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The Fabulous Five

The Philby Files: The Secret Life of Master Spy Kim Philby

by Genrikh Borovik, edited and with an introduction by Phillip Knightley
Little, Brown, 382 pp., $24.95

My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross by their KGB Controller

by Yuri Modin, by Jean-Charles Deniau, by Aguieszka Ziarek, translated by Anthony Roberts, Introduction by David Leitch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 282 pp., $23.00

Treason in the Blood: H. St. John Philby, Kim Philby, and the Spy Case of the Century

by Anthony Cave Brown
Houghton Mifflin/a Mark Jaffe book, 677 pp., $29.95

One institution in Russia has had no difficulty taking to the new culture of the entrepreneurial society. This is the KGB. In the West there has been active trading in the shares of Philby Inc. and the subsidiary firms of Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross, and Blunt for some years. They eased a little after Blunt’s death, but since glasnost they have made a killing with a swarm of foreign journalists who descended on Moscow willing to pay high prices for holdings in this sensitive market. Retired officers of the KGB provide files from the Soviet archives, and employ a British impresario to market their reminiscences.

Phillip Knightley, who made a success by investing in Philby,1 is now sponsoring Genrikh Borovik. Knightley describes him as a TV star, a novelist, and a playwright, who also happened to acquire Philby’s KGB file. Yuri Modin, who was assigned to London as the KGB’s “control” of the Fabulous Five from 1944 onward, employed David Leitch to promote his story. Anthony Cave Brown, however, signed up two former KGB men, one a friend of Philby, whom he calls Gennady X, and Mikhail Lyubimov, described by Christopher Andrew, the British historian of the KGB, as “brilliantly talented but over-ambitious.” (Lyubimov was expelled from London in 1965 for attempting to recruit a cipher clerk and entrap through a seduction the impervious bachelor Prime Minister Edward Heath. That certainly was over-ambitious.) Cave Brown amplifies what we know of Philby’s activities, but the reason he, Borovik, and Modin are of interest is that they tell us what the KGB thought of their spies and how they controlled them.

These books are as rich in comedy as they are in gossip. Luck often seems to have been on the side of the Fabulous Five. Guy Burgess and his control, Modin, are walking side by side in London. Two policemen stop them, and ask Burgess to open his suitcase, which is bulging with Foreign Office documents ready to be photographed and sent to Moscow. “Sorry, sir,” says the police officer after searching the suitcase, “Everything’s in order.” Burgess reassures the quaking Modin by telling him that his suitcase is quite like the ones burglars use for carrying stolen silver.

The KGB gives Burgess money to buy a car. He turns up in a second-hand yellow Rolls-Royce. As a reckless driver he needed, so he tells Modin, a car that is “sturdily built” in case he hits something. On the other hand, when the KGB gives Cairncross a car he is mechanically so inept that he can’t pass his driving test. When eventually he does, he stalls the car at a busy intersection and a policeman strolls over to investigate. The carburetor has flooded. “Now, sir, you really ought to know the choke should be pushed in once the car has started.” Modin in a cold sweat is clutching a briefcase full of secret documents. Unlike the harum-scarum Burgess, who was meticulous in being on time and observing the rules to evade surveillance, Cairncross, the faceless bureaucrat who worked for nearly a year at the deciphering center at Bletchley Park, could not remember the hour, the place, or the day of the week of his next rendezvous, and missed meetings time and again.

The humor in Moscow was even blacker. Time and again the Fabulous Five were suspected of being double agents. While working as the London Times correspondent on Franco’s side during the Spanish Civil War, Philby had spied for the USSR and was nearly killed by a (Russian) shell fired by the Republican artillery. But the KGB officials considered him too good to be true. They could not believe his story of how he was recruited into British intelligence. In fact Philby had an experience similar to dozens of others, who joined the intelligence services after the fall of France. Escaping from France, he bumped into a fellow journalist who mentioned his name to someone in SOE (the agency engaged in organizing sabotage in Europe). He was interviewed, hired, and then found that by chance Burgess was working in the same outfit. This was too much to believe for the Center, the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow.

They were even more incredulous when he reported that he had been instructed to set up a training school for saboteurs. What? The British secret service had no training school for saboteurs and this tyro was being instructed to create one? Clearly the man was a plant. Then again when Philby was made head of the Russian section of counter-intelligence in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), he was asked to provide a list of all British spies working in Russia. He told his control there were none. Proof positive to the Center that he was a double agent working for the British.

He therefore kept on being asked to write out the history of his life so that the counter-intelligence sleuths at the Center could catch him out by spotting telltale details that did not tally with his previous autobiographies—and this at a time when he was working all hours transmitting priceless information to his control.

In 1943 the Center considered that Philby must have been recruited to work against the Soviet Union: How otherwise had he been transferred with such ease from SOE into SIS, the main espionage service itself? The KGB control resident in London spent hours defending his agents against the Center, and the Center kept on blaming him for not telling it what it wanted to hear. Philby used to boast that Western spies worked for money, whereas Soviet spies were motivated by their ideology. Little did he know that the KGB bureaucracy despised foreigners who were convinced Communists. The Center referred to the British spies as “ideological shit.”

