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On a summer’s evening in Moscow, at the heart of the Cold War in July 1985, a man stands on the pavement of a busy street, looking to passers-by like an average citizen doing his shopping. Clutched in his hand is a grocery bag for the British supermarket chain Safeway. The red logo could be an apt descriptor of the “code red” situation unfolding – for this set-up was the alert to British intelligence officers in the Soviet Union that their most valuable asset was in danger, and activating his emergency signal to trigger a daring escape plan.

While parts of this book will read like an un-put-down-able Cold War spy thriller novel, the events and life of KGB officer-turned-double agent Oleg Gordievsky are terrifyingly true. Author and historian Ben Macintyre begins the story with Gordievsky’s childhood and how his initial excitement at joining the KGB, following in family footsteps, soon turned to disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is at this critical juncture he is recruited by M16, the British intelligence agency, and in the years to follow he becomes their most valuable and effective source.

Many chapters are almost excruciatingly tense, as Gordievsky sneaks away on his lunch break to hand over microfilm to his handler, containing a cache of top-level Soviet intelligence. After years abroad in Copenhagen and London, Gordievsky is hastily sent home by an increasingly suspicious KGB, and British authorities devise an audacious plan – dubbed PIMLICO – to smuggle him out if necessary. While M16 archives remained classified, Macintyre has pieced together an account rich in detail, thanks mostly to his endeavour in interviewing all of the former officers involved in this extraordinary case. This included extensive time spent with the man at the centre of the story, Gordievsky himself, unpacking the physical and emotional toll of high-stakes espionage.