Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies

Cambridge Spies

KGB Headquartes, Moscow
KGB Headquartes, Moscow (Corbis)

The dark, windowless room in KGB Headquarters held nothing more than a chair, rows and rows of file cabinets, and a long table. If the room had had a window, in the near distance the walls of the Kremlin could have been seen, ablaze with lights. The newly appointed officer sat at the table while a filing clerk piled file upon file upon it. As he went through the dossiers, the KGB official was astonished. Here was the history of four agents who had penetrated the highest reaches of the British intelligence establishment. Everything that Churchill or Roosevelt or Truman had thought had been reported to the Soviets as soon as the three great statesmen had uttered these thoughts. The files were clearly marked: "Transmission to Control, to Beria, to Stalin." No bureaucracy was to impede the flow of information from these spies. They were too important, their information too reliable. The KGB man smiled. KGB men rarely smiled.

The four were not characters in a spy novel. The KGB official was not an invention of a writer of fiction. They were real. The spies were Burgess, Blunt, Maclean, and Philby.

There have been no more successful, more dramatically impressive spies than a group of Englishmen who all met at Trinity College, Cambridge University in the 1930s. To one degree or another, they were active for the Soviet Union for over thirty years. They were the most efficient espionage agents against American and British interests of any collection of spies in the Twentieth Century. One of them, Kim Philby, served the KGB for almost fifty years.

All four were eventually exposed but --- amazingly --- never caught. One, Burgess, was a flamboyant, alcoholic homosexual. The second, Blunt, was a discrete homosexual who rose to knighthood as the Royal Curator of Art. The third, Maclean, was a tense, insecure diplomat of ambiguous sexual persuasion. The fourth, Philby --- and perhaps the most intriguing of the group --- was a dedicated heterosexual who has been called, not inaccurately, the "Spy of the Century."

Great spies are more interesting in fact than in fiction, more fascinating in reality than in the legends that grow up around them. It is easy to forget that successful spies, by their treachery, are some of the most adept of killers. Their murder victims are faceless, usually never seen by the agents who send them, unwittingly, to their deaths.

"Today, of course, it is well known that Harold Adrian Russell Philby was a Soviet agent within MI-6, a traitor to his own country and a man who betrayed many of the most important secrets of the Western democracies to the Soviet Union. Now Kim Philby is a legend --- a demon or an antihero, depending on one's philosophical bent. Philby himself, or a thinly disguised fictional counterpart, stalks through many modern spy novels."

--- Robert J. Lamphere, FBI Special Agent, 1986

No novel by John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, or Graham Greene can capture the brilliance of this group of Englishmen. No James Bond film, with all of its gadgets and action, can capture the drama of the Cambridge spies.

Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College, Cambridge (Corbis)

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