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The Last Cambridge Spy – John Cairncross

 

Chris Smith

 

The History Press, 2019

As each month reveals fresh steps by Russia in inter-state clandestine warfare, it is instructive to go back to the beginnings of their high-level espionage against the West. Cairncross is by far the least well known of the Cambridge communists who betrayed their country, and Smith embarks on a quest to raise his notoriety a notch. Yet by the book’s conclusion, the reader (at least this reader)  will lean towards a ‘so what ‘ conclusion. Cairncross emerges as a somewhat sad figure, with much less colour than his more notorious partners in crime (with which, it would appear, he did not associate much).

 

After a somewhat pompous introduction, Smith starts his oeuvre with extensive coverage of Cairncross’ socio-economic background. Whilst he did not have the elevated background of some of his fellow traitors, his brother, Alec, did go on to become a very eminent economist, and indeed bailed out John on many occasions when his lack of any financial acumen (or arguably common sense) had let him down. By the way, Philby went to Westminster School not ‘College’.

 

The NKVD’s recruitment skills are well set out. In the fevered Thirties the Cambridge Five, and their fellow travellers, took a view of Chamberlain’s appeasement process that flowed straight from their view that they ‘celebrated the genius of Stalin’.

 

Once the narrative moves on to Cairncross’ actual espionage activity, much derives from his own later (very partial) confessions. In those later chats with biographers, it appears Cairncross did not have the guts to acknowledge fully his treachery, and underplayed his role. But he was astonishingly productive: in 1941, for example, he passed 3,449 documents to his Soviet handler – that is around 14 each working day!  Moreover this is man for whom the technicalities of a miniature camera were far too much – he physically gave the documents to his handler in many cases! One of the irritating gaps in this book is that Smith never explains how his subject ever carried this out, or where he met his handler. The book also fails to reveal what would one have thought would be a critical feature of a biography – how Cairncross met his fiancée.

 

I am not sure that Smith has found many new sources for this book – it reads rather as a summation of the work of others, albeit written in good style. Not as gripping as I had hoped.