Review of “My Five Cambridge Friends” by Yuri Modin

Yuri Modin was a KGB agent. He was the controller for ring of Soviet spies in England known as "the Cambridge Five." The five include:

Donald Maclean, who passed (among other things) atomic secrets to the Soviets. Maclean was first secretary of the British embassy in the US. In addition to atomic secrets he passed on lots of information on US and British goals for the various conferences of the big three. Stalin, in other words, knew what FDR and Churchill wanted before they sat down together (in at least one case, Modin says that Molotov got his counterparts’ briefing materials before they did). There’s more in Wikipedia if you can stomach it. Happily for Maclean, he defected before he would have been captured and lived out the rest of his life in Moscow. Maclean’s father was education minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s government.

Kim Philby, who ran the counter-intelligence section of MI6 (i.e. the area that was responsible for analyzing British intelligence on the Soviets and stopping the activities of the KGB), helped the Americans set up the CIA, and was the top British intelligence official in the US for a time (he was the liaison between MI6 and the CIA). Obviously these positions make Philby the worst placed spy ever. He also fled to the Soviet Union and is buried there. Philby was booted from his intelligence positions when he came under suspicion, but he found work writing for The Economist, among other papers.

Guy Burgess, who was also a British intelligence agent. Also, Burgess worked at the BBC for a while. Burgess died in the Soviet Union.

Anthony Blunt, who was a historian and art critic after he was an intelligence agent. His father was a Church of England cleric and Blunt himself was related to the royal family. He was knighted, but was stripped of his knighthood, which I believe is the full extent of all the punishments these men received. Wikipedia notes that his friends (e.g. the Rothschilds) were not much concerned with his espionage activities.

John Cairncross, who was also and intelligence agent (also counter-intelligence) and passed on some information about atomic weapons development. Most interestingly, Cairncross was in the section responsible for the finances of NATO, so he knew what weapons were where and basically everything else about NATO. Wikipedia notes that all three of his brothers were professors. After his exposure, Wikipedia notes that Cairncross moved to the US and lectured at Northwestern. Later he worked for the UN. (That’s Wikipedia, not me making stuff up that I would like to be true). The Russians never broke enigma, but they never needed to thanks to information passed on by these (and other) spies.

This collection of spies constitutes perhaps the best in the history of espionage. Given how well-placed they were, it would probably be easier to figure out what the Soviets didn’t know about US and British plans than what they did know. The spies all escaped capture because they were so well-placed that they found out about the breaking of Venona, and thus knew when they would be captured.

As Modin notes, "the most baffling part of all was that the Five were typical representatives of their nation and their class." Perhaps it’s not so baffling.

Please always remember, none of this withstanding, that Joe McCarthy was crazy.

35 Responses to Review of “My Five Cambridge Friends” by Yuri Modin

  1. B says:

    The biggest question I have is this. Given the asymmetrical penetration of the US elite by Communist ideology (meaning, there were a lot more convicted true believer Communists in the USG, media and academe than convicted true believer capitalists in these institutions’ Soviet counterparts,) how did the USSR ever lose the Cold War?

    • Foseti says:

      An interesting question. I view the Cold War as a war between two competing strands of progressivism. Viewed this way, “winning” and “losing” take on different connotations. Perhaps there’s an answer in there somewhere.

      • thrasymachus33308 says:

        The US- or USG, or its progressive elte- was for some time a formal ally of the CPSU, and after that a friendly competitor.

        I read somewhere that in countries with poor sanitation (e.g. Guatemala) the cholera virus is strong, in countries with moderate sanitation (e.g. Chile) it is weaker, and in countries with good sanitation (e.g. the US) it is fairly benign. The reason given is that a strong pathogen in a country with good sanitation gets wiped out, so it adapts by becoming weaker.

        The US version of progressivism isn’t exactly weaker, but it’s milder and more flexible, and has avoided actually killing its host up to now. A fascinating story on the stagnation of the Soviet Union I found via In Bona Fide-

        The Soviet cultural dissidents found the US to be much the same as the USSR. I believe the West is now coping with a similar crisis to the loss of power by the CPSU-

      • Sergei says:

        Also, the WordPress comment system is fairly atrocious. I find I have to pay careful attention to make sure my comment ends up in the right thread, and even if it ends up in the right thread, the email notifier consistently quotes the wrong previous comment.

      • B says:

        OK, but in any normal competition, if one team’s leadership is halfhearted about winning and is frequently emotionally sympathetic to the other team, while the other guys suffer no such handicaps, it takes a lot of asymmetry in other areas to get the first to win.

        In “The Revolution Was,” the author says that one of the first decisions the New Deal state had to make was whether to shackle business or to liquidate it. Maybe that explains it, or maybe the USA was not quite so crippled by a population of illiterate peasants and Nivkh tribesmen. Remember Gletkin’s speech about the watch in Darkness at Noon?

