The secret life of legendary spy

A new book on double agent Kim Philby written  by award-winning Russian journalist Nikolai Dolgopolov reveals interesting details of spy's life and some secret documents. Archive Photo: Rufina Philby, the Russian wife of the double agent.

A new book on double agent Kim Philby written by award-winning Russian journalist Nikolai Dolgopolov reveals interesting details of spy's life and some secret documents. Archive Photo: Rufina Philby, the Russian wife of the double agent.

To commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday, a new book on double agent Kim Philby has been published by award-winning Russian journalist and writer Nikolai Dolgopolov. The book covers his years in the Soviet Union and contains confidential Russian Foreign Intelligence Service documents declassified especially for the book. Below is an extract from the book – an interview with a high-ranking officer of the Soviet Intelligence service, whose name still cannot be revealed.

“The person I interviewed who, until recently, served as head of a department in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is not the kind of a man who will tell you everything he knows about Kim Philby. But everything he says is filled with such respect for Philby that it makes you think about Kim’s exceptional professionalism as a spy and his talent for winning people over. He gives a balanced and professional assessment of Kilby rather than a burst of admiration.    

Perhaps we should start with your first meetings with Philby, your first impressions?

I don’t think that will be useful for assessing his personality as a phenomenon. Because we [supervisors] came and went as part of our job. Before I came, someone else worked with him, also for a year or so. Then he had to leave, as often happens in our field. 

Did you see Philby and his wife a lot?

No, I can’t say I saw them a lot. It was mostly on important occasions like the anniversaries and professional holidays of our service, some important dates for Kim and George [Blake, another British double agent who escaped to the USSR], organising their trips around the country, solving various issues, including domestic ones.  

The time I worked with him coincided with a rather interesting period for our country, and an interesting time for Kim and George, too. Perestroika and glasnost also affected our field, forcing Committee and First Chief Directorate leadership to lift the veil of secrecy around all those people, allowing them to go on air. I remember Kim gave a short interview to a well-known journalist Genrikh Borovik, and it was shown on TV. At that time, Kim also suggested giving an interview to Phillip Knightley.

He’s a distinguished British journalist and author who wrote many books on espionage. They exchanged letters for a long time before they finally met in Moscow. 

I recently reread the interview, after all these years. I still believe Philby didn’t expect it all to end so soon. And yet, he found it possible to communicate, through Phillip Knightley, the main results of his life as seen from his personal perspective, and brought them to the British reader. He showed the essence of his entire life and the goals he sought and managed to achieve. I think it was a success.

The meeting with Knightley was very important for us: we needed to show that people working for our intelligence service were alive, that they had their own vision of the global situation, their own principles and positions. Kim was just the best man for it. For me, he was an aristocrat in every sense, including in terms of spirit, way of life, intellect, attitude towards people, habits. And, of course, he was an aristocrat in our profession, as a top intelligence officer.

Knightley asked Philby some tricky questions, but he was able to avoid them skillfully. 

For Philby, Knightley was a just tool, a channel to transmit the information Kim wanted to transmit. Indeed, Philby was himself a journalist, an intelligence officer and a high-ranking manager. I do recall some interesting things about that interview. We did not want Knightley to guess where Philby lived. Why are you surprised? How could we know what the consequences could be? We had our own serious task: ensuring Philby’s safety. 


Do you really think that even in central Moscow where Philby lived

Our approach was to exclude the possibility of getting any information about Philby. He lived not far from Gorky Street. However, when bringing Knightley to Kim, we drove around the city for quite some time to make him think that Philby lived far from the city centre. We drove him to the building and he went up in an elevator. We even wanted to remove the building number. Yes, we had to think about those small things, too.

When you came to visit, did he greet you personally?

I would ring, and he would open the door: “Come in, Alexander!” Like a good host, you know. He would show me into the room and ask whether I preferred tea or coffee. And then we discussed whatever question I came with.

Did you come to discuss any urgent issues?

Generally, no. Rather, they were of an organisational or domestic nature. Although that was something Kim didn’t like, leaving it to Rufina. What we discussed was interviews, preparing for them and meeting journalists. I never received any detailed instructions for Philby from my superiors. They proceeded from the assumption that Philby himself knew best how to do things. It was left to his discretion. That interview he gave to Knightley was unedited.

But did he still work for the Intelligence Service?

