ART MARKET / The last effects of trechery: Spy fever is set to break out in July when Kim Philby's library, his homburg hat and other mementoes from the notorious Cambridge communist cell are offered for sale
Sunday 24 April 1994
Rufina was a red-haired beauty of 38 when she met Kim. She was friendly with the wife of another British spy, George Blake, and had arranged to go to the ballet with the Blakes one night. She bought the tickets - four of them because Mrs Blake's mother was coming. But the mother didn't feel well and the Blakes invited Kim. 'We met outside the Metro,' Rufina remembers. 'Kim knew at once that he wanted to marry me. Or that's what he always said. It took me a little longer. But not very long.'
Of Philby's four wives, Rufina is the one least is known about in the West - with the possible exception of his first wife, Litzi, an Austrian communist who married him in 1934 to get a British passport. Rufina was brought up in Moscow with a Polish mother and a Russian father who was an expert on the chemical treatment of furs. He died when she was only 16, leaving his wife with a one-year-old son and too ill to work. Rufina left school and got a job correcting manuscripts in a publisher's office in order to support the family. She was working for a publishing company that specialised in school textbooks and living with her mother, her brother and her brother's wife by the time she met Kim.
She is now 61, with her red hair thinning. She looks blanched, as if she spends too much time indoors and her hand shook a little as she lit a cigarette. But her spirit is very much alive. She can bubble with humour and her eyes light up at the prospect of fun - she doesn't get much of it. She lives with her mother, who is well over 80 and ill, on an income of roughly pounds 25 a month - her pension from the KGB. It's not much for the widow of a colonel and state hero but rouble inflation has played havoc with fixed incomes. It is barely enough to feed two people, she says.
That's why she has decided to sell Kim Philby's library at Sotheby's in London. 'It will improve my life if I can buy juice or fruit or one lemon - I think I can very quickly eat this money,' she told me. Kim had told her that he didn't have a fortune to leave her but she should sell the library if she ever ran into difficulties. All the same, she says, she found it a very difficult decision to make. 'It is not my style to sell anything - more to give to people. I have never sold anything before in my life.'
The sale is going to make a very big bang in Britain. Memories of the Cambridge spy ring - Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Philby and Anthony Blunt - are still fresh. Their gradual unmasking as Soviet spies over a period of more than 20 years - Burgess and Maclean in 1951, Philby in 1963 and Blunt in 1979 - deeply embarrassed successive post-war governments. The motivations of the spies and the human story of their treachery have never ceased to fascinate the public. Rufina is offering us a whole new chapter.
Sotheby's have shipped the library to London, together with a small group of miscellaneous mementoes. The company is hoping the sale, which is due to take place on 18 July, will raise some pounds 100,000. 'The money is for everyday life,' Rufina emphasises again. 'The flat needs repairing; the furniture goes to pieces; I have so many holes in my life. Maybe I will have the opportunity to travel if I have a little extra.'
What on earth is the British public going to make of it? Some people are certain to be outraged by the idea of Sotheby's profiting from the sale of a traitor's possessions. The principal reason that the books and objects have a pecuniary value is, of course, that their former owner betrayed his country. In fact, the library has passed through two traitors' hands - Philby inherited some of the books from Guy Burgess, and many contain Burgess's signature and scribbled notes.
Sotheby's picked through Rufina's books and brought to London only what they considered saleable. They were confronted with the kind of books that any educated Englishman of Philby and Burgess's generation would have about him: 19th-century novels, a bit of history and biography, philosophy, Marx and Engels, the Annals of Westminster School and the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for 1972. They chose the books that had signatures and inscriptions - by Philby, Burgess, Anthony Blunt and others; they also brought such typescripts and letters as Rufina would part with. She has kept back books and letters that she particularly treasures, such as the Graham Greene first editions inscribed to Kim, although she has sent some of their correspondence to the sale.
Sotheby's is deliberately pandering to the public's fascination with the private life of the famous - or infamous. For example, it has brought over three pipes and a metal pipe- cleaner that Soviet agents bought for Philby in London and secretly carried back to Moscow. Included in the same lot are a virtually unused Bulgarian cigarette box, a cigar case and a lighter; they are estimated at pounds 1,200 to pounds 1,500. Then there is Guy Burgess's trilby hat with the label of 'G A Dunn & Co, the Strand, Piccadilly and Oxford St' and Philby's homburg by 'Lock & Co' of St James's. Sotheby's has estimated that the hats will make pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000 each. These prices really do presume spy mania among bidders.
We have had sales of Beatles' memorabilia and Andy Warhol's bits and pieces and Barbra Streisand's furnishings. Recently, a sale of cooking utensils owned by Elizabeth David scored fantasy prices. It is now the turn of spies to provide the auction-room sensations. Remembering the number of Western agents sent to their death by Philby's reports to Moscow, this style of commercialism leaves a bitter taste. As I started to look through the papers and possessions that Rufina has sent for sale, I found myself half-horrified, half- moved. Sotheby's staff had been busily sniffing out items of 'human interest'; this is what grabs headlines. They had chosen his stud box, very much the worse for wear, with its lid falling off. I can't believe that Philby actually used the cuff links it contains; they are chunky and very Russian - not the kind of thing one would expect a Brit to wear. There's a cocktail shaker, a camera, a briefcase and his wallet, which still contains a battered cutting from Izvestia announcing his defection.
Then there are three ties: limp, oldish, in wool, silk and polyester, and pathetic. More than anything else, they spelt out to me the paradox of his treachery. The bright boy from Westminster and Cambridge, who moved naturally among the British upper classes, made a secret commitment to communism and Russia at the age of only 22, which led inexorably . . . to these shoddy ties.
It led, too, to trophies of an alien culture. Sotheby's has included numerous leather folders which contain printed speeches made by KGB officers hailing Philby's achievements in cliched rhetoric. There is a model tank presented to him by Soviet counter-intelligence in Hungary in 1976 and a fantastic trophy, formed as a globe circled by a Soviet spy satellite, set on a translucent plastic wave with a hammer and sickle shield behind, inscribed in Russian 'To Comrade Philby from your friends and colleagues who do the same work'. It was presented to Philby by General Kireyev, head of the KGB counter-intelligence division, to mark his 75th birthday. I asked Rufina if Kim took these presentation items seriously. 'More than half,' she said. 'It was his nature to be respectful and this had been his professional work.'
I find that surprising. The more one reads through letters and manuscripts included in the sale, the more vividly Philby emerges as a sophisticated, humorous and essentially British personality. His highly entertaining patter has a flavour characteristic of the generation that came to maturity between the wars; it is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Philby's own particular friend Graham Greene.
Philby recruited Graham Greene into the British secret service during the war and they met several times in Moscow after his defection - making a foursome, Philby and Rufina, Greene and his last mistress, Yvonne Cloetta. The sale contains a fascinating exchange of letters between Philby and Greene dating from the decade 1978-1988. Greene's letters are those of a lively old man, particularly concerned with world politics - to which he repeatedly seeks Philby's reactions. Philby's letters are far more brilliant than Greene's, humorous, occasionally profound and beautifully written.
For instance, Greene writes anxiously about the Islamic revolution in Iran; he suggests that Philby might have a special insight since his father had been a great Arabist. Philby's reply includes the following thoughtful paragraph: 'I don't think that being my father's son qualifies me to speak of the Ayatullah (sic). I have never had any religious experience and probably find it more difficult than most to understand irrational behaviour, even when it is my own. I tend to the view that the Ayatullah is a hateful old fraud, and that his precious Islamic republic is meaningless. But the point is that he stands for a very powerful negative - revulsion against Great Power domination - which is not confined to Muslim peoples. And for the time being we have to live with him. So what?'
It is possible that Greene's literary eminence encouraged Philby to take special pains over these letters - or even that he sweated over them with a calculated determination to keep the distinguished author on his side. Greene had emerged as Philby's chief apologist in the West when he wrote a glowing introduction to Philby's memoir, My Silent War, published in 1968. 'We were told to expect a lot of propaganda,' Greene wrote, 'but it contains none, unless a dignified statement of his beliefs and motives can be called propaganda.'
Philby's original synopsis for the book and a presentational note written to explain its usefulness to the KGB is included in the sale. It makes Greene's introduction look decidedly nave. 'The tone of the book,' Philby writes, 'should be moderate and cultivated. Yet, written in a vein of light irony, it should provide a devastating attack on SIS (Special Intelligence Service) and other organisations with which it was associated. The attack will concentrate on such aspects of SIS as social snobbery; internal intrigue; inter-departmental intrigue; coddling of officers and ruthless handling of agents; breach of diplomatic usage; double-crossing of allies etc.'
No one can doubt that Philby, only a few years into his 25-year Moscow exile, was still the devoted and devious servant of the Russian communist machine when he wrote those words. Rufina did not meet him until 1970, two years after the book was published, but she assures me that he remained committed to the ideal of communism. 'Of course, he was disappointed in many ways, like any normal person. Only crazy people live in illusions. He had open eyes and could see many mistakes - but he still believed life must be changed.'
