Thickening plots

The Private Life of Kim Philby

Rufina Philby <em>St Ermin's Press, 449pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 03166

When the Sunday Times Insight team was working on the book Philby, the Spy Who Betrayed a Generation, its reporters were much taken with a piece of verse from Kipling's Kim: "Something I owe to the soil that grew/More to the life that fed/But most to Allah, Who gave me two/Separate sides to my head."

In the 30 years since Insight's success in revealing one side of Philby's head - the professional KGB penetration agent - there have been no fewer than 157 further books that wholly or in part have gone over much the same ground. There can be scarcely a single reader interested in the espionage game who does not now know that Philby was recruited by the Russian intelligence service in 1934, after he had come to their attention while rescuing communists from the fascists in Vienna; that he wangled his way into the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) during the war, rose to be head of its anti-Soviet section and was being groomed to be the service's next chief when he screwed it all up and eventually had to flee, in 1963, to Moscow, where he spent the next 25 years.

But the other side of his head has remained largely in the shadows. He had four wives - Austrian, English, American and Russian - but only the American, Eleanor, has written about Philby the man, and she knew him for a shorter time than any of the others. What was Philby like when he got home after a hard day's spying? Did he talk about his work? Share his doubts? Reveal his innermost thoughts? Help with the housework? Enjoy family holidays? This latest episode in the Philby saga is an attempt to answer some of these questions. It's a four-layer cake. The icing is the memoirs of Rufina Philby, the last wife, a Russian who married him in 1971 and stayed with him, nursing him until his death in 1988. Then come some fragments of Philby's own writing, ranging from bits of his autobiography, My Silent War, cut because his Russian bosses did not like them or because Philby himself thought they were boring, to articles on motivation and how to behave when counter-intelligence officers try to force a confession from you.

The next layer is an essay by Mikhail Lyubimov, a senior KGB colleague of Philby's who served in London under diplomatic cover for three years, running operations against the Conservatives until 1964, when he was kicked out by the newly elected Labour government - "thus adding insult to injury".

The base layer is a very useful and meticulously researched examination of all the Philby literature by Hayden B Peake, a former CIA officer, who played a major role in getting all this material together and pushing for its publication. The irony would not have been lost on Philby himself. So having read the book, what do we now know about Harold Adrian Russell - "Kim" - Philby that we did not know before? Rufina tells a touching story of a considerate, amusing husband, who so hated to be alone in their Moscow apartment that he insisted on accompanying her to work in the morning and picking her up in the evening, who liked to cook but was appalled by how difficult it was to buy ingredients in Moscow, who hated big parties, suffered fragile health, became depressed from time to time and often drank too much.

Still, they got on well, and even when Philby's health deteriorated to the extent that his wife had to spend a lot of time looking after him, she did it willingly and without complaint. When he died she was devastated, and, looking back on her life, she feels she was privileged to have known him. But he never discussed his life as a spy with her and she never asked him about it.

We learn little from Philby's own writings. His memories of a childhood in India are faint and confused - so no psychological clues there as to what made him behave as he did as an adult. Except there is one intriguing little item about how he worshipped a slightly older boy on the boat back to Britain and tried to model himself on him. The boy had a stammer. Is it possible Philby's stammer was not genuine but deliberately acquired and then later honed when he realised it was an advantage in the spy world (no one could bully you into a quick, possibly incriminating reply)?

On long evenings I sometimes think of Philby's life and career and the mysteries that remain. Rufina tells of occasions when the KGB would suddenly announce that there was a threat to Philby and spirit him away to Siberia or the Caucasus. There they would keep him until the threat had passed. What was this threat? Could SIS or the CIA really have had hitmen out looking for the best-known traitor of the century? Or were those factions within the KGB that had been convinced that Philby was a British penetration agent suddenly pushing to arrest him and interrogate the truth out of him? And what about the strange meetings over the years with Graham Greene? Two old spies, on opposite sides of the cold war fence, meeting and drinking and chatting about . . . what exactly?

We know from recent biographies of Greene that this old SIS colleague of Philby's never stopped being a spy and all his life reported back to SIS anything he thought might interest it. And we know that the meetings in Moscow could never have taken place without KGB approval and that Philby reported back to the KGB everything that Greene had told him.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities here. If SIS could have persuaded Philby to come back to Britain by offering him immunity from prosecution, then such a propaganda coup would have greatly outweighed Philby's earlier damage: "Traitor tried out communism, hated it, came home." So Greene could have been given the job of gently sounding out Philby and reporting his reaction. Or both old spies were being used as conduits by their respective bosses. SIS told Greene what it wanted the KGB to learn, in the knowledge that he would pass it on to Philby, who would then report it to the KGB. The answer would come back via the same route in reverse. Implausible? Stranger things have happened in the spy world.

And the other mystery, not mentioned in this book or any other, is this: with the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire, the KGB, in the spirit of the new world order, made available some of its files to western authors. One of these authors, Genrikh Borovik, even called his book The Philby Files. It now turns out that Borovik and the other authors had access to only one Philby file and that there are another 18 still secret. Why?

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics