GRAMThe story of George Blake, writes Simon Kuper, is “known only to a few people and only to the extent that one can know with certainty something in the world of deception which is espionage.” Your first claim is questionable; There are now eight books dedicated to Blake on my shelves, including one by peace activists Michael Randle and Pat Pottle on his role and motives in helping him escape from prison. But this is by far the most illuminating account.
Kuper’s second point must be true: neither part of the double-agent world has an interest in being honest. MI6 files on Blake are suspected of being suppressed, simply to avoid embarrassment. There is nothing to suggest that Blake’s death in December at the age of 98 will persuade MI6 to adopt a more relaxed attitude towards the files they have on this truly extraordinary case.
Anonymous government sources claimed after his trial, much of which was held in secret, that Blake was responsible for the deaths of some 40 British officers and was therefore sentenced to an unprecedented 42-year sentence. Blake, who could be funny at times, wrote in his autobiography: With no other option, which revealed to Moscow “not forty as alleged, but about four hundred” agents. We don’t know the number and we almost certainly never will.
Kuper says his interest in Blake was driven by how similar their background was, “a mixture of British, Jewish and cosmopolitan, raised in the Netherlands.” Like Kuper, I met Blake in Moscow. There are no big reveals here, but this well-written book goes to the heart of Blake’s story, one that is far more intriguing and interesting on a personal level than those of Britain’s other notorious spies, including the Cambridge ring.
Blake’s father was a Jew of Turkish origin with a family business in Cairo, his mother was a Dutch Protestant. He joined the Dutch resistance after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands before escaping to Britain via Belgium, France, Spain, and Gibraltar. After joining his mother in Britain and a brief stint in the navy, a family friend in British intelligence thought that young Blake’s early adventures and his knowledge of foreign languages made him an ideal candidate for MI6. Under diplomatic cover, he was posted to Seoul with the mission of persuading Russian and North Korean officials to spy for Britain. He was captured when North Korean forces invaded Seoul, becoming the first British official to be imprisoned by Communists. It was while he was in a North Korean jail that he agreed to spy for the Soviet Union. Everything seemed predestined; Blake always claimed that he never believed in free will.
The deception came early to Blake. “He got used to risking his life in an ideological conflict,” writes Kuper. He told Kuper in Moscow many years later that MI6 “did not realize that during the war my loyalty was to the anti-Nazi cause, not to Britain.” It was not as simple as that.
Despite being treated like an outsider by a class-conscious MI6 establishment, Blake made attempts, albeit awkward, to be as English as any of them. But he was increasingly influenced by Marxism, already embraced by a cousin on his father’s side, and in a kind of religious conversion he exchanged his early Calvinism for a new faith. “Communism was made for him,” writes Kuper.
Kuper describes the prisoner in North Korea, who despised the corrupt regime and poverty in South Korea, an ally of Great Britain, and then witnessed the American bombing of North Korean towns, a bombing that reminded him of the Nazi bombing of his birthplace, Rotterdam, as “an abstract-minded 28-year-old moralist who needed a new cause… He was making up his identity as he went along.” When I met Blake in his Moscow flat in 1990, he told me that he had had a “ identity crisis “and emphasized that it had never had roots in Britain.” To betray, you first have to belong. I never did, “he said.
Blake was released and returned as a hero to MI6, which doesn’t seem to have probed him much, if at all, about his experiences and state of mind during his incarceration. Among the secret operations he betrayed was the tunnel built under Berlin by MI6 and the CIA to intercept the conversations of Soviet and East German military and security officials. The CIA transcribed 4,720 pages of talks produced by Operation Gold. It is unclear how useful such intelligence was. The Russians apparently did not tell their East German comrades that their talks were being harassed by the West. The gossip and language in some of the conversations were so profane, says Kuper, that London transcribers were warned that some files were classified in capital letters, “Top Secret Obscene.”
Blake himself was betrayed by a senior Polish intelligence officer who defected to the west. After days of questioning, he suddenly confessed everything to his interrogator, his canny ex-MI6 colleague Harry Shergold. Blake broke when Shergold suggested that his betrayal was understandable, almost excusable. After all, he had been tortured and blackmailed. Blake then described how he exclaimed, “No, no one tortured me! Nobody blackmailed me! I approached the Soviets myself and offered my services at my own expense. “
Kuper writes: “The worst damage that Blake could do to Britain was to expose it.” The vast majority of double agents, he argues, “have ended up in the dustbin of history, their treacherous work almost useless … What they did doesn’t matter much anymore, except for their victims.” Compare the world of espionage to “a junk shop whose owner has lost track of his actions.” Double agents continue to fascinate, Kuper argues, in part because they embody “the popular fantasy of living a double life.”
In the opinion of this critic, some of those who spied for Moscow, including Klaus Fuchs, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, provided valuable information on the bomb and, in the case of Cairncross, on German military movements during World War II. (Double agents have also served both sides. Maclean assured Moscow that the United States would exercise restraint during the Berlin blockade, and Oleg Gordievsky warned the United States and Britain that the Kremlin’s fears of an attack during a large NATO exercise in 1983 were genuine and could have triggered “the final unintended catastrophe”.)
Kuper records that Dick White, the head of MI6, said that if Blake did not confess, “we will invite him to fly to Moscow.” It would have been difficult to obtain the hard evidence that a criminal process would need. Blake could have received immunity from prosecution – as would Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and Cairncross – from a government already embarrassed by spy scandals, including the escape of Guy Burgess and Maclean to Moscow and the trial of Fuchs (who, for telling the Soviet Union how to make an atomic bomb, had been sentenced to 14 years and released after nine).
In the case, MI6 officers were concerned that the 42 years passed down to Blake would backfire; I would hardly encourage future double agents to confess. They couldn’t have imagined that it would lead to an amazing getaway with a group of radical peace activists freeing Blake from Wormwood Scrubs. Randle hid Blake under the bunks of his motorhome on a hastily arranged family vacation and left him in East Germany; the spy was based in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life.
The saga did not end there. In 1991, an Old Bailey jury unanimously acquitted Randle and Pottle of a crime they openly admitted. The verdict came in the same court where, 30 years earlier, Blake received his sentence. He survived 54 years in exile in Russia, the “Happy Traitor”. After Kuper heard that Blake had enjoyed their conversation, he writes, “I must admit the feeling was mutual.” Blake, he adds, “had loved it.” Fortunately, not so much as to prevent the author from writing a clear and credible account of his flawed and enigmatic subject.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism