A few weeks ago I bought a book titled My 5 Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, by “Their KGB Controller”. Here’s the cover of the book.
My 5 Cambridge Friends is not what it purports to be: the “account” of Yuri Modin ripped from KGB archives and bleeding on a plate in front of Western readers. Modin’s “account” has been thoroughly cooked and presented in digestible bites by co-authors Jean-Charles Deniau and Aguieska Ziarek, and probably the translator Anthony Roberts too. I know this because the writing is tailored for English-speaking people and crafted like a B&N-ready historical narrative from page one. ‘Yuri Modin’ makes numerous and astute references to Western popular culture– he mentions spy novelist John le Carré a suspicious amount– yet Russian popular culture references are vanishingly rare.
Why would Modin have become involved in a writing project like this? In 1994, when My 5 Cambridge Friends came out, Yuri Modin was a retired spook in Moscow which probably means he had stopped receiving his pension. Western governments were eager to control any embarrassing information that may have leaked out during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so an outpouring of ‘KGB Archives’ writing was published at this time– Lesley Milne’s pathetic biography of Mikhail Bulgakov was also part of this propaganda offensive. Therefore, even though it’s unlikely that Modin actually wrote the majority of this book, I’ll refer to him as the author in this post.
The reason I bought My 5 Cambridge Friends is because of one quote on a ‘Cambridge Five’ Wikipedia page that was attributed to it:
Philby never meddled in his friend’s private life; nor did he ever allude to Burgess’s homosexual affairs. He once told me that he viewed Guy’s homosexual tastes as a sickness– and none of his business.
(This quote is actually in My 5 Cambridge Friends.)
If this information is true then Philby’s opinion is a very interesting one, because it was Philby who coalesced the core of the ‘Cambridge Five’. Philby chose three “sick” men to be the core of this particular espionage network: mutual lovers Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. ‘Yuri Modin’ describes Philby’s strategy:
Kim Philby now set about his first mission, which was to recruit one or two other agents to form an embryonic network. He traveled up to Cambridge during the month of May. There he met Guy Burgess, told him what he had done and seen that winter in Vienna and thus convinced him to join his fledgling group… Philby asked Burgess to forage among his friends, and Burgess came up with Anthony Blunt.
What was the dynamic like between these men? According to Modin:
In May 1934, Kim Philby traveled up to Cambridge to see Burgess. For once it was not Philby who was bewitched by Burgess, but the other way around.
In turn, Burgess was the ‘alpha’ amongst his group of homosexual friends:
A few weeks before his trip to Rome, Burgess in his role of talent scout had supposedly roped in yet another choice recruit. He had seduced intellectually– and, it has been said, physically too– a promising young Cambridge undergraduate by the name of Donald Maclean, who henceforth became a trusted member of his cell of activists.
Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess were very close at Cambridge. Blunt was madly in love, lost in admiration for Guy’s brilliant intellect and dancing wit.
Based on Modin’s account, it appears that idealization was a big part of Philby’s network: Maclean and Blunt idealized Burgess, Burgess idealized Philby. Read cult-survivor Daniel Shaw’s opinions on how idealization is used by narcissistic cult leaders here.
Homosexuals are a minority of the general population and it strikes me as odd that Philby would just happen to target three of them for the core of his spy group; it seems especially odd considering that Philby had a low opinion of their behavior. Was the homosexual population a special target for security services in general?
U.K. Intelligence’s favored recruiting grounds at Oxford and Cambridge Universities certainly had large homosexual populations in the 1920s and 30s. According to Francis Wheen’s biography of Tom Driberg, Oxford University hosted an undergraduate class where homosexuality was the norm rather than the exception. (In fact, one graduate says boys who liked girls in the 1920s were likely to be “sent down”, i.e. not complete their degree.) Clearly, Cambridge university also hosted a large gay student body in the 1930s. If homosexuality has an intelligence utility, it’s unlikely that the Brits were unaware of that utility, since they were recruiting LGBT agents like Aleister Crowley from these establishments from at least the 1890s.
Some members of the British secret services believed that gay networks formed around men in power. According to Modin, David Footman, the assistant director of MI6’s Political Intelligence Department, asked Burgess to use his network of homosexual contacts to open an unofficial dialogue channel between Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister) and French Premier Édouard Daladier– neither of whom were gay to my knowledge. Footman’s schemes are not necessarily proof of an agency-wide recruiting policy, but they do show that a leading British spook saw something exploitable in the gay milieu.
