Daily Mail, 3 January 1998
Betrayal and a masterspy’s son
Kim Philby’s son talks for the first time about life in the shadow of his traitor father’s defection to Moscow
JOHN PHILBY was an art student in the spring of 1963, taking the ferry back from a visit to the Isle of Wight, when he picked up a newspaper and read about his father Kim’s defection to Moscow.
It was proof at last of what some Western Intelligence officers had long suspected: that Kim Philby had been at the core of the century’s most damaging spy ring, the Soviet agent who for decades had betrayed his country with devastating success.
As the story emerged of the many missions he had sabotaged and men he had calculatedly sent to their deaths, John suddenly found that his father was the most reviled man in Britain.
The Philby family was horrified by the revelation, and for a while clung to a vain hope that it was some kind of mistake. But not John, then a 19-year-old student of painting and sculpture at Hornsey Art School in London.
As he learned that his father had been the mysterious Third Man – masterspy behind the escape to Moscow 12 years earlier of fellow KGB agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean – he felt neither shock nor horror, but something close to quiet approval.
Like many students in the Sixties he was fervently Leftwing, and although he had never been drawn to communism, he had joined the Young Socialists. For him and his fashionably anti-Establishment circle, Kim Philby was no traitor, but a committed communist who had acted out of deep conviction.
‘I didn’t quite understand what he had done,’ says John, ‘but I couldn’t condemn it.’ Philby’s name became a byword for treachery, but to his son, Philby senior remained an idealist. He wears the name with pride, ignoring the odd looks he sometimes gets when signing cheques or booking into hotels.
‘Once in a while someone jokes, “No relation, I hope?”, to which I say: “Oh yes, I’m his son.” Then there’s an awkward silence.’ Even now, years after the Soviet empire has self -destructed, negating the cause to which Kim Philby dedicated his life, John regards his father as an almost heroic figure.
When asked what he feels about Kim’s betrayal of his country, he simply quotes a line from Philby’s memoirs, My Silent War: ‘In order to betray, one must first belong.’ Kim did not regard his actions as a betrayal, because he felt he had never really ‘belonged’ to the British Establishment.
In his view, he had been loyal to the only society he ever believed in.
‘And I have always accepted that,’ says John firmly.
Of Philby’s five children, he formed the most intimate relationship with Kim after his defection, visiting him in the Soviet Union on at least a dozen occasions. He discovered, to his surprise, how alike they were.
None of Philby’s children has ever spoken publicly about their feelings for their father, or the effects on their own lives of his long shadow; or about their tragic mother, Aileen, whose early death was almost certainly brought on by Kim’s neglect. There seems to have been a tacit understanding between them that these sensitive issues should be kept strictly ‘in the family’.
John reluctantly agreed to see me only as a favour to a mutual friend.
Even so, he said, he wouldn’t have considered a meeting if I’d been a male journalist. Like his father, a noted ladies’ man, he enjoys the company of women.
HE IS 54, a self-employed joiner specialising in constructing exhibition stands.
We met at a wine bar near his workshop in King’s Cross, a murky area of the capital. Like his father at the same age, he has the baggy-eyed look of the dedicated drinker and a slight speech impediment which echoes Kim’s well-known stammer.
Two bottles of Chardonnay later, he agreed to do his first interview. He assured me he wouldn’t change his mind: ‘Like my father,’ he said, ‘I’m an English gentleman and we never go back on our word.’ There was no hint of irony in his voice.
John was born under a kitchen table during an air raid on London in November 1943. But his earliest memories are of the idyllic period the family spent in Istanbul where, in 1947, Kim Philby was posted as station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service.
They lived in a villa on the Bosphorus, and John recalls carefree days playing on the beach with the local children.
But Kim and Aileen’s marriage was disintegrating. And whenever the misogynous homosexual Guy Burgess turned up, things got worse. Aileen bitterly resented the close relationship that Burgess, dirty and generally drunk, and Kim enjoyed. She knew nothing of the mutual, political commitment that drew them together.
To win her husband’s attention, she resorted to a ploy she had used as a child whenever she felt neglected by her family: she would have some sort of ‘accident’.
