The Philby Files

Title:                   The Philby Files

Author:                Genrikh Borovik

Borovik, Genrikh (1994) with Philip Knightly, eds. Philby Files: The Secret Life of a Master Spy Kim Philby. London: Little, Brown

LCCN:    94078576

UB271.R92 P4317 1994


Date Updated:  December 9, 2015

What motivates defectors? I have heard many suggestions, but none is convincing. I can no more understand Kim Philby, even after reading many books about him, than I can understand the defection of John Walker, an American agent for the KGB.

This absorbing account of the life and times of Kim Philby by Genrikh Borovik’s is especially compelling. Based upon a combination of personal interviews with the Cambridge spy during the last years of his life and a comparison of his reminiscences with the actual KGB files (which Philby was never allowed to see), the book offers new insights to the career of a man who was as enigmatic as he was charming (characteristics about which both his friends and enemies were in agreement).

Borovik, a Russian journalist (who seems to be a cross between Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue), was able to get access both to Philby and to the KGB files because of Glasnost. He is no apologist for the old communist regime, nor is he flummoxed by the Philby charm. Borovik lets the reader know when his subject has not been completely candid with him on a particular topic. Nevertheless, the author presents a sympathetic portrait of a man (with a delightful sense of humor) who may have betrayed his country (during the Cold War) but never betrayed his ideals.

Borovik also provides a fascinating glimpse into the years in which Philby, who had resigned from MI6 under suspicion after Burgess and Maclean had defected to Moscow, was rehired by British Intelligence as an agent in Beirut (a touchy subject about which most books are reticent).

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book, however, is its depiction of the dilemma in which Philby found himself. Indeed, Burgess and Blunt found themselves in the same pickle when the information he provided was judged by the KGB to be “too good” to be believed. British Intelligence could not have been so “unprofessional that they failed to notice that Soviet agents were carrying out documents from SIS by the suitcase [.]” (p. 213). In the Soviet view, Philby had to have been a double agent, as did the other two (for some reason, they never doubted Maclean.).

Moscow’s obsession that Philby and the others were British plants stemmed from the fact that when the agents were continually asked how many British spies were working in Russia, and the (truthful) answer was always “none,” they were never believed. For years, in fact, Philby and the others were hounded by the KGB and forced to write endless time-wasting reports on the (non-existent) “main issue,” the number of British agents in the Soviet Union. Philby’s answer remained unwavering: “There are no British agents in the Soviet Union.” Although this cloud of suspicion would eventually dispel, it would nevertheless materialize from time to time and cast its shadow on Kim Philby even after his defection, depending upon who was in power in Moscow.

Borovik’s account of the death of Kim Philby, who served the Soviet Union for some thirty years, is both moving and ironic. As the author observes on page 375, “Three and a half years [after his death], the country to which he had devoted his life ceased to exist.”

[Much of the following information a summary of a talk given on July 8, 2010by Nigel West on board Queen Mary 2, headed from New York to Southhampton, UK]

Kim Philby was born 1908 in India, and educated in England. He joined the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1941. In time he was posted to Istanbul, and, in 1949, to Washington, DC. His cover was blown by Anthony Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951. These three, plus John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt comprised what became known as “The Cambridge Five.”

Philby came under suspicion in November, 1951 with the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, and serious suspicion in 1953, so serious that he defected to the Soviet Union. He died in a Moscow hospital in 1988.

Philby was not recruited at Cambridge University. He was the son of a famous father, the Arabist, explorer, and author, with whom he enjoyed cordial, if distant relations. It was his father who gave him the nickname Kim, alluding to the Kipling story. St John Philby was rumored to have gone in for spying himself. He did resign from government service in 1924 as a protest against pro-Zionist policy, renounced his status as a British subject, and lived as an Arab. Some authors list him incorrectly as Sir John Philby, mistaking his name St. John (pronounced in British English as Senjen) for Sir John.

Philby was a brilliant young man who soon came into huge responsibilities. His father, St. John, married an Indian woman, so Philby was of mixed race, a factor that ultimately had a strong effect on him. Given the British class system there is no way he would have been able to rise to the top of that system. Philby could never have risen to head MI-5 because of his Indian ancestry, his communist leanings, and his wife who was an alcoholic. Further, he had a painful stutter (which oddly, seemed to make him attractive to women.)

