Anthony Blunt : His Lives , by Miranda Carter

The Cambridge Five spy for the Soviet Union


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Anthony Blunt : His Lives , by Miranda Carter (biography)
Hardcover - 608 pages
First Edition, January 2002
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0-374-10531-6 / 0374105316

In 1979, the people of Great Britain were shocked by the news that someone whom no one had ever suspected had been a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II.

Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) had been one of the country's leading art historians and critics, who later had been knighted and had served as the top art expert inside Buckingham Palace.

Anthony Blunt : His Lives by Miranda Carter - Biography - Hardcover - story of the Cambridge Five - spies for the Soviet Union

After the war Blunt became the director of the highly respected Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he was the chief mentor of museum curators and other art experts. He wrote famous books about French, Italian and Spanish art and architecture, and his scholarly papers appeared in journals. His book Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700 is still widely studied, as is his book on the architecture of Francesco Borromini.

Blunt became the personal art advisor to the queen and the royal family -- the phrase "practically a part of the royal family" was not uncommon to hear. He was knighted in 1956.

Not only were the people surprised by the news that Sir Anthony Blunt had once reported to Joseph Stalin and the KGB -- they were also angry that the news was reported only after a fifteen year government coverup.


In the 1920s, the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence agency, predecessor to the KGB, began a program of identifying individuals in British government and academic positions whom they thought they could approach safely, and then recruiting them to become spies for the Soviet Union.

Membership in, or some degree of expressed sympathy for, the Communist Party was an indicator that this approach would be relatively safe. A factor that didn't make the approach safe, but made it potentially fruitful if successful, was if the individual was later to acquire a sensitive job with either of the British intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6 (which are somewhat analogous to the US agencies, the FBI and CIA, respectively).

The KGB found it could persuade some individuals that assisting Soviet intelligence was merely another way to fight Nazism. In the 1930s, KGB officers Arnold Deutsch and Yuri Modin used the anti-Nazi gimmick to recruit five students at Cambridge University to become Soviet spies, and retained them as spies when they later took sensitive government jobs during World War II. None of the members of the Cambridge spy ring were apprehended, or even suspected, their spying years.

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As a result of the spies' actions, the KGB learned facts about British military deployments, and the identities of British secret agents. The Soviet Union learned details about the British program to develop atomic weapons, a race which the US eventually won, but the information helped Stalin later acquire an atomic bomb of his own. From the reports of the spies, the KGB also learned about a resistance movement in Soviet-occupied Albania, and the resistance members were arrested.

Years after World War II was over, British intelligence decided it would be useful to continue trying to decode Soviet messages that had been intercepted during the war. The spies were about to be uncovered.

The first three to be exposed were British Foreign Office (FO) secretary Donald Maclean (1915-1983), BBC radio journalist and MI6 agent Guy Burgess (1910-1963), and journalist and MI6 agent Harold Philby, known to friends by his nickname Kim Philby (1912-1988). Philby and Maclean were sons of British diplomats.

Sensing that they were about to be exposed, Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union, where they expected to be welcomed as heroes. Ironically, they found themselves under permanent suspicion in the Soviet Union, where the state kept watch on them as possibly being British or American spies. Philby later defected to the Soviet Union and found himself in the same unenviable situation.

A government raid on Philby's house turned up evidence implicating linguist John Cairncross (1913-1995), who confessed. The British government gave him immunity from prosecution in return for his agreement to reveal the identify of another spy hitherto unsuspected. Cairncross gave them the name of Anthony Blunt (1907-1983).

A word about some confusing terminology. Blunt, often called "the fourth man", met Cairncross, "the fifth man", and took the first steps to recruit him into the spy network by introducing him to Burgess. Therefore, any historical or journalistic references to the Cambridge Four refer to Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Blunt. References to the Cambridge Five include Cairncross as well. The terms "fourth man" and "fifth man" refer to the sequence of their recruitment into the spy ring, not the sequence in which government investigators learned their identities.

In 2001, journalist Miranda Carter made her first book the first biography ever written of Anthony Blunt. It was immediately praised from all corners, not only as a well-written account of a fascinating true story, but also a well-documented work of research supported by bibliographic citations to original sources.

