The Spy and The Traitor
by Ben Macintyre


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.


As that there are no publisher discussion questions, the West Maui Book Club offers the following questions and discussion points:

1. Who do you think more shaped Colonel Oleg Antonyevich Gordievsky into the man he would become? The family and friends around him: his father (Anton), mother (Olga), brother (Vasili), and colleagues, like Stanislaw “Standa” Kaplan and Mikhail Petrovich Lyubimov? Or was it the politics around him and/or his deep-seated convictions?

2. What character traits do you think makes for a good spy? And who in this novel best exemplified them?

3. Do you think it’s possible that you have all the traits necessary to become the level of spy as Oleg Gordievsky and others?

4. Have you ever met anyone who’s either been “tapped” by the CIA or become a CIA officer?

5. Did you recognize or have any recall of any of the names and/or situations mentioned?

6. Based on how this novel is presented, compare the two spies—Oleg Gordievsky vs Aldrich “Rick” Ames—and discuss the varying motives of each. Greed vs no compensation, vengeful vs benevolence, ego vs common good, etc.

7. When it comes to double and triple agents in this novel, who is the traitor, who is the spy, or where, if any, is there a line of distinction?

8. Aldrich Ames recruited Russian spies for the US, was (paraphrased) bored but cynical, a drinker, undersexed, underappreciated, intelligent and imaginative, but reality never measured up, later posted to Turkey, Washington DC, NYC, Mexico where he met Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy who due to expenditures forced him to consider spying for Russia when he returned to Washington, then Rome, then back to Washington. As a result, he earned $4.6 million during his career doting on the KGB and especially after the “big dump” of seven pounds of intelligence reports. And, while he ultimately revealed Gordievsky to the KGB, he also warned Britain that their spy was in trouble. (pg 308) Ames and Rosario would get arrested by the FBI on Feb 21, 1994. (pg 312). He got “life” at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana (Prisoner #40087-083) for spying; she got 5 years for tax evasion and conspiracy to commit espionage. If asked, do you think he’d say it was worth it? And, how could he have turned someone over to the KGB and then try to save his life through MI6?

9. What did Godievsky have to gain by going back to Moscow once he suspected he'd been identified?

10. Oleg Gordievsky’s ability to memorize immense amounts of information benefited him. Discuss the many ways it helped with his espionage and escape. Discuss also his vulnerabilities and his many other strengths.

11. What were your feelings for Leila Aliyeva, the devoted wife who was ignorant of Oleg’s many secrets but remained loyal to him after he escaped, despite the interrogations she suffered?

12. What have you learned about the Britain/US/Russia/Finland and other country’s spy industry?

13. What as your final take away from this novel? And how does it compare to “Agent Zigzag” about Eddie Chapman, a “wartime crook and double agent” and a novel we discussed on 01/14/13?

14. Humorous and not so humorous notations:

“There is no such thing as a former KGB man,” the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin once said. (pg 8) “Useful idiot” (poleznyi durak) a term credited to Lenin, meaning one who can be used to spread propaganda without being aware of it or subscribing to the goals intended by the manipulator. (pg 118) “Corkscrew minds” said by Winston Churchill to mean imaginative people who are “often oiled by the convivial, disinhibiting effects of drink.” (pg 168), The Finnish cartoonist Kari Sumalainen once described his country’s uncomfortable position as “the art of bowing to the East without mooning the West.” (pg 260)
“Better than ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away,” said Nikolai Yexhov, chief of the NKVD. (pg 9) NKVD = Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.
The KGB had long excelled in the dark art of manufacturing “fake news.” (pg 43)
Signal site (pg 18): a secret sign left in a public place—a chalk mark on a lamppost
Dry cleaning (pg 18): proverka--surveillance detection and evasion
Brush contact (pg 19): physically passing a message or item to another person without being spotted
Dead-letter drop (pg 19): leaving a message or cash at a particular spot to be picked up by another without making direct contact
Foreign contacts (pg 43): Agents: someone who consciously worked for the KGB. Confidential contacts: a person sympathetic to the Soviet cause, willing to help clandestinely, but possibly unaware that the friendly man from the Soviet embassy worked for the KGB. Open contacts: people a spy would be expected to meet anyway in the course of his work.
OCP (pg 57): Operational Clandestine Premises
MICE (pg 61): Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego
Summary death sentence or vyshaya mera (pg 68): highest measure of a death sentence with a shot in the back of the head
Nadgers (pg 164): British term for a nonspecific affliction, disease, or illness. Also slang for testicles.

14. The movie “The Courier” is based on Oleg Penkovsky who, in the movie said he was executed but in this book said he was burned alive and filmed to dissuade other Russian counter spies. What are your thoughts on this?

WMBC Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
Aug. 2021