Kim Philby spent his entire life looking over his shoulder. After the Soviets recruited him as a young man, he managed to work his way up through the ranks to the highest levels of British Intelligence—all while feeding information to his handlers back in Moscow. Secrets, lies, and paranoia followed him everywhere he went, until his double life finally caught up to him. It sounds like a movie, but it was all real.
1. He Was Born in India
Kim Philby was a man of the British Empire. Born in India in the British Raj, his father was the famed explorer St John Philby. Kim touched many corners of the Empire in his early years, from his birthplace in India to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula to the prestigious schools of England. But while he grew up in the midst of the Empire, he would turn his back on it before long.
2. He Was a Man With a Cause
After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, Philby became a devoted activist. He started working with groups that provided relief to victims of fascism in Germany—and the experience would change him forever.
3. He Met a Young Woman
While helping refugees in Vienna, Kim Philby fell in love. Her name was Litzi Friedmann, and she was unlike anyone he had met before. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Philby suddenly found himself on the path that would end decades later with him a hollow, alcoholic wreck in an apartment in Moscow.
4. She Didn’t Mess Around
Friedmann was a frank person, and she instantly made an impression on Philby. Right when they met, she abruptly asked him how much money he had on him. He replied £100—hopefully enough to keep him going for a year in Vienna. Her response was unforgettable. Friedmann did some quick math in her head and concluded he only needed £75. That would leave £25, which Friedmann told him to donate to the International Organisation for Aid for Revolutionaries,.
Philby left that encounter with £75, and suddenly, his life was entwined with this young, fiery revolutionary.
5. The Newlyweds Had to Flee
Philby and Friedmann married in 1934, just as their world fell apart around them. Fascists won the Austrian Civil War, and Vienna was no longer safe for people like them. The two of them fled back to England before they found themselves rotting in a cell—or worse.
6. A Soviet Recruiter Appeared in London
Not long after Philby and his new wife returned to England, another mysterious figure appeared in London. Arnold Deutsch, an Austrian academic, arrived from Vienna to study at University College London. What the university did not know was that Deutsch had a secret agenda. He was a Soviet agent, there to recruit England’s brightest young minds—minds like Kim Philby’s.
7. His Wife Set Him Up With “Otto”
In June 1934, Litzi Friedmann told Philby that she had arranged a meeting with “a man of decisive importance.” Philby pressed her further, but she never said anything more than that. Soon after, he went to London’s Regent’s Park, where he met a man who called himself “Otto.” Philby wouldn’t learn this was Deutsch until years later. Such a clandestine affair might have unsettled many men, but Philby couldn’t help but be intrigued.
8. He Recruited Others
Recalling the meeting years later, “Otto” clearly impressed the young Philby. He seemed cultured and intelligent. Deutsch spoke at length of how much he hated London and how much he adored Paris. He was looking for idealistic Brits to work for the Soviets, and he found his man in Kim Philby. Not only did Philby agree to become a Soviet agent, he also suggested some of his colleagues for recruitment—the men who would become the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring.
9. He Was a Mole
It was done. Kim Philby was a Soviet agent. So what did he do? He…went on with his life. He became a journalist, working at various English papers. At this point, Moscow had little use for him—but the world was about to be thrown on its head, and Philby’s day would come.
10. His Marriage Slowly Faded
Philby and Litzi Friedmann fell in love as two young idealists—but their spark fizzled as everyday life settled in. Though the two of them remained friendly, the passion of their youth had faded. They separated not long after Philby became a Soviet agent, and divorced years later. It was probably for the best—there was nothing in Philby’s future but paranoia, fear, and sorrow.
11. He Got Off to a Slow Start
Philby spent the 1930s working on Anglo-German relations, trying to infiltrate the upper echelons of German society, but his attempts mostly failed. He didn’t provide much useful information to Moscow—but that was all about to change. It was time for Philby to start getting his hands dirty.
12. He Risked His Life as a Journalist
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War finally provided Philby an opportunity to be of use to the Soviets. He traveled to Seville and covered the conflict for The Times. While working from Spain, Philby would secretly send intel to his Soviet handlers in Paris by writing loosely coded letters to “Mlle Dupont,” a fake girlfriend. But that wasn’t all Philby was up to…
13. He Played Both Sides
The Russians weren’t the only people who wanted what Philby knew. In a remarkable twist, he also started feeding information to the British government—and that provided some very unique opportunities…
14. Stalin Got Rid of His Handlers
If Philby didn’t realize what he’d gotten into when Arnold Deutsch recruited him in 1934, he got a stark reminder in 1937. Stalin had Philby’s handler in Paris neutralised as part of a violent purge of Soviet officials. Philby’s next handler met the same fate just two years later. Whether he liked it or not, Philby was in the middle of the viper’s den—but he wasn’t about to back out now.
15. He Received a Chilling Mission
Eventually, Philby’s handler (whoever remained by that point), gave him a disturbing and nearly impossible mission: Neutralize the Spanish General Francisco Franco. Such an event would rock Europe, and likely would have completely altered the course of history—but alas, this plan was doomed from the start.
16. His Spy Career Started in Earnest
Soviet handlers instructed Philby to examine Franco’s movements and assess vulnerable points in his security, for the possibility of an attempt on the Generalissimo’s life. However, after actually meeting with Philby in London, his handler reported back to the NKVD—and gave a damning assessment.
17. He Wasn’t a Killer
Philby’s handler admitted that Philby was “devoted and ready to sacrifice himself” for the Soviet cause, but an elite assassin, he was not. The handler noted that Philby lacked, among other things, “the physical courage” to take out Franco. The Generalissimo would live on—but before long, Philby would have much, much bigger problems.
18. His Work was Dangerous
In case you forgot, Philby was working as a journalist in the middle of a warzone. There was danger around every corner in Spain, and it was only a matter of time before the conflict caught up with him. Near the end of 1937, Philby and some other journalists were traveling by car, when they all suddenly heard a sickening noise…
19. He Nearly Lost His Life in an Explosion
A Republican shell landed directly in front of Philby’s car, exploding on impact. The aftermath was horrific. There were four men inside, all of them journalists—and only Philby survived. It was a terrifying ordeal, but in a bizarre twist of fate, it turned out to be exactly what Philby needed.
20. He Found a Silver Lining
After surviving an attack from the hated Republicans, Philby earned the respect of Franco’s forces. Franco himself gave Philby a medal, and suddenly, this secret Communist agent was rubbing elbows with Spain’s fascist elite. Now Philby finally had some good information to offer—but life as a Soviet agent was anything but simple. As soon as something good happened, something terrible was bound to be on the horizon…
21. Another Double Agent Almost Outed Him
The thing is, the Russians weren’t the only people with double agents. In 1938, one of Philby’s comrades, a Soviet intelligence officer named Walter Krivitsky, defected to France. He became infamous for publishing an account of life in “Stalin’s secret service”—but that wasn’t all he knew. He knew that Moscow had infiltrated the ranks of many Western institutions.
Krivitsky also happened to know that a certain British journalist, covering the conflict in Spain, was a Soviet agent…
22. His Secrets Stayed Hidden, For Now…
With Walter Krivitsky spilling secrets to British intelligence, Kim Philby seemed doomed—but his time wasn’t up just yet. Before Krivitsky could actually implicate Philby in anything, he turned up dead in a hotel in Washington D.C. Philby was safe…but for how long?
23. A New Threat Arose
It’s honestly a miracle Philby managed to keep his treachery hidden for so long. Soon after Krivitsky defected, Philby’s own handler, the sinister Alexander Orlov (AKA The Swede) defected as well. Orlov had worked with Philby directly, and easily could have named him—but he understood the chilling consequences if that were to come to pass…
24. He Got Lucky Again
Orlov defected, but he couldn’t get his family out of the USSR. To ensure their safety, Orlov kept his secrets to himself, including Philby’s identity. Amazingly, Stalin respected this agreement, so both Philby and Orlov’s family kept breathing. He wasn’t even 30 yet, and Philby had almost been outed as a spy several times—and the chaos showed no signs of slowing down.
25. He Had a Fling With an Actress
Philby and his wife lived separately through all of this madness, but that doesn’t mean he was alone. While in Spain, Philby found himself swept up in a wild affair with a young actress named Frances Doble. Doble was everything Friedmann wasn’t: Not only was she a blue-blooded aristocrat, but she also admired both Franco and Hitler as great, strong men.
Philby and Doble were a truly bizarre pair, and it should come as little surprise that their tryst burned out soon after it sparked.
