The Curious Case of a Master-Spy: The Fictional Kim | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 05, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 05, 2019


The Curious Case of a Master-Spy: The Fictional Kim

What's in a name? Suppose you are given the name of a well-known character in fiction, could this determine the sort of person you are or are perceived to be? I am asking this question with one of the twentieth century's master-spies in mind, “Kim” Philby. Kim takes his name from the eponymous hero of Kipling's (1901) novel centred on the spying then going on in the Great Game between Britain and Russia for political power in central Asia.

Kipling's Kim is an orphan boy of the bazaars, as mischievous as the young Krishna. Known as the Little Friend of all the World, he is uncertain of his real identity. Who – or what - is Kim? he asks. Apparently Indian but actually born of poor Irish parents, Kim's street-wise tricksiness leads to his being employed by the British Imperial Secret Service in Simla – operating under the guise of the Ethnological Survey of India.

On the surface, the book reads like a boys' magazine adventure story, gung-ho for the Empire and full of appalling racial stereotypes. This is deceptive. The Bengali, for instance, posing as a hakim from Dhaka, uses the stereotype of a fearful babu to display great courage in outwitting his adversaries. Moreover, he desires to pursue ethnology for its own sake and not as a cover for espionage, a desire shared by his British Chief of Intelligence.

The book has opened with an affectionate portrait of the Curator of the Wonder-House in Lahore, one of several males who act as a father-figure to the orphaned Kim. The Curator is already engaged in the pursuit of (relatively) disinterested knowledge, gathering artefacts from diverse cultures. Ultimately, however, it is the world-view of an old and unworldly Tibetan lama that, like his loving relationship with Kim, subsumes all others: his search for spiritual knowledge ends in an all-encompassing vision that apprehends different cultures as one.

The Real-Life Kim

Switching from literature to life, enter “Kim” Philby, born 1912 in Ambala, scene of several of the fictional Kim's escapades. Kim's father, an ever-present figure in his life, was an Arabist who gathered knowledge for diverse purposes. Having been the first socialist to serve in the ICS, he worked for British Intelligence in Arabia, passing on secret information to the House of Ibn Saud when he considered the British were betraying the pan-Arab cause. He explored the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the name of science. He converted to Islam (in the Masjid al-Haram itself), settling down in the Middle East under the name Sheikh Abdullah.

Kim followed his father to Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, his holidays among the Bedouin providing him with a rather different perspective on his privileged English education. He joined the Labour Club at university but, disenchanted by Labour's performance in Government, came to believe the Communists were the only serious obstacle to the rise of Fascism. While engaged in helping refugees in Central Europe escape from Nazism, he was recruited into Soviet espionage in 1933.

For thirty years, like his fictional namesake, Kim played the Great Game, replete with its code-names for agents and letters in code, though in Europe, not in Asia, and for the Russians, not against them. Generally regarded as a traitor to his class and country, his own view was that his country in the 1930s betrayed itself in successively betraying Abyssinia, Spain and Czechoslovakia to Fascist dictators. He determined to use his intelligence to thwart the seemingly inexorable Fascist rise to power.

Deep Cover

Kim could not have created a deeper cover for a Soviet agent than he did in 1937-8 at Teruel, scene of the decisive battle of the Spanish Civil War. While acting as a war correspondent for The Times, he was reporting to Soviet Intelligence (by way of love letters to a girl in Paris) on the capabilities of Nazi tanks and airplanes. As the sole survivor from a car destroyed by Republican shell-fire, he was decorated by General Franco himself with the Red Cross of Military Merit. Little did Franco guess that the Soviets were even then considering whether Kim was the right man to assassinate him.

After Dunkirk, Kim shifted from war correspondent into the British Intelligence Services, ending up in SIS (later MI6). Dismayed by the non-aggression pact Stalin signed with Hitler in 1939, he was one of two spies to inform Stalin first of Germany's intention to invade Russia and then of Japan's intention not to. Eventually Stalin did rush forces back from the East to defend Moscow, so saving Europe (at the cost of some 20 million Russian dead) from comprehensive Fascist dictatorship.

While the War was still on and Britain and Russia were allied against a common enemy, Kim could work doubly effectively as a double agent, subversive of those British operations intended to help restore the monarchs and oligarchs in Europe. Whatever department he headed up, Iberia and Russia at home, Istanbul and Washington abroad, as a good boss, a personable companion, a shrewd and even generous judge of men, he gained a reputation for professionalism.

Third Man

During the Cold War, this reputation served Kim so well that some supposed he was on the way to becoming Chief of MI6. Perhaps it is even more remarkable that, after his fellow spies in the Foreign Office, Burgess and Maclean, escaped to Moscow in 1951, Kim faced down all the evidence that pointed to him as the Third Man who had tipped them off.  In 1955 he was actually cleared of being the Third Man by the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, on the floor of the House of Commons.

Pensioned off, Kim retired to join his father in Lebanon and, working as a journalist, was even re-employed by MI6. If British – and American – Intelligence agents were unwilling to believe good old Kim was a double agent, the Russians (after decisive incriminating evidence forced him to flee to Moscow in 1963) were less trustful. Once he was in Moscow, they put a minder on him, fearing he might be, as Stalin once suggested, a triple agent and so liable to defect to Britain.

More even than Stalin supposed, could it be that Kim was the quintessential agent, playing the game for its own sake, establishing good enough colleagues inside the British Intelligence Services just to ensure he had a worthy match for his skills as a Soviet spy?  Kim, writing in Moscow, denied this, claiming his professional English self was simply deep cover for his espionage. Was it quite so simple?

Anti-Fascist as Kim undoubtedly was, it is less clear how committed he was to Soviet Communism. When he defected to Moscow, for example, he couldn't help but be distressed by the way old war veterans were poorly looked after. That said, there's little evidence to suggest the short-comings of the Soviet system eroded his hopes for an international socialist order any more than the failings of the House of Saud did his father's faith in Islam.

What we may question, though, is whether Kim's English persona was quite so easily dispensable. No longer in the field once in Moscow, Kim turned to listening to commentaries on cricket, a game of as many intricacies as espionage, including the possibility of a player being moved from Deep Cover to Third Man. Did the commentaries never make him feel that, like his fictional namesake while at St Xavier's (playing, incidentally, for the XI v. Aligarh Mohammedan College), he was out of place, the sense of unreality causing him to ask: Who – or what – is Kim?

John Drew is a poet, scholar and cricket aficionado who has taught English literature and creative writing at universities in several countries. His books include India and the Romantic Imagination and the poetry collection Buddha at Kamakura.

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