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The Happy Traitor Reviews

The Happy Traitor by Simon Kuper

The Happy Traitor

Spies, Lies and Exile in Russia: The Extraordinary Story of George Blake

Simon Kuper

3.50 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: Profile Books Ltd
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Publication date: 4 Feb 2021
ISBN: 9781781259375

George Blake was the last remaining Cold War spy. As a Senior Officer in the British Intelligence Service who was double agent for the Soviet Union, his actions had devastating consequences for Britain. Yet he was also one of the least known double agents, and remained unrepentant. In 1961, Blake was sentenced to forty-two years imprisonment for betraying to the KGB all of the Western operations in which he was involved, and the names of hundreds of British agents working behind the Iron Curtain. This was the longest sentence for espionage ever to have been handed down by a British court.

4 stars out of 5
12 Feb 2021

"The cold war double agent refused to recognise the deadly consequences of his betrayal"

Kuper will be familiar to FT readers as an entertaining and thoughtful writer, and his approach is to try to understand his subject while resisting his charm. Instead of a formula spy yarn, we get a personal encounter with Blake, as Kuper wrestles with his motivations and justifications, asking whether someone who barely knew Britain can really be called a traitor. In some ways, Blake comes across as a pitiful figure, one who realised soon after he arrived in Moscow that the Soviet Union was far from a workers’ paradise, but was doomed to live out his days there.


4 stars out of 5
6 Feb 2021

"highly readable and multi-layered"

Just one small error in this deeply researched book to be corrected. Blake’s codename ‘Diomid’ doesn’t mean ‘Diamond’ but is the Russian version of the Greek name Diomedes, as well as the name of a bay near his recruiter’s native Vladivostok. Blake died on Boxing Day last year, making this book uncannily timely. Kuper’s highly readable and multi-layered portrait is largely sympathetic, yet clear-eyed about the human cost of moral stances. Like the naive believer Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Blake’s attempt to save humanity ended up destroying lives. 

4 stars out of 5
27 Jan 2021

"the most comprehensive and insightful biography to date"

Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist who interviewed Blake in Moscow in 2012, has filled in many of the gaps with this, the most comprehensive and insightful biography to date. But, as Kuper acknowledges, he found Blake elusive — a “gentle, fascinating, cerebral, cosmopolitan and baffling old man”. And an unrepentant mass murderer... Glib and charming to the last, even under Kuper’s more pointed questioning, he slid away from reality. “I have always been able to resign myself to fate,” he said, with chilling blandness. “I am a very satisfied man . . . It really has all ended well.”

3 stars out of 5
Max Hastings
24 Jan 2021

"This is a good account of a good story but offers no revelations"

Blake’s escape makes richly comic reading. He was assisted by an anarchic drunken Irishman and two British peaceniks, with no help from the Russians. One sympathiser smuggled Blake to Berlin in a camper van purchased with a legacy left to a fellow socialist who spurned inherited money. The traitor’s punishment was his bleak confrontation with the reality of communism in Moscow, where he might be said to have served the balance of his prison sentence, devoting himself to body-building, which he could have done in Wormwood Scrubs.


3 stars out of 5
Noel Malcolm
23 Jan 2021

"He has dug out some fascinating material, including lectures Blake gave to the Stasi in East Berlin in the 1980s"

There are two ways of letting double agents such as Blake off the hook, and Kuper is worryingly indulgent towards both of them. One is the argument, much indebted to Le Carré’s novels, that all Cold War espionage was just a self-enclosed game that disappeared up its own, er, spiral of counter-espionage, counter-counter, and so on. But thinking about the Cold War like this is a luxury of retrospection...

But I don’t want to end on an anti-Kuper note. He has dug out some fascinating material, including lectures Blake gave to the Stasi in East Berlin in the 1980s. Some of Kuper’s questions to Blake are properly direct, even if they are mostly fended off by the man’s charm and long-practised tactics of deflection. And, above all, Kuper does not fail to remind us of the agents – more than 40 of them – who are thought to have lost their lives because of Blake’s self-gratifying treachery.