed to the operation for fear of the damage it might do to Anglo-Russian relations, whether the scheme succeeded or not. Even after its successful outcome, Sir Bryan roundly chastised Ascot/Asquith for undertaking it. Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, sworn to total secrecy, had to overcome sticky obstacles of protocol in order to reach the prime minister in person to get her formal approval for the operation (which was already, in fact, underway) while she was staying with Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral, the monarch’s summer home in Scotland. The queen’s private secretary, writes Macintyre, “fumed” when Powell adamantly refused to explain why the prime minister should be urgently interrupted. “If you are a private secretary, there is nothing more galling than another private secretary being more private than you are.”


Academic specialists in the history of espionage may look askance at such jovial diversions and cast doubt on the assertion that Gordievsky was “one of the most valuable spies in history.” According to Macintyre,

the immense amount of information he fed back to his British handlers had changed the course of the Cold War, cracking open Soviet spy networks, helping to avert nuclear war, and furnishing the West with a unique insight into the Kremlin’s thinking during a critically dangerous period in world affairs.

This is a grand claim. But it has some merit. Clearly Gordievsky succeeded in unmasking a vast network of Soviet and home-grown spies in Britain and Western Europe during his time as a double agent. Other spies, on both sides, might claim to match him in value. Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, who spied for Britain (which shared his information with America) from 1961 to 1963, revealed vital details of the Soviet missile emplacements during the Cuban crisis, thus letting President Kennedy know precisely the size and nature of the Russian threat. Arguably this made it possible for Kennedy to force the Russians to remove them.

Other spies on the Russian side may make an equal claim to the title of “most valuable in history.” The Russians still exalt what they call their “Magnificent Five,” the ideologically motivated British traitors, including Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, who penetrated the very top of the British security and political establishment during and for several critical years after World War II. As head of the MI6 station in Washington, Philby was privy to many of the most sensitive secrets of American foreign policy.

A recent biography of Maclean by Roland Philipps, A Spy Named Orphan (2018), suggests that he may have been even more valuable. As a senior diplomat in Washington, Maclean passed on the most intimate correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt and between Churchill and Truman. Before the wartime meetings in Yalta and Potsdam, where the postwar settlement was arranged, he told Stalin the Allies’ precise intentions. He later revealed the entire plan for NATO’s creation and told the Russians exactly how many atomic bombs the Americans had and that they would not be used during the Korean War, as the Russians had feared. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson exclaimed, after Maclean’s exposure, “My God, he knew everything!”

By providing the West with many details of Soviet subversion, Gordievsky enabled governments and intelligence services in Britain and Scandinavia to clean out a spider’s web of KGB agents. He also provided a long list of “agents of influence” and unwitting contacts. Michael Foot, the British Labour Party leader from 1980 to 1983 and thus a possible successor to Thatcher as prime minister, sued the Sunday Times after it serialized Gordievsky’s autobiography, in which Foot is named as an “agent of influence”; the Labour leader was paid generous damages. Macintyre has now repeated the charge, again furiously rejected as a smear by the late Foot’s friends and admirers, including the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Foot’s lawyer during the libel case insisted that Foot “never knowingly met KGB agents, let alone took money from them in return for information.” Macintyre, however, is certain that Foot “attended dozens of meetings with KGB officers in London in the 1950s and 1960s and received the equivalent of more than £37,000 [$49,000] in cash,” which may have subsidized a socialist journal, Tribune.

The two claims do not, in a narrow reading, contradict each other, the critical word being “knowingly.” But it seems probable that Foot was, if not a conscious informant for the KGB, then stunningly naive. Others who qualified at least as agents of influence handled by the KGB in London and identified by Gordievsky included at least three Labour members of Parliament and a number of Conservatives. He also authoritatively quashed the damaging claim that Sir Roger Hollis, who headed MI5 (the internal security service) from 1956 to 1965, was a Soviet agent.1

This was very useful stuff. But in providing details of KGB activities, Gordievsky may have later been outweighed in value by the KGB’s senior archivist, Vitali Mitrokhin, who spent twelve years (1972–1984) transcribing thousands of documents that he then stored in a milk churn and elsewhere at his dacha outside Moscow, before taking most of these secrets to Britain via Latvia when he defected in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In sheer volume of detail, this was surely the most complete inventory of Soviet spydom ever handed to a Western agency, even though much of it was by then out of date.2


By contrast, Gordievsky’s most important contribution, which is endorsed by Christopher Andrew, the leading current expert on the British intelligence services and their official chronicler, is not just to have informed the West of the details of Soviet subversion but to have persuaded his Western masters that the Soviet leadership really was paranoid and genuinely believed its own propaganda. In May 1981 Yuri Andropov, then the KGB’s long-serving boss, persuaded the ailing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that the Americans were planning to launch a nuclear first strike. KGB stations across the world, especially in Washington and London, were expected to find evidence to prove the West’s malign intention to obliterate the USSR.

Soviet paranoia was exacerbated in November 1983 by a major NATO exercise known as Able Archer 83. It is Macintyre’s view that, once alerted by Gordievsky to the Russians’ extreme nervousness, Reagan and Thatcher, both regarded by the Soviet leaders as ferocious warmongers, managed to reassure Moscow that they had no intention of launching a preemptive attack. Thereafter, thanks partly to Gordievsky’s insights, conveyed from the heart of the KGB to London and then passed on to Washington, relations between the superpowers improved, especially when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985. The claim that Gordievsky at least contributed to the ending of the cold war and indirectly to the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union is a challenging one. Macintyre lends it some weight.

It should be noted, however, that these insights, though persuasively described by Macintyre, have previously been revealed by Andrew, who has been close to Gordievsky since his defection. In his latest magisterial book, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (2018), Andrew expounds on the same theme. He endorses the view of another British former chief spy, Sir Percy Cradock, who identified “the main source of weakness” in the Soviet intelligence system as “the attempt to force an excellent supply of information from the multifaceted West into an oversimplified framework of hostility and conspiracy theory.” It is a characteristic weakness of all intelligence services, including Western ones, that their more ambitious operatives tend to provide their political bosses with evidence that confirms what they already want to believe: witness the flawed evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to Gordievsky and Macintyre, this was even more the case for the KGB, particularly since the entire foundation of the Soviet Union was based on a set of beliefs (for instance, that capitalism was rotting from within) that needed a package of lies, often wrapped up in fantastical conspiracy theories, to sustain it.

Macintyre’s retelling of the Gordievsky saga is timely because the revamped KGB (now divided into the foreign service SVR and the domestic FSB) has again risen to prominence under the former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin. Macintyre, citing Gordievsky, reminds the reader that Putin once asserted that “there is no such thing as a former KGB man,” and that Russia’s current leader was a KGB foreign operative when Vladimir Kryuchkov, later the KGB boss, headed the First Chief Directorate, the organization’s foreign operations branch. Kryuchkov, a protégé of Andropov, later was one of the leaders of the failed attempt to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991.

Moreover, it is clear that Putin, like other senior KGB men throughout the history of Soviet intelligence, does not hesitate to kill agents who have defected, as demonstrated by the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in London and the attempted assassination last year of Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury. Gordievsky recalls how, during his time in the KGB, the possibility of assassinating “enemies of the homeland” was casually discussed. His boss in London even contemplated killing Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.

Despite the brilliance of its narration and eye for detail, Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014) failed to crack the enigma of Philby’s twenty-five years in Moscow after his defection. (Did he truly believe in the Communist cause until he died?)3 Similarly, Macintyre tells us disappointingly little about Gordievsky’s thirty-plus years in England since his escape. One wonders how happily he managed to settle into a placid British suburban existence. (After he waited six years for the Russians to let his wife join him in England, the marriage failed.) One thing, however, is certain. Gordievsky will not be advertising his whereabouts: Putin has made sure of that. Macintyre’s final description of Gordievsky as “one of the bravest people I have ever met, and one of the loneliest” seems fitting. Whether Macintyre has expanded our knowledge of Soviet espionage is debatable, but he has made it even more entertaining.