Soviet intelligence definitely considered homosexuality a desirable trait amongst spies. According to one report, The Theory and Practice of Soviet Intelligence, published by the CIA and written by Soviet defector Alexander Orlov:
Considerable [recruiting] success was achieved among foreign diplomats tinted with homosexual perversions; it is no secret that the biggest concentration of homosexuals can be found in the diplomatic services of Western countries. Those of these who agreed to work for the Russian network were instructed to approach other homosexual members of the diplomatic corps, a strategy which was remarkably successful. Even when those approached declined the offer to collaborate, they would not denounce the recruiter to the authorities. Soviet intelligence officers were amazed at the mutual consideration and true loyalty which prevailed among homosexuals.
Of course, Orlov’s use of the word ‘loyalty’ is misleading, these people were traitors to their own country, but the Soviets had found a way of activating reliability amongst their homosexual assets in a way that their employers at the Western “diplomatic services” had not figured out (or found ethically unacceptable).
Given British and Soviet intel’s interest in homosexuals’ utility for espionage, and given that Kim Philby took such pains to recruit them, it’s weird that Philby would downplay Burgess/Blunt/possibly Maclean’s orientation to his Soviet contact Modin by saying their gayness was “none of his business”. It’s almost as if Philby was trying to hide a tradecraft tactic from Yuri Modin… do genuine double agents hide such things?
Whatever Philby believed about the state of Soviet tradecraft, it should be noted that similar patterns of behavior arose between Western and Soviet homosexual milieus. In Gay and Lesbian Communities the World Over, authors Rita James Simon and Alison Brooks say the following:
Yet, during the Stalinist age, Soviet persecution of gay men was neither continuous nor total. In the case of well-known personalities such as Eisenstein, the popular opera tenor Sergei Lemeshev, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and numerous male ballet dancers, the authorities were willing to look the other way, provided the man was married and kept his homosexuality out of public view. A considerable number of Soviet gay men were in the Red Army, or were in the diplomatic corps or were entertainers.
Currently gay men are over-represented in the US military; the Soviets noticed that Western diplomatic corps appealed to gays; and I leave it to readers to assess if the LGBT community is highly represented in the Western entertainment industry. The Soviets probably first developed their intelligence strategy with respect to homosexuals on their own turf: through their own propaganda and censorship efforts or through what they learned from their British partners after the Bolshevik Revolution.
What might this Soviet strategy of activating reliability have looked like in practice? I’ll remind readers that Kim Philby came from a powerful intelligence family; he had a masterful, magnetic personality and is often described as handsome. Might this have explained Burgess’s infatuation with him and, consequently, the reliability of Burgess’s conquests?
In As Political Chips, an essay on homosexuality’s political use written by Marni Esque, the author asserts that heterosexual men can be highly desirable to gay ones: “Happiness is thus almost impossible to attain, especially since the attraction for working boys goes with a desire to have “normal,” heterosexual boys.” Esque associates this type of homosexual longing with a desire for “virility, physical superiority, the opposition between the “strong” and the “weak,””. Esque goes on to suggest that at the root of some homosexuality is the childlike desire to be affirmed and protected:
The working boy seems to live a mythical world where the values are reversed,where all that was prohibited is finally allowed, where happiness is accessible: “Come to me, and you will be as happy as I am, and as strong.”
Could it be that a connected, urbane womanizer like Philby held a charm for men like Burgess, Blunt and possibly Maclean? Could it be that what men like Footman and the Soviet intel apparatus understood was that some homosexuals’ unquenchable desire for affirmation and belonging could be used to make them do irrational, dangerous things? Were the Soviets exploiting power-worship, much like Nigella Lawson, the battered goddess of food-porn, exploited power-worship through her ‘kept woman’ sales pitch?
I think this sort of exploitation was very likely and I’ve written about it elsewhere in Great Users of People, The Cult of Intelligence and A Call for Papers. Yuri Modin’s account of his work with the Cambridge Five provides some other insights as to how people who want affirmation from the powerful are used by intelligence services. I was shocked to read this statement in chapter one:
…the agent who thinks he’s James Bond has no place at all in a real intelligence service. There are those who try to ape Ian Fleming’s fictional spy, bristling with gadgets, sexually voracious, intrepid and constantly involved with battles of one kind or another. I’ve known a few like that, and none of them ever went very far.
