Only at the very last did my path cross that of the Cambridge spies. It was on a warm, sunny afternoon last May at Kuntsevo Cemetery on the western outskirts of Moscow, when they buried Kim Philby. Guy Burgess had died in 1963, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean in 1983. Philby, however, was still alive when I started work in Moscow as the Independent’s correspondent there in early 1987, and his presence was a source of recurrent nightmares.
Naturally I had put out feelers for an interview, but they led nowhere. In the back of my mind was the thought that a competitor might be more fortunate, and land what for a British reporter was the biggest scoop in the Soviet Union. At home they might be obsessed with perestroika, but – as the clamour over Spycatcher showed – they were even more besotted with old spies in general and Philby in particular. Offered a choice between an exclusive with Mr Gorbachev and one with Philby, every one of us would have picked the latter.
In the event, it was Phillip Knightley who landed the fish, but only after twenty years of patient casting. When news came on the World Service on Sunday morning last March that the Sunday Times had started a serialisation of his week of interviews with the old spy, my reaction was one of relief: one had lost, but that was a pretty acceptable way of doing so.
A couple of months later Philby was dead, and the place and timing of the funeral were studiously leaked. Thus it was that I came to set eyes upon him, as his body lay exposed in an open coffin, in the Russian manner. They buried ‘the great internationalist’ to the strains of the Soviet national anthem, with full military honours. He lies at the top of a gentle slope lined with the graves of a dozen Red Army generals, under the birches and pines of eternal Russia.
Inevitably, that was not the end of the matter. Drawing on those conversations, Phillip Knightley has now published a revised version of the original Sunday Times book, Philby, the spy who betrayed a generation, which he co-authored in 1968. Mr John Costello has produced Mask of Treachery, dealing with Blunt, while Mr Robert Cecil has written a biography of his former Foreign Office colleague Donald Maclean. To round things out, we have The Storm Birds, Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s study of the Soviet agents who have spied for – or defected to – the West since 1945. Equally inevitably, the same themes, the same episodes criss-cross the four books. But for any armchair addict of the great game as practised since the 1920s, they are splendidly complementary.
Mr Knightley’s is the most immediate. Because he travelled to Moscow to interview the unrepentant villain, he was accused of playing the KGB’s game and glorifying a man who should have been shot. But those are the carpings of jealous men. Knightley has done his best to filter the new information, which incidentally does not greatly enlarge the sum of human knowledge about the broad story of the Cambridge spies. He has not been taken for a ride: rather, he provides a treasury of personal detail, not least about Philby’s life in Moscow, the pin-striped suit and red braces he wore to his favourite Georgian restaurant, his skill at cooking rice.
The received wisdom has long been that Philby was the most valuable spy on the KGB books. Mr Costello offers the first study of Blunt which makes a plausible case for supposing that he was scarcely less damaging, in some respects perhaps more. In Cambridge chronology, he was the ‘first man’, and on top of more than three decades of in situ service to the Russians, he apparently possessed knowledge, documented by Costello, of how the Duke of Windsor had compromised himself with the Nazis. It was his insurance that he would never have had to flee to Moscow, under whose crude rigours the fastidious Blunt would surely have quickly buckled.
The traffic was not all one way, however. Read The Storm Birds and you realise that for all the holes in its security, the West had coups of its own. At first there were crucial differences. Not until the Sixties did we have real moles within the Soviet apparatus. The prize British and American catches of the early post-war years were not agents long in place: most of them were men driven – by family reasons, ideological revulsion, the material and social inducements of capitalism, or plain fear for their lives – to seek sanctuary with the other side. Rarely did they yield much before they jumped.
Take Igor Gouzenko, the cipher clerk at the Ottawa Embassy, who only escaped on a September night in 1945 thanks to a Canadian Air Force sergeant who realised, as heavies from the local KGB station were demolishing Gouzenko’s flat next door, that his neighbour was in mortal danger. Gouzenko belonged to a generation of defectors which had both to evade their own people and to overcome lingering Western gratitude for the Soviet role in defeating Hitler. Wisely, he brought a dowry: information which rolled up a Soviet spy ring in Canada, and nailed Allan Nunn May as one of the first atomic traitors. But he had no Canadian ‘controller’ to shortcut bureaucracy on his behalf. Had it not been for the Air Force sergeant, a providentially understanding secretary in the Canadian Crown Attorney’s office, and the fortuitous presence of the Canadian intelligence co-ordinator Sir William Stephenson, Gouzenko might have shared the wretched fate of his ambassador, bundled onto a Soviet freighter in New York for home, and the mercies of the KGB.
The pattern didn’t change until the Sixties, when we began to breed our own moles. Mr Brook-Shepherd chronicles three prime Soviet specimens: first, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who probably supplied the information which enabled Kennedy to call Khrushchev’s bluff in the Cuban Missile Crisis; then the Soviet intelligence officer codenamed ‘Farewell’, who twenty years later told the French exactly which items of Western technology the Russians most wanted to steal; and finally, Oleg Gordievski, the KGB’s London station head-designate, whom the British helped spirit to safety in 1985 – a Soviet traitor who was the mirror-image of Philby, MI6’s point-man in Washington three and a half decades earlier. However, ‘Farewell’, though he seems to have been contacted by the West in the early Seventies, was only ‘on stream’ for a short while before being unmasked and executed, probably in early 1983. Penkovsky’s productive career was equally brief, little more than fifteen months. Only Gordievski achieved a Philby’s longevity by working for the British, according to Mr Brook-Shepherd, from the mid-Seventies on.
Perhaps the truly unmatched triumph of the KGB was the legacy of poison left by the careers of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. Philby was exposed as the ‘third man’. Blunt in 1964 was finally to be unmasked as the fourth, though the public only learned of this fifteen years later. The hunt for the fifth persists. It was the tortured James Angleton – erstwhile head of CIA counter-intelligence, who had learnt part of his trade from Philby – who bitterly and despairingly credited the KGB with creating ‘a wilderness of mirrors’.
Maybe, Angleton took too literally the extravagances of Anatoly Golitsyn, the KGB colonel who defected from Helsinki in December 1961, claiming that the Soviet secret service had been brilliant enough to falsify the entire history of the post-war world. During his debriefings the following year Golitsyn, alas, let drop the notion of the pyatyorka, or ‘group of five’; and the search for the putative fifth man continues to this day, encouraged by malevolently-placed hints and asides from Philby and others, and feeding on the nation’s morbid preoccupation with the question of how such a privileged group of men could have given their lives to the Communist cause for no material reward.
The three ‘Cambridge books’ here answer that question quite convincingly. On the identity of the ‘fifth man’, however, they merely add to the confusion. Who was this mole of moles at the summit of MI5 who could so conveniently be construed as the man who tipped off Burgess and Maclean for their getaway on 25 May 1951? Peter Wright, of course, is convinced that he was Roger Hollis, Deputy Director-General and then Director-General of British counter-intelligence. But he, too, loses himself in the wilderness of mirrors, and Spycatcher for me does not prove the case. Mr Brook-Shepherd, on the other hand, is adamant that Hollis was not a traitor. If he was, Brook-Shepherd argues, why did he not inform his KGB masters of the activities of Colonel Penkovsky, perhaps the most dangerous Soviet spy since the war? Even protection of his own cover as a Russian agent would have been less precious than the swift elimination of Penkovsky. Robert Cecil, who was working under Maclean at the Foreign Office when he bolted, insists there was no tip-off from a traitor in British intelligence to the effect that Maclean’s interrogation could start as soon as the following Monday, 28 May. A combination of cock-up and Maclean’s own inference that the game was up prompted his escape. Mr Knightley takes broadly the same view. Others have pointed the finger at Hollis’s deputy Graham Mitchell, another whose honour was publicly impugned when he was no longer alive to answer. But the speculation reaches even further into the past. John Costello provides a mountain of circumstantial evidence against Guy Liddell, later to become deputy head of MI5, who recruited Anthony Blunt into British counter-intelligence in 1940. The case will probably never be proved.
The fact of the matter is that the damage the controversy has caused to the morale of British intelligence, the wounds it long inflicted on the special relationship between MI5 and MI6 and their cousins in Washington, add up to the greatest KGB coup of all. Golitsyn, for all his paranoiac obsession with KGB assassins out to silence him, was long suspected of being a Soviet plant in the West. As Mr Brook-Shepherd observes, that little mention of the pyatyorka should itself be enough to earn him a posthumous place in the hall of fame at Dzerzhinsky Square.
