Photo of the Day

Harold Adrian Russell Philby, better known as Kim Philby (1912 – 1988), former First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, holds a press conference at his mother’s home in Drayton Gardens, London, 8th November 1955. His name had been mentioned at the House Of Commons in connection with the Burgess and Maclean affair. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Father Husband, Traitor Spy

Kim Philby

In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, a well-educated Englishman called Kim Philby boarded a Russian freighter in Beirut and defected to Moscow from under the nose of British Intelligence. For the best part of thirty years he had been spying for the Soviet Union, much of that time while holding senior jobs in MI6.

Harold “Kim” Philby, Britain’s most notorious cold war traitor, journalist and intelligence agent, is one of the most famous traitors. Part of the infamous Cambridge spy ring, he used his position at the heart of the British establishment to feed information to Soviet Russia. Philby was the most successful of the Cambridge spies in passing information back to his Soviet handlers from his position as a long-term mole at the heart of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Philby, told an audience of East German spies after his defection that he was able to avoid being rumbled for so long because he had been “born into the British governing class”.

In a video recording of a speech given to Stasi agents in 1981, uncovered by the BBC, Philby also described how he was able to walk out of secret service headquarters every night with his briefcase stuffed with secret documents and reports.

The overall impression given by the excerpts of Philby’s speech broadcast is of a British intelligence service staffed by ill-disciplined and inept upper-class twits.

In one telling anecdote, Philby recounted how he was able to escape after being rumbled as a traitor in Beirut because the agent sent to keep an eye on him could not resist going skiing after hearing that fresh snow had fallen on the Lebanese mountains. Philby says in the video: “Because I had been born into the British governing class, because I knew a lot of people of an influential standing, I knew that they would never get too tough with me.

“They’d never try to beat me up or knock me around, because if they had been proved wrong afterwards, I could have made a tremendous scandal.”

Kim Philby. Kim, aged 23, in the year of his recruitment by Soviet Intelligence.

Kim Philby embodied the 20th century British established, as the nation faded from a global empire, through a prominent position in the Second World War, into a secondary player in the Cold War. Born on 1 January 1912 to a member of Britain’s Indian Civil Service. The son of a British empire official in India, Philby was privately educated before attending Cambridge University.

Philby was born at Ambala in the Punjab Province of British India. He was the son of Dora (Johnston) and St John Philby, who was an author, orientalist and convert to Islam. His father was a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and later a civil servant in Mesopotamia and advisor to King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia.

Nicknamed “Kim” after the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, Philby attended Aldro preparatory school. In his early teens he spent some time with the Bedouin in the desert of Saudi Arabia “to be turned into a man.”Following in the footsteps of his father, he continued to Westminster School, which he left in 1928 at the age of 16. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History and Economics. He graduated in 1933 with a 2:1 degree in Economics.

Upon Philby’s graduation, Maurice Dobb, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and tutor in Economics, introduced him to the World Federation for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism in Paris. The organization was one of several fronts operated by German Communist Willi Münzenberg, a member of the Reichstag who had fled to France in 1933.

He was first introduced to communism by an economics lecturer and went on to travel in Austria, where he fell in love with a young communist named Litzi Friedmann, and then went to work as a journalist in civil war Spain, also filing reports to British intelligence.

The great British novelist Graham Greene, who had served in MI6 during World War II, knew Philby and liked him quite a lot, reminiscing about long, drunken Sunday lunches and the way Philby loyally defended his staff, even though “his big loyalty was unknown to us.” In fact, Philby’s treachery had led to the deaths of many British agents in many places, and Greene eventually noted Philby’s “chilling certainty in the correctness of his judgement, the logical fanaticism of a man who, having once found a faith, is not going to lose it because of the injustices or cruelties inflicted by erring human instruments.” Looking at the way Philby undermined and eliminated his rivals in the Secret Intelligence Service (a saga that would serve as the core of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels) Greene noted “the sharp touch of the icicle in the heart.”

Philby also had a longstanding and rather complicated personal interest in the Middle East. His father, St. John Philby, was one of the last of the great British explorers there. A convert to Islam, St. John had become a trusted adviser of King Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and a bitter opponent of Zionism.

Early in Kim Philby’s career, in 1934, he had married a Jewish communist activist, Alice “Litzi” Friedmann in Vienna, where one of the witnesses to the small wedding was Teddy Kollek, later to be the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem. During the 1940s, as a senior official in the Jewish Agency’s intelligence operations, Kollek often liaised with MI5 and according to an authorized history of the British service, Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm, he helped to disrupt terrorist operations.

In 1933, Kim Philby, the future spy, was an idealistic young man who had just finished at Cambridge. He set out for Austria, keen to witness the fight against fascism first hand, and a communist friend gave him an introduction to a leftwing Viennese family who were prepared to let out rooms to sympathisers. When Philby went to the house, it was the daughter of the family, Litzi Friedman, who answered the door.

Litzi Friedmann. Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedmann, whom he married in Vienna in 1934.

For the rest of his life, Philby remembered her sparkiness that afternoon. “A frank and direct person, Litzi, came out and asked me how much money I had,” Philby said later. “I replied, one hundred pounds, which I hoped would last me about a year in Vienna. She made some calculations and announced, ‘That will leave you an excess of £25. You can give that to the International Organisation for Aid for Revolutionaries. We need it desperately.’ I liked her determination.”

Philby went on liking Litzi’s determination, to such an extent that he went on to work with her, to fall in love with her, and then to marry her and take her to London. It was also Litzi who provided him with an introduction that would shape the rest of his life. This obscure Jewish woman from Vienna became the vital link between the idealistic men of Cambridge and the dark world of Soviet espionage.

Litzi Friedman’s story has often been lost or distorted in histories of the Cambridge spies, who are usually seen as a purely masculine elite. All the spies were men, two of them were homosexual, and whether you imagine Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess arguing with one another in smoke-filled rooms in Cambridge, buttering up naive diplomats in the Foreign Office, or sitting with grey-faced Russians on park benches, you are unlikely to imagine any women by their side.

Yet the two most successful spies, Maclean and Philby, were inspired and supported by extraordinary women. Until archives in Moscow were opened after the end of the cold war, we knew very little about them, and many of the biographical sources are bafflingly contradictory. I have pieced together their stories from the sources that had the most access to Soviet archives, but it is still tough trying to work out where certainty lies.

Litzi Friedman stands very far from the usual image there is of the Cambridge spies. A photograph of her in her youth shows a woman who looks as if she is living in the 1960s, rather than the 1930s, with her thick, cropped hair, sleeveless dress and bare legs. The energetic pose she has taken up, turning to look out of the picture, as if listening to someone, is utterly unselfconscious, the pose of an intelligent young woman at ease with herself.

When Friedman and Philby met, she had the emotional and political experience that he signally lacked. She was first married at 18, but was divorced after just 14 months, then joined the Communist party. In Austria at the time, the government was cracking down on all leftwing activity, and in 1932 Friedman was imprisoned for a couple of weeks.

For her, the young Englishman who presented himself at her door in 1933 was, at first, a potentially useful helper and source of funds. But physical desire soon flowered between them. They first made love in the snow on a side street in freezing Vienna, heated by the touch of flesh on flesh. “I know it sounds impossible, but it was actually quite warm once you got used to it,” Philby said to a later girlfriend. Male friends have also said that this was Philby’s first sexual experience. First physical love, first political involvement; no wonder the affair fired him up as no other relationship in his life was to do.

Philby had already been intellectually convinced by communism, but Friedman radicalised him. He began to work with her – begging people for money, acting as a courier for underground organisations, helping hunted militants to get out of Vienna, and seeing what the fight against fascism meant for people risking their lives because of it. As he himself said later, these experiences crystallised his faith.

