The Short Version: Kim Philby was the perfect spy. Educated, well-groomed, brilliant – it’s no surprise that he rose to prominence in MI6 during the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War conflict. What was surprising was that he was also working for the Soviets. For over thirty years, he maintained a double life and compromised nearly every major operation for the West. This is his story and the story of those who thought they knew him – but didn’t know him at all.
The Review: What makes a good spy? Our modern opinion is based on enduring legends like James Bond and Ethan Hunt – but they’re not real. Real spies, often, are at their best when their names remain unknown. As such, Kim Philby is not a name that I know. He’s not covered in AP Euro, or at least he wasn’t when I was taking the class, and he’s not mentioned in most classes about the Cold War or Soviet/post-Soviet politics. Yet he is one of the most accomplished spy in history and his influence on global politics is arguably as great as individuals like Churchill, FDR, and Stalin – and there’s a good chance you might never, ever know about him. This is, of course, because he fooled us all for some thirty-odd years, proving to be a villain of legendary achievement. Perhaps the Russian history books tell the story of Kim Philby. Perhaps our history books should.
Ben Macintyre structures this slice of history like a novel. We open on a scene of two middle-aged British men, genteel and upper-crust, engaged in a truly life-or-death battle of wits over a cup of tea in Beirut in 1963. It is, indeed, the stuff of spy stories and Macintyre is a savvy enough author not to get in the way of a good story but, rather, let it play out as it will. Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes – or at least it’s often just as entertaining.
He then jumps back in time, to just before the outbreak of World War Two. We meet Nicholas Elliott – refined, educated, a little listless at 22 years old – and see how, in almost humorous terms, he becomes a spy. “It happened over a glass of champagne…” writes Macintyre, later writing by way of explanation that “the old boys’ recruitment network had worked perfectly.” The tone is set, immediately: this is a time of what I suppose we can only consider classical-modern British aristocracy. The Empire was receding but England was still the big dog on the world stage and the rich, smart, white men who ran that country had centuries worth of reinforcement behind the idea that because they were rich, white, smart, and knew other similar people, they could accomplish anything.
In some ways, this book is a story about the last gasps of that particular form of English snobbery and privilege – for those privileges are exactly what caused Philby to evade detection for so long and, indeed, never even be considered until it was already far too late.
Macintyre, after establishing Nick’s life and entry into the intelligence community, does the same for Kim – but there’s a crucial difference and that’s that, while at university (at Cambridge), he becomes a lifelong Communist. His strongly Leftist leanings in his early life are written off later as childish fancy – the sort of comment that I and plenty of my liberal friends have heard in our lives as well, some sixty-seventy years later. Philby makes good by the old joke that “to be young and conservative is to be heartless, to be old and liberal is to be brainless” when he makes an outward show of swinging his allegiance to the Right, under orders by his Soviet minders to remove any suspicion of his true leanings – but he never wavers, not once, in his belief that Communism is the way of the future. This shows a remarkable strength of character, to my mind: he is a True Believer and that is, perhaps, what makes his story so intriguing. Here’s a man who believes that capitalism and the West are completely and utterly corrupt – and yet he must live so deeply inside those structures that it would appear impossible that he might be anything other than a total adherent. Can you imagine living that way, yourself?
Macintyre sets a thriller-esque pace early on and rarely flags from it: even as Philby strikes a magnificent streak of luck, the reader remains on edge knowing that this luck cannot possibly last forever. There is a mounting tension as the years tick over and the toll of Philby’s espionage grows – and Macintyre does the honorable thing by all involved in that he makes Philby as compelling and human as Elliott, Angleton, and the others. We worry that Philby will be caught, even as (assuming here that the reader is not a Communist sympathiser of the old school) we also want him to be caught. We worry what it will do to those who loved him and fought beside him – although, when the breakdown arrives, it’s impossible not to feel utter loathing for Philby and total heartbreak for Nick (and, to a similar if lesser extent, Angleton).
But how did he do it? How did he pull off this double life? Macintyre puts all the research on the page without ever making it feel boring or regurgitative and, as a result, the book pulls you in like a novel might. I thought rather frequently of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy throughout the book and it should come as no surprise that the afterword is written by John le Carré – who knew both Elliott and Philby, worked with them (and later befriended Eilliott) while he was in the intelligence field. As a result, the story feels nearly too good to be true – but, terribly, it’s all too true to be good. Macintyre never pulls a punch, letting you know even as both he and the reader are impressed by (for example) Philby’s astonishing bravado and bluster when he flatly denies being a spy to the press (in a drawing room performance that took my breath away) that the list of the dead as a direct result of Philby’s work may in fact be incalculable but is certainly into the several hundreds. The man was the head of counterintelligence for the UK, meaning even as he was attempting to foil Russian plots, he was in fact furthering them at the highest of levels. It is a horrifying, sobering reality – and, at the same time, an astonishing and captivating one.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A remarkable look at one of the most daring and dangerous spies in history – not because he struck behind enemy lines, but because he achieved immense power at home without anyone ever suspecting his true allegiances. He betrayed his friends, his family, his country… and for more than thirty years, no one had much more than a clue. I wouldn’t mind seeing, perhaps in another several years, an analysis of the moment that the old boy’s network truly broke – that patriarchy began its inexorable decline towards its impending (as of this writing) end. I would wager that Kim Philby’s reveal is the moment that the old system well and truly broke beyond fixing. Macintyre’s book is the first attempt (that I’ve read, anyway) to tell that story.