Monday, June 01, 2015

A Spy Among Friends

Without a doubt, Kim Philby is one of the most despicable human beings who have ever existed.  The damage he did to his country (Great Britain) and its allies before, during, and after World War II was so great that it still cannot be completely and accurately measured.  It is not an exaggeration, however, to say that Philby’s actions cost thousands of allied lives and even prolonged the course of the Cold War.  The real question about a man like Kim Philby is how they become the despicable creatures they are.  It is easy to say that such people do it for the money, that greed is the motivator in cases like Philby’s, but as Ben MacIntyre shows in his remarkable Philby biography, A Spy Among Friends, it is not always that simple.    

What made Kim Philby so good at spying for the Russians was that you just could not help but like the guy.  He paid attention to everyone he met (that is, everyone who could help him supply state secrets to his Russian handlers) and, to a man, everyone who received his friendship felt that it was sincerely offered, that Philby truly treasured the friendship.  Even Nicholas Elliott, a fellow member of Britain’s intelligence services, was so taken by Philby that he considered Kim Philby to be the best friend he ever had – and their friendship lasted a whole lifetime during which Philby used Elliott’s inside knowledge to pass on countless pieces of damaging information to the Russians who owned his soul.

Philby was a charmer.  As MacIntyre puts it, “Philby could inspire and convey affection with such ease that few ever noticed they were being charmed.  Male and female, old and young, rich and poor, Kim enveloped them all.”  Did he ever.  It all started when Philby was a student at Cambridge.  And it would not end until decades later when Russian defectors, some of whom knew enough about the well-placed Philby to point fingers in his direction, started looking for a safe haven for themselves outside the crumbling Soviet Union.  By then, of course, Philby had done so much damage that his exposure was an embarrassment to the British government. 

Ben MacIntire
MacIntyre, in fact, makes a strong case in A Spy Among Friends that Kim Philby was allowed to escape to Russia (rather than being subjected to what would have been an embarrassing investigation and trial) in 1963 where he would live a rather pitiful life until his death in 1988.  Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s supposed best friend, was allowed to be the intelligence officer finally to confront Philby with his disgrace.  Elliott, however, made no effort to have Philby placed into immediate custody or even to have him followed.  The man was simply allowed to slip away – so he did.

In the end, Elliott despised Philby as much as any man alive can despise another.  He was betrayed by someone he considered to be something of a soul mate, and that betrayal almost killed him.  But Elliott mourned the loss of his friend to his own dying day.  That is the kind of charm that made Kim Philby such a dangerous man, and one of the most effective spies of the twentieth century.  A Spy Among Friends is a remarkable account of Kim Philby’s life as seen through the eyes of those who unwittingly worked with him for decades.  It is fascinating – and scary.


  1. It is alarming to see such subterfuge and callousness, a sociopath of sorts?

    1. I suppose he was a sociopath but at the end of his life he got lonely enough to try to contact Elliott for a reconciliation of some sort - and he really wanted (and got his wish) that his current wife (the one he was married to when he fled) be allowed to join him in Russia. I find myself really despising this fool.

  2. This is on my list. I love Ben MacIntyre's way of presenting history, and I'm working my way through his nonfiction slowly.

    I just finished the fictional A Kind of Grief last week; it has a connection to the Cambridge Five, and for a while I thought the unidentified character was Philby, but it must have been Maclean.

  3. This was my first experience with a Ben MacIntyre book. I'm impressed with his style and the level of detail he included in this one, so I'm very open to reading more of his work.