Lucky Kim

Christopher Hitchens

  • The Philby Files. The Secret Life of the Master Spy: KGB Archives Revealed by Genrikh Borovik, edited by Phillip Knightley
    Little, Brown, 382 pp, £18.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 316 91015 5
  • The Fifth Man by Roland Perry
    Sidgwick, 486 pp, £16.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 283 06216 9
  • Treason in the Blood: H. St John Philby, Kim Philby and the Spy Case of the Century by Anthony Cave Brown
    Hale, 640 pp, £25.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 7090 5582 X
  • My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin
    Headline, 328 pp, £17.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 7472 1280 5
  • Looking for Mr Nobody: The Secret Life of Goronwy Rees by Jenny Rees
    Weidenfeld, 291 pp, £18.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 297 81430 3

While I was still reading these books, and thinking about them, I chanced to have two annoying near-KGB experiences. A creepy individual named Yuri Shvets published a book called Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy in America, which was fully as lurid and preposterous as its title (put out by the ‘respected firm’ of Simon and Schuster) might suggest. Its central allegation was that an old personal enemy of mine had been a key ‘agent of influence’ in Reagan-era Washington. I could believe anything of this man except that his ‘controllers’ had awarded him the hilarious code-name of ‘Socrates’. And every checkable allegation in the book turned out to be grotesquely false. So that was irritating, because it meant another portentous non-scare about a virtual non-person. Then, at a party in Georgetown, I found myself being introduced to Mr Oleg Kalugin. Now apparently retired from his foul career as a secret policeman, Mr Kalugin gave me a card with the name of his consulting firm (offices in Moscow and Washington) on it. The outfit was called Intercon, which seemed more appropriate than was perhaps intentional. Mr Kalugin looked as if he had been dreamed up in an Ian Fleming nightmare. His idea of light conversation, since I decided to ask him about some of the books under review, was to hint that he could say a lot if he chose. ‘Your Kim Philby ... ha, ha, ha, that’s quite another story ... Yuri Modin – well, he’s a character ...’ and so on. I found myself getting irrationally pissed-off. Here am I, a journalist and a free citizen of the Anglo-American world. But if I seek to know what was really done in the Cold War dark, I must attend upon someone who was a criminal in that war. My ‘own side’ has no intention of enlightening me, and the spook industry has built up such an oligopoly in journalism and publishing that no untainted rival – such as the old-fashioned idea of full disclosure – has been permitted to challenge the self-interested ghouls who pay out their ration of ‘secrets’ in a niggardly and mysterious fashion as a form of individual and collective welfare. What if, I decided, what if, just for once, one read this output as if history mattered and as if the war of ideas was a real thing?

For some people, the defining, moulding episode of this moribund century is the Final Solution; for others it is the Gulag, the 1989 revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the Somme, Hiroshima, the storming of the Winter Palace or the Easter Rising. All of these can still lay great claims on the minds and emotions even of people who do not remember them. They furnish our stocks of imagery and they define what we mean by moments of truth and choice. Revisiting these territories we find that, as Auden phrased it about Spain, ‘Our thoughts have bodies’ and ‘The menacing shapes of our fever are precise and alive.’ For me, anyway, the most absorbing moment is the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It was not merely a test of global institutions and of ideologies and principles and individuals, but a sort of key to how power really thinks and how potentates truly behave. The declared interests or manifestos of great contending parties are never what they are proclaimed to be. (Salient current example: the obvious collusion of those ‘historic, atavistic foes’ Serbia and Croatia in the dismemberment of Bosnia. Memorable example: Brezhnev’s intimate consultation with Lyndon Johnson in the days before the invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

The Cold War was ostensibly ‘about’ some quite important differences, arising from the post-war Stalinisation of Eastern Europe and from the competition for nuclear superiority. But it also had remarkable elements of superpower collaboration and symbiosis. And, though this could never be admitted by the ideologues of the supposedly bipolar Kulturkampf, it did leak out to a wide public through the fictions of Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Watching the shadow-play on the walls of the Cold War cave, and seeing the literal interpenetration of opposites as Karla penetrated ‘us’, and ‘we’ reciprocated, one could make the induction that the spy game was a thing in itself, and that those who took part in it, and those who paid them to do so, had more in common with one another than with the poor bloody infantry, which in Cold War terms meant the poor bloody civilians who lived under thermonuclear blackmail and paid through the nose for ‘protection’.

Now that this stupid war is over, and a certain amount of daylight has been let in, we ought to be reading a grown-up account of what was done in our names, what was known, and in each case by whom. We ought not to be viewing history through the optic of penny dreadfuls, yellow journalism and adventure stories for boys. Instead, at least for the present, the opening of certain archives seems to have made the situation worse. Selective release of documents, very often by spies to other spies, or by spies to certain ‘trusted’ journalists and freelancers, has turned any old snooper into a historian. One of the few people of any wit, seriousness or integrity to have done well out of this business is Phillip Knightley, and look what we find on page 190 of his book, produced with Genrikh Borovik. Kim Philby is apparently talking:

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in