KGB Spy who Brushed Shoulders with French Aristocracy for Decades

L’Express, a major French magazine, has disclosed that its senior former editor, Philippe Grumbach, spent 35 years spying for the Soviet Union.

Grumbach was a well-connected person in French society for decades.

He had strong friendships with presidents, celebrities, and literary heavyweights. He was a legendary personality in journalism who helped influence the editorial direction of one of France’s most successful magazines. When he died in 2003, Minister of Culture Jean-Jacques Aillagon described Grumbach as “one of the most memorable and respected figures in French media”.

He was also a spy for Russia’s KGB intelligence organisation, known as “Brok”.

The so-called Mitrokhin archives, named after the Soviet major who sneaked thousands of pages of documents out of Soviet archives and handed them over to Britain in 1992, include extensive evidence of Grumbach’s deception. They were then combined into a book by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin himself.

The thousands of pages of information include profiles of Westerners who spied for the Soviet Union.

Several months ago, a friend of Etienne Girard, the social affairs editor at L’Express and co-author of the Grumbach exposé, informed him that an acquaintance examining the Mitrokhin archives had discovered mentions of L’Express. The records said that an agent with the code-name Brok worked for the KGB and provided biographical information that matched Grumbach’s.

Mr Girard’s interest was quickly peaked.

“I started digging into it and found Grumbach’s name written in Russian, as well as some photos,” Mr Girard told the BBC. “Then things became considerably more serious. I contacted the French secret service to check that Brok was truly Grumbach, and things quickly escalated.”

Grumbach was born in Paris in 1924 to a Jewish family. He escaped France with his mother and brothers in 1940, the year Nazi Germany invaded and Marshal Philippe Pétain established a collaborationist dictatorship in Vichy. Grumbach joined the United States Army almost immediately and fought alongside the resistance in Algeria in 1943. Following the war, he joined the AFP news agency, but quit shortly thereafter in protest of the French government’s activities in the Indochina War.

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Philippe Grumbach as a young journalist

Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the creator of L’Express, hired Grumbach in 1954.

Grumbach soon began to rub elbows with some of France’s most important twentieth-century figures.

When then-senator and future president Francois Mitterand was accused of organising a false assassination in 1960, he played a role in restoring his reputation. He had tight ties to the influential Servan-Schreiber, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and notable statesman Pierre Mendès France, among others. Actors Alain Delon and Isabelle Adjani attended his 1980 wedding, which was legally witnessed by writer Francoise Sagan and Pierre Berge, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent.

Grumbach remained a spy throughout.

Some may see his decision to spy for the Soviet Union as a romantic narrative of devotion to a failing state. However, Mitrokhin speculated that, while ideology likely drew Grumbach to the KGB at first, his reasons for remaining as a spy after only a few years had less to do with wanting to advance the cause of communism in Europe and more to do with his desire to earn enough money to buy a flat in Paris.

The financial rewards were very enticing. According to the Mitrokhin papers, Grumbach received the equivalent of €250,000 (£214,000) for his KGB services between 1976 and 1978. He received an additional bonus three times in the 1970s for being one of France’s top 13 Soviet spies.

However, it is unclear what missions he completed exactly. The Mitrokhin archives demonstrate that during the 1974 presidential election, the KGB provided him with fake files intended to incite tensions between right-wing presidential contenders. Although L’Express quotes papers stating that Grumbach was tasked with “settling delicate issues” and “liaising with representatives and leaders of political parties and groups,” there are few concrete examples of Grumbach actively assisting the USSR.

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Perhaps this is why, in the early 1980s, the KGB cut connections with him. According to the Mitrokhin files book, KGB agents in Paris found Grumbach “insincere” and believed he inflated his ability to gather information and the significance of his intelligence. He was let go in 1981.

We will never know if Grumbach was pleased that his double life was over, or how he felt about his years of devotion to the KGB.

Whether out of embarrassment or a lingering sense of allegiance, he rejected the one documented attempt in 2000 by writer Thierry Wolton to learn more about his time as a spy. Grumbach appeared to tacitly accept his background, but eventually backed off, threatening to sue Wolton if he proceeded with the tell-all book he was developing.

Wolton dropped the project, but it appears that the incident prompted Grumbach’s desire to share his experience.

His widow, Nicole, reportedly informed L’Express that shortly after the Wolton visit, her late husband told her the truth. “He explained to me that he had worked for the KGB before we got married,” she told the magazine. She claimed he stated being “revolted” by prejudice he experienced in Texas while serving in the US army, which pushed him to seek engagement with the Soviet Union instead. “He immediately added that he wanted to stop almost right away, but that he had been threatened,” Nicole was quoted as saying by L’Express.

Mr Girard claims he had little trouble discovering the truth about its former editor-in-chief.

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“I felt a strong sensation that I was performing my job. “It is up to us to conduct the investigation because it concerns us, even if it means uncovering uncomfortable truths,” he stated.

Writing the piece took three months, but it paid off. Almost every media outlet in France has covered the topic, maybe because many people remember Grumbach as a towering personality who controlled the French media landscape for decades.

Some may be tempted to dig out their old copies of L’Express from the Grumbach era in quest of subliminal pro-Soviet messages. But they are unlikely to find anything. L’Express leaned left during Grumbach’s initial stint as editor-in-chief in the 1950s, but never endorsed communism; in the 1970s, when Grumbach returned to the helm, L’Express shifted to a solidly moderate, liberal, centrist position.

According to an article in L’Express, Grumbach’s covert operation was never intended to propagate misinformation.

“He was careful to keep his work as a spy separate from his work as magazine editor,” he claimed. “But that is exactly why it all worked. The KGB wanted him to maintain his identity as a moderate bourgeois in order to avoid detection.”

“It was completely in the spirit of the KGB.” It was a smart decision. “And it worked.”

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