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Calm, Slippery, and sadistic: My Silent War by Kim Philby and A Spy among Friends by Ben MacIntyre

Posted: Mar 24, 2024 12:03;
Last Modified: Apr 10, 2024 11:04


The Soviet Union 1990 CPA 6266 stamp (Soviet Intelligence Agents. Kim Philby

A tale of two books

Originally, this was going to be a discussion of My Silent War. But when I finished it the first time, I felt very conflicted by the book: an interesting read, intriguing, but also somewhat suspicious.

I knew the story of Kim Philby going back to the 1970s — my father was fascinated by him and all the Cambridge spies, for various kinds of class reasons (social, academic, disciplinary). I had also read various books and stories about him over the years, most recently Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy among Friends. But the novel autobiography was somehow not what I expected. Calmer than I thought. More slippery. Sadistic. I simply didn’t know what to make of it.

With friends (and enemies) like these…

An indication of the problem is found among the cover blurbs. In most books these are either laudatory or, at worst, mock critical (I’m thinking of books I’ve read by Will Ferguson, for example, or Colbert). In the case of My Silent War, however, they are all over the place: from flippant praise, to stentorian denunciation:

“To this day I am convinced that we was no an ideologue. Spying was just his way of being above lesser mortals.” Nigel West.

“Addictive… highly polished… written with a style and a feline sense of irony, making it a much better read than any of the other Philby literature.” The Guardian.

“Philby has no home, no women, no faith. Behind the inbred upper-class arrogance, the taste for adventure, lies the self-hate of a vain misfit for whom nothing will ever be worthy of his loyalty. In the last instance, Philby is driven by the incurable drug of deceit.” John le Carré.

When you consider that the preface was written by Phillip Knightley (who wrote a biography of Philby after gaining access to him in Moscow) and the introduction by Graham Greene (who, like Le Carré, served with Philby in MI-6 and, also like Le Carré, wrote spy novels), you really have quite a disparate set of views of the man and his book.

A brief history of Philby and the Cambridge Five.

Since I vaguely remembered that there was a lot more to Philby than is covered in his memoir — including family betrayals and some very angry colleagues — I decided to reread Philby’s book after reminding myself about his career through MacIntyre’s. Here’s a quick recap if you don’t really know much about this part of WWII and Cold War history:

Philby was part of “the Cambridge five,” a group of young men at Cambridge in the late 1920s and early 1930s who became socialists and then communists in response to the rise of fascism and the seeming collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression (this was a relatively common thing at the time, it seems). All educated at public [i.e. in the U.K. context, private] schools and part of the English upper classes, the men then entered and moved among the various professions typical to their class and time: journalism, academia, “the City” (i.e. financial business in London), and government (Foreign Office, Intelligence).

In Philby’s case this meant a stint as a war correspondent with Franco’s forces in Spain and the British Expeditionary Force in Europe in 1939-1940, followed by a fast-track career in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI-6). During the war he was responsible for Spain and Portugal (both Fascist countries that were nominally neutral but nevertheless leaning towards the Axis). Afterwards he rose to lead the Anti-Soviet counter-intelligence office, ran the Turkish office, and, just before his initial fall, became the MI-6 liaison to the CIA and FBI.

During all this time, Philby appears to have been a deliberate double-agent: he (like Burgess) quickly dropped all explicit connections to Communism in the years immediately after university, ostentatiously allying themselves instead with fascist and Anglo-German organisations as a way of creating a non-left-wing cover (this is also why Philby reported on Franco’s side in the Civil War and, indeed, received a medal from the General himself). As he says in his memoir, he considered himself above all an officer in the Soviet Secret Service, whose focus was on deep penetration of enemy structures. His rise in the British Secret Service, therefore, would have been a remarkable coup, were it not for the fact that he was joined by four other fellow travellers — indicating that all was not well with the British Secret Service (and especially its vetting procedures) in the 1940s and 1950s).

Ultimately, Philby was identified preliminarily as a spy after two of his co-agents, Burgess (MI-6) and Maclean (Foreign office) were uncovered and fled to the Soviet Union. The evidence, however, was far from complete and so, while he was fired, he also spent most of the next dozen years in an on-again-off-again relationship to the service and other elements of the upper-class old boys network.

Finally, however, he was unmasked and… apparently let go. A close friend of his from MI-6 was send to interrogate him and, despite his allegedly white-hot anger at Philby’s betrayal, nevertheless managed to create a window between the time Philby confessed and the time he was to be picked up in which he managed to escape to the Soviet Union (this was not the first time this happened in his career: just before he was fired from the service after the defection of Burgess and Maclean, Philby reports that he received a hand-written note from a friend in MI-6 warning him he was about to receive an urgent telegram requiring him to return to London — an apparent move, Philby suggests, to encourage him to escape while he could). Philby spend the rest of his life in Moscow, periodically appearing as a quasi-celebratory in the British and (to a lesser extent) American press. When Glasnost arrived, he jumped on the bandwagon, and became a public supporter, at which point he died, on 11 May, 1988.

Calm, slippery, and psychopathic

Rereading Philby’s book with this background in mind (Philby doesn’t say much about his escape from Beirut in 1963 and nothing at all about any of his wives), I ended up back where I started: not quite sure of what to make of things. The book is just as calm, even more slippery, and very sadistic.

All three of these are interrelated. A large part of the sadism comes from the calm, impersonal tone in which the story is told. Philby comes across as a relatively amusing fellow, in a now-very-old fashioned way, telling us war-stories in a dry, humorous fashion: the time he was almost caught by the Fascist forces because he was carrying around a slip of paper with his soviet handler’s address; the time he was almost betrayed by Vladimir Volkov, the Soviet Vice-Consul in Istanbul, who promised the British the names of double agents in their upper ranks if they would grant him and his wife asylum; his friendly sparring with James Angleton, the American intelligence chief Philby met during the war and who appears to have been completely pumped of information by him when he ascended the ranks in Washington. The stories are old fashioned in the sense that foreign habits and customs are understood as naturally ridiculous rather than simply different (at one point Philby discusses how Albanians had “barely descended from the trees” as a way of dismissing their lack of organisation). But within that Jeeves-esque world, they are relatively amusingly told.

Except all of it has a tincture of viciousness: the amusing chapter about how Philby managed to avoid detection in the Volkov incident — in essence Philby tried to slow things down (while appearing to try to speed them up) in order to give himself time to make arrangements — is really about how Philby used the intervening week or so between Volkov’s contact and Philby’s arrival in Istanbul to alert the KGB and have Volkov and his wife killed. The problem with the disorganisation of the Albanians, Latvians, and other “backwards” people on the Cold War front lines is really simply an amuse bouche for what is the real story here, the fact that Philby is arranging for each group of agents to be captured by the Soviets as soon as the cross the frontier. And the (missing) stories of his wives is really a story of profound deception and relational narcissism that leaves all women dead, ill, or abandoned by a man who had completely mislead them all as to his true character and activities.

On the one hand, as Philby himself remarks, these are all casualties of war, and, to the degree that his stories sound vicious, it may partially be because the people he is betraying were on “our” side; Volkov, for example, was in fact planning to bargain his freedom in exchange for that of Philby and other agents whom he knew were ensconced in the British services; the “freedom fighters” Philby betrayed were trying to bring down the government he worked for: to the degree we feel it is good that men like Philby, Burgess, Maclean, or Fuchs were ultimately caught, presumably the same is true, mutatis mutandis for the agents Philby betrayed. I’m sure Philby is not the only spy who has not told their partners specifically what it is they do for a living.

And yet in Philby’s case, there is something in the mix of humour and horror that makes him sound psychopathic. He never really directly tells us about his role in the events he is narrating, preferring the non-subtle, humorous, hint:

“Liddell was awarded the doubtful dignity of Deputy Director, and he would have been inhuman if he had felt no resentment. I am sure that spies, had they but known it, would have rejoiced at Liddell’s discomfiture. One did.” (69-70)

“My own suitability for the post [as head of MI-6’s Soviet section] was explained in flattering detail. Strangely enough, the recital of my virtues omitted my most serious qualification for the job — the fact that I knew something about Communism.” (98)

“During the homeward journey, I roughed out a report which I would present to the Chief, describing in detail the failure of my mission. Necessarily it contained my theory of Volkov’s disappearance. The essence of the theory was that Volkov’s own insistence on bag communication [rather than by telegram] had brought about his downfall… Doubtless both his office and his living quarters were bugged. Both he and his wife were reported to be nervous. Perhaps his manner had given him away; perhaps he had got drunk and talked too much; perhaps, even, he had changed his mind and confessed to his colleagues. Of course, I admitted, this was all speculation; the truth might never be known. Another theory — that the Russians had been tipped off about Volkov’s approach to the British — had no solid evidence to support it. It was not worth including in my report.” (127-128)

With some valuable lessons

That this is narcissism rather than a story-telling tick is suggested by the evident pride Philby takes in just generally being the smartest, but most secretive person in the room. Everybody he works with is a dolt, except for the few who are generally thought to be by others but in whom Philby alone can discern a “first rate” intelligence. When he takes over a branch, he whips it into shape in only the way he can, turning it into a fully professional organisation that, nevertheless, is unaware that everything it does is being betrayed to its target.

Some of this is time and class — it reminds me a lot of how academia was when I was first starting out thirty five years ago or so, with lots of point-scoring, one-upmanship, and vicious common room insults. But some of it is pretty clearly idiosyncratic. Sprinkled throughout the book are wisdoms about operating in a bureaucracy and public service that I think are actually pretty solid bits of advice:

“Conceding much of his colleagues’ criticisms, [the Chief] invited each of the service Intelligence Directors to send to his staff a senior officer… It was a handsome offer which the services could hardly have refused. It was also a shrewd one. The Chief knew well that no service Intelligence Director in his right mind would part with a senior officer of value to himself…. It could be expected with the utmost confidence that the officers seconded to SIS would be expendables, if not outright duds. Once they were bedded down in Broadway Buildings, they could be shunted out of harms way.” (110-111)

“I had… long since reached the conclusion that, although political manoeuvre can produce quick results, those results are lasting only if they are based on solid and conscientious work.” (84).

“His [Claude Dansey] speciality was the barbed little minute, which creates a maximum of resentment to no obvious purpose.” (47-48)

“A shrewd MI5 officer once minuted a paper: ‘This case is of the highest possible importance and must therefore be handled on the lowest possible level.” (81).

And so that is my final take on the book: a calm, slippery, and vicious tale, told by an amusing psychopath, with some pretty good career advice.

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