Ben McIntyre: The Spy And The Traitor


The Soviet sniffer dog had almost certainly never smelt anything like cheese and onion crisps before.  She offered a crisp to one of the dogs, which wolfed it down before being led away by the unsmiling handler. The other dog, however, was now sniffing at the boot of the Sierra.  Gordievsky could hear muffled Russian voices overhead.

As the dog circled the boot, Caroline Ascot reached for a weapon that had  never been deployed before in the Cold War or any other. She placed Florence on the car boot directly over the hidden spy and began changing her nappy – which the baby, with immaculate timing, had just filled. She then dropped the soiled and smelly diaper next to the inquisitive Alsatian. The dog duly slunk off, offended. Olfactory diversion had never been part of the plan . The nappy ruse had been completely spontaneous and highly effective.

Ah, the unflappable Brits. To this day the Soviets can’t quite believe that diplomats trying to smuggle a Soviet spy over the border into Finland would take their wives, a picnic and a baby with them. In the boot of the Sierra was Oleg Gordievsky, a high-rating KGB officer who had been spying for the British for years and had been betrayed by the CIA spy Aldrich Ames. The story of how he got away is, as John Le Carre said, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”  It’s not just the unlikely, nerve-wracking escape that makes it so. Gordievsky is a fascinating character, a man who never wavered once he decided that the Soviet system was a rotten one, and who made the choice to go back from London to Russia to keep doing that work rather than seeking asylum in Britain, even though he suspected his cover might have been blown.  It had been. Somehow, he managed to frustrate his interrogators, throw off his followers, and get himself 800 kilometres across Russia to a rendezvous with the British rescuers.

It made me think about the hundreds of people working away behind the surface of international affairs, of the delicacy and complexity of the relationships between countries and leaders, and the immense consequences of misunderstandings.  It made me understand (Donald Trump, I’m lookin’ at you) how essential it is that we have intelligent and stable leaders, whatever side of politics they’re on.  Behind the scenes are brilliant and far-sighted people who develop policy, and mixed in with all that brilliance are our perennial human stupidities and weaknesses. Absolutely fascinating. By the way, baby Florence is now an expert in Russian art.

8 thoughts on “Ben McIntyre: The Spy And The Traitor

  1. I’d really like to read this at some point. It’s been very popular with our customers at the bookshop, to the extent where it had a second wave of popularity in the run-up to Christmas. (A last-minute stocking filler, perhaps?) Anyway, I do love a good spy story. I also have the film of Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to watch at some point, recorded from the Talking Pictures TV channel over here. It’s a film I’ve seen before, but not for a while.

      1. I’ve been working part-time in our local independent bookshop for the past 3 years and took over as manager about 9 months ago. That said, I’m furloughed at the moment as the co-owners are running a skeleton service across our two shops. It’s difficult to predict how the future will pan out, so I’ll just have to hope there’s a business to back to at the end of this. That’s by no means a guarantee.

  2. Sounds a little more interesting than what I’m reading now, Gert. I’m stuck in the 16th century with Thomas More’s Utopia, although he did have some good ideas.

      1. I have rather extensive personal library with a series of classic books that I decided to go through. I usually get a lot of books from my brother but haven’t been able to get a delivery from him because of the lock down. His books tend to be more current. The last one I got from him was about the American prison system. Then there The Looting Machine which is how business is done in Africa. Now that was a real eye opener.

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