If you sit long n ohte bank of the river, yo uamy see the body of your enemy floating by.
Given the lunacy this piece deals with, it ought to be written in a language other than English. The only option available to me, however, is Russian, which is the very source of the lunacy in question. Who needs tautology? Besides, several of the assertions I am going to make are, in their turn, quite loony, and best checked by a language that has a reputation for being analytical. Who wants to have his insights ascribed to the vagaries of some highly inflected language? Nobody, perhaps, save those who keep asking what language I think or dream in. One dreams in dreams, I reply, and thinks in thoughts. A language gets into the picture only when one has to make those things public. This, of course, gets me nowhere. Still (I persevere) since English isn’t my mother tongue, since my grip on its grammar isn’t that tight, my thoughts, for example, could get quite garbled. I sure hope that they don’t; at any rate I can tell them from dreams. And believe it or not, dear reader, this sort of quibbling, which normally gets one nowhere, brings you straight to the core of our story. For no matter how its author solves his dilemma, no matter what language he settles for, his very ability to choose a language makes him, in your eyes, suspect; and suspicions are what this piece is all about. Who is he, you may wonder about the author, what is he up to? Is he trying to promote himself to the status of a disembodied intelligence? If it were only you, dear reader, inquiring about the author’s identity, that would be fine. The trouble is, he wonders about his identity himself—and for the same reason. Who are you, the author asks himself in two languages, and gets startled no less than you would upon hearing his own voice muttering something that amounts to “Well, I don’t know.” A mongrel, then, ladies and gentleman, this is a mongrel speaking. Or else a centaur.
This is the summer of 1991, August. That much at least is certain. Elizabeth Taylor is about to take her eighth walk down the aisle, this time with a blue-collar boy of Polish extraction. A serial killer with cannibalistic urges is apprehended in Milwaukee; the cops find three hard-boiled skulls in his fridge. Russia’s Great Panhandler makes his rounds in London with cameras zeroing in, as it were, on his empty tin. The more it changes, the more it stays the same: like the weather. And the more it tries to stay the same, the more it changes: like a face. And judging by the “weather,” this could easily be 1891. On the whole, geography (European geography in particular) leaves history very few options. A country, especially a large one, gets only two. Either it’s strong or it’s weak. Fig. 1: Russia. Fig. 2: Germany. For most of the century, the former tried to play it big and strong (at what cost is another matter). Now its turn has come to be weak: by the year 2000 it will be where it was in 1900, and about the same perimeter. The latter, Germany, will be there, too. (At long last it dawned on the descendants of Wotan that saddling their neighbors with debt is a more stable and less costly form of occupation than sending in troops.) The more it changes, the more it stays the same. Still, you can’t tell time by weather. Faces are better: the more one tries to stay the same, the more it changes. Fig. 1: Miss Taylor’s. Fig. 2: one’s own. The summer of 1991, then, August. Can one tell a mirror from a tabloid?
And here is one such, of humble strikebreaking origins. Actually it is a literary paper, The London Review of Books by name, which came into existence several years ago when the London Times and its Literary Supplement went on strike for a few months. In order not to leave the public without literary news and the benefits of liberal opinion, lrb was launched and evidently blossomed. Eventually the Times and its Literary Supplement resumed operation, but lrb stayed afloat, proof not so much of the growing diversity of reading tastes as of burgeoning demography. No individual I know subscribes to both papers, unless he is a publisher. It’s largely a matter of one’s budget, not to mention one’s attention span or one’s plain loyalty. And I wonder, for instance, which one of these—the latter, I should hope—prevented me from purchasing a recent issue in a small Belsize Park bookstore, where I and my young lady ventured the other day on our way to the movies. Budgetary considerations as well as my attention span—alarming as it may be of late—must be ruled out: the most recent issue of the lrb sat there on the counter in full splendor, its cover depicting a blown-up postal stamp: unmistakably of Soviet origins. This sort of thing has been enough to catch my eye since I was 12. In its own turn, the stamp depicted a bespectacled man with silver neatly parted hair. Above and underneath the face, the stamp’s legend, in now-fashionable Cyrillic, went as follows: “Soviet Secret Agent Kim Philby (1912-1988).” He looked indeed like Alec Guinness, with a touch perhaps of Trevor Howard. I reached into my pocket for two one-pound coins, caught the salesboy’s friendly glance, adjusted my vocal chords for some highly pitched, civilized “May I have …,” and then turned 90 degrees and walked out of the store. I must add that I didn’t do it abruptly, that I managed to send the boy at the counter a “just changed my mind” nod and to collect, with the same nod, my young lady.
As we had some time to kill before the show, we went into a nearby cafe. “What’s the matter with you?” my young comrade-in-arms asked me once we sat down. “You look like …” I didn’t interrupt her. I knew how I felt and actually wondered what it might look like. “You look, you look … sideways,” she continued hesitantly, tentatively, since English wasn’t her mother tongue either. “You look as if you can’t face the world any longer, can’t look straight in the world’s eye,” she managed finally. “Something like that,” she added just in case, to widen the margin of error. Well, I thought, one is always a greater reality for others than for oneself, and vice versa. What are we here for but to be observed. If that’s what “it” really looks like from the outside, then I am doing fine—and so, perhaps, is the bulk of the human race. For I felt like throwing up, like a great deal of barf was welling up in my throat. Still, while I wasn’t puzzled by the situation, I was surprised by its intensity. “What’s the matter?” asked my young lady. “What’s wrong?” And now, dear reader, after trying to figure out who the author of this piece is and what its timing, we’ve got to find out also who is its audience. Do you remember, dear reader, who Kim Philby was and what he did? If you do, then you are around 50 and thus, in a manner of speaking, on your way out. What you are going to hear, therefore, will be of little import to you, still of lesser comfort. Your game is up, you are too far gone; this stuff won’t change anything for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve never heard of Kim Philby, this means that you are in your 30s, life lies ahead, all this is an ancient history and of no possible use or entertainment value for you, unless you are some sort of a spy buff. So? So where does all this leave our author, the question of his identity still hanging? Can a disembodied intelligence rightfully expect to find an able-bodied audience? I say, hardly, and I say who gives a damn.
All of this leaves our author at the close of the twentieth century with a very bad taste in his mouth. That, of course, is to be expected in a mouth that is in its 50s. But let’s stop being cute with each other, dear reader, let’s get down to business. Kim Philby was a Briton, and he was a spy. He worked for the British Intelligence Service, for MI5 or MI6, or both—who cares about all that arcana and whatever it stands for—but he spied for the Russians. In the parlance of the trade, he was a mole, though we are not going to use that lingo here. I am not a spy buff, not an aficionado of that genre, and never was; neither in my 30s nor even in my 50s, and let me tell you why. First, because espionage provides a good plot, but seldom palatable prose. In fact, the upsurge of spy novels in our time is the byproduct of modernism’s emphasis on texture, which left literature in practically all European languages absolutely plotless: the reaction was inevitable, but with few exceptions, equally execrable. Still, aesthetic objections are of little consequence to you, dear reader, aren’t they, and that in itself tells the time as accurately as the calendar or a tabloid. Let’s try ethics, then, on which everyone seems to be an expert. I, for one, have always regarded espionage as the vilest human pursuit, mainly, I guess, because I grew up in a country the advancement of whose fortunes was inconceivable to its natives. To do that, one indeed had to be a foreigner; and that’s perhaps why the country took such pride in its cops, fellow travelers, and secret agents, commemorating them in all manner of ways, from stamps to plaques to monuments. Ah, all those Richard Zorges, Pablo Nerudas, and Hewlett Jonsons, and so on, all that pulp of our youth! Ah, all those flicks shot in Latvia or in Estonia for the “Western” backdrop! A foreign surname and the neon lettering of “Hotel” (always put vertically, never horizontally), sometimes the screeching brakes of a Czech-made motorcar. The goal was not so much verisimilitude or suspense as the legitimization of the system by the exploits on its behalf outside of it. You could get a bar scene with a little combo toiling in the background, you could get a blonde with a tin-can taffeta skirt and a decent nose job looking positively non-Slavic. Two or three of our actors, too, looked sufficiently gaunt and lanky, the emphasis being always on a thoroughbred beak. A German-sounding name for a spy was better than a French one, a French one was better than a Spanish one, a Spanish one was better than an Italian one (come to think of it, I can’t recall a single Italian Soviet secret agent). The English were tops, but hard to come by. In any case, neither English landscapes nor street scenes were ever attempted on our big screens, as we lacked vehicles with steering wheels on the right. Ah, those were the days—but I’ve digressed.
