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Kim Philby, byname of Harold Adrian Russell Philby (born Jan. 1, 1912, Ambāla, India—died May 11, 1988, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.), British intelligence officer until 1951 and the most successful Soviet double agent of the Cold War period.
While a student at the University of Cambridge, Philby became a Communist and in 1933 a Soviet agent. He worked as a journalist until 1940, when Guy Burgess, a British secret agent who was himself a Soviet double agent, recruited Philby into the MI-6 section of the British intelligence service. By the end of World War II, Philby had become head of counterespionage operations for MI-6, in which post he was responsible for combating Soviet subversion in western Europe. In 1949 he was sent to Washington to serve as chief MI-6 officer there and as the top liaison officer between the British and U.S. intelligence services. While holding this highly sensitive post, he revealed to the U.S.S.R. an Allied plan to send armed anti-Communist bands into Albania in 1950, thereby assuring their defeat; warned two Soviet double agents in the British diplomatic service, Burgess and Donald MacLean, that they were under suspicion (the two men consequently escaped to the Soviet Union in 1951); and transmitted detailed information about MI-6 and the Central Intelligence Agency to the Soviets.
After Burgess’ and MacLean’s defection, suspicion fell on Philby, and he was relieved of his intelligence duties in 1951 and dismissed from MI-6 in 1955. Thereafter he worked as a journalist in Beirut until fleeing to the Soviet Union in 1963. There he settled in Moscow and eventually reached the rank of colonel in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service. Philby published a book, My Silent War (1968), detailing his exploits.
Philby seems to have been a lifelong and committed Communist whose primary devotion lay toward the Soviet Union rather than his native country. He was apparently responsible for the deaths of many Western agents whose activities he betrayed to the Soviets during the 1940s and early ’50s.
A CURIOUS tidbit surfaces early in this account of Kim Philby's last years in exile in Moscow. The legendary spy's favorite tune turns out to have been ''My Way,'' sung by Frank Sinatra. And, indeed, the line ''I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption'' nicely catches Philby's ironic self-image as a believing skeptic.
But what was it that Philby thought he had to do while all he believed in as a lifelong Communist was about to come crashing down? The answer will not be found in the centerpiece of ''The Private Life of Kim Philby,'' a 187-page memoir by his widow, Rufina Philby, recounting the final years of the cold war's most fabled defector, a man who was considered a candidate for chief of the British secret service even as he was spying for the Soviet Union. What the fourth Mrs. Philby does provide is a portrait of dreariness in the twilight years of the Soviet Union: store windows displaying goods that are not for sale; restaurants with food so bad and service so rude that the Philbys stop eating out.
The paradox that pokes through this dismal round is the contradiction between Philby's clearsightedness and his blind loyalty. Should the Soviets have gloated when the Iranians seized American hostages in 1979? Philby writes his friend Graham Greene, ''Allah alone knows whose embassy is not next on the list for sacking, looting, burning or occupation.'' He captures the futility of the cold war in a single sentence: ''I have no belief in doomsday, I don't believe in the Soviet threat to Europe, I don't believe in a NATO threat to the Soviet Union.'' Yet the same man could mouth the most god-awful party claptrap to explain Stalin's murder of thousands of fellow Communists: they ''fell victim,'' Philby lectures a class of K.G.B. students, ''to cases of unfortunate disregard of socialist legality.''
His unshakable fidelity to the Soviet Union was not, however, reciprocated. During his first years in exile, so little use was made of Philby by the K.G.B. that he sank into alcoholic despair and attempted suicide. Fourteen years passed before he was invited to K.G.B. headquarters. He was finally taken off the shelf by Mikhail Lyubimov, a K.G.B. officer and a co-author of this book. Lyubimov needed a poster boy to make life in the Soviet Union appear more appealing to potential defectors. He helped Philby secure a post teaching a course of stunning shallowness for a master spy, coaching K.G.B. officers in how to pass in polite English society. As Lyubimov puts it, when he read in the Western press that Philby had become a key K.G.B. strategist, ''I had to laugh. Sadly, Philby was a run-of-the-mill, semi-unemployed pensioner.''
Rufina Philby's memoir takes up less than half the book. The rest is a pastiche, including two previously unpublished chapters of Philby's autobiography, the lecture he delivered to the K.G.B. and a Lyubimov essay on Philby in which the faithful Communist is consigned to ''a generation of fanatics and idealists, whose blood was sucked by the Idea itself.'' In the book's final section, Hayden Peake, a former C.I.A. officer, delivers an insightful critique of the vast literature that Philby's life spawned -- five books, for example, in one year alone.
For the espionage aficionado, the most rewarding pages in this collection consist of Philby's views on his craft. He makes a convincing case, for example, that a spy caught in the West can very likely beat the rap simply by refusing to confess. Philby's case is weakened, however, by the fact that he confessed his own treachery before fleeing to the Soviet Union.
Kim Philby did not die until 1988, when the cracks in the Soviet Union were already gaping. Still, he never recanted. He apparently preferred to stick with the hand he had dealt himself rather than face the truth of a life wasted in a failed cause. Or was it merely Philby's penchant for irony, his singing, along with Ol' Blue Eyes, ''And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing''?
Release date: Mar 6, 2011