The Magazine

Traitor in Embryo

A famous spy’s first steps toward betrayal.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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It will probably never be known how many people died because they were betrayed by Kim Philby to the NKVD, or its successor, the KGB. Konstantin Volkov, a KGB agent working under diplomatic cover as a consular officer in Istanbul in 1945, is just one standout example. For the sum of £5,000, Volkov offered to defect to the British with a treasure trove of intelligence information: the names of 314 KGB agents in Turkey and 250 in Britain. He also claimed to have the names of senior British intelligence officers who were working as double agents for the Soviet Union. He quite possibly knew about Philby’s longtime work for Moscow.

Kim Philby meets the press, London, 1955.

Kim Philby meets the press, London, 1955.

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Philby, then heading the Section IX counterintelligence section of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), was ordered to Istanbul by the head of SIS in order to arrange for Volkov to be expatriated safely to England. He dragged his feet in getting there, meanwhile passing along to Moscow all the information Volkov claimed to have available. By the time Philby made it to Istanbul, Volkov had been kidnapped by the Russians, swathed in bandages, and then shipped back to Moscow on a Soviet military plane. There he was interrogated and summarily executed. 

Philby was the most prominent—and certainly the most dangerous—of a group of British traitors who came to be known as the Cambridge Five. They included diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who defected to Moscow in 1951, and the art historian Anthony Blunt, revealed publicly in 1979 to have been a spy for Moscow since shortly after graduating from Cambridge.  

Why and how did Harold Adrian Russell Philby come into a life as an intelligence officer and then a double life as a KGB informant within British intelligence? The usual motives of people who become spies and then traitors to their own country are described by analysts of intelligence as falling into the acronym MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise/Control by another country’s spy agency, and Ego. Since Philby defected to Moscow from Beirut in 1963, and then wrote a memoir of his double life, My Silent War (1968), it has come to be generally accepted that he was a heart-and-soul convert, almost in a religious sense, to Moscow’s global Marxist-Leninist agenda.

This basic reckoning of the Philby phenomenon is probably true and is affirmed by Edward Harrison. The consensus view, however, fails to deal with other important questions: Was Philby living out his own version of the colorful antics of his father, the convert-to-Islam Arabist and sometime intelligence officer St. John Philby? At what point did Philby’s attraction to communism become the core of a danger-prone life providing intelligence to the enemy and going against everything his country stood for?

This remarkable, intriguing, and highly detailed study of Philby in his early years answers many of these questions. Harrison has done the historical record a favor by going through recently declassified SIS records and matching what they tell about Philby with Russian academic research into those parts of the NKVD archives that became available to scholars after 1991.

Philby was drawn to the ideals of international socialism while still a scholar at Westminster School, which his father had also attended. Westminster’s assistant head-master was an idealistic clergyman who preached that there was a fundamental flaw in capitalism and that young people should serve the world less selfishly. He was a great enthusiast for the League of Nations. But it was at Cambridge that Philby was first attracted to communism, becoming an enthusiastic member of the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS). A Cambridge lecturer, Maurice Dobb, was doing his best to persuade CUSS members to go for the heady brew of revolutionary communism rather than the less violent alternative of, say, Fabian socialism. 

It was through a connection of Dobb’s that Philby set off after Cambridge for Vienna, where he worked to protect German and Austrian refugees from the Nazis. There he married Litzi Friedmann, an older divorcée who had spent time in an Austrian prison for her Communist activities. It was through his wife’s connections that Philby was first introduced to an NKVD control officer in London. 

Philby’s political leanings from his time at Cambridge were known to several people in the British establishment, but they were always dismissed as having been part of a youthful phase that he later outgrew—a characterization Philby himself cultivated. He was aided by the fact that his eccentric father, who had made a career of opposing the policies of the British government, was able to persuade Philby’s future superiors in British intelligence that his son was unlikely to betray his own class. And in a later, remarkable parallel to Philby’s treachery, when Whittaker Chambers of Time was trying to prove that Alger Hiss had been a Soviet spy, his boss Henry Luce made the observation to Chambers that it was always the upper classes of Britain and America who were first to betray their countries.

Philby was an able intelligence officer, working effectively for SIS in its efforts to penetrate Nazi intelligence operations during World War II. But in addition to his care in doing his work, his most important asset in avoiding detection as a Soviet double agent may have been his charm. During the war, and afterwards, the top precincts of SIS seem to have been snakepits of backbiting and professional backstabbing; in his memoirs, Philby claims credit for obtaining his position as chief of SIS counterespionage through masterful manipulation of his rivals.

In fact, as Harrison shows, Philby was as much the beneficiary of good luck as of bureaucratic skills: A candidate for a top position at SIS who might have uncovered Philby’s treachery was passed over for promotion because of internecine rivalry; Philby was identified publicly as the suspected “third man” of the Cambridge Five, but was exonerated in Parliament because of the absence of proof.

The strain of living a double life, of working in the intelligence circles of one country while passing information to its enemy, finally took its toll on Philby. He was often drunk, went through three marriages before his defection to Moscow, and, once in Moscow, had an affair with the wife of fellow-defector Donald Maclean. Philby was ultimately disappointed by the Soviet Union: He turned out not to have been a KGB colonel, as he had claimed, and could find no substantive work with his new masters for several years after his defection. He died in 1988, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

One of the more intriguing aspects of Harrison’s study is how lacking in curiosity Philby’s British colleagues were about his worldview and philosophical allegiances. Of course, it is unlikely that a man like Philby would survive scrutiny today, by skeptical colleagues and superiors in, say, the CIA. Unlikely, but not impossible. Arrogance about one’s own views is often the generator of negligence in checking the views of others. Philby was from “the right drawer,” in British snobspeak, but philosophically he was something else. 

Ask the Volkov family.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East