Who cares what country one grows up in, and whether it colors one’s view of espionage? Too bad if it does, because then one is robbed of a source of entertainment—perhaps not of the most delectable kind, but entertainment nonetheless. In view of what surrounds us, not to mention what lies ahead, this is barely forgivable. Dearth of action is the mother of the motion picture. And if one indeed loathes spies, there still remains spy-catching, which is as engrossing as it is righteous. What’s wrong with a little paranoia, with a bit of manifest schizophrenia? Isn’t there something recognizable and therefore therapeutic to their paperback and Bakelite video versions? And what’s any aversion, including this aversion toward spies, if not a hidden neurosis, an echo of some childhood trauma? First therapy, then ethics.
The face of Kim Philby on that stamp. The face of the late Mr. Philby, Esq., of Brighton, Sussex, or of Welwyn Garden, Herts, or of Ambala, India—you name it. The face of an Englishman in the Soviet employ. The pulp writer’s dream come true. Presumably, the rank of general, if the poor sod cared for such trifles; presumably, highly decorated, maybe a Hero of the Soviet Union. Though the snapshot used for the stamp shows none of that. Here he appears in his civvies, which is what he donned for most of his life: the dark coat and the tie. The medals and the epaulets were saved for the red velvet cushion of a soldier’s funeral, if he had one. Which I think he did, his employers being suckers for top-secret solemnity. Many moons ago, reviewing a book about a chum of his for the tls, I suggested that, considering his service to the Soviet State, this now aging Moscow denizen should be buried in the Kremlin wall. I mention this since I’ve been told that he was one of the few tls subscribers in Moscow. He ended up, though, I believe, in the Protestant cemetery, his employers being sticklers for propriety, albeit posthumously. (Had Her Majesty’s government been handling these matters, it could hardly have done better.) And now I feel little pangs of remorse. I imagine him interred, clad in the same coat and tie shown on the stamp, wearing this disguise—or was it a uniform?—in death as in life. Presumably he left some instructions concerning this eventuality, although he couldn’t have been fully certain whether they would be followed. Were they? And what did he want on his tombstone? A line of English poetry, perhaps? Something like “And death shall have no dominion”? Or did he prefer a matter-of-fact “Soviet Secret Agent Kim Philby (1912-1988)“? And did he want it in Cyrillic?
Back to hidden neurosis and childhood trauma, to therapy and ethics. When I was 24, I was after a girl, and in a big way. She was slightly older than I, and after a while I began to feel that something was amiss. I sensed that I was being deceived, perhaps even two-timed. It turned out, of course, that I wasn’t wrong, but that was later. At the time I simply grew suspicious, and one evening I decided to track her down. I hid myself in an archway across the street from her building, waited there for about an hour, and when she emerged from her poorly lit entrance, I followed her for several blocks. I was tense with excitement, but of an unfamiliar nature. At the same time I felt vaguely bored, as I knew more or less what I might discover. The excitement grew with every step, with every evasive action I took; the boredom stayed at the same level. When she turned to the river, my excitement reached its crescendo, and at that point I stopped, turned around, and headed for a nearby cafe. Later I would blame my abandoning the chase on my laziness and reproach myself, especially in the light—or, rather, in the dark—of this affair’s denouement, playing an Actaeon to the dogs of my own hindsight. The truth was less innocent and more absorbing. The truth was that I stopped because I had discovered the nature of my excitement. It was the joy of a hunter pursuing his prey. In other words, it was something atavistic, primordial. This realization had nothing to do with ethics, with scruples, taboos, or anything of the sort. I had no problem with conferring upon the girl the status of prey. It’s just that I hated being the hunter. A matter of temperament, perhaps? Perhaps. Perhaps had the world been subdivided into the four humors, or at least boiled down to four humor-based political parties, it would be a better place. Yet I think that one’s resistance to turning into a hunter, the ability to spot and to control the hunting impulse, has to do with something more basic than temperament, upbringing, social values, received wisdom, ecclesiastical affiliation, or one’s concept of honor. It has to do with the degree of one’s evolution, with the species’ evolution, with reaching the stage marked by one’s inability to regress. One loathes spies not so much because of their low rung on the evolutionary ladder, but because betrayal invites you to descend.
Dear reader, if this sounds to you like an oblique way of bragging about one’s own virtues, so be it. Virtue, after all, is far from being synonymous with survival; duplicity is. But you will accept, dear reader, won’t you, that there is a hierarchy between love and betrayal. And you also know that it is the former that ushers in the latter, not vice versa. What’s worse, you know that the latter outlasts the former. So there is not much to brag about, even when you are absolutely smitten or besotted, is there? If one is not a Darwinist, if one still sticks to Cuvier, it is because lower organisms seem to be more viable than complex ones. Look at moss, look at algae. I understand that I am out of my depth here. All I am trying to say is that to an advanced organism duplicity is, at worst, an option; for a lower one, however, it is the means of survival. In this sense, spies don’t choose to be spies any more than a lizard chooses its pigmentation: they just can’t do any better. Duplicity, after all, is a form of mimicry; it is this particular animal’s maximum. One could argue with this proposition if spies spied for money, but the best of them do it out of conviction. In their pursuit, they are driven by excitement, better yet by instinct unchecked by boredom. For boredom interferes with instinct. Boredom is the mark of a highly evolved species; a sign of civilization, if you will.
Whoever it was who ordered this stamp’s issue was no doubt making a statement. Especially given the current political climate, the warming of East-West relations and all. The decision must have been made on high, in the Kremlin’s own hallowed chambers, since the Foreign Ministry would have been up in arms against it, not to mention the Ministry of Finances, such as they are. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Or do you? You do if your teeth are those of the CSS—the Committee for State Security (a.k.a., the KGB)—which is larger than both those ministries to begin with, not only in the number of employees but in the place it occupies in the conscience and the subconscious of the powerful and the powerless alike. If you are that big, you may bite any hand you like, and, for that matter, throats too. You may do it for several reasons. Out of vanity: to remind the jubilant West of your existence. Or out of inertia: you’re used to biting that hand anyway. Or out of nostalgia for the good old days, when your diet was rich in the enemy’s protein because you had a constant supply of it in your compatriots. Still, for all the grossness of the CSS’s appetite, one senses behind this stamp initiative a particular individual: the head of a Directorate, or perhaps his deputy, or just a humble case officer who came up with the idea. He might simply have revered Philby, or wanted to get ahead in his department; or, on the contrary, he may have been approaching retirement and, like many people of that generation, truly believed in the didactic value of a postage stamp. None of these things contradicts one another. They are fully compatible: vanity, inertia, nostalgia, reverence, careerism, naivete; and the brain of the CSS’s average employee is as good a place for their confluence as any, including a computer. What’s puzzling about this stamp, however, is the promptness with which it has been issued: only two years after Mr. Philby’s demise. His shoes, as well as the gloves that he always wore on account of a skin allergy, were, so to speak, still warm. Issuing a stamp in any country takes a hell of a lot of time, and normally it is preceded by national recognition of its subject. Even if one skips this requirement (the man was, after all, a secret agent), the speed with which the stamp was produced is amazing, given the thick of bureaucratic hurdles it ought to have gone through. It obviously didn’t; it was evidently rushed into production. Which leaves you with this sense of personal involvement, of an individual will behind this four-centimeter-square piece of paper. And you ask yourself about the motive behind that will. And you understand that somebody wanted to make a statement. Urbi et orbi, as it were. And, as a part of the orbus, you wonder what sort of statement that was.
The answer is: menacing and spiteful; also profoundly provincial. One judges an undertaking, I’m afraid, by its result. The stamp subjects the late Mr. Philby to the ultimate ignominy, to the final slight: it proclaims a Briton to be Russia’s own, not so much in spirit—what’s so special about that?—but precisely in body. No doubt Philby asked for that. He spied for the Soviet Union for a good quarter of a century. For another quarter of a century he simply lived in the Soviet Union, and wasn’t entirely idle either. On top of that, he died there, and was interred in Russian soil. The stamp is essentially his tombstone’s replica. Also we shouldn’t discount the possibility that he might have been pleased by his masters’ posthumous treatment: he was stupid enough, and secrecy is a hotbed of vanity. He could even have approved (if not initiated himself) the stamp project. Yet one can’t help feeling some violation here, something deeper than the desecration of a grave: a violation that is elemental. He was, after all, a Briton, and the Brits are used to dying in odd places. What’s revolting about this stamp is its proprietary sentiment; it’s as though the earth that swallowed the poor sod licks its lips with profound satisfaction and says, he is mine. Or else it licks the stamp.
