The Man Without a Country

I know. I stole the title, and it's not a title that goes with most of the things I write about. You'll see why I used it, later. There just isn't any other suitable title for this piece, and if you have to steal from other writers, as the late Robert A. Heinlein said, steal from the best. Heinlein produced great literature, within his genre. He knew what he was talking about. I don't write "literature". I'm just a newsman, and you know what they say about us, anyway…

I've been in Russia for a long time; probably as long, or longer than all but one or two other "foreigners" here in Moscow, and certainly longer than any of the other "outlanders" living in our little village of Mamontovka, which is one of Moscow's suburbs. Because of this, over the years I have been asked a lot of questions concerning life in Moscow, Mamontovka and in Russia in general.

This is understandable, because in many cases, fact does not mesh too well with the popular conception. We get a lot of tourists and business visitors, now. A lot of them wind up, like me, staying here permanently, or for long periods of time. It wasn't always that way. When I came here, you could count the foreigners… those not associated with embassies or other government agencies… on your fingers. In the ten years before I came, you could number them, especially Americans, in the hundreds… not many.

Most Westerners who have never been here think of Russia as cold and dark… as a place of frozen wastelands populated by somber and dreary people. For years, we in the West thought of Russia as the largest part of Reagan's "Evil Empire," or as time passed, as a place of chronic shortages and rising crime. In fact it isn't, and hasn't been a bad place in which to live. Russia is a land of contrasts; one of the few places on earth where one can see changes… changes for the better, on a daily basis.

Having been here as long as I have, one of the things that has made my life really "interesting" is the fact that I've met a lot of people… Some of them rather famous or well known… in a few cases, you can truthfully say "infamous," who are known, in the West, only by hearsay or in books and the news. As a foreigner, especially in the first few years that I was here, when there weren't very many of us, I was introduced to a lot of people because of my "novelty" value, and invited to a lot of parties and functions, because, like I said, there weren't many of us. I've found that most of these people, like their country, are nothing like what we had been taught.

I like to write about people that I've met… I like to tell about people like Yuri Nikulin, the "Russian Red Skelton"… and one of the most famous clowns who ever lived… people like Dr. Andrei Gromiko, the famous diplomat and Valentina Teriskova, the world's first female astronaut. I was introduced to Gorbachev, and I knew Putin, before he was ever in politics, in any way. I know a man who was present when they executed Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's notorious NKVD director, and I know several people who knew Stalin, Nikita Kruschev, and Brezhnev personally. I knew Ivan "the terrible" Kozhedub, the highest scoring "ace," and most decorated fighter pilot who ever lived. I'm not bragging. I've just been privileged, in my life, to meet some interesting people both here in Russia, and back in the States. As a newsman, that's great.

Now, all of those people are interesting, and they make good "copy," but… the people I most like to write about are "regular" people that I know… people like Victor Maslov, the beat-pounding cop who doesn't carry a gun and brags about "thirty years without a single incident." I like to write about people like Masha Vorotnikova, Moscow's infamous "pothole lady," and about Elena Boika, who worked at the Moskvich Automobile factory for sixty years, and probably put lug nuts on half of the cars sold in Russia. It's this kind of people… the ones that you see on the street every day… who say the most about what life, here, is really like. It's the same all over, I suppose… but…

Then, there were people like Philby. Yes, that Philby… You know, Kim Philby… Cambridge Philby… The man who "sold" the atomic bomb… Oh yes… I knew Philby. I knew him for several years. We were pretty close, or as close as he ever got to anyone, just before he died. It's funny, but it's another one of those things that I had to "unlearn" when I came here. Old Philby was nothing like the way he was shown to us, in the West. I never liked Philby much. No one did. I don't think it was possible to like him. Even if he hadn't been who and what he was… Even if he hadn't done what he'd done… he just had that kind of cold, distant personality. Even in his "normal" life, if he ever had one, he must have lived in an "ivory tower." Still, he was a traitor, but he wasn't a monster. I've never written about him, before, but I will, now. Like Hale said about "Philip Nolan"… he's dead now. He has been for a long time. It can't hurt him… or anyone else. Maybe writing about him, and what he was like, outside the "legend," will do some good.

Most foreigners avoided Philby. We even avoided mentioning his name. I remember, once, a few years before the old man died, there was another guy who came here, by the same last name, and he was always trying to make sure people understood that he wasn't related to that Philby. Certainly the English shunned him like the Black Death. They didn't make it any secret that they'd rather be around Typhoid Mary. You can't really blame them. I met him by accident. He wasn't the kind of person that I'd go out of my way to meet, even as a reporter. Back then, because there weren’t a lot of us, we foreigners tended to invite each other to parties, or just casually "arrive" if we found out about one that we hadn't actually been invited to. We used to have a lot of parties, back then. It was about the only kind of social function that would allow us to speak our native languages. Sometimes Philby would show up, I don't think he ever got invited, or at least not often.

