The Spy And The Traitor Book Summary, by Ben Macintyre

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1-Page Summary of The Spy And The Traitor


The Cold War was a time of great tension between the US and Russia. Both sides tried to outdo each other in spying on one another, but it was very risky business because spies could easily turn against their own side. The story of Oleg Gordievsky is an example of this danger; he turned into a double agent for the West, which changed everything!

In this article, we’ll learn how to distract sniffer dogs at the border, how Margaret Thatcher communicated with Soviet leaders and why Danish Intelligence is better than British or American.

Big Idea #1: Oleg Gordievsky seemed destined to join the KGB but became disillusioned with communism from an early age.

The Soviet Union was known for its terrifyingly effective security agency. It has barely dimmed since 1991, when it disappeared. The KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti) is still associated with fear and terror in the country.

Oleg Gordievsky’s father, Anton Lavrentyevich Gordievsky, was a lifelong member of the KGB. He likely identified many “enemies of the state,” as part of Stalin’s purges in 1936-8 and other similar campaigns that resulted in hundreds of thousands being murdered. Despite these atrocities, he took pride in his work with the KGB and even wore his uniform on weekends.

Oleg Gordievsky was born on October 10, 1938. It seemed that he would be employed at the KGB because his father was a member of it. But, Oleg had different thoughts about communism and decided to rebel against it. He joined the British Secret Intelligence Service and became one of their most valuable assets in Russia.

Gordievsky was influenced by his mother and grandmother. His mother was a nonconformist who didn’t follow the ideology of the country, while his grandmother kept her religious faith hidden because it was illegal to practice religion in that time period. Gordievsky enrolled at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), which is known as Russia’s most esteemed university for diplomats, politicians and spies. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev began to liberalize some oppressive policies such as allowing foreigners to visit and making previously banned publications available.

Gordievsky was able to learn more about the West by reading foreign newspapers and magazines in the library. He also tuned his radio to BBC World Service and Voice of America, even though that was forbidden. Around this time he became friends with Stanislaw Kaplan, who like Gordievsky had doubts about communism. The friendship would shape their lives for years to come.

Big Idea #2: Gordievsky’s first experiences outside the Soviet Union reinforced his disillusionment with communism.

Despite Khrushchev’s push for reform, the Soviet Union was still essentially a prison. The government feared Western capitalism as an existential threat and deemed it essential to shield the populace from its influence. This led to KGB members monitoring all citizens, which totaled more than 1 million in total. The political climate was rife with brainwashing and conspiracy theories. Gordievsky saw this happen firsthand and started doubting communism again.

He applied to the KGB after he graduated. He was interviewed and then sent to East Germany for six months, where he saw how quickly the Berlin Wall went up.

For the 22-year old Gordievsky, it was clear that the wall was a prison wall designed to keep East Germans locked up in the socialist paradise of GDR. He saw workers digging trenches along the perimeter of the wall to prevent cars from crossing into West Berlin. Over time many people died trying to escape over or under that barrier. Despite his doubts about communism and authority, Gordievsky’s ingrained obedience meant he returned to Moscow when summoned by KGB duty in 1962.

The Spy And The Traitor Book Summary, by Ben Macintyre