    • spandrell says:

      They weren’t defeated, thanks in no small measure to their spy network. So in a sense they didn’t lose the war.
      They collapsed by their own inefficiencies. Those had little to do with their penetration of Western elites.

      • Sergei says:

        An alternative viewpoint (certainly not the whole story but something to consider) is that the Soviet Union collapsed effectively once the old elite… basically just died out. Note the string of exponentially-more-geriatric General Secretaries immediately preceding Gorbachev. In addition to the socialist project being… challenging to run, to put it mildly, the upper-middle rank of elite who replaced them had absolutely no use for it, and no interest in keeping the established order, preferring to strike deals that let the government collapse and move to a system where they could more conveniently enjoy the contents of their Swiss bank accounts.

        That said, the primary difference between Russians’ understanding of Russian history and the Americans’ understanding of American history is that there is no “commonly agreed upon” narrative of Russian history, with nearly-explicit categories of good guys and bad guys, that educated people are expected to subscribe to. (It was enlightening to compare how the abolition of serfdom is viewed in Russia, vs. how the abolition of slavery is viewed in America.) Sure, there were and remain official narratives, but is anyone with half a brain going to take them seriously?

      • spandrell says:

        Makes sense.

        Not that I would argue about Russia with a ‘Sergei’, heh.

        Kidding aside, isn’t the abolition of serfdom seen positively in Russia?

      • Sergei says:

        Well, since you ask, here’s my interpretation of what I know:

        Abolition of the serfdom was necessary, indeed for much more than just idealistic reasons (serfs can’t contribute much to a modern economy, and Russia was trying to develop a modern economy), and it could have been done well or done badly. I wouldn’t dispute that it could have happened even later, and been done even more badly, (and in general what could have happened is the subject of endless argument,) but the execution was entirely miserable. The serfs were screwed over, to some extent by the economic arrangements which just changed them from chattel into rentiers, and to some extent by their own culture and worldview. Reading through novels such as Dead Souls is probably the quickest way to give a basic idea of what that culture and worldview was, and how different is was from, say, that of an American homesteader. Longtime refusal to grant the lower classes access to the educational system (the Imperial ruling circle was distrustful of the concept of universal education) didn’t help in changing this.

        It occurs to me: a very important move the Communists took to secure loyalty was just to give a higher education to large numbers of people who wouldn’t have received an education in the old caste society, and to incidentally (via the Marxist reading of history) make them very aware of this fact. The scheme being used was far different from the “education for all” ideal seen in, say, the Western university system, since there was no hesitation in sorting people by performance and discarding those deemed ineducable (and right into the compulsory military service period, producing a strong incentive to study), but it was obviously meritocratic, and resulted in a generation of people who literally owe their brains to the Communists’ rise to power.

        That this could only be a one-time thing was probably another factor in the collapse, as simply speaking subsequent generations of educated people felt less and less loyalty to the government for its role in raising their social status (being less and less aware of what sort of conditions their ancestors had come from), and more and more annoyance at being excluded from global society. And so there came a time that no one really cared.

      • Sergei says:

        Additional note regarding ‘Dead Souls’ — it only touches on the subject of serfs and their view on things incidentally, being mostly a comedy of manners about dysfunctional attitudes among the landowner class. However, it’s probably the quickest introduction to Imperial Russian society I can think of, since it follows a confidence artist looking to commit mortgage fraud using titles to other people’s serfs; in the process we see a fairly large cross-section of society.

      • Sergei says:

        And — I should take pains to stress — a Russian’s view on Russian history is still no more trustworthy than an American’s view on American history. So take the above with whatever amount of salt you find appropriate.

      • spandrell says:

        Thanks, guess I should pick up again my collection of Gogol.

      • Sergei says:

        Dostoyevski’s “Demons” is a good read as well, being a criticism of left-wing terrorist activity in the late Empire (published 1872). Starts off slow, takes a while to descend into mayhem, but that’s kind of the message of the thing…

        (I have the bonus of a Soviet edition of Dostoyevski, with an afterword where a Marxist critic tries to somehow blame the whole thing on capitalism.)

      • Foseti says:

        A couple of them were certainly gay. Modin stayed in touch with them in Russia after they defected. Unsurprisingly, they had trouble adapting to life in Russia, and homosexuality was a big part of the difficulty.

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        since it follows a confidence artist looking to commit mortgage fraud using titles to other people’s serfs; in the process we see a fairly large cross-section of society.

        Hmmm, now where have we seen mortgage fraud committed recently?

      • Sergei says:

        Hmmm, now where have we seen mortgage fraud committed recently?

        The specific scheme of mortgage fraud in Dead Souls is that, on paper, the protagonist would purchase the title deeds to serfs (‘souls’) from various landowners for very low prices; then he would take out a mortgage on the titles.

        Only, you know, he would neglect to mention the trivial fact that the serfs in question were already dead at the time of purchase. Then, before the next census came around (when he’d be forced to report on the status of all his serfs), he would grab the money and disappear under an assumed identity.

