Cold War Intrigue: The Soviets, the British & the Americans (Book Review)

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After WWII ended in 1945, the Allied powers, which included the British and the Americans, slowly changed their relationship with their wartime confederate, the Soviet Union. It was then dominated by its blood-stained dictator, Josef Stalin.

The so-called Superpowers, all possessing significant nuclear arsenals, evolved, for various reasons, into a period of geopolitical tensions. This included the allied countries of the superpowers on both sides of the equation.

This period known by historians as “The Cold War” era,  ran roughly from 1945 to 1991. The latter year marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism in that country and in most of its satellite regimes.

As the fates would have it, yours truly visited the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. It was on a trip sponsored by the Baltimore Museum of Art. I loved the museums of Moscow, but I was turned off by all the soldiers/police parading around its streets with their assault weapons at the ready.

(One night, along with most of my fellow-travelers, we went out for a dinner at a Crimean-styled restaurant and bar. It was near the end of our journey. We were in a celebratory mood. To say we got smashed would be an understatement. If the KBG operatives were watching, I’m sure they concluded: “No spies in this group!”)

This brings me to an interesting, well-written book that captures an important chapter of that unique “Cold War” period. Its title is: “The Spy and the Traitor.” Its author is a Brit, Ben Macintyre, who is indeed a master of his craft.

The subtitle for the book, however, was a little bit of a turn-off for me. It embodied this over-the-top claim: “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.”

Well, that kind of ultra-hype wasn’t really necessary. It also took away from the story the author had to tell.

It centers on the Moscow-born Oleg Gordievsky, who literally was a “child of the KGB.” The KGB was the security police of the former Soviet Union from 1954-91. The author described it as the “most complex and far-reaching intelligence service ever created.”

Gordievsky’s father, Anton, was a KGB man down to his boots. He served in the service as a “General” when the demented Stalin was at his worse. This was during the “famines, the purges, and the terror.”

Millions of innocents perished under this regime. When Stalin died in 1953, he was publicly denounced by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the new party boss, for his many crimes against the people.

Gordievsky, born in 1938, joined the foreign service in 1961 and was an excellent student. He dedicated himself, like his father before him, to do his best. His first assignment after joining the KGB in 1963, was in Denmark to “manage a network of undercover spies.” He became a “career officer.”

It was in 1968, however, where with the building of the “Berlin Wall,” Gordievsky began to become disillusioned with life under Communism. He allowed himself, when assigned to the Soviet Embassy, in London, in 1982, to be recruited by operatives of the British spy agency, MI6.

Gordievsky, who was a very bright, studious man, rose to become one of the “most valuable spies in history.” The author underscored that the vast amount of information that he fed to his British handlers was so good that it “changed the course of the Cold War.”

The British spy’s second wife, also employed by the KGB, didn’t know of his secret life. As it would turn out both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would be briefed on the “extraordinaire trove of secrets” provided by Gordievsky. Along his path as a spy, Gordievsky had a number of close calls, which the author relates in detail and I will leave for the readers to discover.

Gordievsky had been trained “to spot danger.” But, just in case the roof fell in, he had wisely concocted an “emergency escape plan.”

It was around early 1985, when the KGB began to seriously suspect that Gordievsky was a “double agent” and that had he had betrayed his country and had been spying for the British. The penalty for such an offense, in the Soviet Union, was torture and then – death.

Wisely, Gordievsky put his “emergency escape plan” into action. This part of his story, which is very much a nail-biter, deserves a book of its own, it is so captivating.

Thanks to information given to the Soviets by the American spy, Aldrich Ames, Gordievsky was a dead man if captured.

Ames had turned spy for the money. He was described by the author as an average CIA agent, who was “unhappy and drank too much.” He liked to “fool people.”

By the skin of his teeth, Gordievsky escaped to Finland and later – onward to London, England. His wife and two young children, six years later, joined him there.

I’m giving Ben Macintyre’s literary effort five stars. It is first-rate in every respect and will make a terrific movie.