Such was the statement that a humble case officer, or a bunch of them at CSS, wished to make, and did, and that a liberal literary paper of humble strikebreaking origins has found so amusing. Well, let’s say point taken. What should be done about it, if anything? Should we try to disinter the unholy remains and bring them back to Britain? Should we petition the Soviet government or offer it a large sum? Or should Her Majesty’s Postmaster issue perhaps a counterstamp, with a legend something like “English Traitor, Kim Philby, 1912-1988,” in English, of course, and see whether some Russian paper reprints it? Should we try to retrieve the idea of this man, despite himself, from the collective psyche of his masters? And anyway who are these “we” who provide your author, dear reader, with such rhetorical comfort? No, nothing of the sort could, or for that matter should, be done. Philby belongs there, body and soul. Let him rot in peace. But what one—and I emphasize this “one”—can do, and therefore should do, is rob the aforementioned collective psyche of its ownership of that unholy relic, rob it of the comfort it thinks it enjoys. And in fact it’s easy to do this. For, in spite of himself, Kim Philby wasn’t theirs. Considering where we are today, and especially where Russia is, it is obvious that, for all its industry, cunning, human toil, and investment of time and currency, the Philby enterprise was a bust. Were he a British double-agent, he couldn’t inflict a greater damage on the system whose fortunes he was actually trying to advance. But double or triple, he was a British agent through and through, for the bottom line of his quite extraordinary effort is a sharp sense of futility. Futility is so hideously British. And now for the fun part.
In the few spy novels that I read as a child, the role of the postage stamp was as grand as the item itself was small, and would yield only to that of a torn photograph, the appearance of the other half of which often would clinch the plot. On the stamp’s sticky side, a spy in those novels would convey in his chicken scrawl, or on a microfilm, the secret message to his master, or vice versa. The Philby stamp is thus a fusion of the torn man with the medium-is-the-message principle; as such, it is a collector’s item. To this we might add also that the priciest things in the stamp-collecting world are those issued by political or geographical ephemera—by short-lived or defunct states, negligible potentates or specks of land. (The most sought-after item in my childhood, I recall, was a stamp from Pitcairn Island—a British colony, as it happens, in the South Pacific.) So, to use this philatelist logic, the issue of the Philby stamp appears to be a cry from the Soviet Union’s future. At any rate, there is something in its future that, in the guise of the CSS, asks for that. Actually, this is a fine time for philatelists, and in more ways than one. One even can speak of philatelist justice here—the way one speaks of poetic license. For half a century ago, when the CSS warriors were deporting people from the Baltic states that the ussr invaded and rendered defunct, it was precisely philatelists who clinched the list of social categories subject to removal. (In fact, the list ended with the Esperantists, the philatelists being the penultimate category. There were, if memory serves me right, sixty-four such categories; the list began with the leaders and active members of political parties, followed by university professors, journalists, teachers, businessmen, and so on. It came with a highly detailed set of instructions as to how to separate the provider from his family, children from their mothers, and so forth, down to the actual wording of sentences like “Your daddy went to get hot water from the station boiler.” The whole thing was rather well thought through and signed by CSS General Serov. I saw the document with my own eyes; the country of application was Lithuania.) This, perhaps, is the source of a retiring case officer’s belief in the didactic power of a stamp. Well, nothing pleases the tired eyes of an impartial observer so much as the sight of things coming full circle.
Let’s not dismiss, though, the didactic powers of the stamp. This one at least could have been issued to encourage the CSS’s present and future employees, and was no doubt distributed among the former for free, a modest fringe benefit. As for the latter, one can imagine the stamp doing rather well with a young recruit. The establishment is big on visuals, on iconography, its monitoring abilities being justly famous for their omniscience, not to mention omnivorousness. When it comes to didactic purposes, especially among its own brethren, the organization readily goes the extra mile. When Oleg Pen’kovsky, a gru man who betrayed Soviet military secrets to the British in the 1960s, was finally caught, the establishment (or so I was told) filmed his execution. Strapped to a stretcher, Pen’kovsky is wheeled into the Moscow city crematorium’s chamber. An attendant opens the furnace door and two other attendants start to push the stretcher and its contents into the roaring furnace; the flame is already licking the screaming man’s soles. At this point a voice comes over the loudspeaker interrupting the procedure because another body is scheduled for this time slot. Screaming but unable to kick, Pen’kovsky is pulled back; another body arrives and after a small ceremony is pushed into the furnace. The voice comes over the loudspeaker again: now it’s Pen’kovsky’s turn, and in he goes. A small but effective skit. Beats Beckett hands down, boosts morale, and can’t be forgotten: it brands your wits. A kind of stamp, if you will: for intramural correspondence.
Before we set out for the fun part in earnest, dear reader, let me say this. There is a distinction between the benefit of hindsight and having lived long enough to see heads’ tails. This is not a disclaimer; quite the contrary, most of your author’s assertions are borne out by his life, and if they are wrong then he blew it, at least partially. Still, even if they are accurate, a good question remains. Is he entitled to pass judgment upon those who are no longer around—who have lost? Outlasting your opponent gives you the sense of membership in a victorious majority, of having played your cards right. Aren’t you then applying the law retroactively? Aren’t you punishing the poor buggers under a code of conscience foreign to them and to their times? Well, I am not troubled by this, and for three reasons. First, because Kim Philby kicked the bucket at the ripe age of 76; as I write this, I am still 26 years behind him in the game, my catching-up prospects being very dim. Second, because what he believed in for most of his life, allegedly to its very end, has been utter garbage to me at least since the age of 16, though no benefit of foresight can be claimed here, let alone obtained. Third, because the baseness of the human heart and the vulgarity of the human mind never expire with the demise of their most gifted exponents. What I must disclaim, however, is any pretense to expertise in the field I am wading through. As I say, I am no spy buff. Of Philby’s life, for instance, I know only the bare bones, if that. I’ve never read his biography, in English or in Russian, nor do I expect I ever will. Of the options available to a human being, he chose the most redundant one: to betray one set of people to another. This sort of subject is not worthy of study; intuition will suffice. I am also not terribly good with dates, though I normally try to check them. So the reader should decide for himself at this stage whether he is going to proceed with this stuff any further. I certainly will. I suppose I should bill the following as a fantasy. Well, it isn’t.
On Marchember umpteenth, Nineteen Filthy Fine, in Brooklyn, New York, agents of the FBI arrested a Soviet spy. In a small apartment filled with photo equipment, on a floor strewn with microfilm, stood a little middle-aged man with beady eyes, an aquiline profile, and a balding forehead, his Adam’s apple moving busily: he was swallowing a scrap of paper containing some top-secret information. Otherwise the man offered no resistance. Instead he proudly declared: “I am Colonel of the Red Army Rudolph Abel, and I demand to be treated as such in accordance with the Geneva Convention.” Needless to say, the tabloids went ape, in the States and all over the place. The colonel was tried, got donkey years, and was locked up, if I remember correctly, in Sing-Sing. There he mostly played pool. In Nineteen Sissy Through or thereabouts he was exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin for Gary Powers, the unlucky U-2 pilot who made headlines for the last time just a few years ago when he went down again, this time near l.a., in a helicopter, and for good. Rudolph Abel returned to Moscow, retired, and made no headlines, save that he became the most feared pool shark in Moscow and its vicinity. He died in Nineteen Cementy and was buried, with scaled-down military honors, at Novodevichie Cemetery in Moscow. No stamp was issued for him. Or was one? I may have missed it. Or the British literary paper of humble origin missed it. Perhaps he didn’t earn a stamp: what’s four years in Sing-Sing to a lifelong record? And besides, he wasn’t a foreigner, just another displaced native. In any case, no stamp for Rudolph Abel, just a tombstone.
But what do we read on this tombstone? We read: “Willie Fischer, a.k.a Rudolph Abel, 1903-1971,” in Cyrillic, of course. Now that’s a bit too long for a stamp’s legend, but not for us. (Ah, dear reader, look at what we’ve got here: spies, stamps, cemeteries, tombstones! But wait, there’s more: poets, painters, assassinations, exiles, Arab sheikhs, murder weapons, stolen cars, and more stamps!) But let’s try to make this long story short. Once upon a time—in 1936-38 in Spain, to be precise—there were two men: Willie Fischer and Rudolph Abel. They were colleagues and they were close friends. So close that other employees of the same enterprise called them “Fischerabel.” But nothing untoward, dear reader, they were simply inseparable, partly because of the work they did. They were a team. The enterprise for which they toiled was the Soviet intelligence outfit that handled the messy side of the Spanish Civil War’s business. That’s the side where you find bullet-riddled bodies miles away from the trenches. Anyway, the outfit’s boss was a fellow by the name of Orlov, who prior to his Spanish assignment headed the entire Soviet counterintelligence operation for Western Europe out of an office in the Soviet Embassy in the French capital. We’ll play with him later—or, as the case may be, he will play with us. For the moment let’s say that Orlov was very close with Fischerabel. Not as close as they were with each other, but very close. Nothing untoward there either, since Orlov was married. He was just the boss, and Fischerabel were his right and his left hand at once. Both hands were dirty.
