Hello, Comrade Philby

Kim Philby on USSR commemorative stamp

In “Just Browsing: Cool Items from the Past,” I shared several unexpected items I recently stumbled upon in America’s Historical Newspapers. I don’t however expect to find such wonderful things in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Reports. What’s cool there comes more from the benefits of hindsight than sheer surprise. And that backward look lets the propagandistic nature of some of the documents shine through. One I recently read is the somewhat hagiographic interview with Kim Philby, the former high-ranking member of British intelligence agent who spied for and later defected to the Soviet Union. The interview, first published in the Russian daily newspaper Izvestiya on Dec. 19, 1967, was translated into English for publication in FBIS supplement “MATERIALS ON 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF SOVIET STATE SECURITY ORGANS, FBIS-FRB-68-007-S on 1968-01-10. Supplement number 2” Titled “Hello, Comrade Philby,” the article starts with a street scene in chilly Moscow:

Click to open page 1 in PDF.

“It was on a frosty morning, and the haze of the night had not yet departed from the snow-covered streets. The trees on Gogol Avenue were covered with hoarfrost. Muskovites rubbing their cheeks and stamping their feet stood in a queue at a trolleybus stop. A new day began with all its worries and fuss. Cars were also in a hurry, one outrunning the other.
“A man of medium height, no longer young, but still strong, leisurely strolls over the sidewalk inhaling the frozen air. He wears a warm, fur-lined overcoat and a fur cap. The man sincerely enjoys this morning, the frost, and the rapid stream of pedestrians. Sometimes people bump into him. ‘Pardon me,’ they say in a hurry. ‘Never mind,’ he replies, speaking with a light accent. He looks with interest at the little boys with rucksacks on their backs who are throwing snowballs at each other on the avenue. He always smiles, this man with a kind and frank face. “Who is he? Why does he smile? What unusual thing has he discovered on the avenue, in the frost-covered trees, on that ordinary Moscow morning? The little children on the avenue, the passers-by on the sidewalk, the fashionable girls -- to which of them would it occur that the person smiling at them this morning has had a most amazing life history? He used to be called a puzzle of a man, and his life was called a rebus. There were many years, whole dozens of years, 30 years of endless puzzles, a life as intricate as a labyrinth.”

It then segues into a description of a 1951 meeting in Washington, D.C., at which Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner and other American intelligence leaders awaited an important British guest. Arriving exactly on schedule, Philby took his place at their table. He listened carefully to the outline of a major operation in which dissidents would infiltrate an Eastern European country, and he offered suggestions to help polish the plan. The article explains that this top-secret operation failed because Dulles:

“...even in his most nightmarish dreams […] would not have imagined that on that August morning a cadre worker of the Soviet intelligence service was sitting at the table opposite him in the office. The Soviet intelligence agent had accomplished another task of the Center.

“And now it was our turn to sit at a table with Kim Philby,” the article continues, providing a further description of the Soviet spy:

“He is very calm and slow[,] his large grey head with hair parted in the middle rests on strong shoulders, his masculine, weatherbeaten face is softened by bright, slightly twinkled eyes. When he smiles, wrinkles run from the corners of his eyes to the temples, giving his face an even warmer expression.”

The interview, with copious direct quotes from Kim Philby, follows. Where he was born, his education, his career before recruitment in the Soviet and then the British intelligence services are covered.

“It was in my work in the Soviet intelligence service that I found the form of this struggle. I thought at that time, and still think, that in this work I served my own British people, too.”

He tells the following from his days as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War, at which point his coverage was favorable to Franco.

“At that time I lived in Bilbao. Once, an officer from Franco’s staff came to me, seated me in his car, and drove me to the fascist headquarters in Burgos. They showed me into a hall in which there was a group of ridiculously bombastic generals. In the center was the ‘Generalissimo’ himself. I noticed at that time that all of them, including Franco himself, were rather short men. I was introduced. After a couple of minutes, the ‘caudillo’ extraordinarily solemnly presented this very same, cross to me. It later came in very handy for my work: of all Western journalists, I was one of the few awarded with this exotic order. When joining the British ‘intelligence service,’ the cross, too, played its role.”

Philby also discusses his pre-World War II activities in Germany and his wartime rise in the British service. After the war he was sent to Turkey, where his life was hectic. It’s busy when you’re working both sides of the street.

“It was much easier for James Bond in the novels of my old friend Ian Fleming; he still managed to find time for merry holidays and love affairs,” joked Philby.

I love the next question the interviewer poses: “You mean you knew Fleming also?”

“Of course, since he also worked in the secret service as deputy director of naval intelligence. Also employed in intelligence was Graham Greene, who was also a colleague of mine at that time. Today he is a truly great and respected writer.”

A quick discussion of Philby’s taste in literature follows, and then it’s back to his career. When asked about American intelligence elite, he gives dismissive estimates of two CIA directors—Allen Dulles (“considerate in dealing with people, but essentially showed a haughty attitude toward them”) and Richard Helms (“more politician than a specialist in his business”). Philby continues:

“But one person who really made an indelible impression on me,” he continued, “was [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s deputy, Mr. Ladd. This astoundingly dull person was quite seriously trying to convince me that Franklin Roosevelt, the former president, had been a Komintern agent!”

The interview concludes with this ringing statement:

“We congratulate him with all our hearts on the occasion of the coming jubilee, the 50th anniversary of the VCHK-KGB organs, the holiday of the Soviet Cheka members. This is his holiday too, after all.”

The rest of the FBIS Supplement is cool, too. The articles come from Pravda, Red Star, Soviet Union, Trud as well as Izvestiya—all packaged together to let U.S. government readers see a wide degree of coverage of the anniversary. It opens with a speech to KGB personnel by KGB director Yuri Andropov, who would become leader of the U.S.S.R. fifteen years later:

“Remarkable Chekist cadres, inspired by the ideals of October, grew up and were tempered in the struggle against the enemies of Soviet power. The image of the Chekist as a passionate revolutionary, a man of crystal-clear honesty and vast personal courage, relentless in the struggle against the enemies, stern in his duty, but human and ready to sacrifice himself for the people’s cause to which he has devoted his life—an image which prevails among the people—is associated precisely with the activity of these men.”

Andropov’s style makes the Philby article read as if it came out of movie fan magazine.

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