In February 1934, the political tensions in Vienna flared into armed conflict. As socialist leaders were arrested and executed, the rank-and-file blundered around in confusion. Philby and Friedman were at home when the revolt began, and the first they knew about it was when the lights went out, a result of a strike by the power workers. Then the telephone rang and a communist leader asked them to go and wait for him in a cafe. They went. Two hours later, he arrived and asked if they were prepared to set up a machine-gun post within the city. They agreed, and were told to wait for further orders. They spent that day at the cafe, waiting. At night they went home through a city full of patrols and roadblocks, which they passed by relying on Philby’s British passport. The next day they waited at the cafe again, but the arms never materialised. In the end, they helped the revolt by collecting clothes and food for the strikers, and enabling some of the leaders to get into hiding.

Given her previous brush with the authorities, once a crackdown on known revolutionaries began, Friedman was in real danger. At first, Philby tried to find her new sanctuaries, but eventually he took the only sure way to protect her. On February 24, in the Vienna town hall, he married her, and then took her with him to London. “Even though the basis of our relationship was political to some extent, I truly loved her and she loved me,” he said later.

Kim Philby going on a picnic in the hills outside Beirut. In 1956, Philby began an affair with Eleanor Brewer, the wife of New York Times correspondent Sam Pope Brewer. Following Eleanor’s divorce, the two married in January 1959. After Philby defected to the Soviet Union in 1963, Eleanor visited him in Moscow. In November 1964, after a visit to the United States, she returned, intending to settle permanently. In her absence, Philby had begun an affair with Donald Maclean’s wife, Melinda. He and Eleanor divorced and she departed Moscow in May 1965. Melinda left Maclean and briefly lived with Philby in Moscow. In 1968 she returned to Maclean.

It was at this point that Friedman played her most important role, as far as the history of 20th-century espionage is concerned. She had a friend in London already working for Soviet intelligence, a woman called Edith Tudor-Hart, a photographer and communist who was born in Vienna. According to Genrikh Borovik, a biographer of Philby’s who gained access to the Soviet archives, Tudor-Hart recommended Friedman and Philby to the KGB for recruitment in 1934. Yuri Modin, a Soviet agent who handled the Cambridge spies throughout their careers, agrees that Friedman was undoubtedly the catalyst. “Contrary to received opinion, it was neither Burgess nor one of our own agents who lured Philby into the toils of the Soviet espionage apparatus,” he has said. “It was Litzi.” Since Philby then recommended his other Cambridge friends for recruitment, Friedman’s relationship with Philby was a tipping point not only for him, but for the whole group.

Before Philby could begin his new career, which was to work for British intelligence on behalf of his Soviet controllers, he had to get rid of all his obvious communist affiliations. He did so partly by working as a journalist for the Times, writing reports from Spain that were diligently pro-Franco. But he also had to put distance between himself and Friedman. It has only recently become clear that the two remained in touch for some years after this separation, not as lovers, but as fellow spies.

It was Friedman who, during the purges of the late 1930s, when Philby’s handlers were constantly being recalled to Moscow, kept contact going for the Soviets with their precious new recruit. She moved to Paris in the late 1930s, and until at least 1940 was paid by the KGB to maintain this contact with her husband. Although Philby started an affair with another woman in Spain, according to the Russian files, by then “she saw their relationship more as an espionage agreement than a love relationship”.

But in August 1939, the faith of many communists in Europe was shaken when the Soviet Union signed its pact of non-aggression with Nazi Germany. Given Philby’s experiences in Austria, where he had seen the terror of facism first hand, it is hardly surprising that he found this move hard to take. One entry in his files reads, “According to Mary [Litzi’s codename], to whom he complained in conversations, he was beginning to experience a certain disillusionment with us. He has never said this to us directly… The signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact caused Söhnchen [Philby’s codename] to ask puzzled questions such as ‘Why was this necessary?’ However, after several talks on this subject, Söhnchen seemed to grasp the significance of this pact.” So it was Friedman who enabled Philby to remain on board during those dark days at the beginning of the war, when the Soviet Union lost many of its friends in the west.