He attended Trinity College at Cambridge. He joined the Socialist Party. After graduation he went to Vienna, and then returned to the UK. He became enamored with the Communist Party of the UK (CPUK), but was turned down by the Party. He was able to get in touch with a Soviet agent who was able to get him into the Party later.

An NKVD agent, a Hungarian, Arnold Deutsch, recruited Philby “in the name of world peace.” Deutsch was an illegal resident in London. By the way, he was a neighbor of Agatha Christie. Deutsch was a psychologist and wrote profiles of targets for recruitment. He knew very well how to appeal to each target for recruitment. Further, he tried to guide the careers of his recruits in specific directions. He developed a strong relationship with Philby. Philby, in turn, became a talent spotter, and Guy Burgess was one whom Philby recommended. Philby also recruited Anthony Blunt as well as Donald Maclean. Blunt was also a talent spotter and recruited John Cairncross, a brilliant young Scot

The NKVD had a path for Philby. They needed him in Spain as a free-lance journalist. Actually, the NKVD wanted to assassinate Franco. That never came off, and Philby never knew of the plot. In Spain, Philby began to contribute to the London Times. Eventually he was made a correspondent.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Philby returned to the UK. In WWII he was sent to France by the government, and had access to classified material.

Under Stalin, a paranoid dictator, huge purges of anyone who might challenge him were carried out. NKVD agents were recalled to Moscow and most of them were executed. Philby discussed this with Deutsch’s replacement who revealed that he too was being recalled. That he was willing to go, even in the face of probable death, impressed Philby.

Philby urged to join the government in cyber service. He was sent to the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) for an interview. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is a British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the UK government and armed forces. Based in Cheltenham, it operates under the guidance of the Joint Intelligence Committee. However, GCCS would not offer Philby a job since he was “so qualified.” He finally got a job teaching Spanish refugees how to do propaganda. He had no stutter at all when speaking Spanish. Finally in 1941 he got an offer to join the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

The British Radio Security Service collected an enormous amount of German traffic, and easily broke the hand cipher they were using. This made it easier to read the corresponding machine ciphers. Most were about German agent movement in Europe. Section V was created as a signals intelligence organization. Philby got this job (in the Siberian section) V-D. He worked very hard and had a natural talent. He was promoted to head a new section – the anti-Soviet section (IX).

In 1949 Philby was posted to Washington. He was briefed on BRIDE (which was the code name for VENONA traffic.). BRIDE fingered Ted Hall (Los Alamos) and Klaus Fuchs (also Los Alamos) two people in the Manhattan Project.

Philby was at a huge disadvantage going to Washington. He was supposed to have an NKVD (illegal) contact but did not get one. As a result he had no chance to warn the NKVD about VENONA. Anthony Burgess somehow didn’t get the message that this should be taken seriously. The Soviets denied having any knowledge of VENONA.

No signal ever came to Philby. The new Rezident was a music professor, and lost all interest in continuing his work. In 1951 Philby got word that VENONA would get Donald Maclean. Philby warned him, and he subsequently disappeared. Burgess went with him. This implicated Philby, and began to unravel the entire pattern of his life.

This is one of many books on Philby, and all the truth is not yet known. Much information has been corrupted by Philby’s deceit and deception. I had the good fortune to be in classes taught by Nigel West while travelling on the Queen Mary II in 2010. One of Nigel’s handouts was a list of of books, by large-scale subject material. (The entire list can be found at the entry on The Faber Book of Espionage.) This book by Genrikh Borovik and Philip Knightly was one item in the Suggested Reading & Resources section.

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6 Responses to The Philby Files

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  4. Alan Moss says:

    On page 42 of Borovik’s book “The Philby Files” he writes about the “list of seven men” headed by Maclean. The last one being Burgess. Who were the others? Assuming Philby was not one of the 7, and we know about Blunt & Cairncross, who were the remaining 3?

  5. fredslibrary says:

    Were there 5? 6? 7? or more? There are British writers who see everyone in government who ever had anything to do with Cambridge as being in the minions of the Cambridge 5. Straight was one I suppose. Was Hollis?

  6. Pingback: Young Philby | Intelligence Fiction

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