A boring appearance, and to any young kid, his name, repeated on the news month after month, piled on an extra layer of boringness… and yet there is no box of delights quite like something as unpromising as a dusty tome in an old bookshop that opens to release something that bursts in your mind. Any youngster is interested in secrets, and in the keeping of them, and also in the noble art of lying, and guessing when others are at it. The TV clip of Philby being quizzed long after everyone was pretty sure he was The Third Man, but denying it, and staying unrepentant year after year, was fascinating to me. Not only did I know when I watched it that he was maintaining a monstrous lie, but it seemed pretty obvious he was.
I wasn’t bothered in the least that he was a traitor; nationalism is merely one form of loyalty and not necessarily the highest. I didn’t feel that way because I came from left wing stock myself, nor because I found all politics boring, though I did, but mainly because I knew that whatever belief system people claimed to be following, they’d almost always end up pretending to follow it while actually fiddling things to their own advantage. Right from the start, that was the first thing I noticed about politics, management, religion and all the rest of it; and that the only thing that counted was honesty and integrity. (Philby tells how as a schoolboy, he thought it didn’t make sense for Jesus to cure cripples and the blind on a one-off basis; he should have done all of them all at once.) I came to realise that resistance to corruption, and the ease of punishing cheaters is the mark of a good system, but I only realised that when I was older than Philby was at the end of his career, and it doesn’t stop me admiring him now.
He was extraordinary partly because he stayed put long after others would have fled, and partly because it was through him that at least three other famous names were recruited, all highly successful. But his career was also particularly complex and colourful, and he may even have made a special contribution to the war: the detailed dispositions of German forces prior to the Battle of Kursk were known to Britain, but were not passed to the Russians so as not to reveal that a certain category of German code had been broken. This was not Ultra, the Enigma machine decryptions, because we knew the Russians knew we’d broken that; instead the decryptions were from an entirely separate coding system used only by the German high command. Philby passed on as much as he could which was a lot, and it is said the Russians wouldn’t have believed it if the information had come direct from the British authorities. I don’t know how true that is, and it has to be said that even more Kursk intelligence was passed to Stalin from Lucy, a famous Swiss-based spy, but having any hand in that cataclysmic turning point of the war obviously confers tremendous kudos. [Cairncross’ wiki page suggests he had a hand in passing Kursk intelligence to Moscow.]
Philby wasn’t a typical spy in every respect but he did have a reputation as a ladies’ man. Quite why he had such a facility in that direction I’m not sure but he was calm and clever, with people of all sorts as well as everything else, and sort of cosy and predictable. He also had considerable sporting talent if that had anything to do with it. He tried to deny there was anything non-serial about his relationships, but he certainly had four wives, not to mention a long standing affair with Donald Maclean’s wife after they’d all gone back to Moscow…
Anyhow, this piece is largely due to my reading of the 1999 biography by his last wife, Rufina Philby, (or perhaps it’s her autobiography!) entitled “The Private Life Of Kim Philby: The Moscow Years”. The whole book’s actually in four parts, of which she writes the first, the largest, and which contains accounts of their holidays, friends, etc as well as her not very privileged but typical early life. She emerges as a resourceful, resilient, discrete and charming little lady, and we thoroughly understand Philby’s choice! Section Two is of his own unpublished fragments, and contains an account of his early life and his recruitment. Section three is by an ex-KGB colonel Mikhail Lyubimov who knew him, and section four contains an exhaustive and rigorous review and critique of all the books then written on Philby, by Hayden Peake. Peake also includes what seems to be a rather useful condensed chronology of his life, spoiled only by the only fact I can check for myself, being wrong: the prime minister who announced in 1963 that Philby was missing, is described as Heath.
His life in Moscow after he finally defected in 1963 is commonly considered to have been rather unpleasant, but frankly it was pretty good by many standards. He had been told by the KGB to tell the west that he was a General in the KGB, but he never had any formal position, other than as an agent. When he first went to Moscow, there were many in the KGB who considered him a triple agent, and he was under great suspicion. The tremendous respect the KGB had for the British Secret Services seems a bit odd given the way they’d so often run rings round it, but they still suspected Philby was deceiving them for some time. He was though paid a general’s pension, which was excellent for Russia. His KGB friends eventually arranged for $2,000 worth of foreign goods per year to be sent to him. These included such essentials as corduroy trousers, Oxford marmalade and curry powder. (He was rather a good cook. He was also very good at dancing but Rufina tells us he got very jealous of other men, especially at dances, so she had to give up dancing. One time when asked to dance, she had to say she couldn’t because she had a wooden leg. At the end of the evening when she got up from behind the table, they all peered hard to see which one was wooden 🙂 .) Photographs in the book of the interior of his flat reveal a style rather more decorous than anywhere I’ve ever lived (though obviously with fewer and lower quality mod. cons), and he did have access to the Times for most days, though not necessarily in the right order, and of course rather delayed. In accordance with the proper procedure, he always pressed them beforehand, and then completed every crossword.
He’d met Rufina through a friend of hers who knew the Blakes – that would be George Blake, the spy, and his wife. (Blake had been captured by the North Koreans in 1950, after which he turned communist and betrayed all the MI6 activity in Eastern Europe.) Philby was rather restricted as to social contacts, and anyway was a bit careful whom he mixed with. In fact, his identify was supposed to be unknown even to people in neighbouring flats. Unfortunately he eventually fell out with George Blake after Philby’s son took some photos of them, and although Blake originally said it was ok to publish them in the west, he later changed his mind. Perhaps understandably, given the affair which happened before Philby met Rufina, there is no record in the book of the Philbys and the Macleans socialising. Burgess and Maclean had fled in 1951 but of course Philby delayed till 1963, and Burgess died shortly after Philby arrived in the USSR. As a result, Philby didn’t knock around for too many years with Burgess, Maclean or Blake, and of course Blunt and the fifth man – John Cairncross – never went to the USSR. One imagines them as secretly meeting at least in their early years in the west, but once they’d been recruited they minimised all meetings between each other. Blunt liked Burgess and Philby but didn’t like Maclean. Cairncross knew Blunt and Burgess through the Foreign Office but he was a Scottish working class lad and didn’t like either of them, and claimed he didn’t know of their spying (wiki). He did some work under Philby while in Section V of MI6, but didn’t know Philby was a spy either. In the USSR, Maclean happily turned to academic interests.
Philby had come back from his adventure amongst the ill-fated pre-war Austrian communists, and had commenced joining the British communist party, which that time this was a slow and complex process, and not everyone was accepted. In fact in his case it was easier and quicker to be recruited as a Soviet spy, and after a tip-off leading to his initial mysterious assignation in a London park, he was told not to bother with the communist party; indeed to shun it, left-wing politics, and even all his old left-wing friends. Just as when you’re recruited by a sales company, you’re asked to supply a complete list of all your friends, relatives and acquaintances as possible contacts, Philby was too. His espionage contact, “Otto”, was later revealed to be Arnold Deutsch who drowned when the boat he was travelling on to the USA was torpedoed during the war. It must have been of huge value, even in one’s “front” job, to have benefitted from mentoring and career advice from an entire organization… run by people who’d already shown they knew how to work their way into and up an organization! Otto told him to put the list in order of those most suitable for recruitment. At or near the top was Donald Maclean; wheels rolled and Maclean was sucked in. He, like Philby, soon ostensibly turned suddenly right wing. Right at the bottom of the list was Guy Burgess, whose extravagant manner and lifestyle seemed completely at odds with a lifestyle seemingly requiring discretion and an ability to merge into the background. Unfortunately Burgess was very perceptive, very nosey, and very good at badgering people, and soon went around badgering everyone all over the place to see what they thought might have happened to his friends Kim and Donald, and if they might have been recruited as Soviet spies. Blunt described him as “an extraordinarily persuasive person”.
It was decided he would be better inside the tent, so they had to have him in. (I’m not sure what would have happened if he’d said no!) Though alarming, and in some ways illegal at the time, his talents were considerable, and his work in the BBC Talks Department was I believe well-regarded. Interestingly, he was recruited into the British secret services before Philby, and was originally Philby’s boss! :-S
The life of a double agent must be very complex. What kind of conversations would Philby and Burgess have had while officially working together?! Philby had got himself recruited by the British secret services by making odd suggestive comments to likely chaps around him, which eventually reached the right ears, and he was contacted. There will have been a number of skills of interest to his interviewers of which he might have boasted but obviously didn’t, as he was already working in intelligence. He would have needed not only to pretend he didn’t know tradecraft and other stuff, but on starting training, he’d need to learn the skills under a realistic schedule, instead of not knowing them at all at first and then suddenly knowing everything the following week! Eventually he ran a spy skills school himself, at Beaulieu; he’d have to follow British methods and avoid giving himself away with some tiny Soviet speciality he’d learned in his real job! Here, his stammer might well have come in handy whenever he needed to stop himself in mid-sentence. Oddly, the stammer had been “caught” from a friend of his as a young kid.
Throughout his time in the USSR he was constantly followed by KGB minders. Whenever he or his wife left the flat and caught a taxi or trolleybus, the KGB car would be following behind. The Philbys from time to time suggested it might be easier if they just got straight into the KGB car on leaving the house and be taken to wherever they were going, but this happened only exceptionally, as when Rufina was standing outside the flat with appendicitis, desperately waiting for a taxi that never arrived.
He and Rufina often holidayed both within the USSR, for example in the Crimea, in the north of the Black Sea, and in Eastern Europe. Philby was one of those Brits very familiar with German war activity, who refused as much as possible to visit Germany; he had of course been very privy to all their internal communications. Eventually he did however visit East Germany. But even abroad – especially abroad – they were still accompanied. These KGB chaps were very variable: some were useful friends, and others just a nuisance, indeed a serious annoyance. The Philby’s wryly understood that their supposed role as “protectors” would never have protected them even from a casual attacker. Once, abroad, their “protector”, whose main characteristic had been ordering bottles of brandy at the hotel and charging it to them, did nothing when Philby was attacked by a ram. The thing started off in a quite half-hearted fashion, not taking very long run-ups. Philby fended it off by punching it between the eyes, but it took progressively longer and longer run-ups, and eventually his fists got badly bruised. Of course the bodyguard just watched.
Another fascinating aspect of Philby’s story is the string of 20th century figures he seems to have interacted with. Just before the war, before he was in the British secret service, he was involved in journalism for an Anglo-German friendship society, and through that, established contact with Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign secretary. He even got Ribbentrop to sign a document to help him get into Spain.
He went to Spain on his own account, but the Russians asked him to go back again. He ended up going as a journalist for the Times but the Russians asked him to assassinate Franco. That never quite transpired of course, but instead, his right-wing journalism he’d been using to help disguise his spying, was thoroughly appreciated by Franco, who awarded him a high Spanish national honour.
His friends once in Russia were few but rather select. He was a favourite of Yuri Andropov , head of the KGB and eventually temporarily of the USSR itself. British friends included Eric de Mauny, the BBC Moscow correspondent, Philby had worked with Malcolm Muggeridge during the war but Rufina makes no mention even of correspondence with him. Graham Green though was always a real soul-mate and visited Philby repeatedly towards the end, when it became clear they each had their own version of “doubts.
Rufina Philby’s book was not the last on Philby; indeed another was published this year on Jan 1st, the 100th anniversary of his birth, written by Nikolai Dolgopolov. Of all the revelations, I think one of the most telling is way he finally defected. In 1951, both Burgess and Maclean had fled together, though only Maclean was under suspicion. Burgess going with him had thrown great suspicion on Philby because they’d all been friends in the Apostles club at Cambridge. Just that alone was enough to terminate Philby’s posting in Washington. However, he wasn’t prosecuted. Twice, Russian defectors had told the west there was a spy operating in their midst, and said whoever it was had been a journalist in Spain, and was also the head of a department inside the services. Just that information alone pointed squarely at Philby. It’s not surprising the Americans told Britain in 1951 that he should bugger off and they never wanted to see him again. I think the Americans prefer their spies fried, and I think we all know what the Soviet and Nazi attitudes would be. However, Philby knew that he could not be convicted by teh UK authorities if he didn’t confess! No evidence could be brought against him in court because it would be too revealing – of particular secret details, but also of course, of lesser importance, it would reveal the weakness of the secret services. Philby simply knew he’d be safe; indeed he recommends to all those spying against Britain, when under suspicion, to confess nothing and bluff it out. Towards the end, he did make some kind of confession, but the official attitude to him seems to have been to “sack him and send him off to some backwater, and hope he goes away”.
So in Beirut in 1963, he didn’t really say goodbye properly to his third wife whom he sent off to have dinner on her own with the CIA man who was father of the drummer in “The Police”, and his wife, and he slunk off…