The Spy and the Traitor



The story of Oleg Gordievsky, MI6's highest ranking KGB double agent. The titular spy and traitor, we see how Gordievsky, from a family of KGB officers, developed ideas contrary to the USSR and came to work for the British, the key information he supplied, and his ultimate escape from a seemingly impossible situation: betrayed in the heart of Moscow.


I wanted so bad to like The Spy and the Traitor. True cold war spy thriller sounded deliciously enticing and a way to ease into the genre for a history fan who grew up with their dad's love of Smiley's People and all things LeCarre. Promising a thriller packed with 'espionage, betrayal and raw courage that changed the course of the Cold War forever' didn't hurt either. Unfortunately the final product felt... well... a bit mundane.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by James Bond, Mission Impossible, and the general spy-as-superhero style media but I was expecting something more from The Spy and the Traitor's blurb. In fact, the book is exactly the blurb. It just doesn't do much more than that. There's a spy. He's KGB. He supplies information. He escapes Russia. And it's all true. Now all that is impressive, but is more suited to an amazing article. For a 300+ page book, I was expecting more.

The book shines when we get spycraft details, interesting background information on the functioning (and failings) of the key spy agencies, and delightful character portraits. But the rest can feel a bit like an overly detailed recounting of mundane details and meetings which saps a lot of the tension I was expecting. The pace ramps up substantially in the final escape from Russia (which is wild and fascinating in the way only true stories can be) but the entire run up felt drawn out. The overall slower pace leaves room for more exploration into Gordievsky's motivations and the tough choices that were made along the way but this feels quite superficial (though that is perhaps understandable considering the book's protagonist is a real person still living in the UK). Less understandable is the overall rather superficial treatment of the politics, where the writing feels more good guys vs bad guys rather than exploring the at times almost humorous antics of the various spy agencies that had real ramifications (like the CIA spying on the MI6 to find out their agent just because they had to know. Or the excessive signalling practices).


An interesting book over-stuffed with detail. If you just want to know the story, find a good article on Oleg Gordievsky. If you want to know more about spying or geopolitics during the cold war, maybe search out a book on that specific topic. If you want a book that blends all of the above but excels in no area in particular, The Spy and the Traitor fits the bill. Just don't expect a speedy read with thrills and suspense at every turn.


