By John Helmer, Moscow
If you believe that in July 1941, a few days after the start of the German invasion, Lavrenty Beria was telling Josef Stalin that one of their NKVD agents had gotten her information “from the horse’s mouth, as the peasants say”, this book is for you. Actually, the expression is American slang from early 20th century horse-racing tracks in New York and New Jersey. In Beria’s mouth, in Stalin’s presence, it is one of dozens of improbabilities about Russians by an American, whose latest novel claims to be a surprise version of the early years and later loyalties of H.A.R. Kim Philby (image left).
Robert Littell, the author, claims in an end-note to have gotten his idea from a well-known Israeli at a meeting in Jerusalem in the year 2000, before the Israeli went to his Maker. The source reportedly claimed that during the Mossad phase of his career, he had warned the CIA that Philby was a double agent, a British spy who was in fact a Soviet plant. However, because Philby repeatedly escaped the official consequences of his superiors realizing this, and managed to live out his days in Moscow scot free, with local honour and in comfort, Littell deduces that Philby must have been a triple agent. That is, a plant on the Soviets from the very beginning by His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, in a ruse which one or two CIA officials were let in on (although not the FBI).
The phrase, “His Majesty’s” is repeated almost every time Littell’s English characters refer to the service, as if they are as mesmerized by regal nomenclature as Littell appears to be. Out of the mouths of his Englishmen – e.g., Kim Philby and Guy Burgess – Littell drops a stream of improbable Americanisms – campus, listen up, exfiltrate, caper, wise up, suss, pisser, by golly, teensiest, plus two curious items of apparel — knickerbockers, and “Savile gaiters”. The former originated in New York as a type of short pants. The latter, a pseudo-reference to Savile Row, the London tailors’ street, have never existed on either side of the Atlantic.
For these Englishmen Littell also muddles the geography of pubs in St.James’s almost as badly as his Russians fail to make their way down hill from their office at Lubyanka to GUM on Red Square.
Littell’s Russians – field agents, professional assassins, backroom analysts – say things to Philby like: “There a very few comrades in Moscow who think you are too good to be true”. (This is after Philby delivers to Moscow the date of the German invasion; the US project to build the atom bomb; the deployment of radar; and the cracking at Bletchley Park of German military codes. ) Littell’s Russian, cryptonym Kapp, goes on: “They worry whether you are a sincere Communist and a loyal agent of the centre. Are you, Kim? Loyal to Moscow, to Stalin, to Communism?”
If you think that sounds the way spy handler and spy agent talk to each other, their backs to a tree on Hampstead Heath, you will find the detail of how these Russians plot, suspect, contradict, confess, and end up deceiving each other, and Stalin too, faultlessly convincing. English-fluent Muscovites speak of buying hot wine in Gork Parky, circa January 1941, from vendors they call “old babushkas”. They describe living in a “flat they share…in a communal apartment”. To keep the typical Russian dacha warm, they have moved “the great Russian ceramic tile stove” to the centre of the room, instead of in its 18th and 19th century spot in the corner. On mission and under cover they report back to headquarters that the girls walking the streets of Biarritz are French.
The kudos for a deception scheme now in its 78th year should be shared, according to Littell, between Philby, who died in 1988, and his father St. John Philby (image right), who died in 1960.The secret record of the latter’s scheme for his son is dated to July 1934, according to a partially redacted minute of a meeting between St. John and Hugh Sinclair, head of SIS at the time, and also “Admiral of His Majesty’s Fleet (retired).” If the scheme can be pulled off, St.John tells Sinclair: “Then we can feed them foolscap until the cows come home… We can get into Stalin’s brain and do his thinking for him…if we succeed, Stalin’s NKVD will become a wholly owned subsidiary of our SIS”.
Eleven years later, in July 1945, Philby Senior reappears at the SIS office in London to propose to Sinclair’s successors the sequel scheme of exposing and almost arresting Philby Junior, allowing him enough time to flee to Moscow “where he would become a senior Soviet intelligence officer”.
The official responses to the grand Philby plan are reported to have been: “Colonel Menzies: ‘Outrageous, what?’ Colonel Vivian: ‘Rather boggles the mind.’ ” That’s Sir Stewart Menzies, head of SIS, and Colonel Valentine Vivian, deputy head of SIS and head of Section V, counter-intelligence. Scratching his “Horse Guard whiskers”, Menzies adds: “To begin with, who would believe it?”
It would be fictional to report that in the novel, Littell has St. John Philby conclude: “By Golly! You can bet your teensiest knickerbockers on that.”