But life is cruel, it separates even the best of friends. In 1938 the Spanish Civil War is ending, and Fischerabel and Orlov part ways. They check out of the Hotel Nacional in Madrid, where the entire operation was run, and travel—some by air, some by boat, still others by the submarine that carried the Spanish Gold Reserve, which was handed over to the Soviets by Juan Negrin, the Republican government’s finance minister—in opposite directions. Orlov disappears into thin air. Fischerabel return to Moscow and continue to work for the old establishment, filing reports, training new recruits—the kind of thing that field men do when they are out of the field. In 1940, when Rudolph Abel gets transferred to the Far East, where trouble is brewing on the Mongolian border, he makes a wrong move, and gets killed. Then comes World War II. Throughout it Willie Fischer remains in Moscow, trains more recruits—this time perhaps with greater gusto, since German is his father tongue—but he generally feels fallen by the wayside, bypassed for promotion, aging. This fretful state of affairs ends only in Nineteen Faulty Ape, when he’s suddenly taken out of mothballs and given a new assignment. “The kind of assignment,” he remarks cryptically on the eve of his departure to one of his former sidekicks from the old Spanish days, “the kind of assignment that a field man’s entire life is the preparation for.” Then he takes off. The next time his pals hear of him is X years later when, nabbed by the feds in that Brooklyn apartment, good old Willie sings, “I am Colonel of the Red Army Rudolph Abel, and I demand …”
Of the many virtues available to us, dear reader, patience is best known for being rewarded. In fact, patience is an integral part of every virtue. What’s virtue without patience? Just good temper. In a certain line of work, however, that won’t pay. It may, in fact, be deadly. A certain line of work requires patience, and a hell of a lot of it. Perhaps because it is the only virtue detectable in a certain line of work, those engaged in it zero in on patience with a vengeance. So bear with us, dear reader. Consider yourself a mole.
The twang of a guitar, the sound of a shot fired in a poorly lit alley. It’s Spain, shortly before the end of the Civil War (not ending through neglect on the part of Orlov’s good offices, of course, but in Moscow they may see things differently). On this night Orlov has been summoned to see a certain official from Moscow aboard a ship lying at anchor in Barcelona. As the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain, he reports only to Stalin’s own secretariat: directly. Orlov senses a trap and runs. He grabs his wife, takes the elevator down, tells a bellboy in the lobby to get him a taxi. Cut. Panorama of the ragged Pyrenees, roar of a two-engine airplane. Cut. Next morning in Paris, sound of an accordion, panorama of, say, the Place de la Concorde. Cut. An office in the Soviet Embassy on the rue de Varennes. Stalin’s whiskers above the door of a Mosler safe flung wide open; a pin-striped wrist with cuffs stuffing a satchel with French bank notes and files. Cut. Blackout.
Sorry, no close-ups. Orlov’s disappearing act offers none. Still, if one stares at the blackout intently enough, one can make out a letter. This letter is addressed to Comrade Stalin, and it says something to the effect that he, Orlov, now severs his links with godless communism and its hateful, criminal system; that he and his wife choose freedom, and should a single hair fall from the heads of their aging parents, who are still in the clutches of this system, then he, Orlov, will spill urbi et orbi all the dirty top secret beans in his possession. The letter goes into an envelope, the address on that envelope is that of the offices of Le Monde, or maybe Figaro. At any rate, it’s in Paris. Then the pen dips into the ink pot again: another letter. This one is to Leon Trotsky, and it goes something like this: I, the undersigned, am a Russian merchant who just escaped with my life from the Soviet Union via Siberia to Japan. While in Moscow and staying in a hotel, I overheard, by pure chance, a conversation in the next room. The subject was an attempt on your life, and through the crack in the door I even managed to espy your would-be assassin. He is young, tall, and speaks perfect Spanish. I thought it my duty to warn you. The letter is signed with an alias, but Don Levin, the Trotsky scholar and biographer, has positively identified its author as Orlov, and, if I am not mistaken, the scholar has received Orlov’s personal confirmation. This letter is postmarked Nagasaki and the address on it is in Mexico City. It, too, however, ends up in a local tabloid (La Prensa Latina? El Pais?), since Trotsky, still smarting from the second attempt on his life (in the course of which his American secretary was murdered by a would-be world-famous muralist—David Alfaro Siqueiros—with the assistance of a would-be world-famous, indeed a Nobel Prize-winning, poet, Pablo Neruda), habitually forwards all threats and warnings he receives to the press. And Orlov must be aware of this, if only because for the last three years he has been in the habit of perusing quite a few periodicals in Spanish. While having his coffee, say. In the lobby of the Nacional, or in his suite there on the sixth floor.
Where he used to entertain all sorts of people. Including Ramon Mercader, Trotsky’s third and successful assassin. Who was simply Orlov’s employee, much the same as Fischerabel, working for the same outfit. So if Orlov really wanted to warn Trotsky, he could have told him a lot more about Ramon Mercader than that he was young, tall, handsome, and spoke perfect Spanish. Yet the reason for the second letter was not Trotsky, the reason was the first letter, whose addressee wasn’t Stalin. To put it more neatly, the Stalin letter, printed in Le Monde, addressed the West, while the Trotsky letter, though it went literally to the Western Hemisphere, addressed the East. The purpose of the first was to win Orlov good standing abroad, preferably in the intelligence community. The second was a letter home, informing his pals in Moscow headquarters that he was not spilling the beans, though he could: about Mercader, for instance. So they, the pals, could go ahead with the Trotsky job if they cared to. (They did, though no tear should be shed, since Trotsky, who drowned the only genuine Russian Revolution that ever took place—the Kronstadt Uprising—in blood, wasn’t any better than the spawn of hell who ordered his assassination. Stalin, after all, was an opportunist. Trotsky was an ideologue. The mere thought that they could have swapped places makes one wince.) Moreover, should the authorship of the second letter ever come to light, as it did in Don Levin’s research, it could only enhance Orlov’s credentials as a true anti-Stalinist. Which is precisely what he wasn’t. He had no ideological or any other disagreement with Stalin. He was simply running for his dear life, so he threw the dogs a bone to munch on. They munched on it for a couple of decades.
Blackout. Time for the credits. Ten years ago an emigre Russian publishing house in France published a book called A Hunter Upside Down. The title suggests one of those cartoon puzzles in which you have to look for the hidden figures: hunters, rabbits, farmers, birds, and so on. The author’s name was Victor Henkin. He was Willie Fischer’s sidekick from the good old Spanish days, and the Fischerabel story is what the book is all about, although it aims to be an autobiography. Some of the Orlov tidbits also hail from there. The book should have been a hit, if only because people in the know on the longer side of the Atlantic still believed that they had Rudolph Abel. By the same token, they still believed that Orlov, who had joined them, truly worked for that side whose decorations one may see proudly displayed on his chest in one of Orlov’s rare close-ups, in a book published with great fanfare in the States well after Orlov’s death in 1972. But no fanfare for Henkin’s book. When an American publisher tried to get a contract for it, he ran into a copyright wall. There were also some minor scandals over alleged plagiarism in the German or French edition, it was in the courts, and for all I know Henkin lost. Now he works for a radio station in Munich that broadcasts into Russia—almost the flip side of the job he had for donkey years at Radio Moscow broadcasting in French. Or else he is retired. A Russian emigre, with a highly checkered record…. Not trustworthy, presumably paranoid…. Living in the past, ill-tempered…. Still, he is free now, he’s got the right papers. He can go to the Gare de Lyon, board a train, and just like fifty years ago, after a night-long journey, he can arrive in Madrid, the city of his youth and adventure. All he has to do is to cross the large station square and he’ll be standing in front of the Nacional; he could do it with his eyes closed. Still with his eyes closed he can enter a lobby that teemed fifty years ago with Orlovs, Fischers, Abels, Hemingways, Philbys, Orwells, Mercaders, Malrauxs, Negrins, Erhenburgs, and lesser lights like himself: with all those who have taken part in our story thus far or to whom we, one way or another, owe credits. Should he open his eyes, however, he’ll discover that the Nacional is closed. It’s been closed, according to some—mostly the young—for the last ten years; according to others, for the last fifty. Neither the young nor the old seem to know who pays the property tax, but maybe in Spain they do things differently.
And in case you think, dear reader, that we’ve forgotten him, let’s extract Kim Philby from the crowd in the lobby, and let’s ask him what he’s doing there. “I’m with the paper, actually,” we’ll hear. “Covering the war.” Let’s press him as to whose side he’s on, and let’s imagine that, just for an instant, he’ll talk straight. “Switching at the moment. Orders.” He may as well motion slightly upward with his chin, toward the sixth floor of the Nacional. For I am absolutely convinced that it was Orlov who told Kim Philby in 1937 in Madrid or thereabouts to change his tune in the Times from pro-Republican to pro-Franco, for reasons of deeper cover. If, as the story goes, Philby was meant to be a long shot aimed at the sancta sanctorum of British intelligence, he had better go pro-fascist. It’s not that Orlov foresaw which way the Spanish show might go, though he could have had an inkling; he simply thought, or knew, that Philby should be played for keeps. And he could think this way, or know this, only if he were privy to the file that the Russians by then had on Philby, who was recruited in 1933, or to the actual recruitment of Philby. The first is certain, the second is possible. In any case Orlov knew Philby personally, which is what he tried to tell the hapless FBI man who interviewed him in 1944, in Iowa I think, where he then dwelled, having immigrated to the United States from Canada. At that point, it seems, Orlov was finally ready to spill the beans; but the FBI man paid no attention to the mention of some Englishman with a stutter who worked for the Soviet Union, which, on top of everything, was at that time an American ally. So Orlov decided not to press this any further, and Kim Philby headed for the stamp.