Yes, he briefed intelligence officers going to work in Britain and English-speaking countries.  They were arranged in small groups of three. He took it very seriously, preparing and making notes for use during those training sessions. He closely monitored events around the globe, and especially in his region. He saw it as his contribution to the training of young intelligence officers. 

Although many years had passed since his arrival in Moscow. And so much had changed both here and there.

Nonetheless, even if it wasn’t the main thing in his life, the profession was an important part of it. He continued to work with students, even if not that often, but they would come to his place about once a week. And let’s remember how old he was: in the mid-1980s he was over 70. And he did continue his pedagogical activity. When Philby’s advice was needed they would contact me, and I would call and discuss a timetable.


Did you meet at a safe house or at his place?

Mostly at his place: Philby offered this opportunity. We would sit studying against the backdrop of his bookshelves.   

Did Philby speak Russian well?

Not really. It was different with George Blake who embraced Russian life more fully, but he was a very different kind of person. Blake spoke Russian, though he did have an accent. 

And did he speak English when working with your young intelligence officers?

That’s what they went to him for.

And what about you?

By that time I had finished my English studies. But we also spoke Russian, and sometimes German. I’d like to tell one story showing his sense of humor. We were preparing for another formal occasion. I called him in advance to warn that he had to attend, and to dress accordingly as all the staff would be present, including our leadership and young employees. My message for him was to wear his decorations. And he did not like that. People are different, some wear everything they have, but Kim wasn’t like that. When I came to fetch him, I saw he was dressed up but without the decorations. He says, “Look, I am not in my sweatpants. I hope I haven’t let you down.” I felt so uneasy. I had to make excuses with regard to the decorations. So, as if in passing, Kim taught me a lesson in tactfulness. 

So apparently, he wasn’t fond of all those formal gatherings.

Right, he wasn’t. Rather, he condescended to it. He did not have the vanity to be everywhere boasting his awards. Although he had high decorations, including the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner…

And how did he behave at those formal events? Did he come up to the bosses? How did he talk to them?

The thing is that it wasn’t he who came up to them, but they who came up to him. As I said before, his absolutely natural gentility was manifest in every respect, including in the choice of company, in conversation with any top officials, in his ability to say even unpleasant things in such a way that you wouldn’t see it as a lesson. 

Did you personally benefit from your communication with Philby?   

I benefited a great deal. When I began working with him, I was already an established operative; I had already done two stints abroad. But I believed and still believe that you can always learn something from every person. Kim, with his manners and attitude toward people, showed you what human dignity is about, he showed you how to win the respect of others and pursue your own line. And to do all this in a delicate manner, without humiliating anyone, and at the same time clearly. This is something that did me a great service later in life.

What about your colleagues, in addition to the young officers Philby trained for trips to England, did he keep company with the others? 

No, I can’t remember him coming to our service and visiting different departments. It isn’t accepted here. Instead, he would come on formal occasions. 

That’s a pity, since those kinds of people can be of great use, not just to the young. 

You know, it was his destiny. Everyone who lives more or less the same life as Philby and his colleagues are doomed to it. But in Moscow, he lived the same life as us Russians, carefully monitoring all political events. For example, in his interview with Knightley he said that, had he been consulted, he would have never have advised sending troops to Afghanistan.   


At the time, that was a very bold statement.

And what does it show? That he was constantly monitoring the foreign policy situation, including steps taken by the Soviet Union. I think with things as they were, Philby did his best, did everything he could. Reading The Times and solving crossword puzzles, he lived here, along with us, but instead of creating a little Britain of his own, he did not isolate himself. To be frank, there was also a different side of his life. The fate of people like Philby who switch sides is always determined by that step, once and for all. As a rule, they get squeezed like sponges, after which they are given half a million or whatever, and are set free to go and live as they please. It all depends on their reasons for switching sides. If it was all for money or some personal reasons, the outcome is clear. But it was different with Kim and his Cambridge friends. They were all idealists. This is what really matters. They even waived their pensions, which were granted to them back in the war years when they were all working in Britain. Although later, in Moscow, they all received good money. But those things are all relative, you know. Anyway, Kim received a much larger pension than the average Soviet army general. 

Philby was held in high regard. Even his opponents in the West cannot reproach him in this respect. Instead, they try to downplay Philby’s role. But let’s remember when he arrived in the Soviet Union from Beirut.

In 1963.

