I PLEDGED to myself over Christmas and the New Year to turn off the radio (in particular the BBC) and turn on other listening – audio books and podcasts – and give myself time for a good read. It has been cathartic in every respect, not least the lowering of blood pressure from not switching on the Today programme at 6am, and concomitant escape from the state of dystopic doze that its hectoring presenters invariably leave me in.
As well as having the time to arrive in the 19th century of Robert Tombs’s masterly The English and Their History (fascinating on the Great Reform Act, so-called Poor Law reform and the myths about Victorian England, all of which for another time) I treated myself to Ben Macintyre’s totally compelling and true espionage story, The Spy and the Traitor. If there have been fewer of my pearls of wisdom dropping on to the pages of TCW in the last couple of weeks, blame Ben. I am just over halfway through and addicted.
But for seeing Saturday’s headline in the Telegraph, that Moscow is spinning a new web of spies in the UK, I would have desisted from writing a review till I’d turned the last page.
But, on reading this, I thought if ever there was a time for people to acquaint themselves with the story of Oleg Gordievsky, it was now. We should all know the story of this extraordinarily brave and brilliant Russian double agent, why Britain has so much to thank him for, and understand what the job (purpose) of intelligence is outside the pages of a John Le Carré novel.
For Gordievsky’s ‘gift’ to the UK was less to reveal what the USSR was plotting against us than what it was not plotting. What he exposed was the stupidity and ineptitude of the 1980s Soviet leadership; how its increasingly dangerous paranoia about the United States’ nuclear first-strike capabilities had brought the world closer to the brink of war. Without this insight and information, without communicating this knowledge to MI6, not only might the Berlin Wall not have come down but there might indeed have been nuclear war.
Macintyre describes in fascinating detail how Gordievsky’s revelations changed Reagan’s rhetoric towards the USSR and influenced Margaret Thatcher’s overtures to the Soviet leadership, leading to her ultimately successful courting of Gorbachev and to the subsequent perestroika and glasnost. His account shows Thatcher in an impressive light, her understanding and intelligence shining through.
The Spy and the Traitor, though, is the story of Gordievsky himself, the son of a KGB agent who nominally followed in his secretive and terrified father’s professional KGB path. But as brutal and frightened as his father had been, the son was savvy, sophisticated, multi-lingual and blessed with an astonishing capacity for memorising the written word. Macintyre tells of a sensitive man who, appalled and disillusioned by the the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, came to see his nation’s communism as both criminal and philistine, and was determined to fight this. Gordievsky kept working for the KGB, while harbouring his secret in his heart, and aiming always for a foreign posting in pursuit of his end.
After a stint in Denmark he eventually became the Soviet Union’s top man in London. Through this time he secretly worked for MI6 – a British agent had years before, and almost by chance, spotted Gordievsky as a potential dissident but only later, after his arrival in Denmark, was to have the chance of contacting and recruiting him. For the next decade, as the Cold War reached its twilight, with extraordinarily patient and careful management by MI6’s hand picked and fluent Russian speaking minders, Gordievsky helped the West turn the tables on the KGB. He could have defected many times. In the face of huge risk he chose not to till he had to.
The book has been full of revelations for me – not just the Thatcher-Reagan story, but also the devastating account of a Labour leader’s treachery. Michael Foot’s once close association with the KGB has been kindly interpreted by others, and eventually by Macintyre, as naive. To me there is fine line between that level of naivety in a highly educated politician and dishonourable conduct. Reading the detail, I found it and him shocking. He deserves a very bad place in history and I am astonished he is still regarded so forgivingly by so many. It left me wondering, too, about the decision of the then Secretary to the Cabinet, Lord Armstrong, to keep Gordievsky’s revelations about Agent Boot to himself. It’s another insight into the power of the civil service. What if Foot had become Prime Minister? Would a similar secret have been so well kept had it been a senior Tory Party member revealed to have been in the pay of the KGB? Even though many years had passed, if that person was now the leader of the opposition and could become PM? We won’t ever know.
The book is a history but it reads like a great spy novel – and I have not even reached what promises to be Gordievsky’s nail-biting escape from Moscow in 1985. I only know so far that he has been equipped with a plan and an injection kit to drug his own children to expedite his family’s escape.
But to return to the Telegraph’s report that since Britain dismantled the Russian military unit behind the Skripal attack in Salisbury, Moscow is once more up to no good. Accurately reported or not, it is hard not to conclude that our intelligence services are as critically important as ever – for finding out what is, as much as what is not, happening. I can only hope that they still attract the brightest and best – those with the requisite language, psychological and communication skills, the discipline and, last but not least, the patriotism, to do this work.