Saturday 21 July 2018

Kim Philby: Cambridge toff and a Russian spy

New-found footage has kindled fresh interest in the Cold War double-agent who shocked the British establishment.

Close call: Philby at a press conference on November 8, 1955, after he was mistakenly cleared of being a spy.
Close call: Philby at a press conference on November 8, 1955, after he was mistakenly cleared of being a spy.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

In the pantheon of great traitors, Kim Philby isn't quite up with Judas Iscariot or Brutus. But the story of this Cambridge-educated toff - who rose to high rank within M16 while spying for the Soviet Union over three decades, before finally defecting - is so compelling and unbelievable that it reads more like a Len Deighton thriller than real life.

Ironically, as seen in newly discovered footage, a man committed to bringing down the system owed much of his success to coming from its upper echelons. It was inconceivable to British intelligence that someone with his background could be a turncoat.

The Philby Tapes, which aired this week on BBC Radio 4, explores previously unseen video of modern Britain's most infamous spy giving a secret lecture to the East German Stasi in 1981. It was unearthed in the Stasi archives in Berlin.

We hear Philby saying, in the unmistakeably plummy tones of a posh Englishman, "Because I had been born into the British governing class (and) knew a lot of people of an influential standing, I knew they would never get too tough with me."

He was born Harold Philby on New Year's Day 1912. (Another irony: the nickname Kim came from gung-ho imperialist Rudyard Kipling.) Philby's father was an empire official in India's Punjab Province. He was privately educated before studying History and Economics at Cambridge, where - during the febrile atmosphere of the 1930s, when sweeping political movements were spinning the world off its axis - he was first seduced by communism.

Upon graduation in 1933, his lecturer Maurice Dobb introduced Philby to a front organisation for German communism. Philby went to Vienna, where he fell in love with Austrian communist Litzi Friedmann. He was bowled over by the strength of her convictions, recalling "a frank and direct person… I liked her determination".

They married in February 1934, returning to the UK. Around this time, Philby was approached, probably by a woman called Edith Tudor Hart, about spying for the Soviets. Later that year, Litzi arranged for him to meet "a man of decisive importance": Arnold Deutsch, agent of the Soviet NKVD, precursor-of-sorts to the KGB.

So began 30 years of spying for the USSR, and the birth of the Cambridge Five. Philby gave Deutsch a list of contemporaries who might respond to "discreet contact". Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross later achieved infamy when they and Philby were exposed as double-agents.

Back in the 1930s, Philby was learning Russian. By the time he went to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, he was working for Britain's intelligence service, MI6 - and the Soviet Union. He sent coded letters to a fictitious Parisian girlfriend for the Russians.

Philby worked his way up MI6 ranks (despite some suspicion over his loyalties); in another irony, he headed the anti-Soviet department. But suspicion was growing. In 1951, Philby was interrogated by MI5 and, though cleared of espionage, resigned from the service. He eked out a living as a writer.

More irony: in 1955, future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared: "I have no reason to conclude Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country."

Philby blithely said: "I have never been a communist."

He resumed working for MI6 from 1956, in Beirut. His second wife died, supposedly suicide, though her psychiatrist believed Philby killed her because "she knew too much".

Finally, in 1963, his duplicity was unmasked. A top-ranking KGB officer defected to the US, and named Philby as the so-called "Third Man". MI6 investigated anew and Philby, now coming apart at the seams, confessed everything.

On January 23, he defected to Russia, smuggled aboard a freighter. It was officially confirmed in July when the Soviets announced he had been given asylum and citizenship.

The British establishment was in shock. Deceived by one of their own, and on the double: a senior espionage operative, and a Cambridge man from a "good family". It's like James Bond defecting to North Korea.

In the grainy video, Philby tells his "dear comrades" about "30 years in the enemy camp", how there was "no discipline" in British intelligence, and that, if confronted, "just deny everything. All I had to do was keep my nerve".

There's also, remarkably, an Irish connection to this globe-spanning tale of intrigue and betrayal. In 1966, Sean Bourke, a petty criminal from Limerick, helped double-agent George Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs, where he was doing 42 years for espionage.

After serving five years himself for throwing a bomb at a policeman, Bourke smuggled Blake a walkie-talkie and car-jack. The spy broke open his bars, Bourke threw a rope over the wall, and they dashed from safe-house to safe-house, until Blake could be smuggled abroad.

He eventually reached the USSR, becoming close friends with Philby. This figure from remote history is still alive, but Bourke died in 1982. Shortly before, he told Mike Murphy the jailbreak was "an opportunity to get back at the establishment".

Philby's life in Moscow wasn't quite the socio-political paradise he'd expected - little money and even less work, a lower KGB rank than he'd been promised, and living under house arrest. But he never recanted, nor apparently regretted, his ideology and treasonous acts. He says in the Stasi footage: "Our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time - but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in any way." On the other hand, perhaps appropriately, he retained a love of cricket and the BBC World Service.

Philby died in 1988. The USSR - soon, in one final irony, to collapse - gave him a hero's funeral.

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