One of the manuscripts included in the sale is a special introduction that Philby wrote for the East German edition of My Silent War. It sheds a ray of light on how it all began. 'Ever since I became aware of the world around me in early adolescence,' he writes, 'I felt instant sympathy with the poor and underprivileged as against the rich and arrogant. From that seed- corn all the rest developed.'
The books and documents in the sale are an eloquent testimony to how that seed developed. They provide a sort of intimate biography. Although the years when he was most active as a Russian agent are only tangentially touched upon, his British background and his twilight years in the Soviet Union are explicitly revealed. To start with, there is a reminder of how he came by his nickname 'Kim' - his real name was Harold Adrian Russell. There is a dog-eared copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, inscribed from his father to his mother: 'Dora Philby from H St John April 1919'. His parents thought their first-born was very like the hero of Kipling's story.
Philby was born in India in 1912. His father, Harry St John Bridger Philby, began his career in the Indian Civil Service though his fame is based on his travels in Arabia. Administrator, botanist, geographer and author, he was constantly at odds with the British government and, like T E Lawrence, completely at home in Arab society. He eventually became a Muslim and took a Saudi slave girl as his second wife. His eccentricities were both admired and disapproved of in Britain. He was a member of the Athenaeum, the most establishment of London clubs, and a cricket enthusiast.
Rufina has sent many of Philby senior's books about Arabia for sale, some inscribed to his mother, some to his wife and a late work, Forty Years in the Wilderness, published in 1957 and inscribed to Kim himself. At the time, Kim Philby was working in Beirut as a journalist and undercover British agent. He saw a lot of his father, who lived nearby.
Kim's admiration for his eccentric parent is often cited as a formative influence; like his father, he was deeply critical of British politicians - but where St John Philby shouted his criticism from the roof tops, Kim confined himself to secret betrayal. A moving testimony to Kim's devotion is the bulging file of condolence letters and telegrams he received at the time of his father's death in 1960 - including a telegram from the Saudi royal family. Not only did Kim keep every one of the 44 tributes he received, however formal and uninteresting, but he carried them around with him from London, to Beirut, to Russia. Now Rufina has sent them for sale.
Like his father, Kim went to Westminster School. Then came Cambridge, where he discovered communism and made the friends who powerfully influenced his later life - notably Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. An Everyman edition of the Paston letters - a collection of letters between three generations of a well-to-do Norfolk family from the 15th-century - is inscribed 'Guy Burgess from H A R Philby, Trinity'.
After Trinity, but not yet recruited by the Russians, he was sent by a communist front organisation in Paris to work in Austria - where he met his first wife, Litzi, a worker in the communist underground. Inside two books on German history that he had with him at the time - they contain many underlinings and notes in Kim's hand - Rufina has recently found trade union cards and what appear to be accounts for the Austrian communist cell. Presumably he forgot that he had hidden them there, between uncut pages, and no one, including British intelligence officers investigating his possible treachery, ever noticed them.
Philby was recruited by the Russians 'in a London park on a sunny afternoon' in 1934, as he told a KGB audience on the occasion of his first visit to their Moscow headquarters in 1977. A draft of his speech on that occasion is for sale in which he stresses his displeasure at having lived for 14 years in the Soviet Union before receiving such an invitation. There is also an article in which he claims that he was recruited on a secret visit to Prague, identifying himself by carrying a sprig of mimosa; it is now known that this version was invented to protect the officers who ran him in London.
There are relatively few documents dating from his most active years. Posing as a fascist sympathiser, he followed the Spanish Civil War as a journalist; in 1939 he was recruited by the British to the Special Information Service with the help of his friend Guy Burgess - who had joined some months before and remained the only friend with whom he could discuss his secret life. In 1945 he was put in charge of 'Section Nine', the anti-communist counter- intelligence service; in 1947 he was posted to Istanbul as SIS station chief and in 1949 to Washington to work in liaison with the CIA and FBI.
It was during the latter posting that he achieved most on behalf of his Moscow controllers. He was also, for a while, in a position to fend off British inquiries into Donald Maclean's activities - but disaster struck in 1951. Maclean, who had made a successful career in the Foreign Office, was taking to drink and allowing his homosexual tendencies to become dangerously public. He was sent home from a posting in Cairo with a nervous breakdown and the Russians decided to get him out. To Philby's horror, Guy Burgess, who was supposed merely to help Maclean, disappeared with him on 25 May 1951; they took the 11.45pm steamer from Southampton and were not seen again until the Russians produced them in Moscow in 1956 - five years later.
Burgess's defection turned suspicion on Philby as the probable 'Third Man'. His friendship with Burgess, a flamboyant and brilliant homosexual, was well known - though Philby did not share his sexual proclivities. Burgess had stayed with Philby in both Istanbul and Washington - where he drank so heavily that he was dismissed from his post at the British Embassy. Philby had promised the Foreign Office that he would keep an eye on Burgess but failed to control his debauchery. Their friendship convinced the American authorities, in particular, that Philby was a traitor. In 1955 he was named as the 'Third Man' by the New York Sunday News, although Harold Macmillan was formally to deny the allegation in Parliament. Philby withstood lengthy cross- questioning, was re-employed by the SIS and sent out to Beirut in 1956. New evidence emerged in 1963 and, after being confronted with it by a director of SIS, Philby chose to follow Burgess and Maclean to Moscow.
By that time he was married to his third wife, Eleanor Brewer, an American sculptor he had met while she was married to the New York Times's Middle East correspondent. His second wife, Aileen Furse, who bore him five children, died in 1957. On 23 January 1963, Philby left his flat, telling Eleanor he was going to meet a 'contact', and never came back. She joined Philby in Moscow in September 1963 but was never happy there and left Russia for good in May 1965.
Evidence of a brief liaison with Donald Maclean's wife Melinda is documented by a book he gave her in 1965 - Rufina, a little embarrassed, has sent it for sale. It has the unappealing title, The Ageing Process, and inside the fly-leaf Philby has written: 'To Melinda with love from Kim Nov 1965, An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away]'
It was natural that Philby should have seen a good deal of the Macleans in Moscow but the Soviet authorities did not allow him to see Burgess - to avoid 'recriminations'. Burgess was considered a liability by the Soviet authorities because of his homosexuality and his drinking. He died in August 1963, seven months after Philby arrived, and left his old friend various possessions in his will. Burgess had been a voracious reader and, according to Rufina, left his half his vast library to Philby and half to Maclean.
Burgess's books make up a substantial section of Sotheby's sale and are in themselves a microcosm of tragedy. His friends all agree that Burgess had a brilliant and wide-ranging mind which he laid waste by too much socialising, too much drink, an obsession with communism - and too many lovers. His early promise is confirmed by the prizes he won at school: Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome has a label recording that Burgess won '1st class trials Eton College April 1924'.
His interest in Marx and Engels was only allowed to surface publicly once he reached Moscow. He read them mostly in foreign language editions printed locally, which are covered with hand-written notes. Burgess did not worry about the condition of his books; he wrote all over them, including the fly-leaves. He wrote his name inside so that his friends wouldn't pinch them; once in the Soviet Union he often used his codename as a communist agent - Jim Elliot - perhaps as a humorous barb. The British classics that Burgess had in Moscow seem somehow especially poignant. His collection included Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Trollope's The Prime Minister, and many more. He is reputed to have left Philby 4,000 books.
Philby's literary tastes emerge less clearly but that is because Rufina has kept back the books that she treasures, or may want to read herself one day. In the first category are his first editions of Graham Greene - all presentation copies. In the second his Dick Francis paperbacks; Kim had a passion for whodunits. He was in the habit of ordering them from the bookseller Sherratt and Hughes in Cambridge; a letter dated 2 March 1987 regrets that they are unable to supply: Mystery of the Blue Train - Christie; Hail to the Chief - McBain; Close Quarters - Gilbert.
'He read a lot,' Rufina confirmed. 'Detective stories, novels, history . . . anything. It helped with his insomnia.'
She does not try to hide that she and Kim had some hard times at the end of his life - especially when he was drinking heavily. She told me a story of how they decided to go out for a walk one winter morning but couldn't find one of her boots. They searched the flat for it until Kim suddenly remembered that he had hidden the boot the night before while drunk to make sure Rufina couldn't leave him.
Heavy drinking is the traditional British escape route from pain, alienation and guilt. In one of his letters to Graham Greene, Philby describes himself as 'an ageing gentleman belonging to what Auden called the cigarette and alcohol culture'. Rufina's loyal affection must have been severely tested both by the binges and the guilt-ridden hangovers. The folder that contains draft chapters of Philby's unfinished autobiography is inscribed (in Russian): 'If Rufina kills me she will have more than enough reason to do so.'-
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