26. Now, He Was a Spy For Real
The outbreak of WWII finally provided Philby the chance to become the Soviet spy he’d spent years trying to be. He’d made enough of a name for himself as a journalist that he landed a job working for MI6, Britain’s top intelligence agency. Finally, six years after meeting “Otto” in London, the Soviet’s faith in Philby paid off. They had their mole.
27. He Met His Second Wife While Still Married To His First
Philby got over his fling with Frances Doble quickly. Though still technically married to Litzi Friedmann, he moved in with Aileen Furse around the time he joined MI6. The couple had three children before Philby and Friedmann finally made their divorce final. Two more little ones came after that. Furse didn’t know her husband was living a lie—and his secret life would eventually tear her own apart.
28. His Double Life Began
The Russians had been keeping their distance from Philby for the previous few years, but once Philby was working for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), they suddenly saw value in him. They sent their resident spy in London to reconnect with him after years of silence, and Philby became a double agent in earnest. He spent his days training British operatives, all the while feeding information to his Soviet handlers—and he did his job well.
29. He Was Good at What He Did
Both the British and the Russians benefitted from Philby’s intelligence. His work affected strategy all across Europe, from Moscow to Gibraltar to Northern Africa. He pleased both his Soviet handlers and his British superiors. But while technically, the two nations he worked for fought for the same side, tensions continued to grow…
30. Old Friends Became New Enemies
As WWII neared its conclusion, British Intelligence became increasingly aware that the Russians could quickly go from ally to adversary. Once the threat of the Axis powers had faded, the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism was likely going to rear its head once again. In 1944, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service re-activated Section Nine. The department had one goal: fighting communism. And guess who the SIS chose to lead the unit…
31. His Job Was Almost Too Perfect
It’s nearly unbelievable. Kim Philby joined the Soviet cause in 1934, when he was pretty much a nobody. 10 years later, he found himself leading the SIS’s anti-communism department—but he had one thing working against him. Some in the agency found him to be incredibly suspicious. Remember how, years ago, a defector claimed a British journalist in Spain was a double agent? Remember how his wife was a communist? There were plenty of warning signs, and the SIS ignored them all. But that doesn’t mean Philby was out of the woods…
32. The Soviets Didn’t Trust Him
It’s almost unbelievable that the SIS would allow a double agent like Kim Philby to rise through their ranks. In fact, it’s so unbelievable that Russian intelligence started getting suspicious. One agent, Elena Modrzhinskaya, went over Philby’s files and found them all too good to be true. She deduced that Philby was actually a double double agent, and that his true allegiance lay with Britain.
The truth was far simpler: British intelligence just screwed up. Big time.
33. A New Threat Arose
In August 1945, Philby received an assignment that must have sent a chill down his spine. A Soviet agent named Konstantin Volkov was defecting to Britain. He claimed to have the names of three other agents working in Britain, one of whom worked for the SIS. The Brits desperately wanted those names, so they put one of their best men on it: Kim Philby himself.
Philby’s superiors told him to travel to Istanbul to deal with Volkov personally. If only they’d known what they were doing…
34. He Got Lucky Yet Again
The Volkov assignment put Philby in an impossible position. He was in charge of getting the names of Soviet agents out of Volkov, while totally aware that one of those names was “Kim Philby.” He only had one option: He had to neutralize Volkov, while somehow making it look like he had nothing to do with it. It looked like it was going to be the most dangerous mission of his entire life, but then, a bizarre twist of fate came his way.
By the time Philby arrived in Istanbul, Volkov was already gone—whisked off to Moscow, never to be seen again.
35. The Brits Saw Him as a Hero
By all accounts, British Intelligence seemed to think that Kim Philby was doing an outstanding job for them. In 1946, he earned the prestigious Order of the British Empire. I can only imagine what was going through his head when the medal was pinned on his chest. But, if he felt smug, or triumphant, or proud, he didn’t have much time to celebrate. Even worse crises were on the horizon.
36. He Was Cold as Ice
To this point, Philby had managed to work as a Soviet agent for over a decade without really getting his hands dirty—but that doesn’t mean he was simply some innocent idealist. Philby was cold-blooded and methodical in his work. For one mission, he sent agents into Albania for the British, while secretly setting them up to fail for the Soviets. In essence, he knowingly sent those men to their certain demise.
He later wrote, “To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.”
37. He Relocated to the US
Eventually, the SIS relocated Philby and his family to the United States. The new job offered the Philbys a chance to get a fresh start—and a chance for Philby to provide new intel to the Russians. What he didn’t know, however, was that his transfer to the US marked the beginning of the end.
38. A Small Mistake Spelled His End
Philby and the other Soviet agents in British intelligence lived on a razor’s edge. Sooner or later, someone was bound to slip up. A careless mistake by a Russian clerk revealed crucial information to the Brits: A Soviet agent in the British Embassy, who went by the codename Homer, met a handler in New York City twice a week. When Philby heard about the leak, he knew it was only a matter of time before his secrets came out.
39. Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Philby knew exactly who the Soviet agent was: Don Maclean. That was a problem. As a British agent, he should have passed that info along and had Maclean apprehended. As a Soviet agent, he had to protect Maclean at all costs. To make matters worse, Western intelligence apprehended several Soviet spies around this time, putting him even more at risk. The walls were closing in on Philby. It seemed like things couldn’t get any more dire—so of course, they did.
40. A Wild Card Showed Up
As everything was falling apart, a man named Guy Burgess arrived in Washington. He’d been friends with Philby since their college days, they had both joined the Soviets together, and they both worked for British Intelligence. The problem was, Burgess was an incorrigible drunkard and completely unstable. He could easily ruin everything Philby had worked for—and in a way, that’s just what he did.
41. Burgess Was a Problem
Guy Burgess quickly made a name for himself in Washington—for all the wrong reasons. His abrasive personality put off almost everyone he met, and his constant drinking got him in trouble with the law on numerous occasions. His presence caused a serious problem for Philby, but that wasn’t even the worst of it: He stayed at the Philby household while he was there! Not only did this infuriate his fragile wife Aileen, but it sent Kim down a dark path.
Maybe the stress of the situation was finally starting to set in, but Philby and Burgess drank away their days as they tried to figure out what to do.
42. He Came Up With a Plan
You can imagine why Philby wanted to forget his troubles. Burgess was a complete wild card, and he could compromise their position at any second. Then there was still Maclean to think of, as the Brits were closing in on him fast. Finally, Philby came up with a desperate plan. He’d send Burgess back to England, where he would warn Maclean. Fortunately, he didn’t need to come up with a good excuse to get rid of Burgess. The man got three speeding tickets in one day, and the British Embassy sent him back to England out of embarrassment.
That part of the plan went well—but the rest was a total disaster.
43. Things Went From Bad to Worse
The SIS was closing in on Maclean, and Burgess hadn’t yet gotten him out of England. A desperate Philby sent Burgess a barely coded telegram, telling him to “move his convertible” before it was too late and there was “nothing more he could do.” The note must have gotten through to Burgess, because not long after, he drove to Maclean’s house, picked him up, and the two of them fled to Moscow.
Crisis averted, right? Nope. Not by a long shot.
44. The Evidence Was Piling Up
The plan was for Maclean to flee and for Burgess to stay in England, but Philby’s telegram must have spooked him. Now, two British diplomats, one of whom was strongly expected of being a Soviet agent, had vanished and turned up in Moscow. The other diplomat happened to be very close to Kim Philby, a high-ranking member of British intelligence.
Let me tell you, that does not look good…
45. The Brits Still Didn’t Suspect Him
Philby had a lot of questions to answer, and his superiors called him back to London. By now, surely British intelligence caught on and realized he was a traitor, right? Of course not! Philby vehemently denied all accusations that he was in cahoots with Burgess and Maclean—though he still resigned his position. Philby lived to spy another day, but his troubles were far from over…
46. His Wife Met a Tragic End
Philby’s once-extravagant life went down the drain after Burgess and Maclean fled to Moscow. Out of work, he and his family found themselves struggling to make ends meet—which made him turn to the bottle more and more. Aileen’s mental illness only worsened, and she developed a serious drinking problem as well. Their marriage fell apart, and they separated.
47. His Life Fell Apart
If you thought this was rock bottom for Kim Philby, you’d be dead wrong. His wife left him, he struggled to find work, and to twist the knife, the Soviets, for whom he’d sacrificed everything, cast him aside. He was of no use to them as a sporadically-employed freelance journalist. But it wasn’t the end of Kim Philby—not yet.
48. After All That, The Brits Still Trusted Him
Believe it or not, after all that, the British government eventually announced that Philby was…completely innocent of all suspicion. They concluded he hadn’t acted with Burgess and Maclean and publicly exonerated him. Even crazier, he actually started working for them again! They sent him to Beirut, where he would find a whole new world of intrigue waiting for him…
49. He Married One Last Time
In Beirut, Philby embarked on yet another wild affair, this time with Eleanor Brewer, the wife of an American journalist. Eventually, Eleanor left her husband and moved in with Philby. They married and set themselves up in Beirut—but just like his last marriage, it would end in tragedy.
50. His Time Had Come
After so many close calls, Philby’s double life finally caught up with him in 1961. A Soviet defector revealed what so many had suspected for so long: Philby had been working with the Russians the whole time. British Intelligence sent word to Nicholas Elliott, an MI6 officer in Beirut and a close friend of Philby’s. Elliott had believed in Philby’s innocence the entire time—and it was up to him to get Philby to confess.
51. He Was a Shadow of Himself
By the time his secrets came to light, Philby was already a shell of a man. He fell into a deep depression and drank almost every day. His wife recalled coming home one night to find him “hopelessly drunk and incoherent with grief on the terrace of the flat.” A fox had apparently fallen from the balcony, and Philby was inconsolable.
When Nicholas Elliott arrived to confront Philby, he found the man in a similarly pathetic state.
52. The Jig Was Up
Elliott finally confronted Philby—and found him with bloody bandages all around his head, unable to stand. Philby had stumbled and fallen into a radiator, cracking his skull. Philby mumbled that he was “half-expecting” to see his friend, as if he had known the end was nigh. Elliott did not mince his words: He spat, “I once looked up to you, Kim. My God, how I despise you now. I hope you’ve enough decency left to understand why.”
It was finally time for Kim Philby to pay the piper.
53. He Didn’t Go Quietly
Philby admitted everything, but when Elliott asked him to sign a written confession, he balked. He begged Elliott to delay the official interrogation, and they scheduled a meeting in late January. When the time came, Philby didn’t show up. Days earlier, he had vanished without a trace. Months later, he finally surfaced again—in Moscow.
54. His Wife Stuck With Him…For a Time
Remarkably, Eleanor Philby didn’t abandon her husband after his disgrace. She visited him in Moscow, and actually made plans to move there with him permanently—but they couldn’t salvage their marriage by this point. They divorced soon after her second visit to Russia. In the end, it was for the best, because Philby hadn’t exactly been faithful during their time apart…
55. He Was Still a Womanizer
While living in Moscow, separate from his wife, Philby had yet another illicit affair—with none other than Donald Maclean’s wife Melinda! Apparently, it’s a small world for defected British soviet agents living in Moscow…
56. He Didn’t Exactly Receive a Hero’s Welcome
Kim Philby spent almost his entire life in service of the Soviet Union—but he faced a harsh reality when he finally found himself living there. He thought that he was a colonel in the KGB thanks to his years as a spy. However, when he arrived, that wasn’t quite true. Instead, the Soviets treated him with suspicion and hostility, in case he was secretly acting as a British spy.
57. He Questioned Everything at the End
The lack of accolades waiting for him in Moscow wasn’t the thing that pained Philby the most. As his final wife, Rufina Pukhova, wrote, Philby saw how much the people of the USSR suffered, and it devastated him. For years, he thought he was fighting the good fight, yet he couldn’t claim life in the Soviet Union was better than back in Britain.
58. He Passed On As a Soviet Hero
Kim Philby lived out the rest of his days in the Soviet Union as a depressed, alcoholic wreck. He filled his days working with the KGB, ensuring that the propaganda they disseminated into England sounded properly and believably English. By the time end of his life, in 1988, he had finally earned the Soviets’ trust, and they treated him like a national hero.
59. His Wife had Her Own Problems
Philby’s double life eventually destroyed him—but his wife Aileen ended up suffering the darkest fate of all. She had suffered from psychological episodes since she was young, and having a paranoid, hard-drinking husband like Philby certainly didn’t help matters. She had been coping with her mental illness for a time—but after a while, it finally became too much for her to bear…
60. She Suffered a Chilling Breakdown
In 1948, Aileen suffered her most disturbing episode yet. Aileen purposely injured herself, staged it to look like an accident, and injected herself with her own urine to cause grotesque skin disfigurations. Philby sent her to a clinic to recover, but things didn’t get any better when she returned. She scalded herself on a charcoal stove soon after. Aileen needed support—and Kim was not the man to provide it for her.
Though she eventually left him, it was too late to save Aileen Philby. Her health never truly recovered, and she succumbed to illness just a few years later. She was only 46 years old.