You see, in 1963, Soviet citizen Philby, as he called himself, lived in Moscow for 25 years.

Let’s turn to his everyday life. Could Philby drive a car?

No, he never drove himself; he had an official car. I don’t think he had a car of his own. He also used an official car to go to his country house, which he loved.

Judging by photos, Philby had good taste in clothes but he didn’t have expensive things.   

Well, he was modest but he always remained a gentleman. 


Did you help bring things for Philby from abroad? 

Tweed trousers, sweaters, and other things he liked all helped Philby feel more at home or at least comfortable and surrounded by familiar things. The Times, English mustard and some other small things mattered to him. A lot was done for him, special funds were allocated, and our foreign colleagues would buy all those things for him. 

Which English people in his circle did hekeep company with? I read that he avoided Guy Burgess [Husband of Vita Sackville West and also a British Spy who defected to the USSR] because of his flight to Moscow with Donald McLean [one of the Cambridge Five], that he couldn’t forgive Guy for that for the rest of his life.

I know from others that Philby was very close to McLean at one time. He was also friends with Blake. Kim did not feel lonely, I think.

You know, it isn’t so much his private life that interests me, but something else. I remember his awards. If, from today’s historical perspective, we look at what Philby did for the victory in the Second World War, we see that his personal contribution was huge. Among other things, Philby and his colleagues contributed to the successful outcome of the Battle of Kursk. And they also did many more things. This is acknowledged by everyone, including Philby’s enemies. He provided some extremely valuable information. I started to talk about his contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany. When I examined the materials carefully, I felt a sense of injustice. How could it be that he did so much but was not a Hero of the Soviet Union? Why? I began to bring this idea to our leadership. They explained from above that it was not the best time for that, the year 1987, maybe Gorbachev didn’t want tensions with Britain. However, my idea did not win support. And suddenly, a document comes from the office of KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, where it arrived from the office of Mikhail Yasnov, then Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the RSFSR, with a note saying: “Mr. Kryuchkov, please consider the letter attached.” In the letter, three students from Kharkov expressed their surprise that such a great man who did so much for the victory was not made a hero. It was shortly after Philby’s interview with Genrikh Borovik was shown on TV, that the Kharkov students wrote their letter, for some reason addressing it to Yasnov. But it didn’t matter to whom. What matters is that they realized it and that they wrote their letter. And once things went that way, orders were given to prepare the necessary documents. We began, but Philby died in May 1988.

You attended Philby's funeral. Was it all unexpected? Media reports spoke of a sudden death.

It was, there’s no mystery there. Philby was undergoing a medical examination in our hospital. He had a separate room, because of his status. And he had already lost consciousness before that, at home. And it also happened in the hospital. He fainted and fell to the floor. Had there been someone else in his room, a doctor would have been summoned immediately. 

That’s not to say that he was in critical condition before. No, it was a regular checkup. Everything was going fine. He was going to stay in the hospital for a few more days and go home. Rufina visited him, and she confessed later that she had a bad feeling, her heart ached, and she wanted to stay. Kim objected and told her to go home. And in the morning, the telephone rang, and she was told that he had died. 

His grave is at Novokuntsevskoye Cemetery. There’s a hill, pine trees and an obelisk. He was buried in Moscow, virtually as he willed. 

You know, after talking to you I am even more convinced that the most important things Kim Philby did were far away from here. 

Of course, he was an intelligence officer. And he completed his intelligence mission before he left Beirut. Even in Beirut, working and helping as much as he could, he was in what he called quiescent mode. Of course, he remained close to politics, worked as a journalist, and other things in other places… But just compare it to his mission in the US, where he was a representative of the Secret Intelligence Service from 1949 to 1951. But then he was recalled to London, which was a sign of mistrust. By that time, most of his work had already been accomplished. 

Is it the fate of an intelligence officer to do two or three cases?  

It may even be one case. Indeed, many intelligence cases are completed and archived, and buried, and no one knows about them. 

With Philby, it was 15 years of real blazing, commitment and sacrifice, followed, of course, not by a quiet life, not by demise, but just by another, completely different life.

You touch upon a very interesting philosophical point. It’s important to show that first of all, even in such a specific sphere, there is a place for blazing and sacrifice, and noble tasks. And there is one more important thing about Kim Philby: no one, even in the West, can claim that he worked for the money. He had such a pure, romantic attitude toward the country for which he worked for decades, in which he believed…”

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