Humbling reminder how little know what’s really happening behind headlines

Stumbling across a brilliant author in a previously undiscovered genre is, for me, what I imagine a geologist feels like after finding a rich mineral deposit. Having just devoured Ben McIntyre’s superb book The Spy and the Traitor – and watching interviews with him on Youtube – I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his work.

It tells the riveting story of a KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky; son and husband to KGB officers; who spent more than a decade passing on secrets to Britain’s MI6. Helped by two British agents, Gordievsky, now 81, achieved an unlikely escape from Moscow 35 years ago. He still lives anonymously in London and survived a 2007 assassination attempt.

Described by John le Carre as “The best true spy story I have ever read”, the book travels at a rollicking pace. It shares how Gordievsky’s information helped shorten the Cold War – and prevent an unwitting nuclear holocaust. Of interest locally is that after his 1985 escape, Gordievsky visited fellow spooks around the world, including South Africa.

Although MI6, the external arm of the British secret service, never opens its files, McIntyre says because of the historical significance of the Gordiesvky case he was granted access to officials who worked directly with the West’s most important Cold War “asset”. Released in 2018, the book is a humbling reminder of how little we know about what’s really happening behind the headlines. And probably always will.

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