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