Title:                      Young Philby

Author:                Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (2012). Young Philby. New York: Thomas Dunne Books

LCCN:    2012035373

PS3562.I7827 Y68 2012


Date Updated:       March 19, 2016

Reviewed by Bruce van Voorst [1]

There existed an entire generation of British intellectuals who became disenchanted with the ruling classes after the Great War, and who started to doubt the capitalist fairy tale of the ever-expanding pie when the unemployment soared in the wake of the crash of ‘29, who gravitated toward Marx’s analysis of the inevitable decline of industrial capitalism, who with the rise of Hitler in Germany came to see the Soviet Union as the bulwark against Fascism.[2]

In the pantheon of international espionage, no name burns brighter than that of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby—and with every justification. No other spy in history was so successful in wreaking devastation on the intelligence services of two super-powers he supposedly served for thirty years, the British SIS and the American CIA. Before, during, and after World War II Philby served his Soviet masters, passing to them everything of value. Philby revealed the super-secret Operation VENONA, an extraordinarily productive allied communications intercept operation which had detected the Rosenberg Manhattan Project spying and revealed many other Soviet spies at the top of the US government-contributing to the public hysteria of the calamitous McCarthy era red scare hysteria which arguably did as much damage to America as some of the spying. Elizabeth Bentley was an important courier in NKVD operations in America and knew the names of dozens of Soviet spies. Philby told the Soviets that Bentley had defected to the FBI, which allowed the NKVD to put a network of 541 agents in the US on ice, with the result there were no convictions of more than 89 persons on her list. So serious was this, writes Allen Weinstein in The Haunted Wood[3], a survey of Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era, that serious consideration was given to assassinating her. Philby’s treachery condemned dozens, perhaps hundreds, to their death. In 1945 he foiled the imminent defection of Konstantin Volkov, a senior KGB official under diplomatic cover in Turkey who would have revealed Philby as a traitor, who was arrested and put sedated aboard a plane to Moscow for certain execution, wrapped so tightly in bandages he couldn’t speak. It’s hard to believe that this Benedict Arnold was on track to become “C,’’ head of British intelligence. Little wonder that the SVR, the successor to the KGB, recently placed a plaque in its Moscow headquarters to honor Philby as its greatest spy.

A good deal of Philby’s intelligence activities is in the extensive public record-both fact and fiction. Nigel West’s classic The Crown Jewels[4] is very useful as an overview of Soviet spying in the West. Genrikh Borovik’s ThePhilby Files[5], though dated, offers considerable insight into the case. What remains, however, after this torrent of words is the enigma of what made Kim Philby tick. How could this product of upper-class England, Cambridge, the very best contacts, commit such treachery. Who was this person who sent scores to their death, yet said of himself that he couldn’t abide violence and once threw up at the sight of blood?

New York Times best-selling espionage fiction author Littell offers his imaginative rendition of what might have motivated Philby in his latest of sixteen intelligence novels[6], Young Philby. In twenty separate personal vignettes, Littell depicts Philby through the eyes of people who knew him—his Cambridge University chums (and later espionage collaborators), wives and lovers, and especially persons East and West whom he dealt with in the intelligence world.

Littell was a distinguished writer for Newsweek before turning to fiction and this shows in his finely crafted literary style, especially the many intensely emotional personal passages displaying profound psychological insight. One can almost weep in an opening scene reading the Lubyanka prison kangaroo court interrogations of a former London Rezident, only minutes before execution, a man of impeccable loyalty and service who conceived the brilliant operation, recruitment of Cambridge and Oxford communists headed for senior positions in the British government. Or wince at the brutality of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’ 1933 crushing of the workers revolution in Vienna, soldiers mowing down 1,500 outgunned workers while tanks ground through their flimsy furniture and rubber tire barricades. Or chuckle at the disconcerting exchanges as when, applying for a job at SIS, a seventy-something spinster asks Philby of his wife, “Do you sleep together? Do you copulate?”

Littell creates deeply poignant tension with a scene in Stalin’s presence where Elena Modrzhinskaya, a brilliant woman NKVD specialist on the Philby case, details her suspicions why he is a double agent. Littell turns this exchange on its head, and Stalin rejects her argument outright; the poor woman is immediately executed. Irony is that Stalin, in fact, long had his own doubts about Philby, in part because Kim never confirmed any British agents operating in the Soviet Union. Problem was that, in truth, there weren’t any.

