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The Philby Files: The Secret Life of Master Spy Kim Philby Hardcover – October, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
Students of espionage will value this biography of the legendary Soviet mole who penetrated the inner sanctum of British intelligence. Borovik, a Moscow journalist, taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the master spy during his final years, and was granted access to Philby's KGB files. There's a wealth of new material here, especially on the 1951-56 period, when the shock waves from the Donald Maclean-Guy Burgess defections threatened to unmask Philby. He defended himself so successfully under interrogation that MI6 re-recruited him for an extended mission to Beirut. In 1963, about to be exposed, he defected to Moscow, where he remained until his death in 1988. As depicted in this engrossing biography, presented from the Russian viewpoint, Philby was not only a brilliant spy but a man of charm and wit who, whatever else can be said about him, remained true to his ideals to the end. Photos.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Borovik is not the first to flip through KGB case file 5581, the number of Philby's personnel dossier. Odd documents from it have appeared in recent books, such as a study of the Hess flap of 1941 (Ten Days to Destiny, John Costello, 1993). Anthony Cave Brown, the most commanding biographer thus far of the English mole, certainly had access to the file for Treason in the Blood. Perhaps publishers just ought to print the unexpurgated file to slake the thirst for Philbyiana. In the meantime, Borovik's book, based on his chats with the spy in retirement, hones in on the methods of tradecraft: spotting potential recruits, making the recruitment, and running the agent via signals, ciphers, and drops, all as viewed from the funnel of the file. Juxtaposed with Philby's recollections of his glory days as rewritten by Borovik are interesting verbatim passages from the file that record disagreement between Philby's controls and Moscow Center about their agent's trustworthiness, which apparently was never completely convincing to the KGB, surprisingly enough. Philby was kept ignorant of these doubts, but there is no doubt here that the fanatically specialist reader will dive into this pro-Philby account. Gilbert Taylor
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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). 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."
Among the most interesting chapters are the ones where Borovik tries to lay to rest any lingering suspicions that Philby may have been a triple agent, only pretending to work for the Soviets while feeding them disinformation. While it is hardly surprising that "Sonny" was never completely trusted, professional skepticism is one thing, unremitting distrust another. Stalin suffered from the paranoid's greatest fear – that of being insufficiently suspicious. So if Philby, Burgess, Maclean and the rest turned over nothing on British penetration of the USSR, that was itself evidence of their duplicity. And if they turned over a wealth of evidence on other matters, that was simply more evidence of the same. Harboring doubts was a virtue, and acting on trust was in Stalin's view "the sickness of idiots." (pg. 213)
As it played out, Moscow first suspected Philby of being a German plant, then of working for the British. The re-direction coincided with the abrupt re-orientation of Stalin's policy in 1939, away from hostility towards Hitler to cooperation with him, and heightened distrust of London. The implications were clear, at least to the cleverest intelligence analysts in Moscow Center, who made sure their views always stayed in sync with the shifting views of the leadership. They figured out what needed to be proved, and looked around for ways to supply the evidence. Something that has never happened in Washington, thank goodness.
From Moscow's point of view, the passivity of the British was simply inexplicable. One who inadvertently fed their suspicion was Philby himself. Maintaining, as he consistently did, that the "SIS was not engaged in any subversive and espionage work against the Soviet Union" before 1944 was not likely to persuade many people in the Kremlin. (pg. 193) And yet he kept on reporting what they did not want to hear and refused to believe. In these years, the main threats to agents such as Philby came not from British counter-intelligence but from their own Center, from "their own people." (pg. 203) When an informant does not provide the information that is expected and desired, it is of little comfort to be proven correct years later.
Borovik quotes words of wisdom from Philby, making him echo Graham Greene. "We tend to look for a solid logical line in the various cleaner decisions of the intelligence services. But every such decision involved the human factor. And that means that you can never exclude the possibility of a mistake, simple stupidity, as in chess. By the way, that is the great lack in spy novels, where the authors write their plots, even complicated ones, very logically. The most complicated logical construction is predictable and expected. These writers exclude the human factor, that is, error, in their work. There is only one writer who writes about intelligence with the human factor always present. That, of course, is Graham Greene. There is always some completely illogical, unexpected thing in his books. That's why they are all so truthful and human." (pg. 323)
So why question the book's reliability? First off, some of the quotations provided here, said to have been written in English originally, sound very much like translations from Russian. Let's look, for example, at this one from near the end of the book (pg. 372). According to Borovik, in "The Quiet American" we find this description of Pyle: "He is absolutely convinced of his righteousness and absolutely indifferent." To my ear, this does not sound like a sentence Graham Greene would have written. And indeed, though the absence of footnotes makes it difficult to check Borovik's source, a perusal of the novel reveals no such passage.
What one does find, however, is Greene's original – and rather different – sentence (near the end of Part Three): "He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance." This is a key sentence in the novel, one that sums up Pyle's character, yet his initial "ignorance" has been turned into "indifferent," which obviously is not quite the same. It seems that what happened was that Greene's original text was translated fairly accurately for the Russian edition of his novel, then for Borovik's book this sentence was retranslated (by Antonina Bouis) back into English, with some resultant distortion.
Next, take Philby's lecture to KGB officers which Borovik alleges he delivered at their club in 1977. According to his summary, Philby "talked about the five-year plan he had developed for himself before leaving for Istanbul as the SIS chief in Turkey," a schedule that was later put aside due to the pressure of work. He goes on to joke about being "certain that this could never have happened at the KGB, where planned work was the basis of everything." Borovik adds, "The response of the 500 agents in the audience was a roar of laughter." He concludes by having Philby say he knew that the Moscow "Centre undoubtedly needed him." (pg. 362)
All this bears little resemblance to the lecture that Philby actually presented. Let us leave aside the minor error of location (it was delivered at KGB headquarters in Yasenovo, in Moscow's suburbs, not the officers' club downtown, which was the site of his wake in 1988). More importantly, the original 14-page text, based on Philby's own typescript and printed in Rufina Philby's memoir "The Private Life of Kim Philby," differs markedly from the summary provided by Borovik. In fact, about the only point of similarity is that in both versions Philby told a joke which went over well. So either there were two different lectures (something no one has ever maintained), or there is some disinformation here. (Readers can find more detail at my site hamiltonbeck dot wordpress dot com.)
In short, "The Philby Files" is a good read, as long as you don't probe too deeply into the details. While his book may be vivid, on some matters, Borovik was misinformed at best. Neither the story nor the translation can be considered 100% reliable. Use with caution.