Of course, when he did, any British who happened to be present would leave at once. If they didn't, you pretty well knew that they were MI-6. I don't know if it was "official" or not, but the British weren't allowed to associate with him under any conditions. Some of us eventually came to feel sorry for the old guy and made sure to invite him to things that we planned. He had a pretty lonely life, socially speaking. Even at that, he wouldn't usually accept an invitation. Like I said, the British despised him. Most of the other foreigners would only tolerate him, at best, and didn't want to get "too close." You know, none of us wanted to be associated with a "spy," not even, or should I say "especially" a famous one that was just bound to draw attention. Back then, the "Cold War" was still pretty "hot." The Russians didn't trust him, of course, even though they'd helped him get out of England, and tolerated him, in Russia, afterward. The Communists saw him as a "tool"… something, not someone, whom they had been able to use for their own ends. He'd already sold out his own country, after all, and what was worse, he didn't really get anything for it. I think this suited Philby, to some extent. He didn't trust them, either… any of them. Of course, that's what caused all of his troubles in the first place.

He was a strange old bird, I mean really strange. You could see it in his eyes. He was a really "odd duck,” but not a "mercenary" in any sense of the word. Most people would never believe me if I told them what he said about doing what he did, but looking back at it, in hindsight, and from his perspective, what he said made a lot of sense in some ways. He wasn't political in any way that I could tell, but he was a "true believer." That sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. It is, however, hard to explain. He was an idealist. He didn't see "governments" or "politics." He saw, in his own mind, the human race as a whole, and he saw the world of "science," not "government," as being custodians of the "welfare of the species." It was hard to do, but if you ever got him wound up, his eyes would literally glow like one of those Old Testament prophets that you read about, as he talked.

He always said that the reason he did it was to "insure balance." He was afraid of his own country's strength, and didn't trust America's leadership. He said that Truman was a good man… a decent man… and he respected Eisenhower… but no one knew, or could know, what might come next. He would smile grimly and comment that we "Yanks" could "always wind up with another Roosevelt." He never elaborated on the subject, but you could tell just from his voice that he didn't care for FDR. He believed, and I think he truly believed, that if only one nation, or one side had the bomb, then they could dictate terms to everyone else in the world. He'd seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they terrified him, just like they had every other scientist or journalist who worked on, or around, the bombs.

He'd seen the hydrogen bomb tests, and they'd terrified him even more. He said that none of them really knew what the thing would do, exactly, until they saw it. Not even the tests showed how powerful and destructive the bomb really was, and the tests didn't show the after effects, what the residual radiation would do, at all. They knew the bomb was powerful, but not that powerful. He'd laugh, and say, it was probably the only time in his life that Einstein had been right.

Now, I don't know if he was lying, or not. You can't ever know something like that for sure. But… I can't see what he'd get out of lying about it, forty-odd years after the fact. I mean, he knew he could never go back to England. He just didn't have anything to gain from lying, at least not by the time that I knew him. I mean, he wasn't like the Rosenbergs or Hiss. He never denied doing what he did. He didn't have any "reputation" to "clear." He didn't leave anyone behind, in England. His wife was all the family he had, and he met and married her, here. By the time he came here, his other wives, and there were several of them, and his children, wouldn't speak to him.

He always said that Hiss, Chambers, and the Rosenbergs were "guilty as sin" and would tick off three or four others to go along with them. He didn't care for any of them. He held himself above them, for what he honestly thought were moral reasons. It was arrogance in one respect, supreme arrogance, but it was genuine, or seemed to be. He said that he didn't want any "pay" for what he did… you could tell that by looking at the flat that he lived in and the way he lived… and he sure as Hell didn't want any one country, or ideological system to rule the world. That, he said, was why he did what he did in the first place.

Another thing that always struck me about Philby was that he always said that there were more… He would stare at the floor and shake his head, and say that there were dozens of people who piped secrets to the Soviets… and were never even suspected. He acted like it bothered him. He said, rather piously, that they were "only out to get all that they could, for themselves." He wouldn't name them, no matter how hard you tried to get him to. He wouldn't give out the first clue, but he gave every indication of knowing who they were. Years later, when they opened the old KGB archives, he was proven right about the Rosenbergs, Chambers, and Hiss… and about a dozen others.

