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The spy who loved us
December 2018 / January 2019

Here are adults playing games that involve leaving orange peel or chewing gum in some spot that marks their presence for purposes of contact, or carrying a plastic bag by way of identification — all of it childish yet often a life-and-death issue. The real names of the dozen or so MI6 personnel who handled Gordievsky have been withheld. Ursula, a telephone operator who makes a cameo appearance, is allowed her real first name but not her surname. Macintyre says that he did not have access to the MI6 archives, and so he has no new revelations. The mass of closely reported intellectual and physical detail that makes his narrative so vivid comes from intensive interviewing.

The Spy and the Traitor brings out with agonising clarity the danger that Gordievsky had voluntarily decided to run. He could not speak honestly to his wife and their two little girls. He chewed his nails, he drank too much, he couldn’t sleep. Money, in an aside of Macintyre’s, is “the grease that oils the wheels of so much espionage,” but he had no need of it. In the manner of a classic Russian dissident, he had under his bed a suitcase with books by Solzhenitsyn and Orwell and he kept the sheet of paper with MI6 instructions for escaping in a decorative edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In contrast to bright and beautiful Copenhagen, Moscow meant queues, grime, bureaucracy, fear and corruption: “the city stank of boiled cabbage and blocked drains.” Cultural alienation was one thing, Soviet foreign policy another. The building of the Berlin Wall, the suppression of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968, filled him with deep shame. At any rate, he convinced Macintyre that loathing of communism was his motivation for becoming a double agent.

PIMLICO was the code word for MI6’s plan to get Gordievsky out of the country, exfiltration in the jargon. The final hundred or so pages describe hour by hour the events of Friday July 19, 1985, the day the plan came into operation. Obliged to abandon his wife and children, Gordievsky made his way by train and bus to the spot previously arranged for pick-up near the Soviet-Finnish border. For MI6, two couples, one of them bringing her baby named here as Florence, drove there in two cars. They were undertaking a mission that could have gone wrong at numerous points and create a diplomatic crisis that the British would have had to live with for years. The cars were already on the road when Prime Minister Thatcher authorised the exfiltration — her refusal would have sealed Gordievsky’s fate. The KGB and border police had all possible routes under surveillance and tailed the two cars. Gordievsky went to a town some miles away to buy a bottle of beer, heedlessly stayed too long and only just made the rendezvous. The Soviets usually did not search cars with diplomatic number plates but were within their rights to do so if they had good reason. At one of five checkpoints, a guard with a sniffer dog approached. The mother laid Florence on the boot of the car in which Gordievsky was hiding, and changed the nappy that the baby had just filled. The dog was put off.

According to communist ideology, the KGB should have tortured and shot Gordievsky when he was in their hands, as they would have done at any previous time. The failure to do so is early evidence of the glasnost and perestroika that was about to bring down the Soviet police state. Macintyre rightly speaks with admiration of Gordievsky’s “stupendous bravery.” To the general public, if they think about it at all, the Cold War is the quarrel of a past beyond recall in which defectors are all much of a muchness, engaged in shady business of the same kind. The historic reality is that the likes of Kim Philby had given up freedom in favour of communism, while Gordievsky gave up communism in favour of freedom.

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