The Rise and After Effects of Communism in the Soviet Union: Background information when reading The Spy and the Traitor

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Spy and the Traitor

The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre X
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 368 pages

    Aug 2019, 384 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Rise and After Effects of Communism in the Soviet Union

This article relates to The Spy and the Traitor

Print Review

Communist propaganda poster depicting a capitalist attempting to bribe a Soviet worker while holding a bayonetThe Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre untangles the case of Soviet Union/KGB agent turned British/MI6 spy, Oleg Gordievsky. However, little attention is given to why and how The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed and to what extent its realities aligned with the communist framework envisaged by its founders.

Going into the 20th century, Russia struggled with extreme inequality under a Tsarist autocracy. A primarily agricultural nation, industrialization slowly trickled into Russia in the late 19th century, which furthered class conflict. In this society, social structures were fixed and rigid, with a small ruling/upper class and teeming underclass of serfs. Void of power, limited by censorship and subject to harsh work conditions, the serfs, roughly 82% of the population during the 1897 census, suffered immensely. The transition from agriculture into industrialization emphasized the incompetence and inhumanity of Tsar rule. Still legally bound to agricultural properties and forced to work there, most serfs—the struggling backbone of the nation's worker and peasant class—could not move freely into factory work. Widespread poverty, reduced capital, and limitations of investment in infrastructure and workers' safety made for hazardous, untenable conditions for most of the population, and poor distribution of resources, such as food, clothing and shelter, exacerbated poor living and working conditions. A series of revolutions erupted as a result of mass dissatisfaction, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in 1917.

The opposition to the Tsarist regime included Populists, Social Revolutionaries, Social Democrats, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Reformers, all of whom had a similar desire to elevate the status of the serf/worker classes, with slightly different proposed methodologies. The Bolsheviks championed radical revolution in which the disadvantaged would seize power using almost whatever means necessary.

Once the Tsar abdicated, a provisional government was established in his place, but the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, declared it weak and ineffectual, and seized power during the November Revolution. They took an aggressive, destructive, politically-charged stance toward Russian development, refusing to share power and crushing anti-Bolshevik parties via a civil war against the imperial counter-revolutionary White Army. The Bolsheviks won and transitioned into the Russian Communist Party, eventually collecting territory and becoming the USSR, or Soviet Union.

Communism was particularly attractive among the Russian working class, because it promised workers an end to hardship and an opportunity to achieve political, economic and social equality. As outlined in many of Karl Marx's works, such as the 1848 political pamphlet Manifesto of the Communist Party, communism is a political and economic ideology arguing for steeply graduated income tax, free public education and communal ownership of the major means of production, such as banking, communication and transportation. The Manifesto languished in relative obscurity after publication until the 1870s when it was disseminated by the social-democratic parties gaining prominence throughout Europe, but its significance in the crafting of the Soviet brand of socialism supplied the document with a new level of notoriety and legitimacy.

Portrait of Karl MarxKarl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher and economist. He came of age towards the end of the Industrial Revolution which saw feudalism replaced by capitalism across much of Europe, a system in which private ownership prevailed and resources were distributed based on the fluctuations of the market. Marx identified several irredeemable flaws in capitalist societies, which he describes in The Principles of Communism. First, he critiqued capitalism because it is alienating. Marx believed that work could be a fulfilling and meaningful experience, but for this to happen, workers must connect with and see themselves in the objects they create. The extreme specialization created by capitalism removes this personal connection, creating a disconnect between what one does, who one really is, and what one contributes to the world. Marx further argued that capitalism exploits labor, generates insecure and devalued work forces, creates unsustainable desire for growth and transforms life into a purely economic phenomenon. Marx believed that these flaws result in a harmful society in which people are taught to be competitive, conformist and complacent.

Many people in Russia related to the problems Marx identified in feudalist and capitalist societies, which encouraged them to support communist efforts. However, Leninism—Lenin's interpretation and implementation of Marx's communism—was not the utopia the people imagined. Marx's communism emphasized economic revolution, whereas Leninism emphasized political revolution. Marx believed capitalism would self-destruct; Lenin asserted that capitalism had to be destroyed.

Although Russia set out to eradicate the oppression and inequalities created by feudalism and capitalism, the violent manifestation of Leninism tainted the original hopes of communism. It was into this society, one in which the dream of communism had not been realized, that Oleg Gordievsky was born in 1938. Later, he would become a double-agent, a spy sworn to the KGB but motivated by the freedom and humanity of life beyond the Soviet Union, the same freedom and humanity promised by the original communist ideals.

Soviet propaganda poster courtesy of Comrade Sergei

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Jamie Chornoby

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Spy and the Traitor. It originally ran in October 2018 and has been updated for the September 2018 edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

BookBrowse Sale!

Join BookBrowse and discover exceptional books for just $3/mth!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Wifedom
    by Anna Funder
    When life became overwhelming for writer, wife, and mother Anna Funder in the summer of 2017, she ...
  • Book Jacket: The Fraud
    The Fraud
    by Zadie Smith
    In a recent article for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith joked that she moved away from London, her ...
  • Book Jacket: Wasteland
    by Oliver Franklin-Wallis
    Globally, we generate more than 2 billion tons of household waste every year. That annual total ...
  • Book Jacket: Disobedient
    by Elizabeth Fremantle
    Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi led a successful career as an artist throughout the ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Digging Stars
    by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

    Blending drama and satire, Digging Stars probes the emotional universes of love, friendship, family, and nationhood.

  • Book Jacket

    All You Have to Do Is Call
    by Kerri Maher

    An inspiring novel based on the true story of the Jane Collective and the brave women who fought for our right to choose.

Win This Book
Win Moscow X

25 Copies to Give Away!

A daring CIA operation threatens chaos in the Kremlin. But can Langley trust the Russian at its center?



Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.