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Stuck for Lenten reading? Try this spy book

A sample of some of the items on display at The KGB Spy Museum in New York (Getty)

The story of a KGB double agent raises interesting ethical and spiritual questions

Not long ago I sat up till 3 am reading a book on my computer screen. I had not planned to do this; I thought I had ordered a print copy then found I had been sent an ‘e-book’ instead – and I don’t have a kindle. It was simply too exciting to stop so I scrolled down and down until I reached the end. Was this pious Lenten reading? Er – no. It was The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre, published last autumn and recommended to me by a friend who knows two of the principal players in the story.

The book is the biography of Oleg Gordievsky, a spy for the KGB and also a double agent – a spy for the British, a man whose information to the British government, in the estimate of his biographer, had helped to avert nuclear war. While it is always hard to assess the value and influence of what a spy divulges to his political masters, it is a necessary if morally seamy aspect of international diplomacy, usually without any of the glamour that spy stories bring to fiction.

Gordievsky, from an elite KGB family whose father had worked for the agency under Stalin’s regime, was a natural for the organisation which, at the height of its power, employed more than one million officers, agents and informants and which “shaped Soviet society more profoundly than any other institution.” President Putin, a former KGB officer in East Germany, once remarked mordantly “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”

Gordievsky was to prove that statement untrue. Born in 1938, with an aptitude for languages and history, he enrolled aged 17 at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations – the “Russian Harvard” according to Henry Kissinger – and was recruited into the KGB in 1961. Just as his father’s secret work had overshadowed family life in Gordievsky’s childhood, alongside his mother’s tacit hostility to it and his grandmother’s concealed Christian faith, so in adult life he entered a world of yet more dissemblance and deceit. His older brother also worked by the KGB; the brothers “kept their secrets from each other.”

Trained in languages, weaponry, unarmed combat, surveillance, cyphers, dead letter drops and codes, he graduated in 1963. After some time spent at the KGB headquarters in Moscow, Gordievsky was sent west for the first time, to Denmark. It is difficult for a westerner to realise the contrast in those days between Russia and the West. While Moscow “stank of boiled cabbage and blocked drains”, Denmark was full of colour and cultural freedom. Gordievsky felt he “blossomed as a human being”, able to read books and listen to music without censorship or disapproval.

He had been aware of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, accepting with reservations the Soviet propaganda about both. But the Soviet response to the “Prague Spring” of 1968 changed all that. Gordievsky felt “appalled” and “a deep shame.” Alienation from the Communist system turned “very swiftly to loathing.” Recalling that time he confessed “My soul was aching.” By October 1974 he was ripe for recruitment to work for MI6.

Macintyre writes that from now on he would live “two distinct and parallel lives, both secret and at war with each other”. Unlike most spies, motivated by money, ideology or vanity, Gordievsky saw his betrayal of his government as “righteous” and his “moral duty.” His new role “gave a point to my existence”; indeed, he saw it as “a Manichean struggle” between good and evil. Nonetheless, the personal price he paid for his principles was enormous: he was forced to deceive his colleagues, his bosses, his family, his best friend, his estranged wife and his lover.

In 1982, Gordievsky moved to London, posing as a diplomat yet in reality a high-ranking KGB spy who was working for the British. It was a life full of tensions and loneliness, enlivened by moments of vertiginous double-dealing as he found himself, in 1984, briefing President Gorbachev about Mrs Thatcher and briefing Mrs Thatcher about Gorbachev. A greedy CIA operative, Aldrich Ames, eventually discovered his identity and betrayed him to the Russians in 1985.

What kept me on the edge of my seat as I stared at my computer screen in the small hours was the nail-biting saga of “Operation Pimlico”, the attempt to spirit Gordievsky away from Moscow before the net finally closed in around him – the only time MI6 had ever attempted to smuggle anyone across the Russian border into Finland. Organised by “Viscount Roy Ascot”, the pseudonym of the MI6 station chief in Moscow, described by Macintyre as “a devout Catholic and a spiritual man” who had spent “much of the night [before the operation] praying” it was, against all odds, successful.

How can I justify such reading during Lent? Well, the book does raise acute ethical if not spiritual questions. Interestingly, Gordievsky, brought up an atheist within an atheistic system, spoke of his “soul aching”. This seems to me more than a mere manner of speech. To paraphrase St Augustine, our hearts are made to yearn for the truth, even if we often allow ourselves to be wilfully distracted from searching for it. Even if the West is not exactly “good”, the Soviet system, as dissident writers such as Solzhenitsyn have described, was certainly “evil” and Gordievsky made a moral choice to disassociate from it at great personal sacrifice.

I will give the last word to the Iron Lady, a believing Christian all her life, in a speech to the Winston Churchill Foundation in the US in 1983, which is quoted by Macintyre and which Gordievsky would certainly have read: “Is there conscience in the Kremlin? Do they ever ask themselves what is the purpose of life? What is it all for?… No, their creed is barren of conscience, immune to the promptings of good and evil.”

That is what Oleg Gordievsky came to realise.