The Spy and the Traitor

by Ben Macintyre

Posted Mar 29, 2021

A few months after finishing The Bureau (definitely one of my favorite TV series ever), I was craving more spy stories. I kept seeing this book recommended. I don't think I even knew if it was fiction or non-fiction before starting it (it's a true story).

For the first half of the book, I thought it was going to be filled with interesting facts but lacking the intensity and drama that I wanted from it. Then I realized that nearly all of the drama was going to be saved for one story, the escape. It turned out to be worth the wait.

There are lots of important, interesting, and fun facts in this book. There are lessons about leadership and planning and trust.

Here are some of my favorite parts:

On some gadgets:

During the war, the Hanslope boffins produced an astonishing array of technical gadgets for spies, including secure radios, secret ink, and even garlic-flavored chocolate—issued to spies parachuting into occupied France to ensure their breath smelled convincingly French on landing. Had Q, the technical wizard in the James Bond series, actually existed, he would have worked at Hanslope Park.

MI6 was still using the old-fashioned Minox camera. The CIA, however, was known to have recruited a Swiss watchmaker to develop an ingenious miniature camera hidden inside an ordinary Bic cigarette lighter, which could take perfect photographs when used in conjunction with a length of thread, 11¼ inches long, and a pin. Using a piece of chewing gum, the thread was stuck to the bottom of the lighter; when the pin at the end lay flat on a document, that measured the ideal focal length, and the button on top of the lighter could be pressed to click the shutter.

On Russian paranoia and secrecy:

Officers were expected to get married, have children, and stay married. There was calculation as well as control in this: a married KGB officer was considered less likely to defect while abroad, since his wife and family could be held as hostages.

[In the embassy in London, ] even manual typewriters were discouraged in case the keystrokes gave something away; there were notices on every wall warning: DON’T SAY NAMES OR DATES OUT LOUD; the windows were all bricked up, except in Guk’s office, where miniature radio speakers pumped canned Russian music into the space between the panes of the double glazing, emitting a peculiar muffled warble that added to the surreal atmosphere.

On (bad) leadership:

In launching Operation RYAN [a search for proof that the US was planning a first strike], Andropov broke the first rule of intelligence: never ask for confirmation of something you already believe. Hitler had been certain that the D-day invasion force would land at Calais, so that is what his spies (with help from Allied double agents) told him, ensuring the success of the Normandy landings. Tony Blair and George W. Bush were convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that is what their intelligence services duly concluded.

The Kremlin, however, assuming that capitalism penetrated every aspect of Western life, believed that a “blood bank” was, in fact, a bank, where blood could be bought and sold. No one in the KGB outstations dared to draw attention to this elemental misunderstanding. In a craven and hierarchical organization, the only thing more dangerous than revealing your own ignorance is to draw attention to the stupidity of the boss.

I came away with a deep appreciation for the work that the spy, Oleg Gordievsky, did and the impact it had on the West's relationship with the USSR. He helped avoid nuclear war and directly recommended the strategy which led to the USSR overextending itself financially, which I had understood (and still believe) is the primary reason for its collapse.

And the story about "the Traitor" is unbelievable.