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:

But if success does come, an agent has the obligation to take full advantage of it, even better, to take double advantage of it. To avail himself of all the opportunities that success brings, he has to examine them himself or at least intuitively guess what they are. I even wanted to entitle my book Lucky Kim, by analogy with Conrad’s Lucky Jim. But then we decided that this title probably wasn’t serious enough.

Well, no, I can quite see how it might fail a seriousness test. (One can almost hear the shade of Peter Cook, intoning regretfully how he ‘never had the reading for the spying’.) Lord Kim, on the other hand, might just about have served, given the fact that H. St John Philby got himself called everything from sahib to tuan all across the British Empire’s eastern division, and given the obsession of all these authors with the English class system (Roland Perry gets so carried away that he repeatedly refers to ‘Lord Victor Rothschild’ in a book published by the ancient firm of Lord Frank Longford) and, finally, given the belief of Anthony Cave Brown that treason is a heritable trait, the Bell Curve theory of clubland skulduggery.

Yet this is the standard, both of writing and editing and research. When James Jesus Angleton, crazed and criminal head of the CIA, suffered himself to be asked a few questions by a panel of cringing Congressmen, he took care to tell them that they had no right to inquire into his business, and were not in any case equipped to understand ‘the wilderness of mirrors’ in which he operated. They were so impressed by the first assertion that, when it was revealed that the ‘Spy Master’ (or was it ‘Master Spy’? – the two puerile terms are employed almost equivalently in this degraded literature) had actually been quoting from Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, they were impressed almost out of their skins. This only added to the myth of austere, ascetic intellectual that was imposed by court writers on Angleton’s actual persona of superstitious, credulous, addlepated bully. The remark made above by Philby is supposed to have come from a taped transcript. All one can say is that the double error, in the context of fantasy talk about ‘double advantage’, cannot have been made by him.

Hugh Trevor-Roper (God’s little Dacre) once made the shrewd observation that the Cambridge clique probably amounted to very little in the sum of international violence and conspiracy, but that they could or might have done. They could or might have done, he went on to say, if during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, they had conveyed Enigma or Ultra information to Moscow, and thus indirectly or accidentally to Berlin. Then they really would have altered the course of history. On the only occasion that I knowingly met a Cambridge spy, I broached the same question. Michael Straight, a distinguished East Coast American liberal and publisher (he had run the New Republic during the queasy years of McCarthy, and if exposed during that period could have helped discredit a cause larger than himself in much the same way as the wretched Richard Gott recently managed, on a smaller scale, to do), waited until 1982 to publish his book After Long Silence. It told the usual story: the high excitement of the Thirties; the precedence given in Cambridge circles to young men of background and pelf who possessed physical charm; the subordination of all ends and means to anti-Nazism. I had, in very truth, heard all this before. With the patriarchal Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, as my witness, I drummed my faultlessly-manicured fingertips with impatience on the snowy tablecloth in the fine Stanford Whyte dining-room of New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Club (see how catching this rubbishy style can be). The fine silver gave off a discreet tinkle as I ... no. I asked him flat-out how those who hated Hitler enough to swallow all doubts about Stalin had swallowed the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Didn’t he worry that he, who had only been recruited at that very period, might be (pardon a clapped-out expression) giving ammunition to the enemy? I shall not soon forget his response. With the tell-tale look of one who, at long last, had come in from the cold, he fixed me with a glance that told of a life spent in the shadows and ... no. He told me that he had never, until that very moment, considered the possibility. He also promised, in answer to my subsequent question, to start considering it. He seemed not at all disconcerted, either by my questions or by his own answer. My tentative conclusion, since it was near-incredible that he had never considered the matter, was that he was dissembling or was, possibly, in some sort of ‘denial’.

It’s interesting to consult these latest volumes on the issue of the Pact which, though everybody writes as if it didn’t count as compared to its Munich predecessor, was actually a moral and intellectual earthquake in the life of all Communists. Genrikh Borovik is the most interesting here, perhaps because he understands what the Pact meant for Russia. He quotes from a Soviet intelligence source of the time, who even used the prevailing party-line euphemism in relating the fact that ‘the signing of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact caused [Philby] to ask puzzled questions such as, “Why was this necessary?”, “What will happen to the single-front struggle against Fascism now?” However, after several talks on this subject, [Philby] seemed to grasp the significance of the Pact.’ Borovik also raises, for perhaps a sentence or two, the possibility that Philby’s reports on the Maginot Line, sent to Moscow when Philby was still using a Times cover-identity in France, might have proved more useful to Hitler than to Stalin. But you don’t notice the subject at all unless you are looking for it, any more than you register the fact that, at about this time, the ‘controllers’ of the Cambridge ring were being recalled to Moscow and put to death.

