• Steve Haywood

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben McIntyre

I read this book a few weeks ago, and was delighted earlier this week when Bill Gates' annual review of his best books of the year dropped into my mailbox and this book was one of his top five books of 2020. Great minds and all that...



Oleg Gordievsky is a KBG spy, coming from a family of KGB spies so espionage was literally in his blood. When he is posted to Denmark he becomes exposed to Western culture and becomes increasingly disillusioned with the corrupt and autocratic Soviet state. Eventually, he comes round to the idea of secretly defecting and spying for the other side - Britain and it's espionage division, MI6. Thus he sets in motion a chain of events that many years later will lead to a daring plan to escape from Moscow after his treason is discovered...


There's a lot of spy fiction out there, even though it is less popular than it once was. I've read a few such books and generally enjoyed them, but it isn't a particularly favoured genre for me. The difference with this book however is that it isn't fiction - it is all true. There's a saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and this is definitely true here. If it was a novel, you wouldn't believe it.


The book starts out just before the escape attempt from Moscow, and flashes back to early on in Gordievsky's career. It takes three quarters of the book to catch up to the beginning, and the escape. That doesn't matter though, because this book is fascinating. You find out lots about the KGB, the Soviet Union, MI6 and the Cold War in general. The writing is excellent. Early on you keep turning the pages because it is just so darn interesting and you want the next instalment. Then later on, as the net closes on him, it gets to be really tense, page turning stuff.


Spoiler time. This is a (mostly) happy ending to this. Oleg Gordievsky escapes and survives. Present tense. As I'm writing this review in 2020, thirty five years after the conclusion of the book, Gordievsky is alive and well, living in a nice suburban detached house somewhere in England, with a new identity under the surveillance and protection of the British security service. If you live in England, he could be in your town or village, could be that nice old man you say hello to in a morning on your way to work. Cool huh?


In case you hadn't guessed it, I loved this book. I read it quickly, couldn't put it down, and will be thinking about and talking about this book for a long time. As an added bonus, there's some fascinating facts now tucked away in my mind ready to share. This is possibly the best book I've read this year, and one of my favourite non-fiction books of all time.


If you like this book then you're in luck because Ben McIntyre has written several other true life spy thrillers. His latest book is Agent Sonya, which is a kind of reversal of this book, because it is about a Soviet spy who successfully poses undercover as an English lady. I can't wait to pick this up and read it soon.

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