The road to treason

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The young Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.

stalin1As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.

What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.

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Writer and journalist Goronwy Rees

Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.

All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.

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Kim Philby

In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”

More tomorrow.

Becoming a traitor

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J. Edgar Hoover

After World War II, there would be much talk about the “paranoia” about Communism that supposedly could be found in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But during the years between the world wars, the problem in the nation’s capital was the opposite. Almost anybody working at, say, the State or War department could easily access classified documents. Communist sympathies on the part of high-level officials were accepted with a shrug by the FBI and other agencies. J. Edgar Hoover and his men were all but oblivious to the danger of Soviet spying.

In fact there were plenty of Soviet spies in Washington, some of whom held very high-level positions in the U.S. government. Those who worked for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) reported to J. Peters, a Hungarian who had been born Sándor Goldberger and who worked out of the American Communist Party’s offices in New York. In 1934, Peters sent one of his underlings, Hede Massing, to Washington to try to enlist State Department official Noel Field, as Kati Marton reports in her fascinating biography of Field. As it happened, Field was also being wooed by a friend at State, Alger Hiss, who worked for the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency.

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Hede Massing

Field hesitated, then finally signed up with the NKVD in the fall of 1935.

Spying proved easy. These were days, he later recalled, when the “most secret documents… circulated from hand to hand.”

His new NKVD colleagues noticed several things about Field. One was his incredible naivete. Another was the “innate need for a guiding faith to imbue his life with meaning”: this “made him a devoted Communist.” Yet another was his desperate need to obey orders: he was a follower, not a leader or original thinker. “Noel could be strong only when he was doing what his superiors told him to do,” his friend and fellow spy Paul Massing later observed. Then there was his absolute belief in the goodness and rightness of Stalin and the Party. “For Noel,” Massing said, “the leaders of the Revolution can do no wrong.”

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Noel Field (right) at the League of Nations, 1939

Leaving the State Department in 1936, Field went to Geneva to work for the League of Nations – and to continue his espionage work. The next year, this young man who’d been drawn to Communism by a desire to usher in a better world was an accessory to the assassination of Ignaz Reisz, a veteran Soviet spy chief who’d dared to complain to Stalin about the show trials and executions of loyal Communists that were then underway in the USSR. Field had no remorse about this coldblooded murder. “He was a traitor,” Field said. “He deserved to die.”

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Gen. Walter Krivitsky

Field wasn’t troubled by the show trials, at which heroes of the Russian Revolution were railroaded and condemned to death. Other Communists, however, were outraged. Among them was Field’s handler, General Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the U.S., wrote exposés of Stalinism in the Saturday Evening Post, and ended up being murdered by Soviet agents in a Washington hotel room – a victim of Western officials’ unawareness of just how brutal the Kremlin was. (Krivitsky had actually told British Intelligence about the spies who’d later be known as the Cambridge Five, but they, like the FBI, had responded with a shrug.)

In 1938, a former colleague told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Field was a Communist. But thanks to official Washington’s – and America’s – lackadaisical attitude toward Communism during the FDR years, nothing happened to him. At about the same time, Field’s State Department friend Larry Duggan was also revealed to be a Soviet agent, but he, too, got away with it. Indeed, instead of being arrested or at least fired, Duggan was – incredibly – promoted: during most of World War II he served as assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a position that provided him with access to the nation’s most secret documents.

More tomorrow.

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.