Roland Perry, an Australian who prefers to rely on the Yuri Modin school of history and who thinks he has proved that Victor Rothschild was the ‘Fifth Man’, spends exactly one sentence saying that after the Pact ‘the agents thought of abandoning their commitment until Gorsky made contact.’ Gorsky, the London ‘control’, was apparently able to convince Maclean, Philby and Burgess, but not Blunt and Rothschild, that Stalin’s realpolitik was ‘buying time’. This could be accurate, I suppose, though it isn’t consistent with Borovik, whose ex-KGB credentials are superficially as good as Modin’s. And anyway, Perry writes like this:

Gorsky hated being late for Anthony Blunt, who was always militarily punctual. The tall, lanky agent with the long face and gravity-drawn mouth often complained about meeting in public houses, but Gorsky knew he was more than partial to the Scotches he bought, which soothed the MI5 man’s perpetual worry about being seen by ‘someone from Whitehall’.

The fastidious Anthony Blunt, lured to a pub in Hammersmith by the promise of a free malt. At least it bulks out the narrative.

Anthony Cave Brown understands the Hitler-Stalin Pact in the following historical sense. He knows that the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky had warned Washington of growing Moscow-Berlin rapprochement (though he does not connect this to the Munich sellout) and he runs the whole development together by saying: ‘Time ran out. When Hitler and Stalin made the pact to which Krivitsky had alluded in Washington and the German Army invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany.’

That takes care of that, except for some briefly appended gobbets of boilerplate, lifted by Cave Brown from Philby’s own very constrained memoir My Silent War (as the ‘Lord Kim’ effort was eventually titled). But then, Cave Brown is such a political primitive that he describes ‘Fabian socialism’ as ‘Marxism without the blood’, and admonishes St John Philby in the following manner:

It was laid down in the 17th century in the History of the Pleas of the Crown that ‘because as the subject hath his protection from the King and his laws, so on the other side the subject is bound by his allegiance to be true and faithful to the King’. This legal contention was binding on all Britons at all times during their lives. Whether Philby was entirely loyal was, and will remain, a major consideration in the life of conspiracy on which he now embarked.

Cave Brown employs this very shaky piece of authority to suggest that old St John was being a traitor when he persuaded his friend, the no less presumptuous King of Saudi Arabia, that American corporations would give him a better deal than British ones for his oil. If influence-peddling in the Gulf is to be rated treasonous, the Attorney General should lose no time in getting Mr Cave Brown out of his Virginia retreat, and making him some kind of consultant.

Something I owe to the soil that grew,

says Rudyard Kipling’s Kim,

More to the life that fed
But most to Allah, who gave me two
Separate sides to my head

Much speculative commentary – an entire edifice of it, in fact – has arisen from the simple fact of the ‘double life’. How on earth could these chaps have lived their careers of deception, kept their nerve, done the dirty, got away with it, fooled the finest minds of their generations etc. Part of the difficulty here, if it really is a difficulty, arises from the failure of this or any earlier crop of espionage ‘experts’ to agree on the simplest facts. Yuri Modin, for example, claims that Guy Burgess did not flee ‘with’ Donald Maclean. He was ordered to accompany Maclean to Moscow so as to avoid any personal or alcoholic breakdown on his (Maclean’s) part, and was assured by the KGB that he could be back in London before anyone had noticed his absence. ‘Yeah, right,’ as I scrawled, American style, in my margin at this point. Modin also says that Philby cracked under British interrogation in Beirut in 1963 and confessed all before being allowed to escape. Borovik does not believe this, but he does succeed in showing that during the Stalin period there were those in the KGB who thought that the British agents were ‘double’ and who even proposed liquidating them as infiltrators. This in turn helps license those – mainly drawn from the immense crackpot wing of British intelligence – who think that Kim always remained ‘one of us’. Here, as a sort of meld of all this nonsense into one anecdote, is one of Cave Brown’s riper efforts at narrative. The action occurs on the day of Philby’s funeral in Moscow:

In London, Philby’s old comrade from the days of War Station XB, Nicholas Elliott, was in his club at St James’s at about this time, giving thought to a scheme to disrupt any attempt by the KGB leadership to iconise Philby posthumously, as indeed was their intention. The idea that formed in Elliott’s mind was that the British Secret Service should comment [sic] to the Duke of Kent, the Grand Master of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, that Philby be made a Companion of the Order. This was usually conferred upon British subjects as a reward for services abroad and often went to members of the foreign service. The Russians took such matters as honours and medals almost as seriously as did the British, and the award of a CMG to Philby posthumously might be expected to create a thought in the KGB’s mind – and perhaps in the minds of official England and Foggy Bottom – that Philby had been Whitehall’s man after all. But the idea came to nothing, though it is not clear why. Elliott leaked the idea to the Times, and some notice was taken of it

What a tremendous chance to send Boris the Bear into a frantic tizzy! What a stroke in the Great Game! Perhaps, though, it was wise to keep the CMG in reserve for another time, as a sort of super-weapon.

In other words, and as one trudges through these books, it is interesting to discover that as a young officer Monty was St John Philby’s best man. It is interesting to know that Philby junior, as a war correspondent in France in 1940, was buttonholed by the Duke of Windsor, who wanted some advice on how best to run away. But the whole business is becoming a case of more and more about less and less.

And the political and intellectual level gets lower and lower. Roland Perry – who actually opens one of his chapters with the words ‘A shot rang out’ – would not know the difference between Bukharin and Bakunin, and makes the case that Victor Rothschild was a spy because he was a Jew. ‘He was never so committed to his country of birth and its established order. In fact, more than once when confronted with a conflict between race and country, he chose race.’ Well, why not come right out and say what’s on your mind? However, Yuri Modin has been through the same set of coincidences as has Perry, though without making the stunning discovery that old Victor was a dedicated Zionist, and has concluded that the espionage ‘coups’ attributed to Rothschild were actually the work of John Cairncross. Here we have what most of these manqué thriller-writers would term an ‘irony’ because though it seems that Cairncross was the most thorough and brilliant and successful of the spies, he wasn’t a member of the upper class, wasn’t gay, wasn’t an alcoholic, wasn’t a diplomat, didn’t make a run for it and has indeed lived in France since 1952. He may not even have been an Apostle! He was a working-class lad from Scotland, a scholar and – guess what? – a believing Communist. Where does this leave the celebrated hothouse that created ‘the climate of treason’?

Cairncross knew all about the climate of treason. He was working in the heart of the British Government when an acquaintance of his, Sir John Colville, was told by Sir Arthur Rucker, then the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, that ‘Communism is now the great danger, greater even than that of Nazi Germany.’ The date – which was October 1939 – is what I would call a suggestive one. Not all that much later, having discovered that British intelligence was passing on watered-down information on Nazi war material to the Red Army, Cairncross got hold of the real stuff and sent them that. As a result, the Russians were enabled to re-equip in time to win the battle of the Kursk salient and to give the Wehrmacht a mauling from which it never recovered. So perhaps Trevor-Roper was wrong in suggesting that the period of the Pact was the only one at which espionage might have made a difference.

I remember vividly, on the day when Mrs Thatcher made her necessarily rather strangulated statement on the belated exposure of Sir Anthony Blunt, that she made an admission in the guise of an excuse. It had to be remembered, she said, that only in a great hurry and with some considerable improvisation did SIS begin to combat the Nazi menace in 1939-40. Was it then to be wondered at that a few wrong’uns escaped scrutiny and passed into The Service? What this conceded was that nobody in The Service or anywhere near it had been planning to do anything about the Nazis except give in to them. Every now and then this plain fact is glimpsed in one of these books. Philby is considered sound because he is ostensibly pro-Franco and an activist in the Anglo-German League. Guy Burgess gains entrée by becoming private secretary to a leading pro-Nazi Tory MP. In order to win the confidence of ‘C’ and the rest of them, the better to become a traitor to your country or your class, it was an advantage to pose as a traitor to civilisation.

Only Jenny Rees, in her well-written and thoughtful memoir of her father, comes close to making intelligible literature out of all this self-referential palaver. Reading her account, we can at least scan the cultural and social and psychological (to say nothing of ideological) stresses that influenced one bright, active personality in the epoch of war and dictatorship. It seems – to begin at the end of the story – that Goronwy Rees was signed up by Guy Burgess, on the authority of the celebrated Leonid Eitingon, to provide reports on the political atmosphere. His subsequent zig-zags and recantations were never in perfect synch with his personal loyalties and friendships, and the strain can be read in his columns for Encounter, in his family life as related here, and in his academic career. Rees was not an important ‘agent’, and is of moment to the professional spy-writers only for the role he eventually played in ‘unmasking’ former associates, but at least one can learn something about society and about the conflict of ideas from Ms Rees’s account. One may also learn how much of Goronwy Rees’s life was wasted on this stuff.

As so much of ours has been. These endless quasi-disclosures and planted rigmaroles are what we get instead of something really useful like, for instance, a serious post-Cold War reform of the insulting rules governing the Public Record Office. Allen Dulles once edited, from clippings in the Reader’s Digest and elsewhere, a book entitled Great True Spy Stories (all the title needed was the suffix For Boys, or perhaps For the Birds). Time at last to stop recycling the clippings, and to replace the history of conspiracy with the modern history, of unaccountable power and unelected arrogance, of which it forms a squalid part.