Buying the books you hoped you’d be given for Christmas is one of January’s consolations. And so my initial response to reading Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor was to think that in a better, fairer, world Oleg Gordievsky would be as famous as Kim Philby. That he is not may be thought a reflection of the British enthusiasm for failure and a concurrent suspicion that boasting about triumph is not quite the done thing.
Nevertheless, the recruitment and cultivation of Gordievsky, who rose to be the KGB’s rezident, or head of station, in London was one of MI6’s greatest achievements and one that, as Macintyre makes clear, played a significant part in changing the course of the Cold War.
That conflict is now sometimes, I think, seen as something quaint or even esoteric. Something which, for all its cloak and dagger drama, already belongs to a long distant, vanished, world. A struggle, moreover, in which there were precious few good guys, only degrees of bad fellows. This is less an act of historical revisionism than one of memory loss. One of the great virtues of Macintyre’s story (though it is not the primary focus of the book) is the manner in which it reveals that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were right. The Soviet Union, a giant gulag in effect, really was an evil empire. Its defeat was neither predestined nor trivial.
Gordievsky was born into the KGB. His father and his elder brother were each KGB officers. It never seemed likely the younger Gordievsky would not follow in their footsteps. To be KGB was to be part of the Soviet elite. But doubts set in early. As a young trainee Gordievsky was in Berlin when the wall was built, imprisoning East Germans in a country millions wanted nothing more than to leave. The crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 marked a further turning point on Gordievsky’s road to what Macintyre calls his “whole-souled” and “righteous” betrayal.
The story of Gordievsky’s recruitment and handling — Macintyre has interviewed all of the MI6 officers who worked with and protected their plum asset — is an epic one, told superbly. But it is more than just a real-life spy caper; it is strikingly contemporary too. Gordievsky now lives in a suburban house, somewhere in the home counties. He is under 24 hour protection; a death sentence issued by the Russians years ago remains active. And as the cases of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal remind us, such fatwas should not be taken lightly.
The intelligence provided by Gordievsky helped London and Washington understand the paranoia rampant in late-Soviet Moscow. The Soviets feared the West was preparing a first-strike nuclear attack; that in turn required the USSR to prepare for its own first-strike assault. For a time, the world teetered closer to disaster than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. At a time of mutual suspicion and incomprehension, Gordievsky’s intelligence opened a crucial window of understanding.
His greatest triumph came when Mikhail Gorbachev visited the UK shortly before he became General Secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev had been identified as the coming man and there was the sense of a possibility; a whiff that this was, as Mrs Thatcher observed, a “man with whom we could do business”. The visit was a success, partly because the two politicians were, literally, on the same page. Gordievsky was, in his twin roles as head of political activity at the Russian embassy in London and as MI6’s KGB asset, briefing both sides. In hindsight, that visit was a moment in which an end to the Cold War became possible.
But if the struggle ended peacefully, it also ended with victors and losers. The Western allies were not the only parties in the former camp; so were the peoples of occupied eastern Europe and, in many respects and despite all their subsequent tribulations, the Russian people too.
And yet, here we are again. Russian campaigns of disinformation and interference are but the latest manifestation of the “active measures” once pursued by the KGB. It is tempting — and a temptation to which too many people are too prone to succumb — to view these as over-hyped absurdities. What is sillier, the interference or taking it too seriously? Looking reality in the face, as George Orwell recommended, is never as easy or attractive or popular as you might wish it to be.
Hence, too, the manner in which the Cold War has been reinterpreted as a battle between forces of competing iniquity. If they were bad, at least they were honestly bad, whereas we in the West prefer to ignore our own crimes. Better this perverse form of Soviet honesty than this Western hypocrisy. This is a view inculcated and encouraged, it must be said, by the novels of John Le Carré, in which the aims of policy are typically ignored in favour of a concentration on the means.
Now the means matter, but so do the ends. And that, whatever the Russians and their sympathisers here may think, makes a necessary and important difference. The CIA might indeed have entire warehouses full of skeletons but the distinction between open societies which compromise their values in the protection of those values and closed societies whose crimes are a confirmation of their ethos is a distinction upon which it remains vital to insist. Not all countries are equal; not all perspectives are equally valid.
Saying so seems to be unfashionable these days. Last summer, a mini-storm erupted when the left-wing writer and activist Ash Sarkar boasted “I’m literally a communist” during an appearance on ITV”s This Morning. (She also, less divisively, called Piers Morgan an “idiot”). Suddenly Twitter had all the Takes: Communism, or at least some imagined version of it, was hip. The Guardian, alert as ever to its readership, offered a forum for duelling visions of a left-wing utopia. The gist, I think, was “Communism: not always as good in practice as in theory but you can’t have everything”.
Or, as Owen Jones put it, while you can’t forget, or even forgive, the “unspeakable, monstrous crimes” committed by “regimes that took the name ‘communist’” it is important to remember that “the charge sheet against communism does not aid the champions of capitalism quite as much as they would like”. But of course it doesn’t have to. That is, the crimes of communism exist independently of any shortcomings or cruelty or exploitation elsewhere.
One feature of the modern British left — or at least that portion of the left which now controls the Labour party — is that no stone of Whataboutery can be left unturned. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy preferences matter much less than his instincts and his instincts are drearily predictable. The West, including the UK, may never be given the benefit of the doubt, its antagonists always must be.
Which made Corbyn’s reaction to the Skripal poisoning instructive. In the first place, everyone should calm down. State-sponsored assassinations on British territory are no great deal. In the second place, the prudent thing would be to send the evidence to Russia and ask them what they made of it. As I say, this was revealing and all too typical. It was the purest illustration of the Corbynite worldview anyone could hope — or fear — to see.
And that matters. Or, at any rate, it should matter. Politicians should be judged by why they think the way they think as well as on the merits of the actual thoughts themselves. Considered in those terms, Corbyn is found wanting. It is not merely that he is so often wrong but that he is wrong for all the wrong reasons. One of the many merits of Ben Macintyre’s account of Oleg Gordievsky’s heroic career of treachery is to remind us why that matters too.