The best books about the KGB

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the KGB and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of The Spy Who Got Away

The Spy Who Got Away

By David Wise,

Why this book?

David Wise became the first Western journalist to interview former CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who defected to Moscow on the KGB’s dime. Wise penned a slew of excellent nonfiction spy books before his death in 2018, but I believe his keen-eyed narrative skills and vivid portrait of Cold War espionage make The Spy Who Got Away his best in show.

Wise recounts Howard’s career in the CIA, which fired him in 1983 for alleged drug abuse, and the FBI’s subsequent investigation of his illegal ties to the KGB. But his story takes a cool, cinematic turn as he describes…

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The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

Book cover of Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West

Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West

By Catherine Belton,

Why this book?

This is a meticulously researched book by a former Moscow-based business journalist that documents Putin’s rise to power and how the siloviki (“security men and spies”) took over Russia’s economy as well as its political and legal system. “Parts of the KGB, Putin among them,” writes Belton, “embraced capitalism as a tool for getting even with the West.” She explains how laundering “black” money in the West began under the Soviets and became widespread and sophisticated during Putin’s rule. That laundered money was used to enrich powerful Russians but also for ideological purposes and for financing the 2014 takeover of…

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The best books about Ukraine from a journalist who was based there

Book cover of Dead Doubles: The Extraordinary Worldwide Hunt for One of the Cold War's Most Notorious Spy Ring

Dead Doubles: The Extraordinary Worldwide Hunt for One of the Cold War's Most Notorious Spy Ring

By Trevor Barnes,

Why this book?

The Portland Spy Ring was one of the first espionage cases exposed by Michał Goleniewski. Using MI5’s declassified files, Trevor Barnes tells the extraordinary story of how the discovery of a disillusioned British civil servant selling secrets from the Navy’s submarine research base at Portland revealed a shadowy world of deep-cover KGB spies operating under false identities stolen from the dead.

From the list:

The best Cold War spy books (non-fiction & fiction)

Book cover of The Human Factor

The Human Factor

By Graham Greene,

Why this book?

Describing any book as the best of its kind is controversial but few writers in any genre can match one of the true literary giants of the 20th century. Greene worked for MI6 in West Africa during the Second World War before coming back to England where he worked alongside Kim Philby countering German spies based in Portugal and Spain. Elements of his sympathy for Philby, a KGB agent at the heart of MI6, are evident in The Human Factor, where MI6 officer Maurice Castle finds himself embroiled in an investigation into leaks to the KGB from…

From the list:

The best spy thrillers by former members of MI6

Book cover of KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev

KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev

By Oleg Gordievsky, Christopher Andrew,

Why this book?

A deeply revealing insight into the mysterious world of the Soviet secret service written as a collaboration between a top Cambridge historian and a senior KGB officer who was a double agent working for the British MI6. It tells us not only what the KGB got up to but, equally important, how the senior KGB leaders thought. It opens up the paranoia at the top of the Soviet system.

From the list:

The best books on Cold War mysteries

Book cover of Agent in Place

Agent in Place

By Helen MacInnes,

Why this book?

Published in 1976, this book has aged well. We are still spying on Russia, and Russia is still spying on us. Spy stories are often travelogues. This book starts in New York and Washington but then goes to France, not far from Monaco and Nice. That interested me since I've been to all of those places. The plot involves the theft of sensitive documents engineered by a Russian spy who is the agent in place of the title. People get killed, but most of the violence is off-screen. One of the interesting facets of the book is descriptions of tradecraft--showing…

From the list:

The best fiction and nonfiction books about spies

Book cover of The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

By Eugene Yelchin,

Why this book?

What was life like under the Stalinist Soviet regime? Author Eugene Yelchin vividly and often hilariously recounts his own experiences during those repressive, poverty-stricken, and politically difficult times. Filled with Yelchin’s charming black and white drawings, readers of all ages will applaud Yelchin while learning much about those long-ago times in a country still run by a repressive regime. This timely, poignant book is a great read.
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Book cover of Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

By Pete Earley,

Why this book?

Pete Earley, one of America’s best spy writers, authored two excellent books on espionage: Confessions of a Spy and Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. But for my money, the Ames book is the better of them because Earley – one helluva reporter – talked his way into a long series of exclusive interviews with the disgraced CIA officer.

Ames, who betrayed to Moscow the identities of Russian spies secretly working for the U.S. (causing at least 10 of them to be killed), gave Earley more than 50 hours of his time behind bars. He did…

From the list:

The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

Book cover of Merit Badge Murder

Merit Badge Murder

By Leslie Langtry,

Why this book?

The murder and the laughs in this mystery begin on page one—which is no mean feat. Retired CIA agent Merry Wrath is now leading an Iowa girl scout troop. A murdered Al Qaeda operative tangled in the ropes course puts her back on the case again… and with her old and very attractive handler. Add in a handsome detective, and the sparks and laughs are flying in this good-natured and well-plotted romp.

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Book cover of The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov

The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov

By Alexander Gribanov, Joshua Rubenstein,

Why this book?

The emergence of a dissident movement and the KGB’s efforts to control it were one of the dramas of the Brezhnev era. What better way to read the history than through the agency’s reports on the period’s premier dissident? Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist and “Domestic Enemy Number One,” survived the mind games and isolation, emerging to lead the campaign for memory in the late 1980s as Gorbachev loosened up. The book is fascinating on the fumbling efforts of Politburo gerontocrats, who often seem confused and outplayed, as well as on the circumlocutions and ideological distortions of a security agency determined…

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