        I’m not sure what, if anything, this has to do with the modern subprime lending scandal, seeing how the banks have at least restrained themselves from selling houses to dead people.

      • Gilbert Pinfold says:

        Fosetti says: “Unsurprisingly, they had trouble adapting to life in Russia, and homosexuality was a big part of the difficulty.”

        Too drab and unfab? Those grey Moscow apartment blocks with their eu de cabbage soup. Did they even have gays?

    • That’s an easy one. First, the Bolsheviks had destroyed the free market economy that socialist depend on to steal from. Socialism is essentially parasitic, and cannot long survive without a productive host. Without such a steady stream of loot, the nomenklatura cannot pay the thugs needed to keep everyone else in line. Second, Gorbachev was an idealist who believed in Leninist Bolshevism, and thought that hypocrisy, brutality and criminality could be ‘reformed’ out of it. He refused to accept that hypocrisy, brutality and criminality were integral to the structural foundations of Bolshevism. Once he removed the state-sponsored lies and fear that propped everything up, the whole rotten system rapidly collapsed.

  2. Not to nitpick, but where’s the review? This is more like a book report. 🙂 Is the book compelling, well-written, etc.?

    Also – Aretae has a post today that could begin to answer B’s question:

    • Foseti says:

      The book was indeed well-written. I can’t find out much about Modin. He doesn’t seem disillusioned with the Soviets or anything. I guess when the USSR fell, he thought he had a cool story to tell. He genuinely seems to like the Brits that he worked with.

      It’s as entertaining as a spy thriller, but it’s all true, as best I can tell.

      • Hugo says:

        According to La Wik, it’s not all true: Modin didn’t write that Cairncross was the 5th man; that was inserted by a naughty publisher at the time of translation, to boost sales.

  3. thrasymachus33308 says:

    E. Michael Jones, in “Degenerate Moderns”, attributed it all to their being gay. That’s the problem with gays, not that theyprefer the company of men, but that they are leftists, and otherwise inclined to damage the societies they live in.

    • Tam says:

      That is the gayest thing I’ve read so far today, but it’s early yet.

    • Hugo says:

      For what it’s worth, speaking as a gay reactionary, I dispute this.

      • Sergei says:

        I think the issue is that most reactionaries can articulate the case for, say, heterosexual monogamy. They can explain what sorts of promises, explicit or unspoken, a heterosexual couple ought to make to society (marriage). They can explain why those promises have benefits to society as a whole, and why loosening them was a bad idea. In short, they can make the case for heterosexual monogamy as a reactionary social institution.

        I haven’t seen a reactionary who’s made a similarly broad case for, say, gay marriage as a reactionary institution, (beyond Moldbug’s vague post-libertarian “people in a well-run sovereign can do whatever they want in this regard”, which just isn’t specific enough), so people who define themselves by being gay don’t have much to capture their imagination regarding where they would fit in the reactionary society. Thankfully, not everyone swallows the identity politics notion that they should define themselves entirely by their skin colour, social class, and who they’re attracted to, so gay reactionaries can and do exist.

        Thinking about this, few of the political movements are really a logical fit for gays right now. Taking the left-wing path eventually puts the “interests” of gays in direct contradiction with the “interests” of gay-hating minorities. Taking the reactionary path eventually puts the “interests” of gays in direct contradiction with the “interests” of gay-hating religious groups. (Taking the mainstream right-wing path does so *immediately*.) The reactionary path is much more allergic to contradictions in its message, I guess, so it has the marketing disadvantage here, and gays are more likely to gravitate away from it.

    • Sergei says:

      Also, your argument with respect to these specific men runs into the problem that the Soviet Union didn’t much like gays, either, to put it mildly. If the Cambridge Five were gay spies, their Soviet superiors could *at most* be indifferent to the fact that they were gay, and the Five could *at most* be indifferent to the Soviet Union’s stance on gay people. It certainly wouldn’t be a factor influencing them *towards* betraying the West.

    • Err, the same is true today for women, intellectuals, engineers, virtually everyone, actually.

      I just don’t think the mythical Gay Army of Doom is something to be worried about.

  4. Steve Harris says:

    Increasingly, I think there are two USAs — the ostensibly progressive one as written, and the underlying tendencies of all the good Americans toward a more conservative, European-style, agrarian and small city oriented state.

  5. rightsaidfred says:

    Isn’t the US currently being rolled by the Chinese in the spycraft/espionage game?

  6. […] Review of “My Five Cambridge Friends” by Yuri Modin Posted on 4 February, 2012 by Dr Sean Gabb | Leave a comment by Foseti […]

  7. dearieme says:

    “This collection of spies constitutes perhaps the best in the history of espionage”: more precisely, the best that got caught.

  8. […] won (see the map in the McCarthy review for incontestable proof).  The US fought a war for Russia (the US was not alone).  Some of generals knew it was happening and talked about it (see the reviews above).  These […]

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