Deceiving the Deceivers:
Kim Philby, Donald Maclean,
and Guy Burgess.
Yale University Press, 320 pages, $29.95
The Private Life of Kim Philby.
St. Ermin's Press, 449 pages, $14.95
The Soviet Union is no more, and to a whole new generation it already seems unreal, preposterous, some sort of practical joke that the Russians played on themselves and the rest of the world. It didn’t come off, did it, so it could never have come off, right? That was not how it appeared when Stalin was conquering and killing at will, or when Nikita Khrushchev was promising to bury the West. In general terms, the statesmen of the West, their advisors and their military, analyzed and countered the Soviet threat realistically, as in the 1948 Berlin air lift or the Cuban missile crisis, finally encouraging Mikhail Gorbachev to bring about the Soviet Union’s peaceful auto-destruction, as strange an event as any in history.
Public opinion was something else. Here mixed motives were in play. In thy intellectuals, were convinced that Communism was the path to utopia.
Three such in Britain were Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess. Convinced Communists since their student days at Cambridge university, they were linked together in a network spying on their own country and betraying it in favor of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Well-connected, and educated in the best schools, they were able to take privilege for granted. Burgess and Maclean were thought in chic social circles to be amusingly louche, and many witnesses attest to Philby’s charm, and the stutter that went with it. All three rose to positions either in the British Secret Service or the Foreign Office with access to information valuable to the Soviet Union. In a position to know the facts about Stalinist terror and Gulag, they nonetheless made themselves willing accomplices in Communist crime. The charming Philby had much blood on his hands. He informed the Soviets of an impending high-level defector in Istanbul, and they caught the man and shot him. He gave away clandestine Allied operations in Albania, the Baltic, and Ukraine, leading to the deaths of scores of patriots and agents. Somewhere in the psychological depths where each of these traitors had to answer to himself, deception and self-deception were bewilderingly entangled.
Malcolm Muggeridge was someone who might have taken that same confused path, but the experience of being a newspaper correspondent in Moscow in the 1930s instead cured him of his youthful Communism. Service as an intelligence officer in the war heightened a conviction that the only valid response to mankind’s folly was satire. He liked to maintain that espionage is pointless, and spies and traitors achieve nothing. Burgess and Maclean proved him wrong when they disappeared in May 1951, only to turn up later in Moscow. The scandal was immense. Communists had evidently penetrated and undermined the establishment. Senator McCarthy might not have had very nice manners, but evidently there were reds not just under the bed but everywhere in the room. The defection of Burgess and Maclean forced the British to realize that they might have won the world war but looked like losing the peace. Cosy old assumptions of superiority were out of date.
Twelve years of demoralization and precipitous decline in international standing followed, and then in 1963 Philby defected too. Labelled the Third Man, he had evidently been collaborating with Burgess and Maclean, and perhaps others as well. Furtively fired as early as 1955 from MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA, Philby had been exonerated by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the House of Commons. His secret-service friends and protectors found a job for him as a foreign correspondent in Beirut. Eventually a British agent confronted him there with the evidence of his treason. Had he betrayed the Soviets, they would have shot him out of hand. British gentlemanly manners suggested that the authorities had long known the truth about his part in the Burgess and Maclean fiasco but covered up, even encouraging him to slip unpunished out of sight. The British now finally lost confidence in themselves and those who represented them. Muggeridge in his ribald brilliance overlooked how traitors of this spectacular kind could push public opinion into thinking that the Soviets were always a step or two ahead, likely to win the Cold War, and therefore to be flattered and appeased. Mrs. Thatcher’s achievement in her years as prime minister was to reverse what had come to look like ingrained national defeatism.
Of the making of books about these traitors there is no end. They have acquired a peculiar celebrity status, with a rancid glamour all their own. Rufina Philby’s memoir was first published five years ago, and already then it contained an annex compiled by Hayden Peake—seemingly himself a one-time intelligence officer—listing no fewer than 157 relevant books, with short sharp commentaries on their reliability or otherwise. Grown larger since then, this mass of material is a sub-branch of detective fiction, with every minute detail the subject of speculation, leading to thesis and antithesis and synthesis, the contradictions and refutations argued densely back and forth in a tone of scholiastic knowingness, so that the general reader twists and turns as in a maze without exit. According to some interpretations, Philby was really damaging, while Maclean and Burgess had little to impart, yet according to others Maclean and Burgess passed on vital secrets from their work in the British embassy in Washington, while Philby was mostly ineffectual. Needless to say, the authorities reveal their side of the story only through selective snippets, and probably never will release the full facts.
During the war, counter-intelligence officers and cryptanalysts were deciphering German radio traffic in a program with the code-name Ultra, and under the inexorable approach of the Cold War they switched to deciphering Soviet radio traffic in a successor program called Venona. In the last few years, the Venona texts have been published, greatly adding to the Philby, Maclean, and Burgess bibliography. This is where S. J. Hamrick comes in. A former CIA officer, he adopts quite naturally the dense argumentative style of this sub-branch of detective literature. Quick to suspect, he pounces on small discrepancies and turns them into accusations and then full-blown theories. So apparently trivial details suddenly take on a life of their own, and the reader is invited to emerge from the maze in the dazzle of a magnificent conspiracy.
The Venona texts were deciphered by different teams on either side of the Atlantic. Their publication is incomplete. Why not bring together for comparison the partially transcribed Venona texts sent by Maclean and the original documents presumably stored in the archives ever since he stole them? Because the British have something to hide. They were, and are, masters of deception, and nobody deceived better than Sir Dick White, head of counter-intelligence in this crucial Cold War period. The official version is that Burgess and Maclean were discovered only in 1951 when they defected to Moscow. Philby was implicated but only by association, and when he denied treason, proof could not be brought. Not a bit of it, according to Hamrick. Clever Dick White and other senior colleagues had rumbled Maclean in 1949 or even earlier, but let him run in the hope that in due course he would lead to others, and they could round up his entire network. Exposure of treason in high places, they also feared, would put an end to collaboration with the United States in building the British atom bomb. Deliberately and ingeniously they sent Maclean to Washington and fed him with disinformation to serve up to the KGB. The same with Philby. In Hamrick’s view, Philby’s reputation has been grotesquely overblown. The fellow was “a pathetic weakling craving popular recognition,” utterly incapable of realizing that the British were using him for their own ends. An American General by the name of Edwin L. Sibert once let this cat out of the bag to a journalist, and that’s substantiation enough for Hamrick.
After decades of breast-beating and guilt, it is of course gratifying to think that British counter-intelligence could after all turn the tricks of the KGB around, and defeat it. Much suspension of disbelief is required, however, to accept that White and his colleagues had the initiative and then the capacity to deceive their own government and their American colleagues. Would they really have risked the dramatic political consequences of being caught out? And another thing: Maclean’s Venona texts cover important issues such as Churchill’s plea to Roosevelt to stand up to Stalin on the Polish question. Ah, easy, says Hamrick, the British had to give something away in order to boost Maclean’s standing as an agent.
A KGB staffer by the name of Yelena Modrzhinskaya early on had doubts about the reliability of the British traitors. It was all too good to be true. Surely they were double agents, or provocateurs, one of the more dire accusations in the Soviet vocabulary. A wary KGB accordingly saw to the daily requirements of the defectors once they were in Moscow but kept them at arm’s length. With their upper-class assumptions and connections, the three seem never quite to have believed that they would have to pay for what they had done, and fantasized that one day they might return to Britain. Burgess needed alcohol and rough trade. Maclean, a chronic alcoholic, was unbalanced to the point of derangement. Arriving in Moscow, Philby had a five-year affair with Maclean’s wife, and after she left him he too became an alcoholic and attempted suicide. These rather comparable collapses of personality put the KGB on the spot, and one may wonder whether Modrzhinskaya was promoted for her caution.
Philby met Rufina towards the end of 1970 just after he had tried to kill himself, and he appears to have latched on to her despairingly as the only alternative to death. Much younger than he, pretty and intelligent, she was an editor in a prestigious institute, and therefore a member of the Moscow nomenklatura. For the eighteen years of their marriage, she kept a home for Philby. Their happiest times seem to have been in Black Sea clinics where the Soviet elite used to go for health and recreation, or on trips somewhere in the Soviet bloc, notably Bulgaria. “The evening of my life is golden,” Philby apparently said to her one day, and she quotes him with much satisfaction.
No doubt that was the picture the KGB wanted her to paint. Philby could do more for them as an embellished legend than he had ever done in reality. Under the external blitheness of Rufina’s memoir is the internal evidence of a wreck of a man, Hamrick’s “pathetic weakling” indeed, so childishly dependent on her that he was always unwilling to let the poor woman out of his sight. Her presence was necessary to fill his loneliness and control his drinking. She stood between him and the harsh Soviet daily grind. Together they went everywhere, to the food shops, and to the post office to pick up the permitted foreign newspapers and mail. A KGB case officer watched over their every movement. Wherever they journeyed in the Soviet bloc, the KGB provided official car tours and celebrations which in fact meant non-stop surveillance.
Worse, Modrzhinskaya had won. Philby was given no real work, the KGB had no use for him. Once, and only once, and as late as 1977, he was allowed to lecture a KGB audience, telling them that he became a Communist out of a strong emotional committment to the poor and weak and underprivileged. In his own memoirs, My Silent War, published in English in 1968, Philby contradictorily asserted that he had accepted the Soviet invitation to become their spy out of a lust for power: “One does not look twice at an offer of enrolment in an elite force.” It is a measure of KGB distrust that the Russian version of this book was not published till 1980.
Graham Greene had known Philby since wartime days when he too had worked in intelligence, and he wrote the introduction to My Silent War, justifying and praising the man and the book, in what now reads like a period curiosity of an extreme kind. Whether out of mischief or conceit, or some literary impulse (with the very remote possibility that he was once more reporting to MI6), Greene had long been cultivating the pose of an independent spirit by preferring everything pro-Soviet to anything pro-American, turning himself into one of the more reliable fellow-travellers of his generation. What he shared with Philby was the sense that self-importance counted for more than anything so mundane as loyalty. That was the basis of the fiction which had made his reputation. Greene took pains to visit Philby in Moscow, and Rufina is naively proud that Philby so greatly wanted Greene’s approval and so smoothly won it. Photographs show Philby and Greene grinning side by side, two of a kind, in the company of the perpetual KGB minder. For Philby in his insecurity, here was absolution from a famous writer, in the hope that disloyalty really was a virtue. The motives of his behavior seem lost in some part of himself which he could not reach, never mind analyze. A few more years were to pass, and the convictions and activities of all these people became academic, adding up to nothing, a facet of the century’s cruel practical joke. Malcolm Muggeridge after all has the last laugh.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 68
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