  • "In Stalin’s paranoid police state, the safest way to ensure survival was to denounce someone else."
  • "Amid the stifling conformity of Stalin’s Russia, it was possible to believe differently in secret but far too dangerous for honesty, even to members of your own family."
  • "‘Only a physical barrier, reinforced by armed guards in their watchtowers, could keep the East Germans in their socialist paradise"
  • Secrecy is seductive
  • "As Kim Philby observed after he was recruited into the KGB in 1933: ‘I did not hesitate. One does not look twice at an offer of enrolment in an elite force.’", "He was allocated a Volkswagen Beetle, and a cash advance of £250 every month for entertaining contacts" --> a bit like modern orgs and their perks and questionable principles
  • "He spoke English with a fruity upper-class accent, larded with old-fashioned Britishisms (What ho! Pip pip!), making him sound like a Russian Bertie Wooster." "When he declined the offer to spy for Britain, he was declared persona non grata and sent back to Moscow – an experience that did nothing whatever to dent his rampant Anglophilia."
  • "...referred to the people he liked as ‘complete darlings’ and those he did not as ‘prize shits’."
  • "Pavel Sudoplatov, one of Stalin’s spymasters, had this advice for his officers seeking to recruit spies in Western countries: ‘search for people who are hurt by fate or nature" "The sense of belonging to an influential and powerful organization will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them.’"
  • "For many years, the KGB used the acronym MICE to identify the four mainsprings of spying: Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego."
  • "Malcolm Muggeridge, former MI6 officer and journalist, wrote: ‘Intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists.’"
  • "In part, spying is an act of the imagination."
  • "Exploiting and manipulating that hunger for affection and affirmation is one of the most important skills of an agent-runner."
  • "She was tiny, sweet-natured and rather shy. She was also a veteran, highly paid spy of thirty years’ standing, who had been secretly awarded the Soviet Order of Friendship ‘for strengthening international understanding’ – which, in a way, she had, by handing over several thousand classified documents to the KGB."
  • "If a man realizes this, he must show the courage of his convictions and do something himself to prevent slavery from encroaching further upon the realms of freedom."
  • "The Soviet Union was in effect an enormous prison, incarcerating more than 280 million people behind heavily guarded borders, with over a million KGB officers and informants acting as their jailers. The population was under constant surveillance, and no segment of society was more closely watched than the KGB itself: the Seventh Directorate was responsible for internal surveillance, with some 1,500 men deployed in Moscow alone."
  • "In MI6, as in most secret services, codenames were in theory allocated randomly from an officially approved list. Usually, they were real words, and deliberately anodyne in order to give no hint of what they referred to."
  • "But spies frequently cannot resist the temptation to choose words that resonate or offer some subtle, or less than subtle, clue to reality. The keeper of MI6’s codewords was a secretary called Ursula (her real name). ‘You rang Ursula and asked her for the next name on the list. But if you didn’t like it you could go back and try to get her to give you a better one."
  • "Philby wrote and spoke a convoluted form of upper-class bureaucratic English. ‘Whitehall Mandarin’"
  • "He was an ‘opinion-creator’, and therefore more an agent of influence (a term of art) than an agent (a specific term of espionage). Foot would not have known that the KGB classified him as an agent, an internal definition."
  • "Lenin is often credited with coining the term ‘useful idiot’, poleznyi durak in Russian, meaning one who can be used to spread propaganda without being aware of it, or subscribing to the goals intended by the manipulator."
  • "Agent recruitment, Ames came to believe, depended on ‘the ability to assess a person’s vulnerability’."
  • "Paranoia is born of propaganda, ignorance, secrecy and fear."
  • "Since the KGB devoted enormous time and effort to spying on foreign diplomats in Moscow, it assumed MI5 and MI6 must be doing the same in London. In reality, although the Security Service certainly monitored and shadowed suspected KGB operatives, the surveillance was nothing like as intensive as the Russians imagined."
  • "And so, like every genuine paranoiac, Andropov set out to find the evidence to confirm his fears." "In launching Operation RYAN, Andropov broke the first rule of intelligence: never ask for confirmation of something you already believe."
  • "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."
  • "obedience was more powerful than common sense"
  • "Almost any human behaviour, if scrutinized sufficiently intensely, can begin to seem suspicious"
  • "the Soviet leadership really did believe the bulk of their own propaganda."
  • "luxuriating in what one US official later called ‘the joy of total self-righteousness"
  • "Politicians treasure classified information because it is secret, which does not necessarily render it more reliable than openly accessible information, and frequently makes it less so."
  • "The psychological gratification of all intelligence work lies in knowing more than your adversaries, but also more than your allies."
  • "Paradoxically, given its lack of moral restraint, the KGB was an intensely legalistic organization."
  • "‘The telegrams said: “Nothing to worry about,” ’ recalled Ascot, ‘so there was clearly something to worry about.’"
  • "In all totalitarian cultures, the individual is encouraged to consider the interests of society before personal welfare: from Nazi Germany to communist Russia to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and North Korea today, a willingness to betray those nearest to you for the greater good was the ultimate mark of committed citizenship and ideological purity."
  • "He told himself he had no choice, which is what we all tell ourselves when forced to make a terrible choice."
  • "Admitting to failure was not a career-enhancing move in the KGB. So instead of reporting that their quarry had vanished, twice, they were merely relieved when he turned up again, and kept their mouths shut."
  • "Instead, they seem to have done what time-servers do in every autocracy that punishes honest failure: they did nothing at all, and hoped the problem would go away."
  • First world spy problems: "It was so secret I later had a problem getting my expenses reimbursed."
  • "You can’t kick someone off a cliff and then put out a hand and say: “I saved you!”"

Topics to Pursue

  • Espionage History Archive
  • KGB's history of 'fake news' and disinformation tactics.
  • Political Will and Personal by Hollander #bookList
  • Chronicles of Wasted Time by Malcolm Muggeridge #bookList
  • Hanslope Park: the MI6 technical department
  • Colonel Viktor Budanov of K Directorate - the ‘most dangerous man in the KGB’. Putin's commander in East Germany.

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Directorate K (the KGB’s counter-intelligence section) #factions
  • School 130 #locations
  • "The Institute of International Relations was the Soviet Union’s most elite university" #locations
  • A library of heavily redacted newspapers and periodicals #locations #library
  • Surveillance was the responsibility of the KGB’s Seventh Directorate. #factions
  • The Thirteenth Department, or ‘Directorate for Special Tasks’, specialized in sabotage and assassination. #factions
  • "The Fifth Department of Directorate K, the KGB’s internal-investigation wing" #factions
  • KGB headquarters, the complex of buildings that stands near the Kremlin, part prison, part archive. At its heart stood the sinister Lubyanka, a neo-Baroque palace originally built for the All-Russia Insurance Company, whose basement housed the KGB torture cells. #locations
  • Placed in the German section, Oleg spent his days creating people who did not exist. #fragments #seed
  • Spy who loves the nation he spies on. Affects upper-class British accent and sayings (What ho! Pip pip!) even after being exiled for being a spy. #characters
  • the Ministry of the Interior #factions
  • Known as the ‘Grey Cardinal’, Yakushin was an aristocrat by birth but a Bolshevik of conviction, a committed communist with the airs of a nobleman and a voice like a pneumatic drill. #characters
  • Spy who loves for people to know they're a spy #characters
  • "Norway, the northern flank of NATO, shared a 120-mile Arctic border with the USSR, and was regarded by the KGB as ‘the key to the north’. Here the Cold War was fought with icy ferocity." #seed
  • a Czech intelligence officer codenamed DISARRANGE #characters
  • Kryuchkov, the head of the First Chief Directorate, blamed the Second Chief Directorate, which was theoretically responsible for internal security and counter-intelligence operations #characters