Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five

The latest in the new series of intelligence documentaries on Zvezda tv, broadcast yesterday, gives us the life and work of the notorious spy Kim Philby. It was, as were the others, put together from the archives at Russian foreign intelligence (SVR) and the attentive viewer will see that the editor-in-chief, also one of the “general” producers, is none other than Natal’ya Naryshkina. Certainly not the mother of Peter the Great. But is this the wife of the head of the SVR? Has it become a family affair?

The documentary is a much better product than that on William Fisher (“Colonel Abel”) which was slapdash and told much less than could be found in print. The quality on Philby – and effectively the Cambridge Five – is more like that on Konon Molody (“Gordon Lonsdale”.) Is this because the British specialists at the SVR take historical work more seriously than the superabundant and more important Americanists? Contributors from the SVR include veterans Anatoly Maksimov, Mikhail Bogdanov and the younger Igor’ Morozov.

The now customary mis-statement that the British and the Americans both wanted to begin World War III against the Soviet Union at the end of hostilities against Nazi Germany is repeated, but merely in a perfunctory manner; as a throwaway, token requirement for propaganda by the SVR rather than as a serious contribution to the story.

What is worth pointing out is that no attempt is made to present Philby as a volunteer to the anti-fascist cause – a line trotted out ad nauseam in the past.  That pretence has gone. It is plainly stated that Philby joined the ranks of the NKVD foreign department in order to advance Communism. It is also stated that the lecturer in economics who supervised Philby in Cambridge, Maurice Dobb, actually proposed him for membership of the British Communist Party; but that Philby declined on the grounds that he wanted to do something “practical”, which led him to Austria and immersed him in the battle against a clerical fascist dictatorship. On a minor note, the episode to which we have recently become accustomed, of his meeting the Slovakian, Arnold Deutsch, his recruiter, in Regent’s Park in 1934, is now amended to show that he first came to the park to meet Edith Tudor Hart, the Austrian friend of his first wife, Litzi, also Viennese. Tudor Hart then led him through the underground and on buses to elude any tail, before landing him back in the park to meet Deutsch: an intriguing introduction to basic tradecraft.

We are also presented with Deutsch’s revealing psychological evaluations of Philby, Maclean and Burgess. The former is bluntly portrayed as “cold-blooded”, “balanced”, and  “judicious.” Maclean is seen as “modest” and “furtive.” Burgess is characterised as “hot-tempered” and “cunning.” The only evident mistake is not surprisingly with respect to a confusion of Cambridge colleges. Burgess was at Trinity, not Trinity Hall, which has enough of a burden to bear with Maclean.