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
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
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
Latest stories from i100
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

    Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

    £15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

    Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

    £250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

    Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

    £30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home