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Lunching with super spy Kim Philby

Blog | Jul 16, 2019

Portrait taken from USSR stamp, Soviet spies: Kim Philby, 1990.

Given the nature of his chosen role, it is hardly surprising that Kim Philby, the notorious spy and traitor, managed to remain an extremely elusive figure after fleeing into the protective arms of the KGB in Moscow in 1963, just before the UK security forces could get their hands on him. Once behind the Iron Curtain, Philby simply disappeared. Until, that is, John Miller, the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, decided to have lunch in the most popular Georgian restaurant in the Soviet capital, the Aragvi. Over his chicken tabaka, Miller recognised Philby, enjoying a meal with Donald Maclean’s wife, with whom he was reportedly having an affair, and another woman. Miller realised a major scoop was to hand, but decided to play it cool. Any precipitate action on his part was likely to alarm the ever-watchful Philby. Miller nonchalantly nibbled away at his chicken until Philby was on his coffee. He then casually made his way to the men’s room, from where he phoned me at my home at 13 People’s Street. I was the Daily Mail’s Moscow correspondent and although we were normally competitors, there were occasions when co-operation was essential. He urged me to get to the Aragvi with a camera as soon as possible as Philby and Mrs Maclean were about to leave.

I was a reporter, not a photographer, and I didn’t know Philby from Adam. I stationed myself outside the Aragvi, and every time the door opened it seemed a man with two women came out. I photographed them all, until suddenly the door opened and yet another threesome emerged who, on seeing me raise my camera, separated so quickly that I realised it had to be the Philby party. Unfortunately, I missed the shot of them together. As Mrs Maclean headed one way, I decided to follow Philby, who proceeded apace down Gorky Street. He was in a raincoat and classic English cloth cap. I got in front of him and started taking pictures. It went on for a few minutes until he snarled, ‘Look, I’m getting rather tired of this.’ I explained I was not a photographer, but a reporter, and if he would only stand still long enough for me to be sure I had him in focus I would cease and desist. He stood on a street corner, took a cigarette out of his pocket, struck a match and, protecting it from the wind, lit his smoke, looking more like Andy Capp than a super-spy. I thanked him and returned to the Aragvi to meet Miller.

We had our photographs – the first of Philby out and about in Moscow since his defection. Now we needed to get them past the Soviet censors. We took the film to Tass, the official Soviet news agency, which was the normal avenue of transmission of news photos to the west. We asked Tass to develop the film and print the photographs so we could choose which to transmit to London. This they did. Miller and I chose a photo each to send to our offices. As a caption, we wrote, ‘A British tourist in Moscow’. The Tass functionary took the two photos and disappeared. Eventually, he reappeared with the photos in his hand, and asked sternly, ‘Who is this man?’ We told him, ‘He’s a Brit called Philby.’ He looked at us and said simply, ‘We can’t send these for you.’

We then took the photos to the central Post Office, another normal, but censored, transmission route for news photographs, and handed the photographs over, again with the ‘British tourist’ caption. They were never transmitted. We were stymied, until I learned that my neighbour in People’s Street, Henry Bradsher of the Associated Press, was going on holiday to Greece. I asked him if he would take the film and post it to the Daily Mail – which is how Philby, walking down Moscow’s Gorky Street, became a familiar image worldwide.