July 23, 2009 / 11:35 AM / 10 years ago

Blunt reveals a spy's life from beyond the grave

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - One of Britain’s most notorious spies, Russian mole Anthony Blunt, has finally revealed snippets of his clandestine life and complex motivations in a memoir brought to light 25 years after his death.

Blunt, a former Cambridge professor and renowned art historian, was unmasked publicly as a spy by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, 15 years after privately confessing to being part of a four-man Soviet ring that included Britain’s most infamous Cold War traitor, Kim Philby.

After his confession, Blunt was given immunity in exchange for information and allowed to continue in his role as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and a professor of art history.

But after his public exposure, which prompted him to contemplate suicide, Blunt sat down and wrote a 30,000-word manuscript that amounts to a short account of his life, from birth through to the moment of his unmasking.

Following his death in 1983, the memoir was anonymously donated to the British Library on condition that it not be made available for 25 years, a restriction that has now expired.

While the account largely avoids his activities in the 1940s and 1950s when he was a key agent for the KGB, it does provide his account of how he came to be recruited and, 30 years later, exposed as one of Russia’s highest-level agents in Britain.

“Although it contains no revelations, the memoir is important as an account of Blunt’s life and motives in his own words and with his own emphasis,” said Frances Harris, head of modern historical manuscripts at the British Library.

“It is the one central document bearing on this long, complex and controversial episode in recent history which has been known to exist, but has not hitherto been accessible.”


By Blunt’s account, his introduction to the Soviets came via his friend and fellow agent Guy Burgess, a bright, persuasive homosexual who Blunt, who was also gay, met while he was teaching at Cambridge in the early 1930s.

Blunt, who writes that he initially did not take to Burgess, describing him as “perverse both in argument and behavior,” later warmed to his intelligence and was seduced by his left-wing politics, which went beyond the Communist Party.

“I was thus faced with the most important decision of my life,” he wrote. “I might have joined the Communist Party, but Guy, who was an extraordinarily persuasive person, convinced me that I could do more good by joining him in his work.

“What I did not realize at the time is that I was so naive politically that I was not justified in committing myself to any political action of this kind,” he wrote, describing his move into espionage as “the biggest mistake of my life.”

Blunt was initially a ‘talent-spotter’, recruiting agents to the network while teaching at Cambridge. He then describes being made “dormant” by Moscow for many years, before being reactivated during World War Two, but he does not describe how.

During the war, Blunt worked for MI5 as a military intelligence agent, a position that gave him access to classified documents, military planning and movements.

After the war, he left MI5, continued in his role as a royal surveyor of art and was given a knighthood in 1956. His espionage was uncovered beginning in 1963, when Blunt was identified by one of the agents he helped recruit.

While a fascinating document in its own right, reaction to the manuscript has been mixed, with those who have both read it and knew Blunt during his time as an art professor describing it as a “damp squib” that fails to get to the heart of the matter.

“He never got to the really important part,” said Brian Sewell, an art writer who was tutored by Blunt at the Courtauld Institute of Art and later became a close friend.

“Everyone who has ever read it has been very disappointed by how little solid material there is in it. I always thought it would turn out to be the damp squib of all damp squibs.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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