The evils of the Russian Empire have long been challenged by dissidents of stunning courage, back to the 1849 staged execution of author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The very word ‘intelligentsia’ was created in the 19thCentury to describe Russia’s educated radicals. Now Putin has sentenced one of those intelligentsia named Alexei Navalny to 3.5 years in prison on made-up charges after the Russian president failed to poison his high-profile critic. The wildly popular lawyer Navalny is carrying on the heroic legacies of, among countless others, Dostevsky, Oleg Gordievsky, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Who is Oleg Gordievsky, you ask? Read The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre. John le Carre, the great espionage novelist, called it “the best true spy story I have ever read.” No higher endorsement. Le Carre’s real name was David Cornwell, a star in Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency during the Cold War. Cornwell just died, but fortunately had time to read this true story—more improbable than any of his own fiction.
The title’s Spy is Oleg Gordievsky, now in hiding for the rest of his life, after living a double life from 1973 to 1985 as a Soviet KGB officer passing secrets to the MI6. It started with Oleg
Gordievsky’s moment of truth in 1961 when the young KGB agent was stationed in East German and watched the Berlin Wall go up. Oleg later wrote, “Only a physical barrier, reinforced by armed guards in their watchtowers, could keep the East Germans in their socialist paradise and stop them fleeing to the West.” His response was to do the unthinkable. Spy for Great Britain from inside the USSR.
Solzhenitsyn had seen the lie that was the Soviet Union when he saw his family doctor executed as an “Enemy of the People.” His response was writing books revealing the horrors of Stalin’s dictatorship that got smuggled out of the USSR.
While the hero of Macintyre’s non-fiction is a Russian, the Traitor in the title is an American. The CIA agent Aldrich Ames who sold security secrets to the KGB in our country’s most damaging case of espionage.
But Macintyre’s compelling page-turner is about the good guy, the KGB officer Gordievsky. About how he probably prevented nuclear war between America and Russia in 1982. And you’ll never read a more riveting car chase than the one that really happened in 1985. And Navalny’s story is now happening in real time as his millions of supporters across Russia continue their Sunday protests insisting he be released from prison.
Dictatorships have been brought down by less before. President Putin’s paralyzing paranoia proves it.