Smollett: the spy who got away

Yesterday we discussed George Orwell’s 1949 list of literary and journalistic colleagues whom he viewed as “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way.” Among them, we pointed out, was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who at the time was considered the ultimate authority on the Soviet Union – but whose name has since become synonymous with shameless journalistic dishonesty and the systematic whitewashing of tyranny.

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George Orwell

Another name on Orwell’s list was that of Peter Smollett. Born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Peter Smolka, he relocated in 1933 to Britain, where, according to writer Daniel J. Leab, he “wrote pro-Soviet travel journalism for various US outlet during the 1930s, became a naturalized British subject in 1938, changed his name, and after the war’s outbreak joined the Ministry of Information, where he energetically organized pro-Soviet propaganda and suppressed ‘unfavorable comment’ on Stalinist Russia.”

Animal-FarmHis title at the Ministry was Head of Soviet Relations. At the height of the war, when Orwell sent Animal Farm, his classic indictment of Soviet Communism, around to various publishers, one of them, Jonathan Cape, was “reported to be initially keen on the manuscript,” but “bowed out after consulting an ‘important official’ at the Ministry of Information, who advised against publication.” That official was Peter Smollett. On his list, Orwell described Smollett as “a very slimy person” who was “almost certainly [an] agent of some kind.”

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Kim Philby’s 1990 USSR commemorative stamp

He was right. After his death in 1980, Smollett/Smolka was revealed to have been an agent of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which, in addition to performing espionage, ran the Gulag labor camps, conducted mass executions, and carried out mass deportations of various minorities and farmers. The Mitrokhin Archive, which we discussed a while back, records that Smollett was recruited as a spy in 1939 by double agent Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, and that his NKVD cover name was ABO. Smollett’s wartime NKVD work, notes Henry Hemming, “was held in high regard by Moscow.” Not only did he pass top-secret information on to the Kremlin (working first under Philby and later under another one of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess); he was also an invaluable pro-Soviet propagandist. In communications to higher-ups at the Ministry,

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956, after his defection to the USSR

Smollett would exaggerate Soviet concerns, refuse to give in to them and then suggest as a quid pro quo a more Soviet-friendly stance on other issues. He maintained, for example, that the Soviets were exceptionally thin-skinned and, as such, no stories about Stalinist persecution could be broadcast. Smollett encouraged the BBC to run stories that exaggerated the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR….Elsewhere Smollett pushed the idea that after the war the USSR would be too weak to do anything other than rebuild.

The result of Smollett’s efforts was substantial. Hemming describes it as a “red haze” that “swept over Britain after the entry of the USSR into the war.” What he means is that Britain, thanks in large part to Smollett’s initiatives, was given a consistently prettified image of life under Stalin. As Hemming puts it, Smollett “helped to blur the line between the heroic Russians and the brutal Soviet regime.”

Smollett, Hemming points out, “was not unmasked during his lifetime, and instead enjoyed a successful post-war career as a respected Times correspondent and was even awarded an OBE.” But Orwell knew.

More tomorrow.

One thought on “Smollett: the spy who got away

  1. Astounding to me how willing they were to betray their compatriots and peers. They did not bat an eye, and yet I’m sure begged for mercy whenever any of them were caught. The Cold War was so much more than a fight for resources, as they’d have you believe today; it was good vs. evil.

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