Mr Philby

The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, is exceedingly proud of its Soviet heritage. After all, the Soviet Union did not collapse because they were incompetent. It collapsed because the command economy quite simply could not keep pace with the market based economies of its enemies in NATO and its population did not believe in the old verities. When asked why so many people believed in flying saucers, the answer was that Komsomolskaya Pravda had denied that they exist.

The foreign service of the KGB, for all the nepotism and corruption that undoubtedly undermined its potential, was arguably the most successful product of the Soviet system. For this reason, above all because of residing abroad, they knew better than anyone just how far Russia had fallen behind, they realised the need for change rather better than anyone else; aside from the fact that, when not the product of nepotistic placement, they were usually the brightest of their generation graduating from places like MGIMO.

Thus the collapse of the system hit them hard, particularly when Yeltsin began picking away at the corpse. So celebrations of past successes bring enormous pleasure and in this respect Mr Philby makes them feel exceedingly good about themselves, just as it brings acute indigestion to the system over at MI6 and red faces at CIA that trusted him so much. So any chance of reliving old glories involving Kim is great for morale.

But when Mr Andropov took over the KGB he asked where the current equivalent of Mr Philby was to be found and no answer was forthcoming. They certainly did well penetrating the American intelligence and counter-intelligence services as well as GCHQ in the U.K. But that was penetration by the usual means – greed etc. – rather than ideological commitment. The 1930s was a unique decade that could not be reproduced. Mr Andropov was therefore a little unreasonable.

The celebration of Mr Philby appears in Moscow currently at a basement exhibition at the House of the Russian Historical Society. But you had better hurry as it closes before long.

Mr Philby is perhaps the best known of the so-called Cambridge Five, though in fact that there were a good deal more than five. The analysts in Moscow who read the secret documents they sent in from prewar, wartime and postwar Britain found it hard to believe they could be genuine and one prominent but stupid analyst spent the rest of her life trying to demonstrate they were really double agents working for MI6!

Happily for the Russians Stalin believed they were the best agents the Soviet Union ever had. But those he left behind were not so clever. When Burgess and Maclean defected they were sent to Siberia to work in a one horse town and were only rescued after the energetic intervention, they say, of good Mr Molotov, Stalin’s infinitely long suffering right hand man. And when Mr Philby finally defected, no one came near him from the KGB. He stewed for nearly a decade in his own favourite tipple until finally they accepted that he really was the real thing and used him to brief future operatives heading for the UK. He realised as did Maclean who predeceased him that the cause for which he had sent so many to their deaths was not what it had been cracked up to be. Perhaps he should have learned Russian before he abandoned his Marxist theory for the life of a Russian spy.