With these beans still intact in his hippothalamus on the one hand, and on the other having penned a couple of novels filled with the standard field-man yarn, but of the Russian variety, Orlov was no doubt of some interest to the budding CIA in the late 1940s. I have no idea, dear reader, who approached whom: I haven’t studied Orlov’s life, or its available record. Not my line of work. I am not even an amateur; I am just piecing all these things together in my spare time, not out of curiosity even, but to quell the sensation of utter disgust caused by the sight of that literary paper’s cover. Self-therapy, then, and who cares about sources so long as it works. At any rate, regardless of who approached whom, Orlov seems to have been retained by the CIA from the 1950s onward. Whether he was on the payroll or just free-lancing is hard to say; but to judge by his decorations, as well as by the marginal evidence of his subsequent penmanship, it’s a fair assumption. Most likely, he was engaged by the agency in an advisory capacity; nowadays this sort of thing is called consultancy. A good question would be whether the fellows back in Moscow knew of his new affiliation. Assuming, for Orlov’s sake, that he didn’t notify them himself, for that would still be suicidal, and assuming that the newly born agency couldn’t be penetrated—if only for the sake of definitions—the fellows in Moscow were in the dark. Still, they had reason to believe that Orlov was around, if only as an aspiring thriller writer. As they had no news of him for a couple of decades, they may have wondered. And when you wonder, you imagine the worst. In a certain line of work, it’s only prudent. They might even have wanted to check.
And they had the wherewithal. So they took it out of mothballs and put it in place. Still, they were in no hurry. Not until Nineteen Filthy Fine, that is. Then they suddenly felt pressed. And on Marchember Umpteenth, Willie Fischer gets himself arrested in Brooklyn, New York, by those FBI men and declares, urbi et orbi: I am Rudolph Abel. And the tabloids go ape, in the States and all over the place. And Orlov doesn’t squeak. Evidently he doesn’t want to see his old pal again.
What was so special about Nineteen Filthy Fine, you may ask, and why was it imperative now to check the state of the beans in Orlov’s hippothalamus? Even if they were still all there, hadn’t they gone stale and useless? And who says old pals must be seen? Well, dear reader, brace yourself for loony assertions. For now we are going to show you, in a big way, that we haven’t forgotten our subject. Now we are cooking literally with oil.
Contrary to popular demonology, the foreign policy of the Soviet Union was, from the beginning of its existence, always opportunistic. I am using this term in its literal, not its derogatory, sense. Opportunism is the core of any foreign policy, regardless of the degree of confidence a state may have in itself. It means the use of opportunity: objectively present, imagined, or created. For most of its sorry history, the Soviet Union remained a highly insecure customer, traumatized by the circumstances of its birth, its deportment vis-a-vis the rest of the world fluctuating between caution and hostility. (Nobody fitted the width of that margin better than Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister.) As a consequence, the Soviet Union could afford only objectively present opportunities. Which it seized, notably in 1939, grabbing the Baltic states and half of Poland, as offered to Stalin by Hitler, and in the final stages of the war, when the Soviet Union found itself in possession of Eastern Europe. As for the opportunities imagined—the 1928 march on Warsaw, the 1936-39 adventure in Spain, and the 1940 Finnish Campaign—the Soviet Union paid dearly for these flights of fancy (though in the case of Spain it was reimbursed with the country’s gold reserve). The first to pay, of course, was the General Staff, almost entirely beheaded by 1941. Yet the worst consequence of all these fantasies, I suppose, was that the Red Army’s performance against a handful of Finnish troops made Hitler’s temptation to attack Russia absolutely irresistible. The real price for the pleasure of playing with imagined opportunities was the total number of divisions assigned to Operation Barbarossa.
Victory in the war didn’t change Soviet foreign policy much, since the spoils of war hardly matched the gigantic human and industrial losses the war inflicted. The scale of the devastation was extraordinary; the main postwar cry was reconstruction. This was carried out mainly by means of stripping the conquered territories of their technology and transplanting it into the ussr. Psychologically satisfactory, this however could not put the nation ahead industrially. The country remained a second-or third-rate power, its only claim to consequence being its sheer size and its military machine. Formidable and state of the art as the latter tried to be, the comfort the nation could derive from it was largely of the narcissistic sort, given the cumulative strength of its supposed adversaries and the emergence of nuclear weapons. What really fell under the onslaught of that machine, however, was the Soviet Union’s foreign policy—its options defined, as it were, by its legions. To this reversal of Clausewitz one must add the growing rigidity of a state apparatus petrified by the fear of personal responsibility and imbued with the notion that the first word and the last word on all matters, above all on matters of foreign policy, belonged to Stalin. Under the circumstances, diplomatic initiatives, let alone attempts at creating opportunities, were unthinkable. What’s more, the distinction between a created opportunity and an imagined one can be galling. It takes a mind accustomed to the dynamics of a well-heeled economy (to the accumulation of wealth, surplus production, and so on) to tell one from another. If you are short on that sort of expertise, you may confuse the one thing for the other. And well into the 1950s, the Soviet Union was short on it. It still is.
And yet in the late 1950s the Soviet Union undertakes something rather spectacular, something that leaves you with the sense that, with the death of Stalin in 1953, Soviet foreign policy comes to life. After the Suez debacle in the autumn of 1956, the ussr undertakes an unusually well-coordinated and well-sustained push toward the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. This departure is as sudden as it is successful. Its goal, as hindsight avails us, is control of the Middle East, or, more pointedly, of its oil fields. The logic behind this move is simple and fairly Marxist: whoever controls energy resources controls production. In other words, the idea is to bring the Western industrial democracies to their knees. Whether to do it directly, by sending troops into the region, or by proxy, by supporting the local Arab regimes and turning them pro-Soviet, is, for the moment, a matter of circumstance and logistics; the proxy option is obviously preferable. And initially this works: a number of Arab states in the region go pro-Soviet, and so fast that one may think that these societies were ripe for Communist ideology, or at least accustomed to that sort of discourse. They were not. The few existing CP cells in King Farouk’s Egypt, for instance, were wiped out under Nasser entirely, their members turned into cellmates or dangled from the rope. An even greater Marxist dearth marked—still does—the rest of the Islamic world, east and west of Cairo: the culture of the Book won’t abide another one, especially one written by a Jew. Still, the first Soviet steps in the region met with success, the degree of which could be explained only by the newcomer’s recourse to some sort of network within those societies, and with access to all its levels. Such a network couldn’t be of German origin (not even in Egypt), since Reinhard Gehlen, the postwar head of West German intelligence, sold his entire file cabinet in the late 1940s to the United States. Nor could it be French, who were a marginal presence in the region to begin with, and then fiercely loyal to France. That left the local pro-British element, presumably taking its cue—in the vacuum left by the master race’s withdrawal—from some local resident (stationed, say, in Beirut). Out of nostalgia, perhaps, out of the hope for the Empire’s return. At any rate, it certainly wasn’t the novelty of the Russian version of the infidel that nearly delivered the region to the Soviets in the late 1950s; it was a created opportunity.
Imagine this blueprint on a drawing board somewhere in Moscow thirty-five or forty years ago. It says: there is a vacuum left in the Middle East by the British. Fill it up. Support new Arab leaders: one by one, or bundle them together into some sort of confederation, say, into a United Arab Republic or League. Give them arms, give them anything. Drive them into debt. Tell them that they can pay you back if they hike their oil prices. Tell them that they can be unreasonable about that, that you’ll back them up all the way; and you’ve got nukes. In no time, the West cries uncle, the Arabs get rich, and you control the Arabs. You become top dog, as befits the first socialist country in the world. As for how to get your foot in the door, it’s all taken care of. You’ll get along with these guys just fine, they don’t like Jews either.