This quote shocked me because much of Philby, Burgess and Blunt’s behavior is ‘James Bond-like’, even as it is described by Modin. Modin goes on to say that it’s better if intelligence agents are 1) not too bright (he calls them “soldiers” at heart); 2) somewhat childlike; yet 3) politically astute so that they can anticipate their masters’ whims and 4) without mental or physical ailments. In contrast to these observations, Modin goes on to say that many intel agents are either alcoholics or that they drink to forget; that they may have “weird relationships with woman”; gamble impulsively; they may be fragile and highly-strung; and are often wracked by guilt.
A number of the spy characteristics described by Modin– both the typical ones and the desirable ones– are consistent with behavior associated with narcissism, which is an anxiety-ridden, childlike preoccupation with one’s undeveloped self. I’ve speculated elsewhere that narcissism is useful to exploitative organizations because narcissistic people are incredibly easy to manipulate. Many of Modin’s ‘typical’ spook characteristics are also somewhat James-Bondish: drinking, gambling, unhealthy relationships with women.
On first reading Modin’s observations about intelligence agents, I thought he was contradicting himself. ‘Drinking to forget’ is not indicative of a healthy mind, neither are weird relationships with women, nor being “wracked by guilt”. The agents who Modin brags about running could have been prototypes for James Bond. Was Modin saying that his underlings, and many other ‘pros’ in the trade, were destined to go nowhere in the intelligence hierarchy?
If Modin and his co-writers weren’t contradicting themselves, then they’ve given us insight into how the spook-world is organized. The ‘James Bonds'; the narcissists; and the emotionally crippled people described by Philippe de Vosjoli are the ‘worker bees’ of the intelligence community. They’re not designed to make it to ‘Floor Seven’. They are flattered into doing what more mature, balanced men with options and good judgment would never choose to do themselves. Perhaps that’s why the guys who ‘took the fall’ as the ‘Cambridge Five’ were disproportionately gay, even though they were from connected families… as Orlov wrote “they would not denounce the recruiter to the authorities”.
When I say ‘taking the fall’ I am implying that there were more ‘Soviet’ agents in British Intel employ than the four/five which were uncovered as part of the ‘Cambridge’ ring. At this time, I don’t doubt John Cairncross was giving Soviets information that some parts of the British government were unhappy with, but I do doubt that he was the outer limit of Philby’s network– I will write more on this in the future.
If Modin’s description of intel worker-bees is accurate, then it shows that Playboy’s (the CIA’s) promotion of the James Bond fairytale was designed to appeal to lower-caste intel operatives… the hoi polloi of the espionage sphere.
But where does all this leave Kim Philby– was he just a foot soldier too?
Yes and no. St. John Philby, Kim’s father, actually had power outside of the British establishment through his influence at the Saudi royal court and their mineral rights. This means that, for a while, Kim had power outside of MI6 and could have been truly dangerous to Stephenson and the London financial barons.
However, there are things about Kim Philby that weakened him. Kim was a womanizer– which means that he had impersonal sexual encounters. Regular readers will remember that CIA personality profiler John Gittinger was very interested in people who like self-centered sex as part of his Personality Assessment System, which the CIA used in a bid to manipulate people on an industrial scale.
While Philby (according to Modin) felt homosexuality was “sick”, there are many people who would say the same about womanizing. I’ve only known two womanizers: their behavior was motivated by 1) anger towards women and 2) the power-trip that came from stringing women along. Neither motivation is vastly different from those of a typical rapist or pedophile, it’s just that womanizers tend to use lies where criminals use force.
Kim Philby was a narcissistic man if one ever existed: a consummate user who caused the deaths of many people in order to further his career. As I’ve stated before, exploitative organizations manipulate narcissists. Kim was also second-generation intel, which is important because people born into cults like the ‘intelligence community’ are less likely to identify exploitative behavior as being exploitative.
At this time I believe Kim Philby was a ‘worker-bee’ too, though for a while he had the dangerous potential to become something more. I think that Philby was also more stable than the other agents he recruited and consequently he was given more responsibility by both the British and the Soviets than were the notoriously flighty, irresponsible Burgess and Blunt, or the impossibly idealistic Maclean.
I will write more about the strange case of Kim Philby and the ‘Cambridge Five’ in the coming weeks, but I think readers will already have deduced my opinion on this group from my writing about Ernst Henri: not all is as it seems with these ‘Soviet’ quints.