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Young Philby, Page 1

Robert Littell

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  For Pita

  I suppose what one should be asking is whether an ideal becomes invalid because the people who hold it are betrayed.

  —Pat Barker, The Ghost Road


  Title Page

  Copyright Notice



  Prologue: Moscow, August 1938: Where Teodor Stepanovich Maly is refused a last cigarette

  1. Vienna, late summer 1933. Where an Englishman wanders into the wrong century

  2. London, April 1934. Where a chap from Cambridge has the bright idea of spying for the Reds

  3. London, June 1934. Where an Englishman accepts a proposition he doesn’t quite understand

  4. London, July 1934. Where the Hajj admits to having something up his sleeve

  5. London, autumn 1936. Where three birds are killed with one stone

  6. Salamanca, Spain, December 1937. English discovers there is no way out except up

  7. Biarritz, April 1938. Where Alexander Orlov, cryptonym the Swede, discovers that the Englishman is armed

  8. Gibraltar, July 1938. Where Mr. Philby of The Times regrets not being a vegetarian

  9. London, November 1939. Where the Hajj outfits his boy for Phony War

  10. Calais, May 1940. Where The Times Special Correspondent Mr. Philby is accused of betraying king and country

  11. London, June 1940. Where Mr. Philby promises to keep a straight face for the photograph on his identity badge

  12. London, December 1940. Where Mr. Burgess lets the cat out of the bag in an interoffice memo

  13. London, January 1941. Where the Soviet Rezident Gorsky proves he is a spy after all

  14. Moscow, July 1941. Where former Junior Lieutenant, now Senior Lieutenant, Y. Modinskaya visits the Near Dacha

  15. Moscow, January 1942. Where former Senior Lieutenant Y. Modinskaya refuses a last cigarette

  16. London, July 1945. Where the Hajj writes the third act of an espionage drama

  Epilogue: Beirut, January 1963. Where the Englishman flees to Soviet Russia with ten tins of Arm & Hammer indigestion tablets in his pockets

  Coda: A True Spy Story. Where the author of Young Philby explains why the idea that Kim Philby might have been a double agent—or should that be triple?—is not far-fetched

  Principal Personages in This Book

  Also by Robert Littell

  About the Author



  Where Teodor Stepanovich Maly Is Refused a Last Cigarette

  So: The Y in the Y. Modinskaya on my identification tag stands for Yelena, which was also the name of my late maternal grandmother, one of the first female commissars in the glorious Red Army at the time of the revolution. I am thirty-three years of age. Until my recent reassignment as an intelligence analyst I worked as a research assistant in the second chief directorate of the Peoples’ Commissariat for Internal Affairs, better known by its initials NKVD. No, I am not married—unless of course you accept Senior Lieutenant Gusakov’s formulation that I am married to my job.

  Yes, yes, you are one of the few to grasp that it was an ordeal for me, too. It goes without saying it was an ordeal for the condemned man (that’s the point, isn’t it?), but I’d never even been down to the floors where they interrogate state criminals, much less interviewed one moments before his execution. I’d been given the seventeen cardboard boxes containing case file No. 5581 (each box stamped in red “Top Secret” and “Committee for State Security of the Council of Ministers of the USSR”) one month, one and a half weeks earlier and had been poring over the contents for most of my waking hours since: reams of reports, typed on foolscap, from or about the Englishman; sheafs of telegrams that passed between the London Rezidentura and Moscow Centre, each month-worth bound by a thick elastic band; assessments of the Englishman’s bona fides by the analysts who had worked on the case file before me. Despite putting in fifteen-hour days at my desk, I’d only managed to examine something like two-thirds of the documents. Concerning my conclusions, in theory my mind was still open, but I had already found inconsistencies in the précis prepared by my immediate predecessor before his deportation to a Siberian work camp. My section chief in the fifth department of the second chief directorate, Senior Lieutenant Gusakov, accompanied me as far as the door of the interrogation room. I have this memory of him throwing out a starched cuff and glancing impatiently at the watch strapped to the inside of his pudgy wrist. “You can have half an hour with him, Junior Lieutenant Modinskaya. Not a minute more. We must not keep the comrades in the crypt waiting.”

  A guard unlocked the door of what turned out to be a narrow, bare room with a high ceiling. I could hear him locking the door behind me once I was inside. The room reeked of a distinctly unpleasant odor. First light the color of ash and the weight of lead oozed through a slit of a window high in the wall. I thought I caught the scream of friction brakes as trolley cars stopped in Dzerzhinsky Square outside the Lubyanka prison to take on workers coming off the night shift. As my eyes grew accustomed to the murkiness of the unlighted room, I made out the figure of a man sitting on a three-legged stool. He was tall, thin, gaunt even, unshaven, unkempt, dressed in a shapeless suit jacket worn over a soiled white shirt buttoned up to a skeletal neck. There was a wispy triangular mustache on his upper lip. The hair on his head appeared to be matted. He was wearing shoes without laces or stockings. I was relieved to see that his ankles and wrists were secured in irons.