In 1944 the Center became convinced that the Cambridge spies were all working on British instructions. It was too much to believe that British intelligence would have entrusted critical work to those with known Communist pasts. So a plump blue-eyed blonde, Elena Modrzhinskaya, renowned for her skill in unmasking conspiracies, was put on to the case and naturally produced a dossier with convincing proof that all were double agents. (An SIS officer told Cave Brown that another woman, Zoya Nikolayevna Ryskina, also examined the case and concluded that the Cambridge Five should be assassinated.) They were eventually cleared and Modrzhinskaya was moved to another department and promoted to colonel. Bureaucracies are the same the world over. I can think of similar promotions in the War Office in London during the war.

Who was at the root of these suspicions and conspiracies? It was Stalin. Stalin believed that every problem arises from someone’s fault. He ordered every unit in the KGB to expose “enemies of the people”; if the KGB could not identify them, then the KGB itself must be riddled with saboteurs. Stalin regarded foreign agents as hypocrites, deceivers who betrayed their own country and would next deceive him. Borovik reconstructs a scene between Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov, head of the KGB at the height of the purges, which has the ring of truth. Stalin asked why, if Philby was working so well in Spain, Franco’s forces kept on advancing. “That’s not logical.”

Terrified at this rebuke, Yezhov hinted that perhaps Franco might be assassinated. Stalin knocked his pipe out and said nothing. Consternation at the London residence when word came from the Center to tell Philby to do the job. Maly, the control whom Philby found most sympathetic, said that it was an impossible assignment and Philby did not possess that kind of courage. Maly was ordered back to Moscow and shot. So was Philby’s first control, Reif. So were two other KGB officials, Gorsky and Ozolin-Haskin. One of Philby’s controls escaped. Orlov defected and wrote Stalin from America that he had deposited a letter containing the names of all Soviet agents with his lawyer with instructions to hand it to the FBI if Orlov appeared to have committed suicide. Orlov was not touched—unlike Walter Krivitsky, who was murdered by the KGB in his hotel room in Washington. Orlov kept his word, and the Cambridge Five were not exposed.

A year later Yezhov, like his predecessor Yagoda, was shot. Beria eliminated Yezhov’s supporters just as Yezhov shot Yagoda’s supporters. To live under Stalin’s terror was worse for bureaucrats than living under Hitler. Stalin’s terror was haphazard. No one could guess who next would be sent to the camps or shot. The Gestapo terror, like the Final Solution, was “scientific”: evidence was assessed. In the Soviet Union officials did their best to avoid appearing responsible for any action. By 1939 the continuous denunciations had covered the KGB in Stygian confusions and darkness. My favorite story in these books is of Stalin during the war catching sight of General Rokossovsky and asking, “Why haven’t I seen you for so long? Where have you been?” Springing to attention Rokossovsky replied, “In prison, Comrade Stalin.” Stalin puffed on his pipe and said, “A fine time to be inside,” and went on working.

Philby and the journalists who celebrated his career pictured the KGB as almost faultless. Philby used to boast that he was proud to work for such an elite organization. Certainly, Arnold Deutsch, Maly, and later Modin treated the Cambridge spies with tact, sympathy, and skill. But the spies sometimes found themselves being run by unimaginative apparatchiki who wanted to impress the Center with their “vigilance” by voicing suspicions. Yet, however skillful the controls were in nursing their charges, the Center couldn’t have cared less about their agents’ safety. Philby was instructed to send his reports from Spain to a fictitious lady in Paris with whom he was supposed to be having an affair. Later in Paris he looked up the address and found it was the Soviet Embassy. He was then the Times correspondent in Franco Spain: had a letter been opened Franco’s men would have shot him.

Nor was the Center much concerned about their future. Yuri Modin saw what a toll fifteen years of spying was taking on Burgess and Maclean. On the verge of a nervous breakdown Maclean asked the Center to let him retire to Moscow: his plea was ignored. By 1948 Burgess was frequently drunk in public and appeared so debauched that his colleagues begged Hector MacNeil, the Labour junior minister at the Foreign Office, to get rid of him, especially after he hit a colleague in an argument about American policy. Modin’s report was also ignored.

When Maclean decamped for Russia, Philby himself has told us how appalled he was to learn that Burgess went with him. Burgess had stayed with him in his flat in Washington, and Philby was now hopelessly compromised. Despite their long friendship, Philby blamed to his dying day “that bloody man Burgess” for ending his career in SIS, and refused to see Burgess when he turned up in Moscow. Modin has a different story. When Maclean was being briefed for flight he insisted he must have a companion. He said that if he got to Paris he would visit friends and take to the bottle, be arrested, and crack under interrogation. The Center nominated Burgess, who was by now useless as an agent. Burgess became incoherent with rage: he had given Philby his word not to go with Maclean. The senior KGB man in London persuaded him he could drop out and return after they reached Prague. When they got there, Burgess was told that he, too, must go to Moscow. What Burgess had dreaded—perpetual exile—had come true. And as Philby feared, he had been given away by the Center. No wonder Borovik concludes that spies should fear the counter-intelligence service of their masters more than the counter-intelligence service of their own country, whose secrets they are betraying.

  1. 1

    The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby (Knopf, 1989).

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