And imagine this blueprint being not of your own manufacture. For it simply could not have been. In order to conceive of it, you would have to be acquainted with the region, and intimately so. You ought to know who is who there, what this sheikh or that colonel is up to, his pedigree and hang-ups. In Moscow and its vicinity, there is nobody with that sort of data. Furthermore, you ought to know about oil revenues, the market, its fluctuations, stocks, this or that industrial democracy’s annual intake of crude, tankers’ fleets, refineries, stuff like that. There is nobody acquainted with this sort of thing on your staff, or moonlighting elsewhere either. And even if to imagine that such a fellow existed, a doctrinaire Marxist and a bookworm, with the clearance to read Western periodicals—even if such a fellow existed, and came up with such a blueprint, he would have to have a godfather in the Politburo to place this blueprint on the drawing board; and placing it there would give that member of the Politburo an edge that his colleagues wouldn’t tolerate for a split second. Ultimately this plan could not have been conceived by a Russian, if only because Russia herself has oil; actually plenty of it. You don’t regard as a source of energy something you waste. Had it been homemade, this blueprint would never have seen the light of day. Besides, it’s too damn close to an imagined opportunity. The very reason that it is on your drawing board, though, is that it has nothing to do with the native imagination. That alone should be enough to qualify it as a created opportunity. For it comes from without, and its main attraction is that it is foreign-made. To members of the Soviet Politburo in the 1950s, this blueprint was what blue jeans are to their kids. They liked it very much. Still, they wanted to check the label. And they had the wherewithal.
And while they are checking the label, dear reader, let me give you something straight, without the author’s interference. Harold Adrian Russell Philby, “Kim” to his chums in England and especially in Russia, where this nickname rang no Kipling bell, being instead a brand-new Soviet name, popular especially in the 1930s, since it was the acronym of Kommunisticzeskii Internatzional Molodezhi (Communist International of Youth), was born in Ambala, India, in—as the stamp rightly says—1912. His daddy was Harry St. John Philby, a great English Arabist and explorer who subsequently converted to Islam, and became an adviser to King Ibn Saud of guess which country. The boy was educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history and economics and was a member of the Apostles. After Cambridge he free-lanced for various London publications, and in this capacity he went in 1937 to Spain to cover the Civil War and later on was taken up by the Times, for which he covered the initial stages of World War II. That’s essentially what was known about the 28-year-old man by 1940, when he was employed by MI6, the counterintelligence branch of the fabled British SIS, and given the job of handling anti-Communist counterespionage matters. Presumably at his own request. During the war years he moves rapidly through the ranks, gets stationed in Istanbul, and becomes, in 1946, the head of Soviet counterintelligence. That’s a big job, which he abandons only three years later, having been posted as first secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, that is, as chief liaison officer between the SIS and the CIA, where, among other things, he becomes a close friend of James Angleton, the CIA’s head of counterintelligence. On the whole, it is a marvelous career. The man is awarded the obe for his wartime services, he is greatly respected by the foreign office and the gentlemen of the press, and is groomed to become the head of the SIS. That, essentially, is what was known to his peers and his superiors about this 39-year-old man in 1951, when something rather untoward occurs. Two of his old pals, way back from Cambridge days, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, turn out to be Soviet spies, and flee to the Soviet Union. What’s worse, a suspicion lurks in the heads of people-in-the-know on both sides of the Atlantic that it was Philby who warned them off. He is investigated, nothing is proved, doubt persists, and he is asked to resign. Life is cruel, the best of pals can bring you down. Such was the verdict of many, including the Foreign Office. He resumes his journalistic career—after all, he is still in his 40s—but the inquiries continue. Some people just don’t give up. In 1955 Harold Macmillan, then the British foreign secretary, in a statement before the Commons, fully exonerates Philby of any wrongdoing. His slate wiped clean, Philby obtains, through the Foreign Office’s misty-eyed assistance, the job of foreign correspondent for The Economist and The Observer in Beirut, whereto he sails in 1956, never to see the chalk cliffs of Sussex again.
It’s three years later that the fellows in Moscow click their tongues admiring the blueprint. Still, they want to check the label. For what is a clean slate to some is the writing on the wall to others. They figure that the Brits couldn’t get any goods on a Brit because they were searching the Brits; they were doomed because they were engaged in a tautology. For the job of a mole is to outsmart the natives. As for the Russian end—should they ever gain access to it, which is highly unlikely—it would reveal nothing either. The identity of a mole, especially a mole so highly placed, wouldn’t be known even to the case officer running him, it would be only a code name or a bunch of digits at best. That’s as much as even the most knowledgeable defector can tell you, not to mention the fact that he would be defecting straight into the arms of the SIS counterintelligence section, and guess who is in charge of that. The only two people who might know his identity would be the present Soviet head of counterintelligence, and that far no Brit could ever go, or the counterintelligence officer who recruited the man initially. A sergeant, by definition, is older than his recruit, and since we are talking here about the 1950s, that sergeant should by now be either dead or indeed running the whole Soviet counterintelligence show. Most likely though he is dead, since the best way to protect the recruit’s identity is to kill the sergeant. Still, in 1933, when a 21-year-old Cambridge graduate was recruited, things were not as watertight as they are now in the 1950s, when we are checking the label, and the good old—no, dead—sergeant might have said something to his superior (who was presumably dead, too: those purges of the state security apparatus in the late 1930s were not for nothing) or had a witness to the recruitment, or the poor young witless recruit himself might have rubbed shoulders with somebody who later went bad. After all, his choice of pals is what brought him down, though for a while they delivered all the comings and goings of the Anglo-American Atomic Energy Commission. (Good flies on the wall they were, but now look at them coming here to roost!) Let bygones be bygones, of course; but if we are to carry out this blueprint, we need something tighter than an exoneration by Harold Macmillan—bless his heart—in Commons, we need complete immunity for our man against any whistle-blowers. No surprises, no voices from the past, no skeletons in the closet. So who are those guys he might have rubbed shoulders with before they went bad? Where are their death certificates?
And they can’t find Orlov’s. And Willie Fischer sings his world famous Abel lyric. And Orlov doesn’t want to see his old pal. And they conclude that he is either dead or not suicidal. And so they move into the Middle East, into Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya; they seize the created opportunity. They shower new Arab leaders with planeloads and shiploads of military surplus, advisers, and whatnot; they drive those nations into debt. And the advisers advise the leaders to hike oil prices to pay them back. And the leaders do just that: by high margins and with impunity, backed by this new set of infidels with nukes. And the West starts to kowtow and cry “UN”—but that’s just the first syllable of uncle. And now the faithful, the fidel and the infidel, hate the Jews together. It all works just like the man said it would.
But life is cruel, and one day the new oil-producing pals get greedy. They create a cartel, OPEC by name, and start filling up their own coffers. They put the squeeze on the West, but not for our sake! They also quarrel among themselves. Anyhow, they get richer than their old masters, not to mention us. That wasn’t in the blueprint. The architect of our Middle East policy, the son of King Ibn Saud’s adviser, an observer and economist to boot, our great and unexposed—well, technically speaking—secret agent should have been able to foresee this turn of events! Thus far everything went according to the plan: he delivered, and now this. Well, he better tell us what to do next. Basically, we need him here now, on a day-to-day basis. Anyway, it’s safer for him here in Moscow; fewer temptations as well. He can concentrate better. It ain’t Beirut.
It certainly was much colder. At least for the spy who came in from the warmth. At long last. Actually, exactly thirty years after he was recruited. Whatever that means, except that he is 51 years old now and has to start a new life. Which, after all, isn’t that hard, since the local lads go out of their privileged ways to assist you; and besides, at 51 no life is that new, no country is that foreign. Especially if you have spied for that country all your adult life. And especially if you did it not for money, but out of conviction. So the place should be familiar to you, at least mentally. For it’s the conviction that is your home, your ultimate comfort: you blow all your life savings on furnishing it. If the world around you is poor and colorless, then you stuff this place with all manner of mental candelabra and Persian carpets. If that world used to be rich in texture, then you’ll settle for mental monochrome, for a few abstract chairs.
And, as we are on our last leg, dear suffering reader, let’s get a bit anachronistic. There is a certain type of Englishman that appreciates frugality and inefficiency: the one who nods contentedly at a stalled elevator or at one boy being caned for another boy’s prank. He recognizes botch and bungle the way one recognizes one’s relatives. He recognizes himself in a peeling, wobbly railing, damp hotel sheets, slovenly trees in a soot-laden window, bad tobacco, the smelly carriage of a delayed train, bureaucratic obstacles, indecision and sloth, impotent shrugs; certainly in poorly cut serge clothes, in gray. So he loves Russia; mainly from a distance, as he cannot afford the trip, except perhaps later in life, in his 50s or 60s, when he retires. And he’d do a lot for Russia, for his inefficient yet dramatic, soulful, Doctor Zhivago-like (the movie, not the book) Russia, where the twentieth century hasn’t yet set its Goodyear tire, where his childhood still continues. He doesn’t want his Russia to go American. He wants her to stay intense and awkward, in brown woolen stockings with broad pink garters: no nylons, and please no pantyhose. It is his equivalent of rough trade, of the working-class lads for whom his old Cambridge pals will be prowling London pubs for the rest of their lives. He is straight, though; and it’s Russia for him, if it’s not Germany or Austria.
