Kim Philby with reporters during the press conference in London, 1955, that cleared him of the charge of tipping off double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1951

Can there be anything left to say about Kim Philby, arguably the most successful spy of his generation, perhaps of all time? After all, scores of books have been written about him and his circle of fellow Soviet-controlled British spies, who sought before and after World War II to bring communism to Europe and the United States. Especially now that the ideal of so many like-minded young men and women in places such as Cambridge and Oxford in the 1930s has become rusted, what is the point of recounting the Philby saga once again?

Yet Ben Macintyre has managed to lend it a fresh lease on life by dwelling on psychology, friendship, and class consciousness more than on spycraft or ideology. “It is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history,” he writes. It was “a very British relationship that has never been explored before.” In Macintyre’s view Philby’s knack for friendship goes some way toward explaining why he succeeded in deceiving his British colleagues—and his most influential American one—for so long. Macintyre is a marvelous storyteller. No one has woven the well-worn tale with more panache and wit. Whether he has solved the conundrum of Philby’s mysterious inner world—did he truly believe that what he did was for the good of the world?—is moot. It may well remain insoluble forever.

Philby’s special friend was Nicholas Elliott, who had joined Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, in June 1939, three months before the outbreak of war, about a year before the induction of Philby into the same department. Philby, however, had previously also joined the Soviet secret service, in the summer of 1934. Macintyre traces their friendship along parallel and often crossing paths, with Elliott insisting fervently that Philby, who had been under a cloud of suspicion for a dozen years before his defection to Moscow in 1963, was innocent. Indeed, it was Elliott, after Philby had spent five glum years in a virtually jobless wilderness following the defection of fellow Soviet spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess in 1951, who arranged for him to be brought back as a British agent (and once more as a Soviet one) in Beirut in 1956.

The friendship finally ends in a dramatic and brilliantly told denouement in January 1963, when Elliott, at last convinced of his friend’s treachery, comes mournfully from London to Beirut to extract a confession. Spread over several days of interrogation with an offer of immunity from prosecution in return for a comprehensive admission of guilt, Philby, after eleven days of harrowing hesitation, slips away at night onto a Russian cargo ship and thence into an exile (or, as he would later claim, a homecoming) that lasted till his death in Moscow twenty-five years later.

By telling this tale through the prism of his relationship with the intensely loyal Elliott, Macintyre seeks to explain Philby’s success in escaping detection—or, rather, in fending off the burgeoning weight of evidence, albeit circumstantial, that he was indeed the “third man” who had long been suspected of tipping off Maclean and Burgess, enabling them to flee to Moscow twelve years ahead of him.

The gist of Macintyre’s explanation is that Philby’s betrayal was largely about class, in a country still trapped in the deadening grip of a closed ruling establishment certain that it could trust only its own members to hold the levers—and secrets—of state. Elliott and Philby came from a similar imperial background. Both had forebears who had administered India. Their fathers were friends. Claude Aurelius Elliott, Nicholas’s father, who was born in India, was headmaster and later provost of Eton, in which post he was knighted. Harry St. John Philby, Kim’s father, was a leading Arabist, an erstwhile intelligence officer, and a close friend of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s eponymous founder. Kim, nicknamed after the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s best-loved novel of espionage and derring-do, was born in India. Both future spies followed in their fathers’ footsteps to top private schools, Elliott to Eton, Philby to Westminster; both went on to university at Cambridge.

As described by Macintyre, the recruitment of both young men into the British intelligence service was comical in its initial security procedures and subsequent cavalier follow-ups. Elliott was interviewed at Ascot racecourse briefly by a friend of his father who happened to be chief diplomatic adviser to the government of the day. Macintyre gives a delicious vignette of a further vetting at the end of the war, as described in the second of Elliott’s characteristically jocular memoirs, With My Little Eye:1


Security officer: “Sit down, I’d like to have a frank talk with you.”

Nicholas Elliott: “As you wish Colonel.”

Officer: “Does your wife know what you do?”

Elliott: “Yes.”

Officer: “How did that come about?”

Elliott: “She was my secretary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped.”

Officer: “Quite so. What about your mother?”

Elliott: “She thinks I’m in something called SIS, which she believes stands for the Secret Intelligence Service.”

Officer: “Good God! How did she come to know that?”

Elliott: “A member of the War Cabinet told her at a cocktail party.”

Officer: “Then what about your father?”

Elliott: “He thinks I’m a spy.”

Officer: “Why should he think you’re a spy?”

Elliott: “Because the Chief [of SIS] told him in the bar at White’s [the poshest of gentlemen’s clubs].”

Philby’s recruitment was a trickier affair but no less outrageous in its sloppy amateurishness. After being convinced at Cambridge, aged twenty-one, of the justice and coming triumph of communism, he had gone to Vienna determined to help resist fascism, had fallen in love with and married a divorcée who was a Comintern agent, and had battled for the cause on the streets during the brutal repression of a workers’ uprising in 1934. Having been recruited by a Soviet agent shortly thereafter in London, he had ostentatiously dropped all overt Communist links, spending the next five years creating a right-wing persona as a correspondent covering the Spanish civil war sympathetically from General Franco’s side for The Times (of London) and in France at the start of the war against Germany.

When the deputy chief of MI6 inquired after Philby’s earlier left-wing activities before taking him into the British secret service (“He was a bit of a Communist at Cambridge, wasn’t he?”), his father was easily able to reassure him over lunch, “Oh that was all schoolboy nonsense. He’s a reformed character now.” His marriage to a Comintern agent, from whom he had separated, whether or not initially to help create his new cover, was blithely overlooked.

So class solidarity clearly benefited both young men. As the war against Hitler intensified, they were thrown together in 1940 in the counterintelligence branch of MI6 known as Section V, where they enjoyed an instant rapport. But their friendship went deeper than mere class. Behind the conventional façades of both their families ran a strain of eccentricity and independence of spirit. Elliott had “an ingrained contempt for authority” as well as “a hardy sense of humor.”

A tendency to rebel and provoke was more pronounced on Philby’s side. His father was a contrarian, an inveterate intriguer who had converted to Islam when Kim was a teenager, taking as his second wife a slave girl given to him by his monarchical patron; and having stood for Parliament as a supporter of a far-right movement, he was briefly locked up by the British authorities in 1939 for speaking out against the war. The young Philby, writes Macintyre, was “his father’s pet and project.” Kim “idolized him—and loathed him.” In his autobiography, My Silent War, published with Soviet approval in 1968, Philby writes that if his father had known that his son had turned out to be a Soviet agent, “he would have been thunderstruck, but by no means disapproving.”

Both young spies joked together at the staidness of officialdom and the pomposity of some of their bosses. “I’m in it for the belly-laughs,” Elliott used to say. The pair soon spent long hours drinking convivially after work. At the same time Elliott, who was four years younger, admired Philby’s cleverness, efficiency, and seeming clarity of purpose, as well as his charming, self-deprecating wit. They were, after all, bound together in the war against fascism. Elliott, writes Macintyre, “hero-worshipped Philby, but he also loved him, with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual, and unstated.”

Not surprisingly, it was when the focus of the British and American intelligence services switched from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia that things changed drastically for Philby—and that the loyalty of his old friends, such as Elliott, became crucial when a string of Russian defectors pointed to the existence of Soviet spies at the heart of the British intelligence service. The two friends continued to serve in the counterintelligence section, both rising fast, Philby always a little ahead of his friend. By late 1944 he had become head of counterintelligence, a position he held until 1947.

By the time the war against Germany ended and the cold war with the Soviet Union was in full swing, Britain’s campaign to thwart the designs of the Soviet intelligence service was in the hands of a Soviet agent. Philby was well placed even to become “C,” as the head of the entire service was known. For the Russians it was a remarkable triumph. Indeed, so rapid had been Philby’s rise to a position of such power and influence that some of his bosses in Moscow continued to suspect he may have been a British plant.


After a stint in Istanbul, where he ran—and according to Macintyre presumably betrayed—a network of agents in a region of vital interest to the West, in 1949 he was assigned to an even more crucial post in Washington as the chief liaison between the British and American intelligence services, where he became privy to just about all the plans for undermining Soviet security and for countering Soviet plans to weaken the United States. In this he was much assisted by James Angleton, soon to be head of counterintelligence at the CIA, who had become a close friend in London during the war. When the cloud of suspicion around Philby began to thicken after the defection of Maclean and Burgess, Angleton was as dogged in his defense as Elliott.

Meanwhile, as Philby settled into Washington, Maclean had become head of the American desk at the Foreign Office in London, having previously held a key post in the British embassy in Washington between 1944 and 1948, where he informed the Russians of—among other things—America’s progress in developing its nuclear weapons. Maclean, incidentally, who had also been converted to communism at Cambridge and had been recruited by the Russians in 1937, was the son of a former cabinet minister, Sir Donald Maclean: another reason, apparently, for not initially putting a young diplomat through the security ringer.

In his account of Philby’s manifold activities as a Soviet agent, replete with tense descriptions of close shaves as defectors continued to pop up here and there with evidence—but no uncoded names—of British moles, Macintyre covers the same ground as other writers before him. Philby’s achievements for the Russians can be placed broadly in two categories. He was able to let the Russians know the detailed aims of British and American policy, based on knowledge acquired at the highest echelons of power. And he was able, on a more operational level, to ensure that anti-Soviet spy rings and efforts to infiltrate agents after the war into such places as the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and Albania were all doomed to bloody failure. Many such schemes might have failed anyway, but Philby probably made certain that they did.

Perhaps the single most devastating blow that Philby inflicted on the West was his handing to the Russians a list of several thousand anti-Nazi agents, mostly Catholics, who had survived the war in Germany but were rounded up and presumed to have been shot by the Russians after they conquered what became East Germany. It is probable, according to Macintyre, that Philby was responsible, across Europe, for the torture and deaths of hundreds of other agents.

What is certain is that he sowed “poisonous discord,” as Macintyre puts it, within and between the intelligence services of America and Britain. The dogged FBI and its British equivalent, MI5, were long convinced that Philby was a traitor but were prevented from nailing him by the often snobbish members of the CIA and MI6, who looked down on the domestic services. To a large extent, according to Macintyre, it was that class business again.

In many aspects, however, the Philby story is still incomplete—and is likely to remain so. The most gripping part of Macintyre’s narrative is Philby’s final escape from Beirut and the clutches of his old friend, Elliott. Was it, indeed, an escape, or did the British intend for him to go? If the former, the British, as Macintyre puts it, must have been “monumentally stupid.” Or were they “exceptionally clever”?

Philby, in his conversations with Phillip Knightley in Moscow in 1988, a few months before he died, sounded aggrieved that it could be thought that he was simply allowed to “fade” into a miserable Muscovite exile, because the British thought it better for him to stew in Russia than embarrass them with a public trial, especially if he were unwilling to accept the immunity deal in return for full disclosure of his duplicitous past.2 Yet in a letter to Elliott from his bolt-hole in Moscow, Philby wonders whether that was just what did happen. Elliott, however, in his own memoirs, seems to discount the notion that he simply let his old friend go. Perhaps he felt obliged to maintain the fiction. If not, then MI6—and Elliott himself—were indeed “monumentally stupid.”

In any event, did Philby, as a Soviet agent who penetrated into the heart of the British and American establishments, make a major difference to history? Self-evidently, in the long run, he did not. The empire he served for half a century collapsed in futile ignominy three years after he died. Post-Soviet Russia still has a spoiler’s power to destabilize fragile regions and to shore up embattled dictators such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But, apart from North Korea, almost no one in the emerging countries of Asia and Africa, let alone in Europe or America, looks to Marxism-Leninism, least of all its Soviet brand, as a model for the future.

The biggest conundrum of all is what Philby really, deep down, felt and thought about it all. Had it been worth it? Had he felt no remorse that his closest friendships, such as with Elliott, had been betrayed, supposedly for a higher cause? Did he truly believe, until he died, in the rightness of the cause?

Macintyre describes his phases of alcoholic stupor, especially after the defection of Maclean and Burgess, and again in Beirut, when he had been reactivated by both sides in the late 1950s after his period in the doldrums, as the noose began to tighten again and the specter of detection and imprisonment threatened. In 1961 George Blake, his fellow Soviet spy, had been caught and sentenced to forty-two years in jail. Philby’s alcoholism, which occasionally rendered him almost insensible yet never to the extent that he gave himself away, may well have been largely due to his understandable fear of detection. But it also seems part of the troubled personality molded by his double life, which required him to lie constantly to his wives, his family, his closest friends, perhaps even to himself.

A number of books based on conversations with Philby in Russia have attempted to draw out the real man, most notably Knightley’s authoritative final report, the most detailed personal and professional analysis, on which Macintyre gratefully feeds. By this account, Philby underwent a period of “nagging doubt” during his early years in Russia. His third wife, Eleanor, describes his mental decline during his first two years in Moscow, leading to her abandonment of him as he switched his affections to Maclean’s wife Melinda, another relationship that Philby did not manage to sustain for long.3

Yuri Modin, a KGB man whose account of how he handled the Cambridge spies was published in 1994, also writes that Philby succumbed at times to despair during his exile.4 Oleg Kalugin, a KGB general supposedly entrusted with rescuing Philby from his black moods, described his alcoholism. In an interview some years after his death, Philby’s widow Rufina, his Polish-Russian fourth and last wife, who seems to have restored a measure of happiness after their marriage in 1971, says he tried at one point to commit suicide.5

When Philby arrived in Moscow in 1963 he had never before actually visited the Soviet Union. It may well have been a brutal shock, however much his Soviet comrades may have hinted at the grim reality of life there and the perversion of the ideal for which he had risked his life. When I was a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s, I could not but notice how fast even the most committed Western Communists were overwhelmed, once they had spent a few weeks there, by the dismal truth. The standard of living of ordinary people was far below that of the Western working class, especially when set against the privileges of the Party elite. Anyone who considered publicly or even privately expressing dissent risked retribution, either by loss of professional status or imprisonment.

Remember, too, that Stalin had died only ten years before Philby arrived in Moscow and that, only seven years before, Khrushchev had delivered his momentous speech denouncing Stalin and detailing his horrendous crimes. Philby must have realized that most of his early Soviet intelligence handlers would have perished in Stalin’s purges, which targeted anyone connected with foreign intelligence most harshly of all.

Piecing together snippets of Philby’s conversation, it seems that he sought, to the very end, to convince himself, as an unshakable article of the faith he had adopted at the age of twenty-one, that somehow Soviet communism would succeed. As Knightley charitably puts it, “He chose to stick it out, hoping that the principles of the Revolution would survive the crimes of individuals, however enormous. He had his doubts as to whether he would live to see this, but he died confident that he had.”

I find this hard to believe. Philby was highly intelligent. His journalistic dispatches and letters are models of clarity and wit, often phrased in old-fashioned jocularities that echo the attitudes as well as the style of P.G. Wodehouse, one of his favorite writers. He must have known that “the crimes of individuals” could not be put down merely to Stalin. He must have doubted whether a social and political system built on the corpses of at least ten million people (many say twenty million is nearer the mark) could evolve into something passably decent. He apparently enjoyed the trashing of Leonid Brezhnev’s reputation in the 1980s and looked on Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost with renewed hope. But he must have realized that the cause he had embraced half a century earlier had irretrievably failed. No wonder he habitually immersed himself in alcohol.

In 1968, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre), a former colleague and friend of Philby in MI6, wrote an article in Le Figaro in which, as Blair Worden wrote in these pages, he charged Philby with “‘schizophrenia’ in the combination of [his] outward liveliness of intellect and the deadness of an inner mind in thrall to a barren creed.” Philby wrote in reply, “I am pretty certain that I could produce one psychiatrist to say that I was schizophrenic, another to say that I was abnormally single-minded, yet a third to say that I was both or either.”6

In any case, the art of duplicity, even a capacity for self-delusion, may have come to him at an early stage. “Philby tasted the drug of deception as a youth and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life,” writes Macintyre. Moreover, he adds, “like many late-empire products of the establishment, he had an inborn faith in his ability, and right, to change and rule the world. This he shared with Elliott.” His older daughter Josephine, who loved him to the last, admits in a revealing recent film that the one question he never really answered was, “Why did you do it?”7 No one can say for sure. Macintyre gives as good a flavor of the man as we may get. But the ultimate enigma of Philby’s own mind is still unbroken—and will probably remain so.