The best books about Russian espionage

Who am I?

As a child of the Cold War, I was fascinated from an early age by Russia—and the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. I still remember devouring everything I could about many of the events of the 1960’s—the Cuban Missile Crisis, the coup that replaced Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. These and much else from this period inspired me to become a journalist. And while I have had a wide-ranging and occasionally globe-trotting career, returning to the subject of U.S.-Russia relations in Russian Roulette  and the feeling that we made a genuine contribution to contemporary history—was unusually satisfying.


I wrote...

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

By Michael Isikoff, David Corn,

Book cover of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

What is my book about?

Russian Roulette stands as the definitive account of Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election – a sweeping story that has its roots in Soviet Cold War “active measures,” supercharged for the Internet age with an aggressive mix of cyberwarfare, hacks, and social media manipulation. Russia’s assault on American democracy is told against the backdrop of the country’s seduction of one of the two U.S. presidential candidates, Donald Trump, whose decades-long efforts to do business in Russia turned him into a willing recipient of Moscow’s assistance.

And yet, Barack Obama’s  White House – fearful of putting its thumb on the scale in an election it assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win—failed to aggressively respond, even ordering senior U.S. government cyber experts to “stand down” from developing options to punch back at Moscow’s machinations. The book merges investigative journalism with modern history, and became an instant number-one New York Times best-seller upon its release.

The books I picked & why

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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre,

Book cover of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Why this book?

There is no better spy yarn than the story of Kim Philby—the Cambridge-educated senior British intelligence official who for decades betrayed his colleagues by running a spy ring that stole reams of sensitive secrets for the Soviet Union. The ability of Philby to hoodwink British and U.S. counter-intelligence sleuths is amazing and Macintyre tells the story brilliantly. My favorite is his accounts of Philby’s booze-filled lunches with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA in which America’s premier mole hunter divulged all sorts of classified secrets to his British counterpart, resulting in anti-Communist guerillas being rolled up by the Soviets throughout Eastern Europe. When Angleton learned the truth, he turned into a paranoid fanatic convinced there were moles under every bed, resulting in a years-long obsession that terrorized the CIA.


Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler,

Book cover of Darkness at Noon

Why this book?

This classic novel is a psychological masterpiece—a thinly veiled fictional account of Stalin’s purges, told through the eyes of a longtime loyal Bolshevik, Rubashov, who under relentless interrogation finally confesses his supposed “crimes,” and point the finger at alleged collaborators, thereby placing the demands of the Party above his personal dignity and the truth. Who prompts a proud man to act in such an abject fashion? It is a book that brilliantly anticipates George Orwell’s better-known 1984, but the themes are eerily similar. 


Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case

By Allen Weinstein,

Book cover of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case

Why this book?

For a generation of liberals and progressives, it was an article of faith that Alger Hiss, a Harvard-educated New Dealer who accompanied Franklin Roosevelt to Yalta, was railroaded by the McCarthyite tactics of the anti-Communist right when was accused – and convicted—about his past as a Communist spy. But Weinstein, who started out his book as a Hiss sympathizer, conducted a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of one of the Cold War’s most celebrated trials and concluded, on the basis of a mountain of evidence, that Hiss was in fact guilty as charged. I devoured this book when it first came out because it stands as a case study of the need to confront hard facts even when they are politically inconvenient. 


The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

By Robert Conquest,

Book cover of The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties

Why this book?

No book exposed the horrors of Josef Stalin’s purges more graphically and with greater power than Robert Conquest’s epic, The Great Terror. The book chronicled how a paranoid Stalin, convinced his power was threatened by his rival Leon Trotsky and his allies, unleashed a wave of terror by his country’s NKVD—a forerunner of the KGB--  that decimated the Soviet leadership and its military with millions of Russians executed or marched to Siberian prison camps. While Stalin’s henchmen staged mock “trials” in Moscow, marked by phony confessions, extracted by torture, liberal apologists in the West sought to justify Stalin’s lunatic crackdown. I read this book in college and it has stayed with me for years-- providing an eye-opening lesson in the willingness of those of all political stripes to turn a blind eye to the evils of totalitarianism.


Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West

By Oleg Kalugin,

Book cover of Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West

Why this book?

Kalugin was a major general in the KGB, dispatched to America as a spy under the cover of being a journalist for Radio Moscow. His account of his role in Soviet disinformation and “active measures”—forging letters, planting stories, concocting conspiracy theories—provides a rare insider look into how the KGB did business for decades. Perhaps most chilling is his description of how one of his bosses, former KGB chief turned Soviet premier Yuri Andropov—was guided by Lenin’s words: “We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, law-breaking, withholding and concealing the truth. There are no morals in politics. There is only expedience.”


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Soviet Union, espionage, and spies?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Soviet Union, espionage, and spies.

The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union
Espionage Explore 86 books about espionage
Spies Explore 34 books about spies

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Operation Whisper: The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen, and Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America if you like this list.