By odd coincidence, Donald Maclean’s faith in the Soviet Union was supported at exactly the same time and in the same place by a secret female companion. In August 1939, he was working at the British embassy in Paris. The KGB officer who was looking after him at the time was a woman called Kitty Harris, with whom he was also having a passionate affair. Just as with Friedman and Philby, Kitty Harris was way more experienced in both her political and personal life than Donald Maclean. For a start, she was 13 years older, and when they met she had already been working for the Soviet Union for 16 years.

Harris was born in the East End of London, in a working-class Jewish family, but grew up in Canada and then Chicago, where the harsh lives of the workers made her receptive to the arguments of communists – including the man who was to become her husband, a charismatic party organiser called Earl Browder. She spent a couple of years with him in Shanghai, trying to organise the underground Communist party, before leaving him and moving to Europe, where she began to work for Soviet intelligence.

Philby and his daughter. Kim Philby in Beirut with his daughter Miranda in the background.

Harris seems to have been a headstrong woman who passionately believed in her cause, but who also found it hard to keep up the life prescribed by the KGB, with its fixed protocols and minimal freedom. No wonder that, when the chance came for an intimate relationship within these constraints, she seized on it. And she obviously felt deeply for Maclean. At the time – before drink and misery ruined his looks – he was a striking man, blond, 6ft tall, absolutely the upper-class diplomat.

In 1937, when one spy ring had been broken by British intelligence, Maclean had been put “on ice” by his Russian contact, and had been turning up to meeting after meeting without finding anyone there. And then, one day, he turned up as usual to find not his usual handler but Kitty Harris, who swiftly gave him the recognition phrase. “You hadn’t expected to see a lady, had you?” she said. “No, but it’s a pleasant surprise,” he replied quickly.

When she was given the task of becoming Maclean’s go-between, Harris was told he was the most important spy they had. Cherish him as the apple of your eye, she was told by Moscow. She did. Maclean would visit Harris in her flat in Bayswater twice a week, late in the evening, bringing papers for her to photograph that he had sneaked out of the Foreign Office for the night. From the start, he’d bring flowers and chocolates with those papers, and after a few months they agreed to have a special dinner to celebrate their birthdays, which fell within a few days of each other. One evening in May 1938, Maclean turned up at her flat carrying a huge bunch of roses, a bottle of wine and a box holding a locket on a thin gold chain. Harris wore it for the rest of her life; when she died in 1966, it was still among her paltry possessions. He had ordered dinner from a local restaurant, and they sat eating it and listening to Glenn Miller on the radio. That was the first night they made love, and true to her training she reported the event to her controller, Grigoriy Grafpen, next day.

Harris went on being entirely open in her reports, even telling her controllers that she and Maclean began and ended every meeting with sex. Sometimes this had adverse effects on their work. Telegrams from Moscow complained: “The material in the last two pouches turned out to contain only half of each image. What was the problem? Moreover in the last batch, many of the pages were almost out of focus…” It is rather wonderful to imagine the apparatchiks scratching their heads over photographs that had become blurred in the heat of Harris’s passion.

After Maclean was posted to the British embassy in Paris in 1938, he was so crazy about Harris that he asked Moscow if she could come, too; to their surprise, the lovers’ request was granted. They went on working together until June 1940, when the Germans broke through the Maginot line and invaded France. In her final report on Maclean, Harris summed up his character for Moscow. “He is politically weak,” she wrote, “but there is something fundamentally good and strong in him that I value. He understands and hates the rotten capitalist system and has enormous confidence in the Soviet Union and the working class. Bearing in mind his origins and his past… he is a good and brave comrade.”

The Cambridge spies are so often presented to us as loners fuelled only by cold ideology, but the sexual passion and political solidarity that flared between this working-class Jewish woman and the young British diplomat clearly sustained them both.

