Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adventure classics -- A martyr to dogma

My Silent War

by Kim Philby


What kind of spy begins memoirs of fooling every intelligence service in the West by disclaiming any “desire to cause . . . embarrassment to former colleagues in the British, American and sundry other services, for some of whom I feel both affection and respect“? Only that thoroughly English spy (he abhorred the term “double agent”) Harold Adrian Russell Philby, aka “Kim”.

Born in the Punjab region of India and nicknamed after the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Philby was considered by many inside and outside of the British Secret Intelligence Service to be one of the best spies of the twentieth century. Unfortunately for his career and that of the Soviet Union, but perhaps luckily for the rest of the world, his KGB bosses had little clue about his value.

Because unknown to his colleagues both in England and the United States, Philby, a respected member of British intelligence from the early days of World War II through the height of the Cold War, had been an agent for the Soviet Union the entire time.

His disappearance in January 1963 (already fired from SIS, but speculated to still be working for the agency undercover) caused an international uproar. Even the Soviets were unwilling to admit he had entered their country until late July of that year. Philby did not explain his actions publicly until the release of his memoirs in 1968 in England and the U.S. Even then, the publication of My Silent War probably stemmed from the press coverage his defection received in the West. Ironically, the USSR, although authorizing (and censoring) My Silent War, would not release a Russian translation until 1980.

Philby wrote that My Silent War was only intended as the first volume of his memoirs. But the perpetual suspicions of his Soviet bosses prevented him from advancing further,
either with publication or in spy service to which he had given his life.

The KGB never understood or fully trusted this man who was still so English at heart.

“Until the day he died (in 1988), the KGB lived in terror that Philby would one day go too far in talking to the British press, or, God help us, would suddenly announce that he wanted to return to Britain,” writes former KGB officer Mikhail Lyubimov in “A Martyr to Dogma,” an essay included in the memoirs of Philby’s Russia widow Rufina, The Private Life of Kim Philby.

Philby never redefected, despite SIS’s rumored attempts to solicit his return through the intervention of novelist (and former intelligence colleague) Graham Greene. Not that he had a choice. Philby was only too aware of the deaths of other Soviet spies whose loyalty had been questioned.

“Isn’t it odd that the KGB made no professional documentary with its hero?” Lyubimov writes. “No Russian book was written about him when he was alive, only translations after he passed away.”

Despite Soviet reticence, the literature on Philby is immense. Ex-CIA agent Hayden Peake lists and rates the books written about him in an appendix to Rufina Philby‘s memoir. Both My Silent War and The Private Life of Kim Philby are available at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller.)

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