Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Modin, My Five Cambridge Friends


Modin, Yuri Ivanovich, with Jean-Charles Deniau and Aguieszka Ziarek. Trans., Anthony Roberts. My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross--By Their KGB Controller. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994. ISBN 0-374-21698-3

Yuri Modin was the NKVD case officer for the members of the Cambridge Spy Ring for the last three years of its life (1948-1951) before two members were forced to seek asylum in the Soviet Union to escape a counterintelligence hunt spearheaded by the almost equally famous VENONA/BRIDE cryptanalysis case. This book is his memoir of the ring and his role in it.

Modin first encountered the Soviet secret police in much the same way as many of his generation did: his teenage commitment to Communism led him to turn in a food hoarder during World War II. Originally a student of the Leningrad Naval Academy, his command of English led to him to a job translating documents obtained by Soviet agents in the UK (Modin suggests that there were up to 30). He was soon tasked with being the sole translator of the massive load of documents from the Cambridge Ring and developed an extensive knowledge of its members. In 1947 Modin was sent to London to prescreen documents on the spot and was soon volunteered as the case officer for the ring.

In a review of the biographies of the members of the ring Modin gives some interesting insights into the members. There are no major revelations in these sketches except to give credit to the veterans Deutsch and Maly for recruiting the ring, and to support the view that the Morris Dobb was a talent spotter rather than a recruiter, and his opinion that the prime mover in the formation of the ring was Burgess. Modin has a very high regard for Burgess, not only for his industry as an agent, but also for his very keen intellect (a point even Burgess' detractors have to concede). It seems that the four known to one another (Blunt, Burgess, Philby, and Maclean) were recruited by one another in much the same way as one rounds up a foursome for golf (and contrary to the rules of operational security).

These four were committed to their cause from the beginning and eager to serve it in any way and indeed their enthusiasm may almost have been too much in their early days and needed careful guidance. Cairncross was the odd one out. He did not belong to the same social class as the others and was seen as highly intelligent by his contemporaries but was not considered as among the great and the good. As a dedicated Socialist from a Scots working class background he was the social opposite of his countryman MacLean and probably would have been beyond the pale for the other three if they had ever met. Although no less committed or any less productive than the others, Cairncross did not benefit from the mutual support that the unorthodox spy ring of Blunt, Burgess, Philby and MacLean had.

Modin describes his handling of the five without any attempts to grab the limelight, although he does take credit for improving the productivity of his agents by taking care to treat them as they wanted to be treated. There appear to have been several clashes between these most valuable agents and their earlier case officers. The main body of the book is a mixture of narrow escapes (some almost farcical) and an outline of the scale of the espionage conducted by the five that seriously damaged British interests on several occasions. The descriptions of the paths used to obtain some of the information (especially from MacLean, and sometimes at very short notice) should be taken to heart by anyone concerned with controlling the flow of confidential information.

Modin was also the last case officer of the ring and has to describe the stress mounting on the members as Philby was able to monitor progress in the VENONA case as it was about to unveil MacLean. At this point he tells his version of Burgess' maniacal escapades on the roads of Virginia and of the flight of MacLean (and explains why Burgess also went to Moscow).

The overall tone of the book is that of an old soldier who did his duty and who is proud of his service. It is as if he is telling his story in front of the fire at the end of a pleasant evening. It is relaxed and candid and shows none of the defensiveness of Sudoplatov's Special Tasks and is very readable because of this. Praise must go to the translator (Anthony Roberts) for his role. Modin's comments and observations on some of the ramifications of the activities of his Cambridge friends, such as the Hollis affair, do not dissemble and even have an air of honest exasperation. The disclosures made are not radical or surprising, but more often are clarifications. This book may not be the very last word on the Cambridge ring, but it is a significant contribution and a highly entertaining one that is strongly recommended.

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