Kitty Harris wrote such a positive final report on Maclean, even though she knew that, by this time, his sexual interest in her was waning: a friend of Maclean’s, Mark Culme-Seymour, had introduced him to a young American woman, Melinda Marling, in a cafe on the Left Bank in January 1940, and he had fallen for her immediately. Until recently, it was assumed that their marriage was founded on Maclean’s talent for duplicity, and that Melinda knew nothing about her husband’s links to Russia until his defection 11 years later.

Kim Philby: The Biggest Traitor Ever?

But there is another layer to the story of Melinda Maclean. The friend who introduced the couple in the Cafe de Flore in 1940 was not particularly impressed by her then. “She was quite pretty and vivacious, but rather reserved,” said Culme-Seymour. “I thought she was a bit prim.” That is how many observers saw her – attractive, but also prim and spoiled. She was delicately good-looking, and carefully groomed – her lipstick glossy, her hair always waved, a double row of pearls usually clasped around her neck. She seemed to most people to have little interest in the world beyond family, friends, clothes and Hollywood movies. The success of the blandly conventional veneer she wore in public meant that, when Donald defected, she was easily able to pretend to everyone, even to MI5 and to her mother, that she had no idea that she had been married to a spy for more than a decade.

But in the 1950s, Culme-Seymour tracked down the exiled Macleans in Moscow, and another Melinda emerged. She told him that she knew she would be going to Russia right from the beginning, even before Maclean defected. By this time, he looked terrible and was obviously drinking heavily, but she seemed just fine. And when he said something that implied faint criticism of the Soviet Union, she “jumped down his throat”.

Revelations from the Soviet archives confirm the existence of this other Melinda, a woman who was the greatest dissembler of them all. From the start, she and Donald had a relationship founded not on duplicity, but on trust. As Donald told Kitty Harris, on the very first evening he met Melinda, he saw another side to the prim American from the one his friends saw. “I was very taken by her views,” he told Harris. “She’s a liberal, she’s in favour of the Popular Front and doesn’t mind mixing with communists even though her parents are well-off. There was a White Russian girl, one of her friends, who attacked the Soviet Union and Melinda went for her. We found we spoke the same language.”

Soon after they started dating, Melinda broke off the whole thing, apparently bored by the correct English diplomat. It was in order to get her back that Maclean told her the full truth: that he was not only a diplomat, but also a communist and a spy. It was an outrageous risk, one quite out of character for him at that time, but he reassured Harris that Melinda not only reacted positively, but “actually promised to help me to the extent that she can – and she is well connected in the American community”.

There is no evidence that Melinda worked alongside Maclean, but it has been revealed that she supported him in his dangerous double life throughout their marriage. It was never an easy relationship: Maclean drank heavily, he expressed homosexual desires, they were often on the verge of splitting up and on one occasion he physically attacked her in public. But they stuck together, even beyond his defection.

They married in June 1940, days before the Germans marched into Paris, and spent the rest of the war being bombed out of one flat after another in London. Then they moved to Washington where, from the Soviet point of view, Maclean did his most valuable spying work in the position of first secretary at the British embassy. In 1948, he was appointed head of the chancery at the British embassy in Cairo. As soon as he arrived, however, Maclean had problems with his KGB contact, who arranged their meetings in the Arab quarter. Yuri Modin, a Soviet agent who has published his reminiscences of the Cambridge spies, says that the tall, blond Briton in immaculate suit and tie felt as inconspicuous “as a swan among geese”. Maclean suggested that, instead of these absurdly dangerous games, Melinda should simply pass the information to the wife of the Soviet resident at the hairdresser. “Melinda was quite prepared to do this,” Modin reports.

By now, the game of duplicity was telling on Maclean. He began drinking, brawling and even telling acquaintances about his life as a spy – confessions that they discounted as the talk of a dreamer. Cyril Connolly described him vividly as he struck him in London in 1951. “He had lost his serenity, his hands would tremble, his face was usually a livid yellow … he was miserable and in a very bad way. In conversation, a kind of shutter would fall as if he had returned to some basic and incommunicable anxiety.”

Philby and Knightley. Kim Philby and journalist Phillip Knightly in Moscow in January 1988.

At this point, Philby, who was then based in Washington, discovered that MI5 had broken Maclean’s cover and was planning to interrogate him. Philby passed this information to the Soviets, and they were desperate for Maclean to get out, fearful that, in his current state, he would crack immediately under interrogation. Maclean shilly shallied, afraid of staying, afraid of going, until he sounded out Melinda about the defection. According to Modin, she responded: “They’re quite right – go as soon as you can, don’t waste a single moment.”

The day eventually earmarked for Maclean to make his escape happened to be his 38th birthday: May 25 1951. He came home by train from the Foreign Office to their house in Kent as usual that evening, and soon after Guy Burgess, who had just been persuaded to get out, too, turned up. After eating the birthday supper that Melinda had prepared, Maclean said goodbye to his wife and children, got into Burgess’s car and left. They drove to Southampton, took a ferry to France, then disappeared from view, sparking a media and intelligence furore. It was all of five years before Krushchev finally admitted that they were in the Soviet Union.

The following Monday, Melinda Maclean telephoned the Foreign Office to ask coolly if her husband was around. Her pose of total ignorance convinced them; MI5 put off interviewing her for nearly a week, and the Maclean house was never searched. No doubt their readiness to see her merely as the ignorant wife was enhanced by the fact that she was heavily pregnant at the time – three weeks after Donald left, she gave birth to a daughter, their third child.

The evening of his defection, Donald had taken a cliché straight from an Eric Ambler novel, tearing a postcard in two, giving Melinda half, and telling her not to trust anyone who did not produce the other half as a sign. He later passed his half to Modin. More than a year later, Modin intercepted Melinda on her way home from school, just after she had dropped off the boys. He followed her Rover, then passed her and pulled up, signalling her to do likewise. “This she did, but not quite in the way we had expected. She burst out of the car like a deer breaking cover, yelling abuse at us for our bad driving.” When Modin had recovered, he drew the half postcard from his pocket. Melinda immediately fell silent, reached across for her bag in the car, and produced the other half.

It was another year before Melinda finally slipped the net of British intelligence and press interest. Her secret life during that last year in the west must have become a terrible burden. She knew the dangers if she had been implicated in her husband’s treachery; two months before she left, an American couple, the Rosenbergs, were sent to the electric chair for spying for the Soviet Union. But, unlike her husband, Melinda always hid her feelings under a bland veneer that people often read as stupidity. “I will not admit that my husband, the father of my children, is a traitor to his country,” she told everyone in outraged tones. She seemed to be settling into a directionless but comfortable life, wandering with her mother and children as the seasons changed from beach villa in Majorca to skiing holiday in the Alps. But in Geneva on the evening of September 10 1953, she told her mother that she was going to stay with friends for the weekend, got into her black Chevrolet car with her three children, drove to Lausanne and disappeared.

She prepared for her great flight in the way you might expect of a bourgeois American, rather than a closet Red. The day before, she spent hours at a salon having her hair and nails done. That morning she had gone shopping, then returned to tell her mother that she had bumped into an old friend who had invited her to spend the weekend with the children at his villa at Territet. After lunch, at which she seemed no more than preoccupied, she got the children and herself ready, throwing an electric blue Schiaparelli coat over a black skirt and white blouse.

When Melinda did not return on Monday morning, her mother telephoned the British embassy. Intelligence agents tracked reports of a woman with a bright coat and three pretty children on the train to Austria, where the trail went cold. Weeks later, Melinda’s mother received a letter, postmarked Cairo. In it, Melinda said, “Please believe, darling, in my heart I could not have done otherwise than I have done.” Later, it transpired that Melinda had been met by KGB officials in Austria and flown to Moscow.

In the late 1960s, Eleanor Philby, Kim’s third wife, brought a rare glimpse of the Macleans back to the west. Melinda hadn’t quite accepted the Soviet way of life: she and her children cut incongruously elegant figures in Moscow, dressed out of the parcels of American clothes sent by her mother and sister. But when the Philbys and Macleans sat in their Moscow apartments of an evening, getting toweringly drunk on Soviet champagne, Melinda joined in the dreaming. “In moments of nostalgia,” Eleanor said, “Donald and Melinda would talk of the good times they would have in Italy and Paris ‘when the revolution comes’. I found this world of fantasy slightly unnerving.”

Portrait of Kim Philby from a Soviet stamp, 1990.

Melinda’s marriage did not long survive the constraints of life in Moscow, and when it broke down she began a brief affair with Philby, who had arrived there in 1963. Given their practised secrecy, it’s not surprising that their relationship remains rather obscure. After that relationship, too, broke down, it seems that the day-to-day reality of life in the Soviet Union told on Melinda. Finally, in 1979, she returned to the west, to be with her mother and sisters, and her children soon followed her. She is still alive in New York, but she has never said a single word to the press.

One thing is for sure: all three of these women who were close to the Cambridge spies were just as good as the men at keeping secrets. Litzi Friedman never spoke of how Kim Philby had been recruited through her; the archives spoke for her. She settled in East Germany, marrying again and making a decent career for herself in the film industry. Phillip Knightley, the last journalist to speak to her, said that she seemed entirely satisfied with her life.

Kitty Harris had a very different end. She had spent the rest of the war continuing her career as a successful intelligence agent in Mexico, and in 1946 was brought to the Soviet Union, where she stayed until her death in 1966. But once she reached Russia, she found that the society for which she had worked so tirelessly and at such risk to her own safety fell far short of her dreams. “The only thing I know is that I am terribly lonely,” she wrote in her diary during her last years. “My life is in pieces.”

Melinda Maclean, still preserving her glacial silence, is the most mysterious of them all. Some experts believe her final return to the US was allowed by western intelligence only on the grounds that she did not reveal anything about her husband’s (amazingly successful) career as a spy. She may indeed be living under such a constraint. Or she may have chosen to remain silent for her own reasons; perhaps she cannot bear to revisit Donald’s descent into disillusion, and her own corroded ideals. Her secrets remain, finally, her own.

The Cold War is often considered the golden age of espionage, a time when the United States and Soviet Union, along with their respective allies, used all available tools to uncover each other’s secrets. Double agents and their ilk played a particularly outsized role in these cloak-and-dagger games. They supplied the enemy with highly classified intelligence, and were driven by greed, ideology, and revenge.

The Cambridge Spy Ring was a ring of spies in the United Kingdom, who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and was active at least into the early 1950s. Four members of the ring were originally identified: Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), Donald Duart Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) and Anthony Blunt (cryptonyms: Tony, Johnson). Once jointly known as the Cambridge Four and later as the Cambridge Five, the number increased as more evidence came to light.

The term “Cambridge” refers to the recruitment of the group during their education at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. Debate surrounds the exact timing of their recruitment by Soviet intelligence; Anthony Blunt claimed that they were not recruited as agents until they had graduated. Blunt, an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, was several years older than Burgess, Maclean, and Philby; he acted as a talent-spotter and recruiter for most of the group save Burgess.

Philby’s most significant breach happened during the Second World War, when he conned his way into M.I.6’s document room, and read the agency’s secret file on its intelligence assets in the Soviet Union. He reported what he found directly to Moscow: Britain had no spies in the Soviet Union. His handlers, however, refused to believe him—and Philby’s intelligence coup quickly aroused their suspicion. The K.G.B.’s reasoning, was that “the Soviet Union was a world power and MI6 was the most feared intelligence organization in the world; it therefore stood to reason that Britain must be spying on the USSR. If Philby said otherwise, then he must be lying.” This time around, the secret betrayed was significant. But its strategic value was still zero, because it is not enough for a secret to be of consequence; it must also be understood by those who receive it to be of consequence. Few secrets meet both conditions.

