Great Internationalists

Rupert Cornwell

  • Philby: The Life and Views of the KGB Masterspy by Phillip Knightley
    Deutsch, 291 pp, £14.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 233 98360 0
  • Mask of Treachery: The First Documented Dossier on Blunt, MI5 and Soviet Subversion by John Costello
    Collins, 761 pp, £18.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 00 217536 3
  • A Divided Life: A Biography of Donald Maclean by Robert Cecil
    Bodley Head, 212 pp, £15.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 370 31129 9
  • The Storm Birds: Soviet Post-War Defectors by Gordon Brook-Shepherd
    Weidenfeld, 303 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 297 79464 7

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.

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