This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
‘‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Pascal’s aphorism often comes to mind when reading this enjoyable and well-written biography of George Blake, who betrayed hundreds of agents to the KGB when he worked for MI6. Dick White, who ran first MI5, then MI6, thought Blake did “much more damage than Philby”. Kuper describes him as “a serial killer”.
But Blake thought of himself as a morally decent and principled man. He was brought up as a Christian, and seriously considered becoming a priest. He believed communism to be “the same as Christianity — only on a scientific basis”. He returned to a version of Christian faith after he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs to Moscow.
He had a weirdly precise sense of moral rectitude. He gave a copy of every secret document he came across to the Russians. But he also insisted he had ensured that his autobiography, published with help from the KGB, did not include anything that might violate Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
Blake perpetrated his cruelties cheerfully. As Kuper records, Blake admitted he sometimes felt guilty about the pain he caused his wife and three children by abandoning them. He even said he felt the occasional pang about his colleagues in MI6. But he never mentioned that he regretted causing the death of many of the agents he betrayed. He claimed to have made his KGB handlers promise that the agents he identified would not be killed. It is a testimony to the power of self-deception that Blake managed to persuade himself that the KGB would keep that promise.
Many of the KGB’s British spies who defected to Moscow ended up as lachrymose drunks. Blake didn’t. He never lost his conviction that “Communism had been a very noble experiment”, which “had it succeeded, would have been a great step forward for humanity”. It was enough to enable him overlook the murders and the oppression, the labour camps and the poverty, and to keep him feeling cheerful about having helped such a cruel regime.
Many of the KGB’s British spies who defected to Moscow ended up as lachrymose drunks. Blake didn’t.
Kuper considers the idea that Blake turned traitor because of the slights he received from snobbish MI6 officers. He finds no evidence for it. Blake was staunchly monarchist, although his primary loyalty was to the Dutch rather than the British royal family: he was born in the Netherlands, and spoke English all his life with the hint of a Dutch accent. He had no “class consciousness” in the sense of feeling angry and resentful about the undeserved privileges of the capitalist class. His British interrogators suggested that his experience in a North Korean prison camp after he and the rest of the MI6 station in Seoul were captured by advancing Chinese and North Korean troops in 1950 was to blame for his treachery. Blake angrily resented the implication that the choice to spy for the Soviet Union had not been wholly his own. “Nobody tortured me! Nobody blackmailed me! I myself approached the Soviets and offered my services to them of my own accord.”
Freed soon after the death of Stalin in 1953, Blake worked for MI6 and the KGB first in London, then in Berlin. He passed on plans for a secret tunnel that the British and Americans were going to dig under the wall separating East and West Berlin: it would allow them to intercept Soviet and East German communications. The KGB was grateful for the information — but didn’t pass it on to the Stasi, or even to the Soviet army, who continued to talk freely on channels that the KGB knew were being intercepted.
This leads Kuper to ruminate on the pointlessness of espionage. Most of what secret services find out, he writes, either isn’t used or isn’t useful. That may often be true, but he is wrong to conclude the whole activity is vain. During the Troubles, the British Army and Special Branch had many double agents within the IRA: their information saved scores of lives by thwarting acts of terrorism. Israeli intelligence services have kept terrorism within Israel at remarkably low levels by penetrating the organisations trying to kill Israeli citizens.
Blake was eventually rumbled in the way that most traitors are: a defector from the other side came over with evidence that pointed the finger unequivocally at him. He made a full confession and did not even try to secure immunity from prosecution in exchange. He was rewarded with 42 years in prison.
That sentence would have crushed a less resilient man. Blake started planning his escape from the day he arrived in Wormwood Scrubs. He recruited help from three men he met in prison — two peace campaigners and an Irish drunk. While Blake was on an unsupervised visit to the exercise yard, the Irishman stood outside and threw a ladder over the wall. Blake climbed it and was out. Another accomplice drove him in a camper van to Berlin. Blake went up to a guard on the Berlin Wall and asked to see a KGB officer. A couple of days later, he was happily ensconced in Moscow.
The story of his escape was so fantastic that neither MI6 nor the KGB could believe it. They each thought that he must have had help from the opposing organisation. Security was tightened up in British prisons afterwards: Blake’s principal gift to the British working class was to make the lives of its members who ended up in jail tougher and more unpleasant.
But that was another thought that never bothered Blake, who went on to remarry and live happily in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow until he died on Boxing Day 2020, at the age of 98. As he said of himself, he didn’t deserve it — but his “life had worked out very well”. I can’t recommend The Happy Traitor highly enough. It tells Blake’s story in a witty and sophisticated way, fully alert to its complexities and ironies and yet at the same time aware of its essential moral simplicity: Blake was a bad man who got away with it.
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