Philby and wife Rufina. Philby and fourth wife Rufina, in their apartment in Moscow.

Incredulous that a Conservative Member of Parliament could be a communist spy, the British authorities were likewise thrown off by the elite educations and upper-class backgrounds of the so-called Cambridge Five, who were recruited into the Soviet sphere around the time they attended the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. Within a decade or so of graduation, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross had all worked their way up to important intelligence posts, which they used to pass an array of secrets to the Soviets. For example, thanks to these double agents, who were reportedly motivated by ideology, not money, the Soviet Union learned about an Allied plan to send anti-communist insurgents into Albania, as well as Allied military strategy during the Korean War. Upon discovering that the authorities were closing in, Philby, who ironically headed the anti-Soviet section of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), tipped off Maclean and Burgess, prompting them to defect to Moscow in 1951. Philby joined them there in 1963, whereas Cairncross ended up in Italy and France. Blunt, meanwhile, confessed in exchange for immunity from prosecution and was allowed to stay in Britain. None of the five ever faced espionage charges.

Many historians now believe the spy ring had more than five members, possibly many more, since three other persons are known to have confessed, several more were nominated in confessions, and circumstantial cases have been made against others.

Investigation of Philby found several suspicious matters but nothing for which he could be prosecuted. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign from MI6. In 1955 he was named in the press, with questions also raised in the House of Commons, as chief suspect for “the Third Man” and he called a press conference to deny the allegation.

Philby was officially cleared by then Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan; this later turned out to be an error based on incomplete information and bureaucratic inefficiency in the British intelligence organisations.[citation needed]

In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; both The Economist magazine and The Observer provided his employment there. MI6 then re-employed him at around the same time, to provide reports from that region.

In 1961, defector Anatoliy Golitsyn provided information which pointed to Philby. An MI6 officer and friend of Philby from his earlier MI6 days, John Nicholas Rede Elliott was sent in 1963 to interview him in Beirut and reported that Philby seemed to know he was coming (indicating the presence of yet another mole). Nonetheless, Philby confessed to Elliott.

Shortly afterwards, apparently fearing he might be abducted in Lebanon, Philby defected to the Soviet Union under cover of night, aboard a Soviet freighter.

Memorial in Kuntsevo Cemetery, Moscow.

Philby seems to have been a lifelong and committed communist whose primary devotion lay toward the Soviet Union rather than his native country. He was apparently responsible for the deaths of many Western agents whose activities he betrayed to the Soviets during the 1940s and early ’50s.

During the Second World War and the subsequent decades, and despite periodic suspicion over his political loyalties, Philby rose through the ranks of MI6, eventually becoming the chief of the service’s anti-Soviet department. However, throughout this time he was filing reports to KGB handlers. His treachery was only unearthed in 1963.

The BBC says it unearthed the video of Philby’s hour-long lecture in the official Stasi archives in Berlin. According to the report, in it Philby told agents how he was first recruited by the KGB after his return from Austria and then spent years working his way into the inner sanctum of British intelligence.

He revealed how easy it was for him to double-cross his compatriots. “You have probably all heard stories that the SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] is an organisation of mythical efficiency – a very, very, dangerous thing indeed. Well, in a time of war, it honestly was not.

“Every evening I left the office with a big briefcase full of reports which I had written myself, full of files taken out of the actual documents, out of the actual archives. I was to hand them to my Soviet contact in the evening. The next morning I would get the file back, the contents having been photographed, and take them back early in the morning and put the files back in their place.

“That I did regularly, year in year out.”

One of the most remarkable things about Philby’s story was how he was able to avoid detection for so long, despite suspicions being raised that he was leaking secrets and the unmasking of elements of the Cambridge spy ring, with whom Philby was connected. In a final piece of advice to Stasi spies, he told them how he did it.

“And all I had to do really was keep my nerve. So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.”

In 1971, Philby married Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova, a Russo-Polish woman twenty years his junior, with whom he lived until his death in 1988.


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