Kuntsevo Cemetery at Kim Philby’s Grave
Text Ian Mitchell
Christmas is probably the time when people are most inclined to count their many blessings. Perhaps, therefore, it might be appropriate to suggest a visit to the cemetery at Kuntsevo where the famous English double agent, Kim Philby, is buried.
Philby was born in India in 1912, the son of the civil servant and explorer, St John Philby, who later became a noted Arabist, converting to Islam, befriending Ibn Saud and becoming one of the key figures involved in opening up Saudi Arabia for western oil exploration. Both Philbys, father and son, were Cambridge University-educated social rebels. The older Philby paraded his contempt for the ex-patriate community in Jidda by taking his pet baboons for walks out in public in order to show that he could live without human company. The younger Philby converted to Communism in 1931, and lived in Moscow for the last twenty-five years of his life with precious little human company beyond that of his long-suffering Russian wife, Rufina.
In his autobiography, My Silent War, Kim Philby says that he left Cambridge in 1933, “with a degree and the conviction that my life must be devoted to Communism. I have long since lost the degree (indeed, I think it is in the possession of MI5). But I have retained the conviction.” That was written in 1967, four years after he had fled to Moscow to escape prosecution by the British authorities for spying.
The Soviet authorities gave Philby a flat at 6 Trekhprudny Pereulok, just south-west of Mayakovskaya Metro station and not far from Patriarchy Ponds. He lived on the top floor, and could see the Stalin apartment-building tower at Barrikadnaya from his study window. In his book, Philby describes how he survived the doubts which assailed him during the years of the Stalin cult. He said he was confident that history would vindicate his “persisting faith in Communism” while adding, “There is still an awful lot of work ahead; there will be ups and downs. Advances which thirty years ago, I hoped to see in my lifetime, may have to wait a generation or two. But, as I look over Moscow from my study window, I can see the solid foundations of the future I glimpsed at Cambridge.”
Philby died in the summer of 1988, before the future he glimpsed at Cambridge really started to unravel. One can only wonder what he might have made of Moscow today, with the traffic roaring up and down Tverskaya Ulitsa, and shops of unimagined brilliance glittering at dusk all over the city. How many generations would he now expect to have to wait before the final victory of Communism?
It would be easy to gloat. But the season of peace and goodwill is perhaps not the time to do that. To see the portrait of Philby which is etched on the polished granite headstone of his grave is, I would suggest, to appreciate that he died a somewhat disappointed man. All around him in the elite military section of the cemetery are Soviet Generals and the like. Since the graves are grouped by date, most of them are Brezhnev- era deaths, or later. Some would undoubtedly have been responsible for the debacle in Afghanistan, which Philby advised against. These men have fleshy, rotund, unquestioning faces. Many look crude, even brutal.
Philby was neither of these. He did not get rich in the Soviet service. Indeed his life from 1964 until his death was a largely empty one, as the KGB, which never trusted double agents, gave him very little work to do. As a result, he drank too much. His elder son, John, records that when he came to Moscow, their main activity was: “Getting pissed in pectopahs.” A pectopah was, of course, a ÐÅÑÒÎÐÀÍ.
In those days, it was a rare achievement to get a table in the Aragvi, or the Peking Hotel, and if successful, the food was likely to be unpalatable. A letter survives written by Philby to his friend, the novelist Graham Greene, who visited him just two years before he died. The retired spy felt he had to apologize for the insultingly low standard of hospitality that he was able to offer his old friend from war-time secret service days. As we contemplate turkey, plum pudding and the traditional over-indulgence of the festive season, it might perhaps be more in keeping with the Christmas spirit to see the life of Philby, and other idealists like him—however misguided we may now think they were—in a more forgiving light.
And there is a reason for this. Philby ends the Introduction to his book by saying with some justice: “It is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito. It is a matter of great pride to me that I was invited, at so early an age, to play my infinitesimal part in building up that power.”
Especially now that the Communist idea is as dead as Hitler, it would be ungenerous not to remember at least the hopes and aspirations of men like Kim Philby, formed in the economic holocaust of the 1930s then hardened during a desperate war, and to count our blessings.
Kuntsevo Cemetery is on Ryabinovaya Ulitsa, which runs south from the Mozhaisk Shosse, a continuation of Kutzovsky Prospect. Best reached by bus from Metro station Kuntsevskaya.