And if Russia is Communist, so much the better. Especially if it is 1933 and Germany is out of the question. And if somebody with a slight accent asks you to work for Russia, and you are just 21, you say yes, because it’s unlike anything else, and it sounds subversive. If school teaches you anything, it is to belong to a party, or at least to a club, and to form a cell. The CP is just another Apostles, a sort of frat, and it preaches brotherhood. At any rate, you go for what your pals do, and to them “the world proletariat” conjures up rough trade on a grand scale. And in a while you hear that slight accent again, and you are asked to do a job—nothing big, though faintly foul. And you do it; and now the slight accent has goods on you. If he is smart, the next time he asks you to do something, he doesn’t mention the world proletariat, he mentions Russia. Because you won’t do it, say, for India, though India, technically speaking, is part of the world, not to mention the proletariat. Fifty years ago social fiction was still ethnocentric, and so were spies. More Chekhov for you, then; more of Constance Garnett’s Tolstoy on the train ride to Spain, for it’s the time. It is also the place. A bright young thing can sample that brotherhood here: its blood, lice, hope, despair, defeat, apathy. Instead he hangs around in the lobby of the Nacional, sees some scum upstairs, and is told—to his secret relief, no doubt—to switch sides, for the sake of the greater good. That’s how a bright young thing learns about the big picture, a.k.a. the future. The next time he hears the slight accent he knows it is a voice from the future. The accent will be different, since the first slightly accented throat has already been cut for the bright young thing’s eventual safety; and if that throat had a beloved, she’s already digging the permafrost of her twenty-five-year sentence in the Russian Far East, against the majestic snowy backdrop of a would-be Zhivago movie. Yet by the time the voice from the future enters your ear, there is wwii on your hands, Russia is an ally, and the SIS wants you to take part in the war effort. The big picture barges into view, and you ask for a Russian job. And since you are a gentleman, you are welcomed to it by senior gentlemen who can be identified as such, however, mainly by which door they push in a loo. Well, not even then.
So you know the country where you end up thirty years later at the ripe age of 51. Full of beans, no doubt, but past your prime. Ah, the chalk cliffs of Sussex! Ah, the accursed island! Ah, the whole Pax Britannica! They’ll pay dearly for ruining such a brilliant career, for putting a clever man out to grass at the apogee of his ascent! A clever man knows how to get even with an empire: by using another empire. Never the twain shall meet. That’s what makes a big picture grow bigger. Not a tooth for a tooth, but a mouthful for a tooth! Perhaps the greatest satisfaction of every spy is the thought that he is playing Fate, that it’s he who pulls strings. Or else, cuts them. He fashions himself after Clotho, or perhaps after Arachne. A deus in machina that runs on petrol, he may not even catch the irony of being situated in Mazoutny Lane—well, not initially. At any rate, deus or deuce, controlling oil fields is a greater game than betraying the secrets of British intelligence to the Russians. There is not much left to betray in London anyway, whereas here the stakes are huge. The entire world order is at stake. Whoever wins here, it will be his victory. He, an observer and economist to boot, didn’t read Das Kapital and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom for nothing. Not to mention that the victory will be Russia’s, since what can you expect of democracies: no resolve. Imagine Russia, his slovenly brown-woolen-stockings-cum-pink-garters-clad Russia, as the world’s master, and not because of the nukes or the ballistic missiles only: imagine her, soulful and slothful, with all the Arabian peninsula’s oil revenues under her pillow—uncertain, Chekhovian, anti-rationalist! A far better master (nay, mistress) of the world than his own Cartesian West, so easy to fool, himself being a good example. And should worse come to worst, should it be not Russia but some local, some sheikh or dictator, it’s fine by him too. In fact, daddy would be proud of him if it should go all to the Saudis.
And there it went, practically all of it. So much of it, in any case, that it should be the Saudis issuing this stamp, not the Russians. Well, perhaps one day they will. Or the Iraqis, or the Iranians. Whoever is to master the oil monopoly should issue the stamp. Ah, Muslims, Muslims! Where would they be now, were it not for the Soviet foreign policy of the 1960s and 1970s, that is, were it not for the late Mr. Philby? Imagine them unable to purchase a Kalishnikov, let alone a rocket launcher. They’d be unfit for the front page, they wouldn’t make even the backdrop for a pack of camels…. Ah, but life is cruel, and beneficiaries don’t remember their benefactors; nor, for that matter, do victims remember the villain. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps the origins of good and bad are better off remaining obscured—especially the latter. Does it really matter what clouds the godhead: the concept of dialectical materialism or the Prophet’s turban? Can we tell one from another? In the final analysis, there is no hierarchy between the cherry orchard and the triviality of the sand; it is only a matter of preference. For men, as well as for their money. Money, evidently, lacks a conscience of its own, and the jackpot goes to the desert simply out of its kinship for multitudes. On the whole, like a certain kind of Englishman, money has an eastward longing, if only because that realm is extremely populous. A secret agent, then, is but an early bird, a big bank’s harbinger. And if he settles there, in the East, and goes native, helped along by local liquor, or a willing maiden, well, so what? Have Noah’s pigeons returned? Ah, dear reader, imagine a letter sent today or in the near future from Moscow to Riyadh. What do you think it will contain? A birthday greeting, vacation plans, news of a loss in the family, complaints about the cold climate? No, more likely a request for money. Say, for an investment in the well-being of Riyadh’s fellow Muslims on Soviet territory. And it will be written in English, this letter, and it won’t be worth perlustration. A postmaster, perhaps, having glanced at its return address, may lift the crescent of the eyebrow obscured by his traditional headgear, but after a momentary hesitation he’ll shove this envelope into an appropriate slot: an envelope with a Philby stamp on it.
Aglum thought, nods the exhausted reader. But wouldn’t things have come to this juncture anyway, even without our English friend’s assistance? Sure they would have, given the so-called dynamics of the modern world, which means the population explosion and the industrial gluttony of the West. These two would suffice; no need for a third party, let alone for an individual agency. At best, our English friend just articulated what was in the air or, as it were, afoot. Other than that, he was utterly insignificant. Sooner or later this was bound to happen, Kim or no Kim, Russia or no Russia. Well, without Russia perhaps it would have taken a touch longer, but so what. Individuals are incidental, it’s all economics, isn’t it? In this sense, even if an individual exists, he doesn’t. Sounds a bit solipsistic, in a Marxist way; but our English friend would be the first to appreciate that. After all, historical necessity was his motto, his credo, his occasional rebuke to pangs of conscience. And after that, for all the professional hazards of one’s trade, a belief in the imminent triumph of one’s cause is safe betting, isn’t it? (What if your cause triumphs in your lifetime, eh?) At any rate, from the standpoint of historical necessity, our man was of no use, at best he was redundant. For the objective of history was to make the Arabs rich, the West poor, and the Russians bob and bubble in limbo. This is what the bottom line says in that true bel canto of necessity, and who is the author to argue with it? A penny, then, for our friend’s sense of mission; but not much more for the author’s flight of fancy either. Anyway, what are his sources?
“Sources?” shrugs the author contemptuously. Who needs them? Who can trust sources? And since when? And does the reader realize what he is getting into by suspecting his author of being wrong, not to mention by proving it? Aren’t you afraid, dear reader, that your successful refutation of the author’s little theory might boil down to an unescapable conclusion on your part that the dark brown substance in which you find yourself up to your nostrils in the world today is immanent, preordained on high, at the very least sponsored by Mother Nature? Do you really need that? Whereas the author aims to spare you this anguish by proving that the aforementioned substance is of human manufacture. In this respect, your author is a true humanist. No, dear reader, you don’t need sources. Neither sources nor tributaries of defectors’ evidence; not even electronic precipitation raining unto your lap from the satellite-studded heaven. With our sort of flow, all you need is an estuary, a mouth really; and beyond that a sea with the bottom line for a horizon. Well, that much you’ve already seen.
Nobody, though, knows the future. Least of all those who believe in historical determinism; and next to them, spies and journalists. Perhaps that’s why the former often disguise themselves as the latter. Of course, when it comes to the future, any occupation is good cover. Still, information-gathering beats them all, since any bit of information, including a secret one, is generated by the past: almost by definition, information deals with faits accomplis. Be it a new bomb, a planned invasion, or a shift in policy, you can learn only about what has already happened, what has already taken place. The paradox of espionage is that the more you know about your adversary, the more your own development is stunted, since this knowledge forces you into trying to catch up with him, to thwart his efforts. He keeps you occupied, by altering your own priorities. The better your spies, therefore, the more you fall into dependence on what you learn. You are not acting any longer: you are reacting. This maroons you in the past, with little access to the present and none to the future. Well, not to a future of your own design, let alone your own making. Imagine the Soviets not stealing American atomic secrets and thus spending the last four decades with no nukes to brandish. It could have been a different country; not much more prosperous, perhaps, given the doctrine, but at least the fiasco that we have recently witnessed might have occurred much earlier. If worse came to worst, they might have built a viable version of their socialism. But when you steal something, the catch possesses you, or at least your faculties. Considering the industry of our English friend and his pals, it went far beyond faculties; both hands of their Russian fence were, for quite some time, too busy to build socialism, they were hoarding goods. It could be argued that by betraying the Empire in such volume, the boys in fact served the Empire in a far more substantial manner than its most ardent standard-bearers. For the wealth of secret intelligence passed to the Soviets by the Cambridge class of 1931 mesmerized its recipients to the point of making at least their foreign policy thoroughly contingent on the harvest yielded by their own plants. For the men in Moscow Center, it’s been like reading the Sunday papers non-stop seven days a week instead of doing the dishes or taking the kids to the zoo.