Are there any true heroes in this silent war? These four books have destroyed many of the notions which, as an interested student of these affairs, I have long cherished. Both sides’ traitors are a distinctly unlovable bunch. Anthony Blunt comes across as icily, odiously arrogant. Philby, as a Russian woman told me at the funeral, had boundless charm. His nerve was certainly incredible, and his single-mindedness in the service of his adopted cause perhaps admirable, less so his cynical amorality. For all his wit and talent, Burgess seems to have been a steadily less appealing wreck. It is almost as hard to warm to some of the Soviet spies. Like the Cambridge group, they took no money for what they did. As with professionalism and sponsorship in sport, that came later. Penkovsky is depicted as a prima donna, Golitsyn as something of a hysteric. ‘Farewell’, who was only unmasked after the murder of his mistress and her lover, was at least elusive and romantic, and I would like to know more of him and of the cool, brave Gordievski.
The outstanding exception is, however, Donald Maclean. Mr Cecil is obviously a civilised man, and he has written a civilised, almost wistful book. It is a tragic story, of a man for whom spying was a distasteful but necessary trade. He believed, yet was prey to terrible conflicting loyalties that could only be reconciled in destructive bouts of drinking. He was a professional too, to the very end. Cecil records Maclean’s last meticulous note of his meeting with Señor Leguizamon, the Argentine Minister-Counsellor, about Anglo-Argentinian trade negotiations, on that Friday afternoon in London, only hours before his flight with Burgess to Southampton, St Malo and Moscow.
Once there, he tried hardest to adjust. For Burgess, arrival in the Soviet Union was the final cock-up in a career full of them. Philby lived cossetted in the comfort of a top official’s flat, with his oriental rugs, Johnny Walker Red Label and the Times never far from hand. Predictably, Maclean learnt Russian better than any of them. Most sharply, he experienced the disenchantment of finding that Marxist utopia was but cruel, drab totalitarianism. He opposed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, which did so much to turn future Soviet moles, including Gordievski, against their country; made friends with dissidents like Roy Medvedev who only now, under Gorbachev, have won acceptance; and shared their belief that the regime had to tell the truth about the horrors of the past. The sad thing is that he died two years before the man who might have confirmed his faith in the Communist system came to power. Mark Frankland, the Observer’s Moscow correspondent, saw Maclean on 6 March 1983, five days before he died. As they parted, Frankland writes, ‘he walked me to the lift as an ambassador might show a guest out of his office. He was crouched and walked very slowly, but his size was still impressive. He was wearing old man’s slippers, the sides worn flat.’
With Maclean, you understand the waste and futility of it all. The Cambridge spies are today irrelevances, footnotes to another age. Only the British could pick so doggedly over such old bones. Perhaps they changed history a little, but to no lasting effect. The Soviet Union would have survived, probably very much as it is today, had they never lived to serve it. For an Englishman living and working in Moscow as I do of my own volition, the feeling is especially potent. ‘The fight against fascism and the fight against British imperialism were fundamentally the same thing,’ Philby once remarked. His reaction to the fact that Stalin’s victims are double those of Hitler is unrecorded, apart from a bleak aside to Mr Knightley to the effect that politics are more important than people. Today in Moscow, I believe I am witnessing the slow death agony of a political system. The West has, irrefutably, won – materially, ideologically, and possibly even militarily. Mr Gorbachev knows it, and his task is to jettison Communism without being seen to admit it.
The truth is evident in the secret world too. The best spies are ideological spies, yet a modern Burgess or Philby, Blunt or Maclean, is utterly inconceivable. As Mr Brook-Shepherd points out, those who spy for the Soviet Union today, the Edward Howards in the US, the Geoffrey Primes in Britain, are prisoners of venality, lechery or blackmail. Their secrets may be important, but they will not be promoted as ‘internationalist’ models for a future Soviet generation or buried as heroes in Kuntsevo Cemetery.
The Western harvest, too, has changed qualitatively. Those Soviet citizens who betray their country now do so for motives that echo those of Maclean and the rest. ‘I am a soldier of the Free World fighting against Soviet tyranny,’ said Oleg Penkovsky in an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the West, during a visit to London in 1961. Oleg Gordievski saw his role in similar terms: ‘the only hope for progress lies in democracy,’ he said ‘and the tolerance and humanity that democracy will bring.’ Neither money, nor privilege, nor even a machine as enduringly efficient as the KGB, can eradicate such thoughts, something the British have learnt as they have come to understand the background of the Cambridge moles. In those days Stalin could pull the wool over people’s eyes. For all his talents, Gorbachev cannot – unless the hunt for the fifth man blinds us to all else.