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The Happy Traitor

Author Simon Kuper


Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 270

Publisher Profile Books

Publisher URL

Year of publication 06/09/2021


The Happy Traitor

Our Review


£ 8.99, paperback

The sub-title sums it up - 'Spies, Lies and Exile in Russia: The Extraordinary Story of George Blake'. Blake died at the end of 2020, aged 98, in Russia, where he had defected to - having escaped, famously, from Wormwood Scrubs prison in north London, in 1966, where Kuper begins his book. Kuper then explains where he comes into the story.

Kuper first read about Blake in 1999 and 'was immediately, selfishly, struck by how similar our backgrounds were', raised in the Netherlands, and with a British and cosmopolitan mix. Kuper secured an interview with Blake in Moscow in 2012 when the two men spoke Dutch, as Blake asked. Kuper having agreed to publish his three-hour interview only in Dutch, evidently he felt only able to bring out the book after Blake's death.

The base of the book is, to state the obvious, Blake the man, 'a gentle, well-meaning, peace-loving man who probably became a de facto serial killer'. Kuper quotes another writer in the field, Rebecca West, who likened what Blake did to Macbeth. It's the nature of spying that numbers are hard to come by - such as, how many western agents did Blake betray to the Soviet secret service the KGB, let alone how many were killed as a result. Hundreds? Kuper doubts that Blake was a psychopath: "Rather, for him, betrayal was part of the spying game." Kuper does not make anything here of the word 'game', though previously he has largely been an author about Continental football.

As Kuper sets out, Blake - 'raised in the pacific Dutch political tradition, was peaceable by instinct', even in his language. "He had learned to grin and bear it .... He chose to live in denial." That (pages 112 and 113) was as true while serving MI6, in Wormwood Scrubs and after his escape from the west to a nice dacha outside Moscow courtesy of the Soviet and then Russian state.

As Kuper ably sets out, as anyone who has read and enjoyed his journalism would expect, Blake's story is remarkable. Even if it does not interest you or feels too far in the past (Blake was jailed for 42 years, in 1961), you can turn to chapter 11 in the middle on the nature of espionage. Kuper poses the pointed question; how useful is it? Kuper makes some acute points about how what double agents passed to Moscow may not even have been translated into Russian, if there was too much material.

Even then, there's the question of trust - if you distrust the other side, how can you believe someone from the enemy who's betraying their own side?! Kuper gives arguably the most consequential example of all; in 1941, Stalin received espionage intelligence that Hitler was planning to invade the Soviet Union. Instead of acting on that - which may have saved millions of lives - Stalin distrusted the sources, even punished them, and ignored them. Though dangerous and difficult, collecting secret intelligence as Kuper spells out is not the same as letting it inform political policy. Again, Kuper uses the word 'game', that spying in the Cold War 'was an internal game between western and eastern spy services' (page 120).

As Kuper adds, while most double agents 'have ended up in the dustbin of history', their human story continues to fascinate.