Calder Walton

Espionage, history and inspiration.
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Calder Walton, what first attracted you to the study of espionage?

When I was an undergraduate, I read Christopher Andrew’s ground-breaking book, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB and the West (1999). At the time, I was actually studying medieval history— learning about the papacy and the crusades. Reading the Mitrokhin Archive had a tremendous impact on me. It revealed how a secret archive could reveal a new dimension to world affairs. (Vasili Mitrokhin was the chief archivist of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate, who defected to the West, bringing his tranche of Soviet secrets with him). After a few meetings with Professor Andrew in Cambridge, I knew that intelligence records offered exciting opportunities to make original contributions to history. I was sold. Although like most people, I barely knew anything about MI5 or MI6, or what they did, for graduate work, I switched from medieval history to modern, and specialised in intelligence history. Thinking about it, I guess studying the medieval papacy did, on some level, equip me with understanding the world of intelligence and subterfuge.

Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

Like other historians, my research methodology is to pull together diverse sources, with the aim of recreating an accurate narrative and analysis of the past. Because there are so many intelligence records being declassified, on a rolling basis, my strategy is to go to those records themselves, rather than focusing on what others have written. For my book Spies, this involved a significant amount of travelling to different archives— in the UK, the US, and Eastern Europe. For Russia and Ukraine, I relied on some remarkable local researchers. Their bravery, as Putin’s rule slid into dictatorship, and then war, was humbling.

For my archival research trips in the US, I got to travel to corners of the country that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. One of my most memorable trips was to the Eisenhower library, in Abilene Kansas, which involved driving through boiling prairieland in June. I hired a big pick-up truck and bought some cowboy boots. It was great fun— I put some of the pictures on my book’s Instagram account.

When I first started research, twenty years ago now, one could only use a pencil and paper in archives like the UK National Archives, in London. You could get pages photocopied by the staff, but it was extremely expensive, at least for an impecunious graduate student. The big change for me was when The National Archives allowed photography of records, first with cameras and now of course using our phones. A silver lining of the Covid pandemic, which we all lived through in two blurry years of shut downs, was that the UK National Archives made many records available online for free. That was a game changer for me researching Spies, when archives were otherwise closed.

As well as documentary records from diverse archives, for my research I also conduct interviews with current or recently retired intelligence officers. Given the sensitivity of these subjects, they are usually done on condition of anonymity. As a former barrister, I am acutely aware that answers in interviews can depend on the questions put, so I try to make my interviews an investigatory process, asking questions in neutral terms. For the interviews for Spies, I travelled to Vienna, Prague, and even Singapore; I also managed to secure an interview with a former Russian FSB defector, now resettled in the US. His testimony was both chilling and revealing.

I think the next big change for how historians conduct research will lie with Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI has the capability to process data, and draw connections, in ways that are impossible for the human mind. I’m excited to see how this unfolds. My prediction is that, in the not too distant future, we shall look back on historians who do not incorporate AI into their research as primitive.

Another theme of my research is asking myself the question: “so what?” Like all historians, I believe the past is worthy of being studied in its own right— what the historian Marc Bloch called the value of studying singular events. History is an intellectual pursuit of putting oneself in the situations or mindsets of those in the past, to understand their decisions, and the alternative futures they faced, most of which are now lost to history. But unlike some historians, I also believe that history can be used to inform contemporary decision-making. This is the essence of the Applied History initiative I help to lead at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Asking oneself “so what?” is a useful tool for Applied History, in my view.

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true in your field?

There’s certainly a lot of rose-tinted nostalgia written about British intelligence during the Second World War. The writing sometimes resembles the warm glow of a Marks & Spenser Christmas television commercial. And that’s surely because those histories have been written by the victors. But as John Ferris’s excellent authorized history of GCHQ shows, the intelligence war between the Allies and the Axis was in fact much more evenly matched until 1943 than many histories suggest.

But contrary to what your question suggests, it’s also the case that in intelligence history, much scholarship is devoted to the losers. Traditionally we have known a lot more about the inner-workings of Soviet intelligence, because of published histories by defectors, than we did about Western services. Thanks to the declassification of Western records and official histories, that imbalance is now thankfully being corrected.

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books of espionage which budding historians should read?

As mentioned above, the person who shaped my career is definitely Christopher Andrew. When I was doing graduate work at Cambridge, Professor Andrew offered me the extraordinary opportunity to work as a research assistant on his authorized history of MI5. It was a remarkable opportunity; we were given access to MI5’s century-long historical archive.

I’ve also been greatly influenced by Peter Hennessy’s works, particularly his book, The Secret State (revised ed. 2010) My career has also been shaped by Richard Aldrich’s various works, especially his history of GCHQ. I also find myself going back to read classic books on medieval history, R.W. Southern’s The Story of the Middle Ages and Steven Runciman’s history of the crusades.