Philby is widely considered the key man in the “Cambridge Five” group, each of whom served Soviet intelligence—without any financial reward-to fight fascism, and then support the Soviet Union. These are marvelously gifted characters, sufficiently brilliant to consider themselves the best and the brightest of the university, and all of whom rose to senior positions in the Foreign Service or intelligence service. Donald Maclean (whom insiders consider the most valuable of the Five in terms of political information delivered to the Soviets) an outstanding foreign service officer whose career survived even though he was recalled from Cairo for drunkenness. Guy Burgess, despite the fact he delighted in flaunting his homosexuality, flourished largely because of his coruscating intelligence. Deeper in the background is Anthony Blunt, an art historian who may have recruited some of the others and possibly betrayed the extremely sensitive ULTRA/ENIGMA decryption program of German radio traffic. And then there’s John Cairncross, who wrote of his experiences but whose role remains murky, though it may have been far more important than generally realized. It’s worth noting how building a spying group stemming from such close friends violates every known practice in the manuals. Littell takes pains to describe the steps Philby takes to dissociate himself from his communist party membership.

Philby proved amazingly adept at heading off official suspicions. Even as Philby’s spy walls were tum-bling, Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan affirmed his support for him. The walls, of course, eventually collapsed. MacLean and Burgess were forced to flee to the Soviet Union, immediately bringing Philby under suspicion. Yet he held out for a decade before decamping to Beirut and thence to the Soviet Union. Littell describes Philby, still unshaken, sailing off to the Soviet Union, his Socialist Valhalla, expecting a hero’s reception. Little did he know that in Moscow he would be denied his promised KGB Colonel’s rank and put on ice for a decade. He was no longer of use to them; welcome to the skewered world of intelligence.

Oleg Kalugin, KGB General and head of foreign counter intelligence, recalls dramatically (Spymaster[7]) his shock at his first encounter with Philby. “One of the great spies of the twentieth century” was “driven half-mad by the paranoia and idiocy of the KGB” a “bent figure” reeking of vodka. Kalugin took Philby (and some of the other Five) under his wing and engaged him in training junior KGB staffers and writing his memoires. Philby defiantly refused to see Burgess, whom he considered a traitor for defecting and bringing him under suspicion. He saw the MacLeans regularly and indeed seduced and married Donald’s wife. Ironically, at death Philby would be awarded the Order of Lenin and made Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction awarded for heroic services to the Soviet state, and buried with generals. Vladimir Kryuchkov, chief of the KGB, led the delegation of high-level KGB officers in attendance.

“As a spy,” writes Littell, “the Englishman had had a bloody good run.” But Philby’s defection hardly put an end to the damage he caused. Following the Philby revelations the Special Relationship between the CIA and MI-6 fractured for a generation. In the CIA, James Angleton had become chief of counterintelligence, in charge among other things of vetting any recruitments of foreign personnel. Angleton, traumatized by the defection of his intimate friend, would henceforth trust nobody and began a reign of terror which virtually blocked the recruitment of any Soviet or Soviet bloc sources, blinding US intelligence in those areas. Within the .CIA, Angleton’s crusade led to the destruction of the careers-and, in effect, lives-of a dozen or more senior Russian staffers. Yuri Modin, Philby’s case officer in Moscow, says (My Five Cambridge Friends[8]) that Philby thought Angleton was “off his head.” Christopher Andrew (Defend the Realm[9]) writes that Angleton became “lost in a conspiratorial wilderness of mirrors from which he was never able to escape.” In the end, the treachery of a single Englishman had paralyzed two intelligence services for more than a decade. Little wonder Philby’s name hangs proudly on the walls of the Russian intelligence system. And with Young Phi!by no wonder Robert Littell’s name hangs next to the greatest contemporary writers of his genre, alongside John le Carré, Tom Clancy, and Alan Furst.

[1] Van Voorst, Bruce, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 102-104) Bruce van Voorst is a former CIA clandestine services officer and correspondent for Time and Newsweek. He is a longtime member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO).

[2] Young Philby

[3] Weinstein, Allen (1999) and Alexander Vassiliev. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era. New York: Random House

[4] West, Nigel (1999) and Tsarev, Oleg. The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

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

[6] At the time of writing this review (2013) this is a correct statement. Since, Littell has written A Nasty Piece of Work, a PI novel, not his usual genre.

[7] Kalugin, Oleg (2009). Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence And Espionage Against The West. New York: Basic Books

[8] Modin, Yuri (1995) with Jean-Charles Deniau and Aguieszka Ziarek. My Five Cambridge Friends. London: Farrah, Straus and Giroux

[9] Andrew, Christopher (2010). Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. New York: Vintage Books



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