Diary of a MoleMon 21 May
MY SILENT WAR: The Autobiography of a Spy by KIM PHILBY. London: Arrow Books, 2018.
In a field defined by anonymity and secrecy, Harold Adrian Russell (Kim) Philby became one of the most famous spies of all, a Soviet double agent who burrowed his way to the very core of British intelligence. In the last half century his exploits have spawned a small but relentless industry: there have been novels and plays based on his life and television adaptations of those plays and novels. Spy watchers have written innumerable studies of the so-called Cambridge spy ring of which he was a part, and in 1968, Philby himself wrote this K.G.B.-authorized version of his life.
Kim Philby’s carefully crafted memoir of a carefully crafted life is a chilling portrayal of a man whose greatest loyalty was to his craft. Published in 1968, Norman Shrapnel of the Guardian grudgingly admired the “feline sense of irony” with which Philby dispatches his former colleagues and the absurd bureaucratic quagmires of government agencies.
Espionage buff Philip Knightley provides an updated introduction to this reissue. If not for one mistake, he says, in the 1960s, the KGB would have been running MI6 in the UK, “a disaster that could have changed the course of the Cold War”. The novelist and part-time spy, Graham Greene, provided the original preface. It is Greene who is closer to understanding his man. “A craftsman’s pride” in recruiting staff for the British secret service and creating an efficient section that would thoroughly test the security of the Russian service. It’s a “fascinating manoeuvre”, Greene says. It’s the icicle in the heart that drives an artist to perfect their work.
What’s more, Philby is eminently likeable, witty, mordant, detached and loyal to his staff if not their common cause. The fact that he very nearly did become head of the British Secret Service makes Greene’s introduction appear extraneous and remote. As the Guardian reviewer concluded, “As a writer of fiction he can’t really compete.”
How good an agent was Philby? According to Miles Copeland, a former CIA officer quoted in the New York Times in 1989: “What it comes to, is that when you look at that whole period from 1944 to 1951 - leaving out anything [ Philby ] picked up other times - the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call a minus advantage. We’d have been better off doing nothing.”
More specifically, he turned over to Moscow the names of non-Communists opposed to Hitler in Germany who were later eliminated to maximize chances for a Communist takeover after the war; he helped abort the defection of a key Soviet officer in Turkey; he helped blow the covers of dozens of Albanian resistance fighters, sending them to their deaths; and as the liaison with the American services, he turned over untold amounts of information relating to long-term military intentions and relations between the allies. So quite good, in other words.
And what about the deaths he caused? Philby himself was quite perfunctory on this matter, according to Knightley. He was fighting a war and these were casualties. According to Greene, Philby died a fulfilled man who was at peace with himself – the greatest triumph of all.
Review by Lilian Pizzichini