Books: The trade of treason

Jana Howlett interrogates the KGB's motive for its latest leak: The Crown Jewels: the British secrets at the heart of the KGB archives by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev HarperCollins, pounds 19.95

Among evidence used against the Communist Party in the Russian Constitutional Court six years ago was an undated hand-written scrap of paper with the words "RECEIVED $3,000,000" and underneath "three million US dollars, Gus Hall". Hall was Secretary of the US Communist Party, which then had no more than 6,000 members. The scrap of paper was presented to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party by the KGB as proof that the cash had been delivered.

I was reminded of this when I first read of The Crown Jewels in a newspaper article which stated that the authors had been offered a $2 million advance because of the rarity of the material. This was provided, as the acknowledgements tell us, with the full co-operation of the KGB's Foreign Intelligence Service (spies to you and me), partly, no doubt, because one of the authors is an ex-employee. The KGB do not get out of bed for less than a million.

During this century the Russian, then Soviet, now Russian security service has changed its name many times: MVD, Cheka, OGPU, KGB, FIS. It remains a huge power in a country where the denunciation was encouraged as an instrument of government. In 1992, a Yeltsin decree announced that the Party and KGB archives were to pass into the public domain after de-classification. A decree is one thing; implementation another. The KGB archives remain firmly closed. We have no means of checking the authenticity of material now released by an institution whose main business was deception.

Anyone reading this fascinating and peculiar collection has to bear that firmly in mind. A spokesman in Moscow said that the KGB's successor released these materials for publication in Britain because they "do not contain any sensational revelations"; they were swapped for an explanation of the expulsion of 105 Soviet diplomats from London in 1971. The much-hyped "Atom Secrets" chapter is the least interesting, since it is not based on KGB archives, but on an interview with a KGB officer recalling events of 50 years ago. Since he claims that after six months of study he was "sufficiently familiar with atomic theory" to work as an "atom spy", one has to wonder about his reliability.

At the heart of the book are copies of reports by KGB intelligence officers and the British spies whom they ran. These show the KGB's distrust of its British sources, and confirm the lack of co-operation between the USSR and Britain even when they were supposed to act in concord against Hitler.

The fact that the "Cambridge Five" spies supplied copies of Allied military plans was first mentioned in the only book officially published by the former KGB. The Hidden Truth of War came out in Russia three years ago, and reproduced five reports by Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, without identifying the latter. But the information here is far more interesting, not least because of the comical aspects of the relationship between Guy Burgess and his disapproving KGB contact. Indeed, the reports by some of the minders tell us more about the pedestrian minds of the Soviet KGB than their subjects: Burgess "goes about dirty, drinks much and leads the so-called life of the gilded youth", though he is reported to be "well grounded politically" because he "quotes Marx, Lenin and Stalin".

The strangeness of the English in reports attributed to English moles is peculiar. Burgess's report on Cairncross says that the latter is "a lower-middle class intellectual (from a theoretical point of view he is well developed)... But, generally speaking, he is well set up... I don't want to say with this that he has been consciously bought". Burgess may have been a drunkard, but he was an educated drunkard, and the language of the English documents should make a careful reader suspect forgery. There is, however, another explanation. The KGB's Hidden Truth, which unlike this book gives checkable archival references, says that foreign reports were translated into Russian and filed without their originals. The reports we read here underwent a double translation from English into Russian and back again.

The KGB origin of a great deal of the book is evident in the commentary. It seems unlikely that Nigel West would have written with such approval that "Bystrolyotov's own opinions were not influenced by bourgeois ideology, property or religion" and one would hope he could not dismiss the 1937 purges, in which thousands of citizens were arrested by the KGB's predecessor, as "the purge which decimated the KGB".

I found The Crown Jewels a good read: often entertaining, sometimes informative. But as a historian I am minded of what Sir Thomas Beecham was reputed to have said to a lady cellist: "You have between your knees what many would give their lives to possess, and you just sit there scratching it."

Jana Howlett is completing a history of Russia in the 20th-century, based on documents from formerly closed archives, co-written with Rudolf Pikhoia, ex-minister for state archives

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

    Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

    SAP BI CONSULTANT

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BI CONSULTA...

    Infrastructure Manager - Southampton - Up to £45K

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + 36 days holiday and more: Deerfoot IT Resources Li...

    Drama Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice