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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.