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Charlotte Philby on the True-Life Inspiration Behind Edith and Kim

Posted on 31st March 2022 by Anna Orhanen

In her new book Edith and Kim, the bestselling author of A Double Life and The Second Woman draws on letters from the family archive along with Secret Intelligence Service files to reimagine the relationship between her late grandfather Kim Philby - the Third Man of the infamous Cambridge Spy ring - and Edith Tudor-Hart, the woman who introduced him to his Soviet handler. In this exclusive piece, Charlotte Philby discusses the trip to Moscow that ignited her research into one of the most consequential relationships in interwar espionage history.

The Portrait 

It was an image I had looked at countless times before – taken in 2010 in the Moscow study of my late grandfather, the double agent Kim Philby, more than two decades after he died. 

The portrait is of me, aged twenty-six, seated at Kim’s desk. The focus is inverted with me as a blurry figure in the foreground and Kim’s bookshelves in the background, crystal clear: Anthony Trollope and the Cambridge English Dictionary side by side with Karl Marx. The overall effect was already discombobulating but it wasn’t until years after it was taken that I would notice the detail that would chill me to my bones. 

What struck me at the time, I remember, as I sat in my grandfather’s chair looking out over the playground that was visible through the window, was how familiar the place felt to me. I hadn’t visited the apartment since 1988, the year Kim died, when I was just five years old. Yet it remained almost untouched that January afternoon in 2010 when my boyfriend and I arrived – the temperature outside reaching minus twenty-six – and had tea with Kim’s late wife Rufina.

The gated apartment had been awarded to Kim by the Russian government in 1963 after he was exposed as the notorious Third Man in the Cambridge Spy ring, and fled to the Soviet Union. There, almost fifty years later, stood the same sofa on which my father and Kim had sat playing chess on our annual holidays in the city, whilst my mother exchanged anecdotes with Rufina’s family. On the wall hung the same animal skins and muskets that are immortalised in family snapshots of those times, and in my memory. 

Rufa, who lived on in the flat until her death in May last year, must have been surprised to see us.

When I was a child my parents and I visited once or twice a year until Kim died, when I was just five. Two and a half decades later, having recently lost my own father, John – Kim’s eldest son – I returned unannounced to Moscow for the first time as an adult, keen to understand who my grandfather really was: a man who appeared to me with so many different faces, depending on which version of the infamous traitor, Kim Philby, I was being presented with. 

In the eighties we would be greeted at the airport by a driver who would speed us down the motorway to the flat, and all correspondence was sent to a PO Box. In the absence of an address to draw on, for my return Barney and I relied on a map my aunt sketched out from memory on the back of a napkin at lunch. It wasn’t until we stole in behind a resident through the gate and rang the buzzers in turn that we found it. 

I wasn’t fully prepared for how emotional it would be, to find myself back in that place, surrounded by photographs of our family and issues of Private Eye my father had sent from London. It was that trip that started me on my journey researching my new novel, Edith and Kim, which is published this month (31st March). In the novel, I draw on the letters Kim wrote regularly to the family back home, along with Secret Intelligence Service files released to the National Archive, to reimagine the lives of my grandfather and Edith Tudor-Hart, the woman who recruited him to the Soviet cause. 

The moment Barney – now my husband – took that photo of me at Kim's desk I had no idea Edith even existed. It wasn’t until years later when I stumbled upon her name in an article, in which fellow Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt was cited as referring to Edith as ‘the Grandmother of us all,’ that I first saw her photograph and felt compelled to know more. 

In the course of researching the book, it became apparent that there was just one thing that tangibly linked Edith, who was a brilliant photographer as well as a single mother with an extraordinary story of her own, to my grandfather, the outed Soviet spy. It was a single photograph that somehow survived after she tried to burn all the negatives of images that might link her to a man she first met in Vienna in 1933, and who she introduced a year later to his future Soviet controller Arnold Deutsch on a bench in Regent’s Park.

This photo ultimately became her downfall. So much mystery remains around the relationship between Edith, who was best friends with Kim’s first wife, Litzi, and the survival of that image.

It was only earlier this year, having finished writing Edith and Kim, and sitting at home in Bristol zooming in on the titles on the spines of the books in the background of that blurred portrait of me, that I had seen hundreds of time, that I spotted it, partially obscured in the top left-hand corner.

The quality of the image isn’t perfect: a young Kim looking down, a pipe held between his lips. But I knew it at once. 

This was the photo Edith had taken of Kim in Vienna in the summer of 1933. This was the image she had tried desperately to destroy in the sink of her home in St John’s Wood, where she and her son were under constant surveillance by the Secret Intelligence Service, their every move recorded in files decades later released to the National Archives in Kew. A portrait of Kim taken by a woman he never publicly acknowledged – always referring to the person who introduced him to Deutsch as ‘him’. And here it sat, for two and a half decades after Kim’s defection, a hidden message to the journalists and friends who came and went in this room and never caught wind of a woman referred to in files as ‘that foreign woman’. A woman who is often referred to as a bit-part in a much raked-over and contentious period; a poignant memory of a bygone time – a moment that not only changed Kim’s life, and Edith’s, but one that altered the course of history.

 

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