Magazine article The Spectator

Spy Fiction from the Grave

Magazine article The Spectator

Spy Fiction from the Grave

Article excerpt


John Cairncross, one of Moscow's most important spies in Britain, held by many KGB officers, in fact, to be the outstanding spy, has just published his memois two years after his death. It is not a work notable for its truthfulness or honesty. It seems that he was deeply shocked by the splash of publicity about him that took place in 1990 and 1991. First, it seems he believed that everyone had more or less forgotten about him. Secondly, he had considered that after his secret meeting with MIS in 1964 when he acknowledged his guilt (though it is unclear how much of it) he had arranged a pact of silence. He therefore considered the publicity about him to be an outrageous breach of trust and was very upset. As though government departments are able to dictate terms to academics and journalists.

Cairncross's personality was split. On the one hand he was flattered by the claim that he had virtually changed the course of the second world war by helping the Russians win a momentous tank battle at Kursk in 1943 by smuggling decrypts of the German battle orders to the KGB. On the other hand he was appalled by the detailed information on how, for 14 uninterrupted years between 1937 and 1951, he gave Moscow British and other Western secrets from the various departments where he worked: the Foreign Office, the Treasury, the secretariat of a cabinet minister, GC and CS (Bletchley), the SIS and the Western Union Finance Committee. He resented being called `the fifth man' (incidentally, many in the KGB offered to call him `the first man'). He did not want to belong to any `ring of five', was irritated by being bracketed with people he did not care for and regarded Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt as snobs and patricians. Cairncross was also embarrassed by the KGB's looking on him as a great friend, a crypto-communist and Moscow sympathiser. And, of course, he certainly had no intention of confessing that he was one of the first `atomic spies'.

And so, from the grave, he has published this book, whose aim is to refute all aspects of publicity about him that he does not like, to play down the level of his relations with the KGB and to present himself as a very reluctant Soviet agent, in the main as the Enigma spy who only passed to Moscow isolated German secrets in order to help the Soviet Union and its allies to victory in the second world war.

Unfortunately, the majority of his postulates are weakly connected to reality. If, as he claims, he understood well the crimes of the communist regime in the USSR and even distanced himself from them in his soul, why did he continue to co-operate and even activate work with the KGB after every single one of them: the great terror of 1937-38, the Hitler-Stalin pact of friendship, the Katyn massacre, the subjugation of Eastern Europe by Moscow, the blockade of Berlin and the aggression in Korea? Probably because, unlike several other Soviet agents, he accepted money. 'I have never denied accepting funds from my controller', he writes. At the time, in his words, `diplomats were expected to have a private income'. And so receipt of money in a strange way absolved him of all moral responsibility.

As regards his actual activities as a spy, Cairncross ignores those - Christopher Andrew, Sheila Kerr, myself and a couple of other - who have spoken the truth about the range of his deeds, and thinks that by mobilising a few sympathisers he can, as the Russian saying goes, whitewash a black dog. …

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