Moscow names city square after Kim Philby to honour British defector

Robert Mendick
Kim Philby, a member of the notorious spy ring the Cambridge Five, defected from the UK to the USSR in 1963  - Getty Images

Moscow has named a square in honour of Kim Philby, one of Britain’s worst traitors, in a seemingly provocative response to condemnation of the Kremlin over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

Sergei Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor and one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, personally ordered that an obscure intersection in the south west of the city be renamed ‘Kim Philby Square’. 

The decree was published on Moscow city’s local government website on Tuesday.

Local residents expressed bewilderment that the junction was being renamed after Philby when he never lived in the neighbourhood. A Moscow city hall spokesman declined to comment on why the road junction was being renamed after Philby and the timing of it.

But eyebrows will be raised that Moscow is doing so just weeks after the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, was identified as being behind the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March. Colonel Skripal, 67, was poisoned with novichok nerve agent but survived the attack along with his daughter Yulia, 33.

In the wake of the attack, Theresa May pledged to dismantle the GRU while the two men who carried it out were unmasked as senior GRU agents who had been awarded Russia’s highest honour by Mr Putin.

Col Skripal was a senior officer in the GRU who had been caught selling secrets to MI6 and sent to the UK in a spy swap. Philby is reckoned to have been the most successful member of the Cambridge spy ring that betrayed MI6 and provided secret information to the Soviet Union over three decades.

Philby, along with other members of the ring, were recruited at Cambridge University in the 1930s. He died in Moscow in 1988 aged 76, having been awarded the Order of Lenin in 1965.

After his defection Philby lived in central Moscow, far from the windswept intersection in a relatively new part of the city that is almost exclusively made up of residential towers.

The square is however close to the sprawling campus of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.

The agency has maintained Philby’s legacy, with a page on its website dedicated to him and the intelligence he provided during the Second World war.

Sergei Naryshkin, the SVR director, spoke at an event last year to mark the unveiling of a portrait of Philby at a gallery in Moscow.

Kim Philby married Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova, pictured here Credit: Julian Simmonds

Intelligence veterans suggested at that event that a street should be named after the defector because he enjoyed walking around the city.

But several residents of Yasenevo district said on a neighbourhood Facebook group they had no idea who Philby was and wondered if Moscow had run out of names of Russian writers to use.

“They should have named the ramp leading to their campus after him instead,” wrote user Katerina Reatsea, referring to the intelligence agency.

The irony of naming the junction after Philby will not be lost on Mr Putin’s critics. The Russian president had previously called Col Skripal a “scumbag” for betraying his homeland while the kremlin does not seem to take the same view of Philby.

While Col Skripal and his daughter survived the nerve agent attack, a British woman Dawn Sturgess was killed after inadvertently spraying herself with novichok contained in a perfume bottle discarded by the GRU hit squad.