Once she appeared with head injuries, claiming unconvincingly that she had been attacked, and on another occasion she set fire to the living room and suffered serious burns. Initially sympathetic, Kim soon became suspicious and the self-inflicted injuries only drove them further apart.
When John was six, Philby was promoted to his most important role as SIS representative in Washington DC, working closely with the CIA and FBI.
It put him in a unique position to subvert the West’s entire anticommunist effort. And he did.
‘It must have amused my father when I told him about the fallout exercises we did at school in the event of a nuclear attack by the Russians – we would shelter under our desks in the classroom,’ recalls John.
When the Philbys moved to Washington, Burgess lodged with them at their ramshackle house and his dissolute behaviour once again infuriated Aileen . . . as well as the CIA. John says: ‘I remember his dark, nicotine-stained fingers. He bit his nails, and always smelled of garlic.
‘Many years later in Moscow, my father told me Burgess had kept his standard-issue KGB revolver and camera hidden under my bed.’ Cracking up from the strains of the double agent’s life, Burgess was spirited away to Moscow in 1951, which put Kim under suspicion. The Philbys returned to Britain, and John was sent to boarding school. From then on he saw little of his father.
‘I was a pupil at Beaumont House, a prep school in Hertfordshire, when the papers were full of the Third Man allegations about him in 1955. My classmates were excited to think my father could be a spy, and the whole thing enhanced my image. When Harold Macmillan cleared Kim’s name, the headmaster called me into his study.
Looking very pleased, he said: “Good news, Philby, your father’s been exonerated.” Naturally, it would have been a bit embarrassing for the school if he’d been found guilty.’ The following year Philby moved to Beirut, ostensibly as a journalist, but in reality to continue his clandestine work for the SIS . . . and the KGB. Aileen and the children remained at their house in Crowborough, East Sussex.
The separation spelt the end of his parents’ marriage. Mentally and physically, Aileen went downhill fast. ‘One day I came home to find her on the kitchen floor, having convulsions and frothing at the mouth,’ says John.
THERE is little doubt that by then she knew of Philby’s treason – the dark secret he had kept from her all their married life and she drank heavily to obliterate her despair. According to John, she was probably also aware that Kim had falled in love in Beirut with an American, Eleanor Brewer.
Aileen died of heart failure and a respiratory infection just before Christmas 1957. She was 47. ‘I was only 13 and her death was a terrible blow. She’d been a wonderful mother. But none of us children were invited to the funeral. It was arranged by her family and to this day I don’t know where she is buried.
‘My father came back from Beirut and spent Christmas with us, but he didn’t say much about her and wasn’t particularly emotional.’ The Philby children went to live with an aunt and uncle, and within months Kim and Eleanor were married.
It was Eleanor who followed Kim to Moscow after his defection, and she once asked him outright: ‘What is more important in your life – me and the children or the Communist Party?’ To which he replied without hesitation: ‘The party, of course.’ John claims he was not hurt by the admission. ‘His first loyalty was always to the KGB, which he saw as an elite regiment. And loyalty and commitment to one’s regiment is an oddly British concept.’ He concedes that he couldn’t put loyalty to a cause above those he loved, ‘but I wasn’t around at the same period as my father’ – a reference to the Fascist threat of the Thirties, which turned many young people in Britain towards a faith in communism.
However, he seems only half-convinced by his own argument.
Perhaps he suspects the unpalatable truth: that his father was simply more ruthless.
John left his public school, Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire, to study art at the age of 17. But he abandoned his ambition to be an painter when he real-ised he wasn’t ‘talented enough’, and, after a brief spell as a photographer, took up joinery.
‘I had made my own easels at art school, and discovered I liked working with wood.’ Cambridge-educated Philby did not dismiss his son’s manual work.
‘On the contrary – my father rather admired me because he was totally impractical and had never put up a shelf in his life.’ JOHN was working as pho-tograher for the Sunday Times when he first saw his father in Moscow in 1967, four years after his defection. Kim was wary. His first words to his son were: ‘What are you doing here?’ John says: ‘He offered no explanations for his career as a spy, and I never asked for any. It was something we rarely discussed during all the times we spent together.
Neither did we dwell much on politics. Instead, we talked about our personal lives. He said he loved living in Moscow; he felt at home there.
‘The only thing he didn’t like, he told me, was being treated as a VIP. He found it slightly embarrassing. He had the use of a KGB car and driver whenever he wanted, but he usually took the tram or the underground. He also said that on my next visit I should bring him some mustard and Worcester sauce. They were the only things about Britain he really missed.’ They became heavy-duty drinking partners and travelling companions to far-flung corners of the USSR. ‘He was good company and we always had fun. He liked having me around because it meant he could speak English.
‘Everywhere we went, we’d be accompanied by KGB minders. He referred to them as his “friends”.
Going out with my father meant almost constant drinking, with endless toasts in Russian – to the KGB, the October Revolution, etc.
We always ended up drunk.’ As well as a capacity for alcohol, John and his father shared a love of women. Kim was married four times, John three. John married his first wife, Katie, a fellow art student, in the Sixties. After their divorce a few years later, she moved to Canada, where she later committed suicide because of her ‘fear of growing old’.
In the early Seventies he married an Israeli au pair, Nisha, but they also divorced. He married his third wife, Jo, a schoolteacher, in 1985, two years after their daughter Charlotte was born: ‘I’m sure my being a Philby was part of the attraction for her.’ A few months ago he and Jo were divorced after a five-year separation. This last, acrimonious, split has virtually ruined him, he says.
Jo was awarded their large house in North London, and he is temporarily renting a friend’s flat, where nothing is his ‘except the books on the shelves’.
The marriage broke up partly, he says, because his wife, who enjoyed the comforts his successful business could provide, became a ‘terrible snob and very materialistic’. This was never more irksome than during their visits to Moscow.
‘Over dinner with my father, Jo would talk about how big our house was, how we had two cars, and about her foreign holidays . . .
it would make him wince. Once he said to me: “Why do we marry such awful women?”‘ But Kim doted on little Charlotte, who dubbed him Grandpa Kimsky. Now 15, she lives with her mother and is a pupil at Queen’s College, a private London girls’ school.
‘I wouldn’t say she’s proud of her grandfather,’ admits J o h n , ‘but she’s not ashamed, either. She hasn’t made any judgments. Fortunately perhaps, she’s not interested in politics.’ John describes Kim’s death in 1988, the year before the Soviet bloc began to crumble, as ‘impeccable timing’.
MY FATHER never suspected it would go so fast – no one did. Just as well he didn’t live to see the changes in Russia – he would be very bitter.’ To the very end, Kim Philby retained his belief in communism.
He had made his choice at the age of 21, and he stuck stubbornly to it.
Of course, he did not fail to understand the murderous nature of Lenin and Stalin, but he always hoped the principles of the Revolution would survive the crimes of individuals, however enormous.
There was no other political system in which he felt he could place his faith.
‘My father had reservations about the way some things were done in the Soviet Union,’ John says. ‘I don’t think he approved of putting political dissidents in the Gulag. But from our conversations, I gathered his criticisms were minor ones.’ In his final years, Kim confessed that he had found the Brezhnev period ‘stultifying’, but he believed that in Gorbachev he had a leader who justified his decades of faith.
At last things had ‘come right’. He couldn’t have known that Gorbachev’s era of glasnost would sound the death knell for Soviet communism.
Nothing had prepared John for the dramatic spectacle of the 76-year-old masterspy’s KGB funeral with full military honours. He and his elder sister, Josephine, attended, flown over specially by the Russians.
It took place on a warm May day in a cemetery reserved for the Soviet Union’s most honoured citizens. Philby lay in an open coffin, over which his Russian wife Rufa, and others, sobbed uncontrollably
John says he was relieved when ‘a man in green wellies appeared, closed the coffin lid, banged in four nails, and lowered it into the ground. Then the guard of honour fired a volley of shots into the air and it was all over’.
Earlier that day Philby had lain in state at the KGB Club, and for hours people filed past to pay their respects. John had been invited to have his picture taken kissing the corpse – a Russian tradition. He refused.
‘The KGB were rather upset by that,’ he remembers, ‘but I told them it just wasn’t British.’ Again, he saw nothing ironic in the words. For despite everything, the Philbys are, and have always been, quintessential Brits.