Last December 26, George Blake died in Moscow at the age of 98. In the 1950s, Blake spied for the Soviet Union while being in the British Secret Intelligence Service. He was caught in 1961, at a time when he was living in Lebanon, and sentenced to a 42-year prison term. He escaped Wormwood Scrubs Prison in 1966 and made his way to Moscow. Sylvie Braibant is the grandniece of Daniel Curiel, the husband of Blake’s aunt Zephira, and over the years she maintained contact with Blake in Russia. Braibant is a French journalist who worked for France’s TF1 and TV5 Monde television stations. She is the author of Elisabeth Dmitrieff: Aristocrate et Pétroleuse (Belfond, 1993). Diwan interviewed Braibant in early January to discuss Blake’s ties with the Middle East, particularly his upbringing in Egypt and his ties with his Curiel cousins.
Michael Young: George Blake has written that his time in Egypt, particularly his meeting with his cousins Raoul and Henri Curiel, had great influence on him with regards to his attitude toward communism. Can you tell us who the Curiel brothers were, and explain how they might have shaped Blake’s thinking?
Sylvie Braibant: When George Blake, then still George Behar, arrived in Egypt at the end of summer 1936, he was thirteen years old. Until then he had been living in the Netherlands, not far from The Hague, with his mother Kathryn Beyderwellen, who was from a strict Protestant family, and his father Albert, a Jew from Constantinople. Albert, who died of cancer in 1935, had prepared for his own death by advising his wife not to hesitate to ask for help from Zephira, one of his sisters who was married to Daniel Curiel, a banker in Cairo. When Kathryn did so, the reply to her request for help was hard on George, his two sisters, and their mother. Zephira and Daniel refused to send money, but offered to educate the only boy in the family, on condition that George move to Cairo.
This is what Blake wrote in his memoirs, describing his arrival in the Curiel household: “The house, referred to in Cairo as the Villa Curiel, built in the style of an Italian palazzo with a large terrace and balconies, could be considered a large mansion or a small palace. It stood, surrounded by palm trees, in a spacious garden on the northern end of the island of Zamalek, between two branches of the Nile. It had no less than twelve bedrooms.”
George later recalled the lunches where many guests of all nationalities came together. He wrote about this cosmopolitan atmosphere, which was so typical of certain families in Egypt at the time: “All the inhabitants of the large house had different nationalities. The Curiel family, having originally come from Tuscany, my uncle and aunt had Italian nationality. Uncle Max however, for some reason or other, had an Egyptian passport. My aunt Mary had retained her Turkish nationality. My cousin Raoul was French, but his brother Henri, out of solidarity with the Egyptian masses, had opted for Egyptian nationality. I was a British subject.”
Raoul Curiel, the elder of Blake’s two cousins, was the first member of the family whom George met—he was 22 years old in 1936, one year older than Henri. At the time he was studying in France while also teaching at the French Lycée in Cairo, and was the first member of the family to be drawn to communism. He did so under the influence of Georges-Henri Pointet, a Swiss teacher who had arrived in Cairo in 1935 after being forced into exile for opposing fascism. In autumn 1936, the first of Blake’s years in Cairo, Henri was still living his golden boy period in the city’s nightclubs, before also embarking on the road to communism, when demonstrations were multiplying in Egypt. This was a very sensitive time for Egypt’s nationalist movement, which saw the triumph of the Wafd Party in the 1936 elections. It was a time of massive demonstrations against British rule, and the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty the same year.
When Blake returned to Cairo in 1937, after his holidays in Holland, and as he entered the English school in Cairo and showed an ever-stronger Protestant faith, his relations with Henri became closer.
“My religious fervor was increased through my heated discussions with my cousin Henri,” he wrote. “He was my aunt’s youngest son and studying law at Cairo University. Tall and extremely thin he had at that age already a slight stoop. He had wavy black hair, a pale complexion and well-defined features. Immense charm and a dazzling smile made him very attractive, not only to women, but to all who met him. His principal interest was politics and left-wing politics at that. It was the misery of the Egyptian people, which he had seen around him since his childhood, that motivated him. He had been introduced to the works of Marx and Lenin by his elder brother Raoul. Henri saw the only solution to Egypt’s ills in Communism and used his considerable skills, acquired from his Jesuit schoolmasters, to propagate the faith … Although he was eight years older than me he liked talking to me and sometimes took me with him when he visited peasants on his father’s large estate fifty miles outside Cairo. Their living conditions were miserable. Most of them suffered from eye disease and bilharzia. Henri always took large quantities of eye lotion and medicines with him [that] he handed out to peasants and their families. His father did not approve of this at all and, generally, disliked his leftwing views. It was not that he was not a kind man and he gave generously to Jewish charitable works, but his charity did not extend to the Egyptian fellah. Anyway that would have been a hopeless undertaking. Henri soon began to realize this himself. Handing out eye lotion wasn’t the right remedy. It was necessary to change the whole system. Only political action was truly effective. I liked him very much and got on very well with him, but his example and discussions I had with him had little or no influence on me. On the contrary it called for strong opposition. It was not that I was insensitive to the sufferings of the Egyptian poor, though I tended in those days to look upon this more as a traditional aspect of the oriental scene than as a great social evil which could be remedied. Nor could I deny that Communist ideals were in many ways admirable. But there was for me one insurmountable obstacle to accepting his views. Communism was the declared enemy of God.”