Carter's remark in the prologue explains the meaning of the book title, Anthony Blunt : His Lives --

"Anthony Blunt said of Kim Philby that 'he only ever had one ambition in life -- to be a spy.' While the other Cambridge spies subordinated their lives and careers to espionage, Blunt had a separate life as an art historian quite as important to him as his work for the Soviets, if not more important. I have tried to tell the story of the spying, of the art history, of the self-deception, and other stories besides -- not least that of Blunt as a particular type of Englishman in whom almost all emotional effort was diverted into the denial of feeling."

Carter's biography is particularly clear in describing how, in the early 1930s, people close to Blunt did not perceive him as motivated by political issues. He wrote articles about expressionism and in praise of the French painter Poussin. He did not write about politics. In 1933 he visited Russia, but he was expressly bored with the mandatory factory tours that were supposed to display the glory of the Five Year Plans, and instead he took notes on art and architecture. In the era of the 1936 Spanish Revolution, he traveled to Spain, but only to study the paintings in El Prado, the famous art museum that he considered his "Mecca."

After Blunt returned from Spain, however, he began to lecture for a Communist Party "front" art organization. One of his remarks, that "propaganda" is the "true function" of art, indicated that his personal values had changed. He gradually made the transformation from "Fellow-Traveller" to "Recruit" (the titles of Chapters 6 and 7). Burgess approached Blunt and recruited him into the spy circle.

During World War II, Blunt worked with sensitive information in an MI5 office. The government was aware of his former involvement with the Communist Party but dismissed it as youthful indiscretion. In 1941, Blunt first began to use his position within MI5 to smuggle secret military documents to the Soviet Union.

In 1964, U.S. state department employee Michael Straight reported to MI5 and the FBI that, many years before, the spy ring had attempted to recruit him. Straight said that Blunt was his recruiter. Confessed spy John Cairncross also implicated Blunt, giving credibility to Straight's report. With two testimonies alone, and no forensic evidence, the authorities felt that they didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute Blunt, but they didn't tell him that. They allowed him to believe he was looking at prison time. The British government offered Blunt full immunity in return for his subsequent cooperation -- the same offer that had made to Cairncross. Blunt took the offer and made a formal confession and full disclosure.

The incident was classified as top secret for the next 15 years. It is still debated to what extent this confidentiality was needed for national security, or whether it was merely to avoid embassassment on the part of government officials. To preserve this secrecy, Sir Anthony Blunt was, for the time being, permitted to retain his title.

The affair was not to remain a secret forever. In November of 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first became aware of Blunt's work as a Soviet spy. She was outraged at the secret deal between MI5 and Blunt. Thatcher would tolerate no further coverup, and she immediately announced the details of Blunt's spy activities to the astonished public. He was fired from his job as director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. His knighthood was revoked by an act of Parliament.

At that time, according to the prologue in Carter's book, the government and the press also took advantage of Blunt's "usefulness as a hate figure" in the Cold War, although the Soviet Union had few years of existence left, and the Cold War era was soon to fizzle out. Demagogery about Anthony Blunt, the "homosexual left-wing intellectual", poured out of numerous editorial pages.

In 1989, with the abolition of the Soviet Union, KGB documents providing additional details about Blunt's activities were made public. These later revelations add further spice to Carter's biography, the research for which she began in 1994.

Anthony Frederic Blunt was born in Bournesmouth on September 26, 1907. He died of a heart attack while sitting at his desk on March 26, 1983. He left an estate valued at about 900,000 pounds, mostly in the form of rare art. The London Sunday Times headline said, "Blunt the high class spy dies in disgrace at 75."

Anthony Blunt : His Lives , by Miranda Carter, will be an intensely thrilling book for any reader who enjoys true spy stories.

Two 8-page glossy inserts, between pages 206-207 and pages 398-399, contain 30 B&W photographs with informative captions. 26-page 2-column index.

Book reviewed by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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Anthony Blunt : His Lives , by Miranda Carter
(2002, Hardcover, 608 Pages) ISBN 0-374-10531-6 / ISBN 0374105316

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