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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Spiral-bound

4.6 out of 5 stars 4,516 ratings

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  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B09T4T2XXY
  • Spiral-bound ‏ : ‎ 384 pages
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.6 out of 5 stars 4,516 ratings

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Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.

(Photo Credit: Justine Stoddart)

Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5
4,516 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

Reviewed in the United States on September 7, 2020
21 people found this helpful
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Reviewed in the United States on September 1, 2016
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Reviewed in the United States on May 19, 2017
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Reviewed in the United States on February 19, 2022
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Reviewed in the United States on November 3, 2020
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Top reviews from other countries

Cornwallgurl
5.0 out of 5 stars A splendid study of breathtaking duplicity
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 23, 2018
40 people found this helpful
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X.W.
4.0 out of 5 stars Salisbury and Cambridge
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 29, 2018
33 people found this helpful
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Lex
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most engaging books you'll read
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 16, 2019
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most engaging books you'll read
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 16, 2019
CS Lewis talked about the quest to gain access to the ‘inner ring’, something he was unable to do at Oxford due to the snobbery of the English establishment, and the embarrassment Lewis caused fellow academics by writing about the devil as though he were a real being.[i] As you gain entrance to one ring, you discover yet another further in which holds yet more influence. Every effort is made to progress to the inner rings. Entrance becomes more costly. You can forfeit your soul as you gain the world. Once inside each ring, you strengthen its walls so that it remains difficult for others to enter (one UK pastor was telling me of South African émigrés to England who, having scrambled to get British passports and residency, are now solidly and immovably pro-Brexit).

Of course for outsiders like Lewis, slowly earning your way to an inner ring may not only take years but may turn out to be a hollow promise after all. But the nature of the old British establishment was that if you were born into the right family, went to the right school, had the right kind of accent and bearing, you could skip all those tawdry outer rings and accelerate right to the centre of things where commoners rarely, if ever, appear. The inner rings are inevitably smaller, and fewer people share the high-octane experience of access to key decisions and key information.

What MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence organisation, hadn’t bargained for was that once their trusted men were in the inner ring it was practically the only place they could let their guard down and share their experiences without fear of a snooping ear. And boy did they offload. Here were brothers, comrades, co-spies in a world where no one else knew their true work, not even their wives. And, from the 1930s through to the early 1960s, one man in particular – charming, intelligent, a veritable Bond – was picking them clean of every detail, every initiative, and every name.
Entrance into the UK spy organisation’s inner rings was surprisingly easy for Kim Philby. He simply asked a friend of his father’s to recommend him. ‘I know their people!’ was recommendation enough. In the 1940s the old boy network was considered as sound as a pound. A typical Eton old boy was as British as you could be. But it was at Cambridge that Philby first encountered the vision of a communist society. And it was an idealistic vision that held his loyalty for the remainder of his life. In fact he was so devoted to this ideal that he gave uncritical obedience to his KGB handlers from first to last. Philby’s beliefs as a student were well known, but when the Soviets recruited him they advised him not to join the Communist Party but rather to appear to grow out of that youthful phase and adopt more right-wing views. He obeyed, and became the KGB’s most senior operative; one who infiltrated the British security system to the highest levels. Philby, the Eton and Cambridge old boy, who loved cricket and was a thoroughly good egg, was ushered into the inner ring, and became the most notorious spy of his generation. He was so thoroughly British that the British refused to doubt him, and the KGB refused to trust him.

As Ben Macintyre describes in this highly readable account of Philby’s adventures, he actually became head of the UK’s anti-Soviet division – an almost unbelievable feat. The most senior Soviet spy in Britain became the head of the Britain’s anti-Soviet operations. And the information Philby was sending to the Soviet Union was so thorough and so accurate that the KGB began to be suspicious of him and had him followed.

After two other well-to-do Cambridge recruits were exposed as Soviet spies and defected, the spotlight fell (accurately) on Philby. He must have tipped them off. The CIA in America was certain of it. MI5 (British security service) and MI6 (British foreign intelligence service) had differing views on Philby. MI5 were convinced he had been a double-agent. MI6 thought those horrible people at MI5 were just slandering him, and had nothing concrete against him. And so, as an old boy truly in the security of a tightening inner ring, Philby was exonerated and declared to be so in Parliament by fellow-Etonian, Harold Macmillan. Incredibly, a few years later he was working for MI6 again.
Of course, it all finally caught up with him, and he was probably (Macintyre, and others infer) allowed to escape to Moscow where he received by the Soviet authorities. It was hardly a hero’s welcome for a lifetime or risk and deceit. He was kept at arms length. He lived in a small flat, avidly reading through old cricket games in old copies of the Times when he was able to get them, desperate of news from home. A humbling isolated end. A Briton in exile.

Philby’s betrayal, not only of country, but of friends, was intensely difficult to process by those who were closest to him. They were left devastated by his defection when the watertight evidence was revealed. We’re told Nicholas Elliot, in MI6, never fully recovered from the shock of it all. His closest friend was working for the Communists. He re-lived whole segments of his life with a new perspective. The realisation that he had spilled the beans on numerous activities which was relayed to the Soviet Union must have been unbearable to him. And the American James Angleton, another close friend, nearly destroyed the CIA through increasingly invasive internal witch-hunts prompted by the post-Philby paranoia.

Suave, sophisticated, well educated, gracious, the quintessential British gentleman, Kim Philby deceived them all. And all for an ideal it seems he didn’t care to review beyond his earlier infatuation with it. Somehow he looked past Stalin’s crimes and doggedly held on to a pristine ideal. He looked past the ruthless disappearance of KGB handlers who were suddenly under suspicion, and kept looking for the communist dream. He didn’t live to see the fall of it all along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

As a result of his winnowing work he frustrated numerous cold-war operations, sent hundreds of agents to their deaths, and told a gazillion bare-faced lies, not least of which were his declarations of innocence in his mother’s flat before a crowd of reporters after Macmillan’s statement in the House of Commons. You can see footage of that and of him speaking in the USSR here

‘Meet it is I set it down that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, said Hamlet. Macintyre’s superbly readable account of the secret world of high-class spies has certainly been one of my most engaging reads of this year, and is a subject which continues to fascinate. Surely it’s time for a film version.
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16 people found this helpful
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Dr. R. Brandon
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly Written with Lots of Personal Detail
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 24, 2018
5 people found this helpful
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Kelland H.
5.0 out of 5 stars An affable cold blooded killer who got away.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 27, 2015
25 people found this helpful
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