A retired CIA agent was once asked what he would say to Kim Philby, an MI5 agent who spied for Joseph Stalin, if he encountered the defector in Moscow. Rather than angrily confront Philby, the American stated he would ask with considerable satisfaction, “How do you like Moscow now, Kim?”
If for once Philby was honest with a Western intelligence agent, the answer would have been not much. For Philby’s Moscow years, from the time of his defection in 1963 to his death almost 30 years ago, in 1988, were marked with a heavy disillusionment he couldn’t drink away.
But this was small retribution compared to the damage he caused the West as a Soviet mole for almost two decades.
Philby’s explanation for why he served Joseph Stalin was trite and easily invalidated: that Stalin (who in fact killed more people–and as the late Christopher Hitchens reminds us, more Communists—than Hitler) was the only authentically antifascist figure willing to fight Hitler in the 1930s.
But Philby, the serial betrayer, betrayed even the anti-fascist cause if Stalin required it. When Hitler and Stalin formed a military partnership in 1939, Philby defended it not as proof of any ideological commonality between the two countries, but as simply a tactical maneuver by Stalin to buy him time to prepare for the “inevitable” Soviet war with Germany.
Philby went beyond merely parroting the Party line, and, despite clear proof that the Soviets were sharing intelligence with Hitler (it was because of this that former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers risked arrest by meeting with a government official), kept the classified data flowing to Stalin, which in turn aided the Nazi war machine; according to recent disclosures, the information Philby sent to Stalin about the Maginot Line enabled Hitler to conquer France in 1940.
Nevertheless those close to Philby–or those he allowed to be close–detected a sincere anti-fascist. The figure who “turned” him toward Communist espionage, an Austrian Communist and his first wife Litzi Friedman did not have to use a “honey trap” (intelligence parlance for women using sex as a recruiting tool) on him; for Philby, who studied Marxist texts while at Cambridge, was already primed and ready for spy work.
Back in England, Friedman, who Philby married in order to get her out of Austria, arranged a meeting between Philby and a NKVD recruiter named Arnold Deutsch. Like Friedman, Deutsch was also surprised of how little persuading Philby needed to serve Stalin. In turn, Philby, who, after witnessing firsthand how easily the Austrian fascist regime crushed their socialist opposition, became convinced that nothing short of Communist violence could stop fascism, worshiped Deutsch because of the latter’s willingness to sacrifice his life to stop fascism.
But when it came time for Philby to sacrifice his own life, he flinched. Tasked by Moscow with killing the Hitler-backed fascist leader Francisco Franco, Philby, fearing certain arrest and torture followed by execution, kept his weapon holstered while Franco pinned a medal on him.
Regarding the medal, Philby did obey Soviet orders to “earn” it by cranking out pro-Franco propaganda in his guise as a “fascist” journalist. These actions were part of a Soviet sheep dipping operation designed to convince the British establishment that Philby no longer subscribed to the Marxism he expressed while at Cambridge; and thus be granted entry into the British government’s inner circle that, in the late 1930s, was populated with appeasement-minded and outright Hitler-sympathizing officials.
This operation was successful, and his rise in the government was quick. By 1940, he had burrowed into British intelligence, and by the post-war period was head of MI5’s Anti-Soviet Division. In this capacity, Philby demonstrated he was much braver when it came to remote control wet-work for the Soviets. He assured the death of thousands of Western agents parachuting into Iron Curtain countries by directing Stalin to their “drop zones.”
Looking back on this, Philby revealed a cold-bloodiness about these deaths that would have done his beloved Stalin proud:
“The agents we sent into Albania were armed men intent on murder, sabotage and assassination … They knew the risks they were running. I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union and those interests required that these men were defeated. To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.”
Such a statement revealed that Philby’s intelligence service with Moscow was not merely a pragmatic tool by which to fight Hitler, and later, the “fascism” of the West. It was instead powered by his worship of the Soviet system. Unlike his fellow member in the Cambridge “spy ring,” Anthony Blunt whose Communist goal for Britain was to grant the downtrodden the same expensive education Blunt received, and with it the societal advantages it brought, Philby detested the British system and wanted it eradicated and replaced with a pure Soviet system.
Philby retained these hatreds for the remainder of his life. The bulk of his 1968 memoir, My Silent War, while making the requisite noises about the beauty of life in the Soviet Union, was devoted to mocking the upper class “stupidity” of British intelligence over their inability to consider that a Cambridge man could be a double agent for the Soviets.
In this, Philby was correct, for as far back as 1938 there was credible proof, courtesy of a Soviet intelligence officer and defector named Walter Krivitsky, that the Englishman served Stalin. But the British establishment refused to entertain such a possibility, and as result Philby went from instructing Allied saboteurs during World War II to representing British intelligence in post-war Washington. Still in the throes of denial, the British government, in recognition of Philby’s “patriotic” service awarded him the OBE, the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” in 1946.
Such class blinders led to considerable embarrassment for the snotty MI5; as it would be a community-college educated CIA agent named William Harvey who early on detected that Philby was a Soviet mole, and gathered enough evidence to get Philby removed from Washington, and ultimately from British intelligence in 1951.
This brought additional damage to the British system Philby hated, as because of British stupidity about Philby, the roles of MI5, and their eager “pupil,” American intelligence, was reversed, and for decades the CIA refused to share intelligence with the “amateurish” MI5.
And yet the upper class stupidity hung on for some. Despite it being painfully obvious to all but the most obtuse that it was Philby who aided the 1951 escape of the now-exposed Soviet spies and his friends from Cambridge days, Guy Burgess and Donald McLean, by alerting them of their imminent arrest (Burgess and McLean confirmed their treason by turning up in Moscow), the conservative foreign secretary Harold Macmillan nevertheless cleared Philby of all suspicions four years later.
But this official clearance was not shared by MI5 and they never took him back. Nevertheless there was one more damaging incident he inadvertently caused, this time around with the CIA. Before his ouster in 1951, Philby had boozy lunches with his “pupil” CIA agent James Jesus Angleton, where classified intelligence flowed as easily as the alcohol.
Angleton was also in denial about Philby being a traitor until he proved him wrong by defecting to Moscow in 1963. This betrayal mutated Angleton from a highly effective agent into a paranoid fantasist whose feverish drive to find a “Philby” embedded in the CIA almost wrecked it.
Ironically the upper class background that Philby used to fool British intelligence also caused the Soviets never to completely trust him. As far back as the 1930s, Stalin believed that the Cambridge man was a British mole, and for a time, the KGB considered assassinating Philby (It was because of these suspicions that three of Philby’s NKVD espionage controllers were recalled to Moscow and murdered as “traitors to the State.”).
Thus Philby’s expectations of a hero’s welcome when he defected to Moscow were soon dashed, as the regime believed his arrival was part of a deep cover operation for MI5. As such, he was denied a high position in the KGB, or even low-level intelligence duties, and was placed under permanent house arrest (the reason of which was the regime’s belief that Philby would flee back to his English “controllers”).
But there were deeper disappointments. Publicly, he stated that he never regretted his spy work, and was happy in his “worker’s paradise.” But privately, according to his Russian wife, Rufina Pukhova, he was “disappointed in many ways” with what he witnessed in the Soviet Union. His desperate attempts to salvage the Communism he so fervently believed in since the 1930s–that the “ideals” were still “right,” but didn’t work because the wrong “people” were “in charge”–were no consolation.
She frequently found him in tears about his “god failing,” and he even attempted suicide. Philby spent his final years an alcoholic mess, and according her, died completely disillusioned with the Soviet Union.
Some have speculated that toward the end Philby pined for his homeland. But evidence says otherwise. For the only constant left in his life besides alcohol was his hatred of the British. One of his final gestures was, as always, devoted to damaging England. When British intelligence claimed that the Soviets were correct about him being a British spy, Philby denied them this obvious face-saving device (some historians have entertained such a possibility) by asserting he was not even a double agent; for even when England was allied with Stalin during World War II, Philby had no interest in aiding the British.
Philby died with the “distinction” of receiving an award (the OBE) from the country he betrayed, one from a representative (Franco) of the fascism he had pledged to fight, and one (the Order of Lenin) from the country he so loyally served. But given his disillusionment with Soviet communism, the Lenin medal became as hollow as the other two.