For budding historians interested in the history of espionage, I would recommend Ben Macintyre’s book, The Spy and the Traitor (2018), which is about one of the most important Western spies recruited during the Cold War, Oleg Gordievsky, and also his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends (2014). I’d also recommend Thomas Rid’s book, Active Measures. The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (2021).

If you could meet any spy from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

I would like to meet Kim Philby. He was a Soviet spy, recruited soon after leaving Cambridge in the 1930s, who wormed his way into MI6, where he managed to become the head of MI6 Soviet affairs. In other words, the head of Soviet counter-espionage in MI6 was himself a Soviet spy. There are now enough books written about Philby to fill small libraries, but despite all that, the truth about his treachery is still being revealed in newly opened papers. One of the revelations I make in Spies is that Philby in fact betrayed his two fellow Soviet Cambridge spies, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, to MI5 and MI6. This explodes the myth perpetrated by the Kremlin that Philby was a master spy. (If I were to guess, I think it’s probably this part of Spies that caused Russia’s government to sanction me in 2024). In reality, Philby lied to, and betrayed, everyone, even his fellow Soviet spies. If I could meet him, I would ask him how he could rationalise doing so.

If I could witness an event in history, it would be the secret meetings that Boris Yeltsin had with Vladimir Putin in 1999. We know they cooked up a deal— for Putin to be Yeltsin’s successor, in return for Putin protecting Yeltsin once out of office— but what else did they negotiate? There are credible allegations that Putin helped Yeltsin spirit colossal assets out of Russia into offshore bank accounts and the like— money derived from asset stripping Russian state enterprises, which really belonged to the Russian people. I increasingly think that, if you want to understand Putin, you have to understand money laundering and organised crime. The moment between Yeltsin and Putin in 1999 is where so much of the rot and corruption in Russia arose from.

If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum either in the UK or US, what would it be?

If I were in charge of history curriculum, I would make it a requirement to study both Chinese and Russian history. When I went to school and university, I learned precious little about either— which is crazy. Whatever happens in world affairs going forward, these two resurgent great powers, Russia and China, are guaranteed to shape international affairs for the foreseeable future. Understanding their history will be essential for public and policy-makers in Western countries to contextualize and understand what we are seeing play out in the news each day, amid the geopolitical collision between the West and East. History remains the best way to understand Russia and China. It also teaches teach us empathy— to understand an adversary’s motivations and interests. One of the great tragedies of the Cold War was that western policymakers and governments failed to empathize the Soviet leaders, to understand how Western acts, or omissions, would be perceived behind the Iron Curtain. The US government’s grand strategic doctrine of containment, found in NSC-68, was a disaster because it never asked how the Kremlin or Beijing would view such a doctrine. It divided the world into a Manichean “good guys” and “bad guys” formulation, which is surely destined to make matters worse, not better.

Understanding history is also an essential tool for countering the misapplication of history by the Russian and Chinese governments. It’s only by appreciating the past that we can see that the Putin’s claim about Ukraine— that it is not a real nation, and is and always has been simply part of Russia— is nonsense. The same applies for various myths promulgated by Xi Jinping’s government in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s claim that China is a 5,000 year old civilization seems to have arisen when China’s leader in the 1990s, Jiang Zemin, travel to Egypt and learned about Egypt’s 3,000 year old civilization. Not wanting to be outdone, China’s civilization immediately thereafter became two centuries older than the Pharaohs. In reality, of course, there was little more continuous in Chinese civilization for 5,000 years than there is between the Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans, and so on in Europe. Understanding history would also help explode a CCP talking point myth that China has never attacked another country— people in Vietnam would beg to differ. In fact, the closer we look at history, the closer Chinese dynasties seem to be to European imperial powers. The Qing empire, spanning from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, probably relied on conquest as much as any European power when Qing leaders incorporated 1.4 million square miles into China, including Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinxiang, whose name— revealingly— means “New Territories”.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

If you want to write good history, read good fiction. At the end of the day, writing history is a creative endeavour— not simply a slavish regurgitation of events. It’s about narrative analysis. So if you want to do that, understand how the best writers of narrative do so. In my field, intelligence history, I keep going back to the novels of Graham Greene. He has such a beautiful way with words, and turn of phrase.

Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?

I’m currently working on two projects. The first, in broad terms, involves applying new data analytical technologies like AI to old historical records, with the aim of revealing non-obvious patterns, connections, and characteristics. The second, in equally broad terms, is a longer-term book project about the history of Chinese intelligence and the West. Watch this space for news on both.

Calder Walton is a historian and the author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East And West.