  I settled onto the only other piece of furniture in the room, a straight-backed wooden chair, the kind you might find in any honest Soviet kitchen. When the prisoner continued to stare off into space, I coughed discreetly. Taking note of my presence, he shuddered. His head twitched to one side in awkward salutation. I heard him murmur, “I ask you to excuse me.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “The last thing I expected was to be interrogated by a woman. When they came to fetch me in my cell, I thought they were taking me to execution. I … I crapped in my trousers. I lost all olfactory sense when my nose was broken during the interrogation but I suspect, from the expressions on the faces of the comrade guards who led me through the corridors, that I must stink to high hell.”

  I sensed he was struggling to control his emotions. I saw him raise his manacled hands, but as his head was bowed I could not tell if he was wiping tears from his eyes or sweat from his brow or froth from a corner of his mouth.

  “I am sorry to see you in these straits,” I said, thinking an expression of sympathy would create a favorable atmosphere for the interview. “I notice you wear a wedding band. Did your wife accompany you when you were summoned back to Moscow?”

  “She was instructed to return with me. She did not anticipate…” The prisoner cleared his throat. “She considered the rumors of purges in the ranks of the NKVD to be capitalist propaganda. She said we in any case had nothing to fear as we were dedicated Communists, guiltless of any wrongdoing.”

  “Where is she now?”

  “I hoped you would tell me.”

  “There was no mention made of her in the transcript of your trial.”

  “One night soon after my arrest I heard a woman calling my name from a distant cell. I thought I recognized my wife’s voice.” He looked up. “Please help me.”

  I turned away. “You have been condemned as an enemy of the people by a special tribunal. There is nothing I can do f
or you.”

  “Do you really think I am a Fascist agent?”

  “I read the verdict—you confessed to working for the Abwehr Division of the Wehrmacht High Command.”

  “I was tortured. The confession was beaten out of me. I confessed when I could no longer support the pain.” Speaking in a grating whisper, he said, “At least give me a cigarette.”

  Filling the room with tobacco smoke would have solved one of my problems. It was unfortunately against the rules. “This is not permitted,” I said.

  “Every civilized country of the world provides a last cigarette to a condemned man,” he said miserably.

  I would have liked to cover my mouth and nose with a scented handkerchief and breathe through it. “We don’t have much time,” I told him.

  “You mean, I don’t have much time.”

  “You were the London Rezident when the Englishman was recruited,” I said. I read from one of my index cards. “‘Cipher telegram number 2696 to Moscow Centre from London Rezidentura June 1934: We have recruited the son of a distinguished British Arabist known to be an intimate of the Saudi Monarch Ibn Saud and thought to have links to the highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Service.’ The telegram is signed with your cryptonym: Mann.”

  The prisoner looked up quickly. The sockets of his eyes seemed to have receded into his skull, the eyes themselves were curiously lifeless, as if they had died in anticipation of execution. Was it conceivable that light went out of the eyes before life went out of the body? “Why does it always come back to the Englishman?” the condemned prisoner was saying. “I never put one foot in front of the other without the consent of the Centre.”

  “The Centre’s consent to the recruitment was based on your assessment of the situation,” I reminded him.

  “My assessment of the situation was influenced by the Centre’s eagerness to recruit agents in Great Britain.”

  “How many times did you meet with the Englishman?”

  “I lost track of the count.”

  “The correct response is nine.”

  “Why do you pose a question to which you know the answer?” He shook his head angrily. “In my capacity as Rezident, not to mention as the Englishman’s controller, it was routine procedure for me to meet with him at regular intervals.”

  “Describe him.”

  “The details are all in my reports to the Centre.”

  “I would like to hear it from your lips.”

  The prisoner sucked air noisily through his nostrils. “The Englishman was born into the wrong century. He was one of the last romantics. Naïve perhaps, but an idealist to the marrow of his bone. He was above all anti-Fascist. He considered Stalin to be the bulwark against Hitler, Communism to be the bulwark against Fascism.”

  “In your opinion was he first and foremost a Communist or an anti-Fascist?”

  “It was the Centre’s approach at the time—let’s not forget the recruiting of the Englishman took place in 1934—to emphasize the anti-Fascist line of the international Communist movement, to call for a united front against the Hitlerian menace. So it is not astonishing that we recruited agents who were motivated predominantly by anti-Fascism.”

  “You were not put off by his background—his ultraconservative father with contacts in Saudi Arabia, his upper-class roots, his elitist education at the university Cambridge?”

  “Put off! On the contrary, it was his background that first caught my eye. I saw the potential for a long-term penetration scheme. We had lorryloads of working-class Communists with East London accents, we had Newcastle miners who recited The Communist Manifesto at their daughters’ weddings, but none of them could hold up his end of a conversation in a gentleman’s club. How could they be expected to penetrate the government or the diplomatic corps or, better still, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service?”

  “Surely the fact that he sought you out, as opposed to your seeking him out, must have raised suspicions that he was controlled by the British Intelligence Service, that he was sent by them to penetrate our intelligence service?”

  “I don’t contest that after he came back from Vienna he turned up at the London headquarters of the British Communist Party Central Committee—”

  I glanced at one of the index cards on my lap. “At number 16 King Street.”

  He seemed taken aback by my familiarity with the case file. “At number 16 King Street, exactly. He declared that he wanted to join the Communist Party.”

  The prisoner had put his finger on one of the many inconsistencies in my predecessor’s précis. I said, very quietly, “It defies credibility that someone who walks off the street into the central committee headquarters would not be photographed by British agents, would not then be put on a watch list. That being the case, the Englishman stood little chance of penetrating the British organs of state unless…”

  The condemned prisoner finished the phrase. “… unless his ultimate goal was to penetrate our organs of state in order to feed us disinformation.” He tried to cross his legs but the ankle irons restrained him. “The comrades at the London central committee informed him they had to check him out before he could become a member of the British Communist Party. They told him to come back in six weeks’ time. A report with the Englishman’s name on it reached my desk. I ran a background check on him. At Cambridge he’d been a member of the infamous Socialist Society. His closest friends, his acquaintances were all, like him, fervent leftists. No sooner had he pocketed his diploma then he went off to Vienna to participate in the Communist-inspired uprising against the dictator Dollfuss. Surely you are aware that it was one of Moscow Centre’s trusted agents in Vienna, Litzi Friedman, who first proposed his name to our organs. Her original report described him as a Marxist who considered the Soviet Union to be the inner fortress of the world liberation movement, who idolized Homo Sovieticus, who believed international Communism would lead to a healthier Britain, a better world. The Centre sent me to Vienna to sit in on one of the Friedman woman’s semimonthly meetings with her Soviet controller. I personally heard her put forward his candidacy, I heard her suggest that he would make an excellent agent. I interviewed her in London after she fled Dollfuss and Vienna. Again she insisted on the Englishman’s anti-Fascism, on his eagerness to join the Communist internationale. Moscow Centre weighed all of these particulars when it agreed the London Rezidentura should attempt to recruit him.”

  “According to the documentation in case file number 5581, you personally recruited the Englishman.”

  He nodded despairingly. “I organized a meeting on a bench in Regent’s Park in broad daylight. The Friedman woman brought him to me after taking precautions to be sure they were not being followed.”

  “Then what?”

  The prisoner managed a contorted smile. “At first he assumed it concerned his joining the Communist Party. The night before I’d written out what I would say as if it were a script for a radio drama. I played the role I had given myself to perfection. ‘If you want to join the Party, of course they will accept you into its ranks with open arms,’ I told him. ‘You can spend your days selling the Daily Worker in working-class neighborhoods. But it would be a waste of your time and talents.’ He appeared startled by my words. ‘What are my talents?’ he asked. ‘You are, by background, by education, by appearance and manners, an intellectual. You are able to blend in with the bourgeoisie and pass yourself off as one. If you really want to make a significant contribution to the anti-Fascist movement, simple membership in the British Communist Party is not the ticket. The clandestine alternative I am proposing will not be without difficulty, without danger even. But the rewards in terms of personal achievement, in terms of actually bettering the lot of the world’s working classes, will be immense. You came down from Cambridge—this alone will open doors for you in journalism, in the foreign service, even in His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service. Will you join us in the struggle against Hitlerism and international Fascism?’”

de the Lubyanka, laborers had begun using pneumatic hammers to dig up the macadam roadway. I recalled a lecturer at training academy talking about the efficacy of long silences in an interrogation. At the time I hadn’t been quite sure what he meant. Now I understood. Silences could be especially useful in the current situation, where the prisoner would be taken for execution once the interview terminated. It was in his interest to keep the conversation going. With this in mind, I held my tongue, my eyes fixed on the reels of the tape recording machine next to my chair. As the silence dragged on, he became anxious. He squirmed on the stool and raised his manacled wrists to thread the fingers of one hand through his hair. When I finally broke the silence, I could see he was grateful to me for resuming intercourse and impatient to respond.

  “Did the Englishman know who you were when you made your proposition?” I asked.

  “I told him only that he could call me Otto.”

  “Did he know for whom you worked? Let me rephrase the question: Did he know for whom you pretended to work?”

  The prisoner winced at the word pretended. “I was not a novice at the delicate business of recruiting agents. I was appropriately vague—I talked about the anti-Fascist front, I talked about the workers of the world uniting against their exploiters. But the Englishman had brain cells between his ears. Although he was too discreet to say so, there can have been little doubt in his mind that I represented Moscow Centre and the Soviet Union.”

  “What happened after you invited him to work for you?”

  “What happened was he agreed on the spot.”

  “Without hesitation?”

  “Without hesitation, yes.”

  “Didn’t it strike you as odd that he would not be uncertain, that he would not claim to need time to weigh the risks, to consider the consequences of his decision?”

  “I appealed to the adventurer as well as the idealist in him. I invited him to hitch his star to the Bolshevik project of imposing proletarian order on capitalist chaos. I offered him a meaningful existence, which was one of the things that motivated me when I agreed to work for the Centre. Perhaps you signed on for similar reasons. Looking back on that first meeting in Regent’s Park, it came as no surprise to me to find the Englishman nodding eagerly.”