Alan Judd

‘The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake’, by Roger Hermiston

The spy George Blake, doyen of traitors, turned 90 last year. Almost blind, he lives with his Russian wife outside Moscow on an SVR (KGB in old money) reservation.  Much has changed since 1961 when he was sentenced to 42 years in British jails — the ideology he believed in discredited, the empire he spied for dismembered — but he remains convinced he was right to betray, as this thorough and thoughtful biography shows.

Born in Holland to a Dutch mother and a father of Jewish-Egyptian heritage and British nationality, he was never quite sure where he belonged. He was sure, though, that belief mattered; although attracted by Marxism, he put religion first and nearly became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. Hitler spared him that by invading Holland and the young Blake became a courageous courier in the Dutch Resistance. Following brief imprisonment, he made his way via France and Spain to Britain, where he was recruited into MI6. After the war he was posted to Seoul as head of the MI6 station. There the trouble began.

The ground was already well fertilised.  His rootlessness, his early enthusiasm for communism — paradoxically deepened under the tutelage of an MI6 authority on the subject — his admiration for Russian literature and (in the opinion of his British wife) his rejection by a well-connected MI6 secretary, hardened his perception of Britain as class-ridden and of himself as one who was ‘above nationality. I don’t approve of national feelings.’ The corruption and poverty he witnessed under the US-supported Korean government also made him anti-American. A dressing-down by a senior MI6 officer who concluded, ‘He doesn’t belong in the Service,’ (and who may also have been anti-Semitic) meant that when the North Koreans invaded Blake was probably in a vulnerable state of mind.

He endured three years of harsh captivity and beatings with courage and stoicism, earning the admiration of colleagues and twice attempting to escape.

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