Ben Macintyre talks about his experiences researching and writing 'The Spy and the Traitor', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.
Where does your interest in Russia come from?
I studied Russian to O level rather ineffectively and read a lot of Russian literature. I loved the country and was always fascinated by it. I didn’t keep up my Russian but in the world of spies I inhabit, Russia was pre-eminent and is looming ever larger. My book before last was on Kim Philby, which was the first that took me deep into the Russian story. But the Russian element played a big part in quite a lot of my books.
Why did you chose to write on Oleg Gordievsky?
He came in very briefly to my research on Kim Philby. I ran him to ask about Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s friend. At that point I wasn’t thinking of writing about Oleg. As time went on and I got to know him a bit better, it seemed to me there were very few stories from the later Cold War that came close to his in importance. Most spies don’t make a whole lot of difference. They make us a bit safer and oil the wheels of diplomacy but don’t affect strategic thinking by states. Oleg is the exception. He materially influenced the way the West perceived the Soviet Union. He’s a toweringly important historical figure. The more I dug in, the more it seemed the next logical book after Philby.
Did you get much cooperation from the intelligence services?
MI6 didn’t actively help me in any material way. I didn’t have access to the files. But they didn’t stop me. They could have told the case officers not to speak to me – it would have been absolutely within their traditions. In fact, I’m quite sure they allowed it to be told, with a nod and a wink. His minders were willing, able and incredibly helpful. Most of my work is in archives using written records. This case was fascinating because I had more than a dozen different intelligence officers telling me what had happened. Dealing with memory is so fallible, but it was so interesting to have this whole set of different recollections and to be able to work out what the reality was.
How about the Russians?
The Russians were surprisingly helpful. You would have thought they wouldn’t talk at all. But spies love talking about their history. The former KGB officers must have been given authorisation to speak. Far from trying to spin a propaganda line, they were pretty straight. They seemed to want to tell their side of it. Oleg betrayed them, breaking a sacred bond. But they liked him, and said they were against the Soviet regime and knew it was coming down. They saw I was not writing some piece of one sided western propaganda but trying to get a much more rounded view. The same is true of the CIA. It makes them extremely uncomfortable. But it was amazingly open. It didn’t give me the files but everything but.
Why didn’t the KGB decide to arrest and kill Gordievsky?
They had good reasons, including complacency – they never really thought someone under KGB surveillance could get out. They wanted to arrest him, put him on trial and find out what happened. There was a certain due process. He was astonishingly lucky. It was not about MI5’s capabilities. The truth is he was incredibly lucky. If his train had not been ten minutes late during his escape, he would have been finished.
What was the biggest revelation during your research?
The most astonishing is the planning and execution of Operation Pimlico to exfiltrate him from Moscow. It was such an extraordinary thing to attempt, it seemed absolutely outlandish. I didn’t really believe it. But the more I dug in, the more sense it made. The use of a Safeway bag as a signal, for example: it was like out of a third -rate spy book. But Gordievsky had come from the West and plastic bags were very prized in the Soviet Union. MI5 stuck at the rehearsals, jumping in and out of cars in Guildford over years. It was a pretty amazing level of spycraft. On a less detailed scale, I was very struck by just how close we were to a proper full-on nuclear confrontation based on mutual misunderstanding – it was Mutually Assured Incomprehension. I was amazed that during the meeting of Gorbachev and Thatcher, Gordievsky was in the background briefing both sides: telling the Soviets what Gorbachev should say to Thatcher and – via MI5 - what Thatcher should say to Gorbachev.
What has been the reaction in Russia to your book?
There is talk of a Russian translation. I’ve heard there’s a certain amount of pique about the book. After Litvinenko’s assassination, Lugovoi said if there was anyone we would kill it would be Gordievsky. But Putin’s no fool. To take a pop at an 82 year old man would be strange. It did give me pause when writing, at the time Skripal was poisoned. I wondered if I was endangering him by drawing attention to him. But he’s a tough cookie. He just shrugged and said “I don’t know and don’t care.”
What do you think of Gordievsky?
He’s a complicated figure: honourable, funny, fantastically rude and quite difficult to deal with at times. He’s also very lonely. There is almost no contact between him and his daughters. But I never heard him express a single word of regret. He feels he did the right thing. We look at spy stories as producing moral lessons, goodies and baddies, winners and losers. Oleg is not a winner. He has really paid a huge price.
What’s your next book?
There is a very big Russian quotient. It’s the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a female intelligence officer who spied for Soviet Union for 40 years in Shanghai, occupied Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland and the Cotswolds, and "ran" Klaus Fuchs. I had a very lucky bonanza with documents, and her story is absolutely extraordinary. Her life spans the story of Communism, and she escaped from Britain in 1949 just before MI5 were about to get her.