Rufina Philby, the Russian widow of Kim Philby - the most famous of all the KGB spies to infiltrate British intelligence - arrived in London earlier this week to prepare for the sale of her husband's library at Sotheby's on Tuesday.
The library is a strange mix of manuscript snippets, books by his father, the famous Arabist Harry St John Philby, and the remains of his friend and fellow spy Guy Burgess's vast collection of books (which Philby inherited). Its value lies primarily in its association with the Cambridge spy ring - Philby, Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt.
Sotheby's has had second thoughts about the good taste of selling Philby's hats, ties, cufflinks and cocktail shaker, which have been withdrawn from the sale. So have two of the books, which, it turned out, Guy Burgess borrowed from the library of the Reform Club 50 years ago. E H Carr's Conditions of Peace (1942) and Sir Frederick Ponsonby's Sidelights on Queen Victoria (1930) are both heavily annotated by Burgess and therefore worth several hundred pounds. Should they be given back to the club? 'Of course,' said Rufina.
No one has hitherto known much about Philby's fourth wife, the companion of his last 18 years. He escaped to Moscow in 1963 after being forced to make a 'confession' in Beirut, and lived in Russia up to his death in 1988 - marrying Rufina in 1970.
Philby once called her a 'tempestuous redhead' and at 61 the famous hair frames a face that is full of character and humour. She comes across as a fiercely honourable and intelligent woman.
Rufina was born in Moscow in 1932, to a Polish mother and Russian father. Despite the fact that her father was a sought-after professional, a specialist in colouring furs, they lived in a single room in a communal flat. Her mother became ill after the birth of Rufina's brother and had not fully recovered when, two years later, her father died. At 17, Rufina had to go to work to support the family.
She found a job with a publishing house, correcting texts, and only after 13 years studying at night school could she get a job as a fully qualified editor. By that time Rufina was 30 years old, still living with her mother and brother in a flat that was 'full of holes'.
As an editor at the Institute of Economics and Mathematics, she shared an office with Ida Blake, the wife of George Blake, the British spy. Ida was a translator and a great talker. 'She mentioned there was an Englishman here, a very interesting man and attractive. I didn't ask any questions.'
Rufina first met Philby briefly in the street with the Blakes - 'he asked me to take off my dark glasses, he said he wanted to see my eyes' - then over a weekend at the Blakes' dacha. Philby arrived with two big bags of food and cooked coq au vin for dinner; there was a lot of wine and vodka and Rufina snuck away to bed, where she lay awake listening to the party.
'The room was absolutely dark. Then I heard a strange noise - my door was squeaking, carefully being opened. I couldn't see anything except a red light moving about, coming closer and closer, and I thought, cigarette - Kim. He sat beside me and spoke very seriously in Russian. 'Ya Angliskiy muzhchina,' 'I am an Englishman.' It was very funny. I said, 'OK, OK, we'll talk tomorrow.' He got up and very slowly closed the door. Then the door opened again, and again he sat down and said, 'Ya Angliskiy muzhchina,' and I said, 'tomorrow, tomorrow'. It happened three or four times. He was drunk, of course.'
Shortly afterwards they shared a week's touring holiday with the Blakes. On the last night, in a park in Yaroslavl, Kim asked her to marry him. It took Rufina another 24 hours to say 'yes'.
They had known each other for three weeks. He couldn't speak much Russian; she couldn't speak much English. So they developed their own mixture language.
The fact that Philby had been a spy made no difference to her. 'I didn't think about it. As soon as he began to court me, I understood that he was a wonderful person, a Real Man.'
Their life together was privileged by Russian standards. Kim had a four-room flat and worked at home. A KGB man would arrive with papers for him and another would come round to pick them up when he had finished. 'I was never interested in his work - I didn't want to know what it was.'
They did not have a car, preferring to walk or take taxis. 'Kim did not like to have privileges.' But when his children arrived to stay from England - he had five children by his second wife, Aileen - the KGB would provide a car to pick them up and take them on expeditions outside Moscow. The children got on well with Rufina, and she still visits them in England. 'We became friends. For me it was a festivity, a celebration. Sometimes I thought I was more happy than Kim.'
In the mid-Seventies the Philbys began to travel abroad. Foreign travel, even within the Eastern bloc, was normally impossible for Russians. But the publication in Czechoslovakia of Kim's autobiography, My Silent War, opened the door; they were allowed to go and spend his royalties, and after that trip the KGB allowed them to travel freely. They liked Bulgaria and Hungary most, but also visited East Germany, Poland and Cuba.
When they were no longer able to travel because of Philby's ill-health, the KGB allowed them the use of a dacha just outside Moscow. In the last years of Kim's life, they spent the summer in the country and the winter in town.
The only problem in their marriage came early on: Kim's drinking. 'Russians also get drunk very often. But they have less opportunity. Only alcoholics drink every day.'
Rufina thought nothing of his drinking before they married. Then she discovered the regularity of the habit. 'At lunchtime, we would have some wine. At six he would prepare some cocktail - whisky and water, or brandy and water. After the first glass he was OK, after the second he began to change, after the third I began to dislike him. His eyes were staring, he became stupid - quite a different man.'
She began to hide bottles, to throw away his drinks while he wasn't watching, or add water. But it didn't help. 'He would jump up at night screaming. He was also smoking all the time and I was afraid the bed would catch fire.'
Eventually Philby realised it was a problem. 'One day, without my pushing, he said: 'You know I am afraid of losing you and I am going to do something about it' - and he began to help me to fight it.' After they had been married for two years, he brought the drinking under control - except occasionally, 'when others were pouring and it was not his fault'.
If Philby's regular drinking habits were very English, then so was his morning routine. 'In the morning I always woke to the sound of the radio. However drunk he had been, every morning at 7am he would be listening to the BBC and drinking tea.'
Since Philby's death, Rufina's mother has moved into the flat to keep her company. Her health is also failing, and they need money for food. Rufina is sad to be selling Kim's books, but she has been driven to it by need. Inflation has made a nonsense of her widow's pension. 'I began this auction business when my pension was equivalent to pounds 3.50 a month. Now they have been very kind to me and I am getting the maximum possible - an enormous pounds 35 a month.'
Sotheby's has told her that the sale is likely to make around pounds 100,000, but she does not intend to take the money back to Russia; she will take enough to live on, she says, and give the rest to charity: 'It can be dangerous to be rich in Russia.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies