Shortlist author interview with Ben Macintyre
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
I am delighted. It is a wonderful honour to be shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize alongside five such brilliant writers.
What inspired you to write this book?
Oleg Gordievksy was one of the very few spies who actually affected the course of history, cracking open the innermost secrets of the Kremlin at a crucial moment in the Cold War, and helping to bring that conflict to an end. His story has remarkable contemporary relevance, but had never been told in full before. Oleg is now 80 years old, and I felt this was the moment to try to capture this extraordinary episode.
How did you research?
Over the last four years I have made dozens of visits to the ‘safe house’ where Gordievsky has lived under tight security for the last three decades, and amassed more than 140 hours of taped interviews. The principal source for this book is Oleg’s prodigious memory, and through him I was also able to interview all the MI6 officers involved in the case, as well as former officers of the CIA and KGB. Other sources included declassified CIA and MI5 files, personal memoirs, letters and diaries of the participants.
How different are UK-Russian relations today?
The great ideological division of the Cold War is no more, yet the current confrontation with Russia has loud echoes of the earlier period. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB colonel, as was Gordievsky, and Russia’s covert methods are strongly reminiscent of the 1980s: the planting of fake news, the use of ‘active measures’ to destabilise the West and the threat of retribution to any spy who ‘betrays’ Russia. For Oleg, and his former MI6 handlers, the current parlous state of UK-Russia relations come with a strong sense of déjà vu.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was a revelation to me when I first read it as a teenager, and I still read it every few years: a ‘non-fiction novel’ that takes real events and weaves them into a narrative that is as compelling as any fiction. We now know that Capote took ‘creative’ liberties that no serious writer of narrative non-fiction would take today, but he nonetheless blazed a trail for those of us who attempt to write history that reads like fiction without straying from the truth.
What are you working on next?
That, I’m afraid, is a secret.