In any case, when the Cold War broke out, right on top of the Hot one, Philby decided that it was just too dangerous for only one side to have something as devastating as the bomb, and started funneling information to the Soviet Union. There were several others who did… people like Hiss and Chambers and the Rosenbergs. Most of them did it for money, or for political reasons. Some of them mixed it with ideology. I think Philby was telling the truth. I don't think he did it because of any of that. I think he did it out of fear.

They say that he had been recruited at Cambridge back in the thirties, with Blunt and the others. Some say that he even recruited Blunt and the rest. I never knew any of them, so I can't say. Maybe it's true. I don't know. If it is true, it's nothing unusual. There seem to have been a lot of "communists" around back then… and a lot of them seem to have come from Cambridge. Of course, his "autobiography" goes into a great deal of detail on the matter, but you can't tell much from that, owing to when and where it was written. He never said much about his early life, and nobody ever asked him that I know of. It was just something that you didn't talk about with Philby.

His idea was that the Soviet Union was the only country that was powerful enough, and stable enough in the postwar environment, to be trusted with that much power alongside any Western government. He said that none of them could really be trusted with it, but, that China was in the middle of too much upheaval at the time, Germany and Japan were in ruins, and, besides, he had just helped fight a war against them. He knew that they were aggressive, or potentially so. He just plain hated the French. He figured that the "Yanks," as he called Americans, would never start a war with the Soviet Union, and vise-versa, if both had the bomb, and… because Europe was "in the middle," they'd help keep the lid on. Once the genie was out of the lamp, so to speak, the only way that he saw to control it was a balance of power. Maybe it was what the newspeople of the time called it… a "balance of fear."

Like I said, if he was telling the truth, and I think he was… looking back at some of the "winners" we've all had in power, since then, I think he might have been right. Can you imagine what would have happened if Nixon had won in 1960, and had the bomb when nobody else did… or if Mao had gotten hold of it before he did? The Soviet Union would have looked like the surface of the moon, and the fallout would have made Europe a radioactive wasteland. What if McCarthy had been nominated for President in 1952, and won? They really didn't know very much about the after effects of the bomb, then. Most of Europe, let alone Russia, would most likely be an uninhabitable wasteland, still, and for generations to come. Ever seen an old movie called "On the Beach"? It's a scary thought.

I'm not going to try and justify Philby, or what he did. That's not the point of this piece, and I don't want it to be taken as such. You can't justify Philby. Legally speaking he was a traitor. There's no doubt about it. Even he admitted it. Still, I always felt sorry for old Philby, in a way. He wasn't like the others in that rat nest, or didn't seem to be. He didn't expect, or get anything, to speak of, out of what he did. The only thing he managed to do was live, and to stay out of prison. The way I saw it, his life became his prison. He was like the main character in Edward Everett Hale's story "The Man Without a Country." The only difference is, he did what he did with his eyes wide open, and knew what the likely results of his actions would be.

His "exile" weighed down on him pretty heavily, I think. Toward the end, he was a little crazy. If you talked with him, you had the distinct feeling that you had just conducted an interview with "Hannibal the Cannibal" Lecter. He sounded rational enough, but at times… well, it was "scary." He'd get this "glazed" look in his eyes and go off on abstract topics that didn't have a thing to do with whatever it was that you were originally talking about… things from the past… fifty years ago, and more, even at the time. And… if he knew you well, he spent a lot of time trying to "justify" what he did. He really didn't care what the public thought of him, but he seemed to want what few friends he had to know that he didn't "sell out" to hurt anyone, but to try and save lives. I think that when death finally came for him, it came as a relief, if not as an outright friend.

I've heard a lot of people say, even now that he's dead, that it was a shame that they didn't hang Philby. You can't really argue with them. Legally speaking, they're right. I've heard an equally large number of people say that they "wish" that they'd hanged him instead of "letting him get away." That's ironic. You see, after forty-odd years of "exile," I think Philby, himself, would have agreed with them. You see, Philby wasn't "lucky," as some would say.

What he actually did, when he left his native England, was exchange the gallows, or at best, a small prison cell for a very large prison cell. You know, shortly before his death, he was awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal, and, on top of it, an “Order of Lenin”… it was a fine political move, but little else. Most of us thought that it was a last gasp by the regime to get some mileage out of Philby before it was too late. When he finally died, the Soviet Union even issued a postage stamp in his “honor.” But… they wouldn't even allow his ashes to be returned to England. At least "Phillip Nolan" got to go home… eventually… even if it was in a box. Of course, Philby never repented for what he did. He was, after all, a "true believer."

March 15, 2004