Henri later became a cofounder of the Egyptian Communist Party, before he was expelled in 1951 by King Farouq. He later organized assistance for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and helped to link Palestinian and Israeli representatives to discuss peace. In 1978 he was assassinated in Paris, a crime that is still under investigation, but which pointed to involvement by an extreme rightwing group working at the service of the French government.
At the beginning of September 1939, when war was about to break out, Blake did not return to Cairo. Much later, at the beginning of the 1950s, as a member of the British secret service he was introduced to Marxism in order to better “fight” the ideology, when he read R. N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism. In an interview in 2009, he confided that all his discussions with Henri then resurfaced and he found this “training” very convincing.
MY: Did Blake keep in touch with the Curiel brothers before and after his defection to the Soviet Union in 1966?
SB: Blake said he never saw Raoul or Henri again after summer 1939. He passed through Paris in 1947 and stayed with my grandparents, Charles Braibant and Evelina Curiel, Daniel’s sister. It is possible that he met Raoul there. In 1948, while on his way to Beirut, he stopped over in Cairo. But he found nothing but desolation in the Zamalek house. His uncle Daniel had died of a heart attack, Raoul had left Egypt for other destinations—Afghanistan and Pakistan where he was conducting archaeological excavations, and Paris where he settled. Henri was detained in Egypt’s Camp Huckstep for his communist activities, but also as a Jew.
After George’s arrest in 1961, Henri and Raoul said they were very proud of their little cousin. In 1991, when due to Perestroika Blake resurfaced through his memoirs published in London, Raoul contacted the Jonathan Cape publishing house. The publisher put him in touch with Blake and they spoke on the phone again for the first time since the 1930s. Raoul suggested that he meet with me because at the time I was travelling regularly to Moscow to prepare a book and a thesis on Russian revolutionaries of the 19th century.
MY: Much has been made of the fact that Blake had a Christian religious side that later facilitated his embrace of communism as an ideology similarly seeking to explain human reality. But little is said about his Sephardic Oriental background on his father’s side. How important was this to him?
SB: Despite his Protestant upbringing and belief in “destiny,” Blake was very proud of his Jewish origins. The difficult start of his time in Cairo notwithstanding, his memories of his Jewish background were all very joyful. He says that his aunts—apart from Zephira, another of his father’s sisters lived in Cairo—never tried to “convert” him to Judaism, although the issue was once raised. He wrote, “I was rather proud to have Jewish blood. It seemed to me that I was twice elect: once by birth through the promise made to Abraham and once by grace through redemption by the blood of Christ.”
Perhaps this played a part in his great interest in the Near East. At the Institute of World Economy and International Relation in Moscow, where he worked for a long time, as did two of his fellow Englishmen who had spied for the Soviet Union, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, he was particularly interested in the region. He visited it clandestinely during his time in the Soviet Union. Blake was also very close to Yevgeni Primakov, later a Russian prime minister and a specialist on the Arab world, who was also half-Jewish. When he retired a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, George and his wife Ida took a cruise from Istanbul to Tel Aviv and Alexandria, his last trip under a false identity.
A revealing anecdote underlines what could be a spiritual closeness, beyond time and absence, between the two cousins Henri Curiel and George Blake. Henri was arrested in France on October 20, 1960 for assisting the FLN, and he was imprisoned at the Fresnes prison, east of Paris, for eighteen months. George was unmasked in January 1961 and locked up in Wormwood Scrubs Prison near London. Their fellow inmates describe their behavior in prison often using the same words: Their cells were transformed into libraries and political discussion rooms; they both engaged in the in-depth study of texts about which they had previously known little, foremost among them the Qur’an; and to relax each day both practiced yoga, adopting the Sirsasana position with their feet up and their head down.
MY: Blake was called back to London to be arrested while taking a language course in Shemlan, Lebanon, at a school considered by many to be a “school for spies.” Do you have any sense of how this period in his life might have affected him, particularly as at the time another Soviet double agent, Kim Philby, was also living in Lebanon, where the Secret Intelligence Service’s center for the region was located?
SB: I don’t have many answers to this question. George seems to have had a happy time in Beirut, in the heart of this “nest of spies,” despite growing signs that he was under suspicion. In fact, he had already prepared a possible escape to the Soviet Union. But as he believed strongly in destiny, he responded to the summons from London, knowing perfectly well what awaited him. In prison he perfected his Arabic. After his escape, he frequented Philby and Maclean quite a bit in Moscow. Philby’s Russian wife was a friend of George’s new Russian wife. But he didn’t like Philby very much. Philby complained all the time about life in Moscow, and George was closer to Maclean.
MY: In his later years, how did Blake look back on his life, and did the Middle East affect him in any way?
SB: George never regretted anything. He had an inexhaustible capacity to adapt, and always seemed content, always grateful for what life had in store for him. In the conversations and interviews I conducted with him, he liked to answer certain questions with funny stories, true or not.
For example, I asked him if there was a country that was approaching socialist utopia, and he replied: “In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting the Netherlands, my native country. So I watched television fervently to see how he was received. Russian and Dutch journalists interviewed him together, and the interview was rebroadcast on Russian channels. At one point one of them asked him what he thought of Holland. And he replied that it was probably the country where socialism really applied. So I wondered if my journey hadn’t been a little long and tortuous to come back to that point ...”