Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and The Traitor is a true story of a Russian defector, Oleg Gordievsky, who changes the course of the Cold War by spying for the British. His defection to Britain’s MI6, his eventual detention by the KGB, and his subsequent extraction from Moscow is edge-of-the-seat stuff that will definitely find its way to the TV screen.
Macintyre’s research is meticulous, and his narration exhausting. Inconsequential and frustrating details about the cast of characters litter the book and dampen its thrill. Is it important for the reader to know that a secondary character was the son of a printer who ran away from home at the age of fourteen? While the story is built based on interviews with the turncoat among other sources, great care is taken to paint his defection from the KGB to the MI6 in morally acceptable hues. A halo is created around his persona, justifying his actions with reasons conjured after the fact: his disillusionment with communism, his belief that democracy and capitalism were the way forward, the cultural starvation he experienced in the USSR, and so on.
Those who emerge victorious from history often earn the right to narrate it, which in turn equips them with a sense of false righteousness, moral superiority and arrogance. The narrative then goes something like this: the other side lost because they were idiots and those who spied for them were philistines motivated by their baser instincts. Regardless of the whitewashed nature of its narration and its meandering spirit, Gordievsky’s story is an excellent read and a window into a time when the world came close to complete annihilation. It has a rating of 4.47 and was one of the books recommended by Bill Gates last winter.