So you can’t say it was all in vain, dear reader, can you? Even though you may be as tired of the subject as the author himself. Let’s claim fatigue, dear reader, and reach no conclusion, and spare ourselves the distrust, not to say the acrimony. On the whole, there is nothing wrong with intricacy of thought except that it’s always achieved at the expense of thought’s depth. Let’s get into your Japanese Toyota, which doesn’t consume a lot of the Arab oil-product, and go for a meal. Chinese? Vietnamese? Thai? Indian? Mexican? Hungarian? Polish? The more we bungle abroad, the more varied our diet. Spanish? Greek? French? Italian? Perhaps the only good thing about the dead spies was that they had a choice. But as I write this, the news comes over the wireless that the Soviet Union is no more. Armenian, then? Uzbek? Kazakh? Estonian? For some reason, we don’t feel like eating at home tonight. We don’t want to eat English.
Why should one bother so much about dead spies? Why can’t one contain the repulsion that rises at the sight of a literary magazine’s cover? Isn’t this an overreaction? What’s so new about someone’s belief that a just society exists elsewhere, so special about this old Rousseauist lunacy, enacted or not? Every epoch and every generation is entitled to its own utopia, and so was Philby’s. Surely the ability to cling to that sort of garbage beyond the age of down payment (not to mention the age of retirement) is puzzling; but one can easily put this down to temperament or to some organic disorder. A Catholic, a lapsed Catholic especially, can appreciate the predicament, and make a meal out of it if he is a writer; and so can a heathen. Or did I feel queasy simply because of the violation of scale, because of the printing enlargement of something small, a stamp really, as a result of which the perforation line takes on the dimension of a cloth fringe: a hanky’s, a pillowcase’s, a bedspread’s, a petticoat’s? Maybe I have a problem with fringed linen—a childhood trauma again? The day was hot, and for a moment it felt like the enlargement of the stamp on the magazine’s cover would go on and on, and envelop Belsize Park, Hampstead, and keep growing, larger and larger. A vision, you know. Too much reading of surrealist poets. Or else too many placards with the Politburo members’ faces on the old retina—and the man on the stamp looks like one of them, for all his resemblances to Alec Guinness and Trevor Howard. Plus, of course, the Cyrillic … enough to get dizzy. But it wasn’t like that. There was no vision. There was just a face, of the kind you wouldn’t pay attention to were it not for the caption, which, apart from anything else, was in Cyrillic. At that moment I regretted that I knew Russian. I stood there groping for an English word to shield my wits from the familiarity that the Cyrillic letters exuded. As is often the case with mongrels, I couldn’t come up with the right word instantly, and so I turned and left the store. I only remembered the word well outside, but because of what it was, I couldn’t get myself back to the store to buy the issue. The word was “treachery.”
A wonderful word, that. It creaks like a board laid over a chasm. Onomatopoeically, it beats ethics. It has all the euphony of a taboo. For the ultimate boundary of a tribe is its language. If a word doesn’t stop you, then a tribe isn’t yours. Its vowels and its sibilants don’t trigger your instincts, don’t send your nerve cells into revulsion, don’t make you wince. Which is to say, your command of this tribe’s language is just a matter of mimicry. Which, in turn, points at your belonging to a different evolutionary order. Sublingual or supralingual, at least as regards the language that contains the word “treachery.” Which is to prevent the sudden reversal of a bone to jelly. Which is to say, evolution never ends: it still continues. The Origin of Species ain’t the end of the road; at best a milestone. Which is to say, not all people are people. Might as well add this stamp to the Shells and Mollusks series. It’s still a seabed.
You can only enlarge a stamp, you can’t reduce it. That is, you can but reduction will serve no purpose. That is the self-defense of small items, or, if you will, their raison d’?tre. They can only be enlarged. That is, if you are in the graphics department of a literary paper of humble strikebreaking origins. “Blow it up,” says the editor, and you cheerfully trot off to the lab. Can’t reduce it, can you? Simply wouldn’t cross your mind. Nowadays just push a button, and it either grows or shrinks. To life-size, or to the size of a louse. Push it once more, and the louse is gone. Extinct. Not what the editor asked for, though. He wants it life-size: large. The size of his fantasy, if not his dilemma. “Would you buy this man a drink or shake hands with him?” The old English pickle, except now it’s grown chic, with perhaps a touch of retro to it. Ah, these days you push a button, and the whole mental swamp gets heaving and gurgling, from Pas de Calais to the Bering Strait, from the 1930s onward. For that’s what history is for the generation currently active: for lapsed Catholics, editors in chief, and the like. For nowadays everything is chic and retro: this isn’t the fin de siecle for nothing. There is little to look forward to save your bank statement. Whom would you spy for nowadays if you had access to secret information, if you still ached to defy your class or your country? For the Arabs? For the Japanese? Whose plant, let alone mole, could you be? The village has gone truly global; there is a dearth of allegiance, a dearth of affinity. Ay, you can’t betray Europe to Asia any longer, nor, I’m afraid, the other way around. It’s goodbye to conviction, goodbye to the good old godless communism. From now on, it’s all nostalgia for you, old boy, all retro. From your baggy pants to the matte black of your video, stereo, or dashboard echoing the burnished steel of a gun barrel. That’s about how radical, how chic it’s going to be: in Europe, but in Asia too. So go ahead, blow up that louse from the 1950s, for reducing it might rob you of your emotional history: What would you be without that, without a big-time traitor never caught and never recanting in your past? Just a cipher in tax bracket hell, not dissimilar to that of the old wretch when he still drew his salary in pounds. Go ahead and blow it up; pity it can’t be made three-dimensional. Pity, too, that you have no idea, as you are pressing “enlarge,” that in less than three weeks the whole thing on whose behalf your man toiled all his life will go bust.
In a dream. A cross between a meadow and a communal garden somewhere in Kensington, with a fountain or a statue in the middle of it. A sculpture, anyway. Modern, but not very modern. Abstract, with a big hole in the center and a few strings across it: like a guitar but less feminine. Gray. Sort of like by Barbara Hepworth, but made of discarded thoughts and unfinished sentences. Lacelike. On the plinth there is an inscription: “To Beloved Spider. Grateful Cobwebs.”
Twangs of balalaika, the crackle of atmospherics. A hand fiddling with an eye-blinking wireless. It’s Moscow, Russia, anytime between 1963 and 1988. More atmospherics and balalaika. Then the first bars of Lilliburlero and an upright female voice: “This is the BBC World Service. The news. Read to you by …” In her 30s, perhaps. Well-scrubbed face, almost no makeup. A chiffon blouse. White. And a cardigan. Most likely beige, the tea-cum-milk color. A broadcloth skirt, knee-high. Black or dark blue, like the evening sky outside. Or maybe it’s gray; but knee-high. Knee-high knee-high knee-high. And then there is a slip. Oh my oh my oh my. Another Boeing is blown up in a desert. Pol Pot, Phnom Penh. Mister—a split-second pause—Mugabe. Knee-high. Main thing, the lace. Fragile and intricate like circumlocution. Minuscule dotty flowers. That never see the light of day. And that’s why they are so white. Oh blast! Sihanouk, Pinochet, Rudi Deutchke. Chile, Chile, Chile, Chile. Dotty little pansies smothered to death by light-brown tights from a shop in Islington. That’s what the world came down to. From the step-by-step approach, from the silks/flesh/garter/bingo system to the either/or of pantyhose. Detente, sygint, icbms. New tricks but the dog’s too old. For these, and for the old ones too. Well, looks like. And going to end up here after all. Pity. Can’t win them all, can you? Another whiskey then. “The main points again …” In her 30s, if you ask me, and on the plump side. Dinnertime anyway. Methuselah fancies dotty little pansies. Methuselah fancies … All that matters in this life is that cobwebs outlive the spider. How does that thingummy—Tyutchev’s! Tyutchev is the name—lyric go?
We are not given to appraise
In whom or how our word may live on.
And we are vouchsafed oblivion
The way we once were given grace.
Dushen’ka! Dushen’ka! What’s for dinner? “Ah, dahrleeng, I thought we would eat English tonight. Boiled beef.”