review by Vince Cuddihy
Stalin’s Englishman, Andrew Lownie’s 2015 biography of Guy Burgess, a key member of the Cambridge 5 spy ring, has received many awards and honours, including the St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year and the BBC History Book of the Year, among several others. Lownie runs a very successful literary agency. He is also president of the Biographer’s Club.
Lownie had been working on Burgess’s story on and off for 30 years. A key part of this work is that he found some of the Russians who had been Burgess’s handlers while he was aiding the Soviet secret service.
The picture Lownie paints of Burgess is that of a truly magnetic character: depending on which pole one approached him from, he came across as attractive or repulsive. Nobody was indifferent to him; where some people found a handsome, witty and charming lothario, others saw a grubby, slovenly drunk. But even though he was notoriously indiscreet, he was also clever enough to keep from being exposed for what he really was for many years.
Lownie takes us through Burgess’s early life as the son of a naval officer who did not distinguish himself. Guy attended Dartmouth Naval Training College, but was unpopular with his classmates and graduated from Eton. Lownie suggests these early rebukes created the sense of alienation that made Burgess susceptible to the offers to betray his country that the Soviets later presented. During his undergraduate days, Burgess joined the Communist Party and also took up his devotion to homosexual practices that were destined to become an important part of his espionage activities.
Kim Philby was the first of the Cambridge 5 to be recruited in 1934, followed by Donald Maclean and then Burgess. Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross followed later. One of the first things the Soviets asked them to do was to quit their membership in the British Communist Party. Burgess even wrote articles and letters to editors explaining why he thought Communism was a fraud and doomed to failure. At first, the recruits were just asked to find responsible jobs which would allow them to fit in well with the UK establishment. The important thing was to cultivate contacts with ambitious people who would eventually be in a position to have access to important information.
It is ironic that the Soviets did not really trust Burgess and took most of what he told them with a large grain of salt. He had the reputation of being a drunk and a BS artist, so the Soviets were sceptical of stories that Burgess claimed to have heard. Burgess also regaled the Russians with stories of how British counterintelligence had turned German spies into sources of disinformation by feeding lies to them. How could the Russians be sure that the British were not using Burgess the same way? The Soviets also asked Burgess to provide the names of British spies who were active in the USSR the way he provided names of spies who were operating in German controlled territory. He never delivered because after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and the Soviets became Britain’s allies, the British thought it would be bad form to spy on their new friends and deactivated any spies they had.
Most British sources felt that Burgess had not done much harm because he was rarely in a position to have access to vital information. He certainly supplied the Soviets with large volumes of intel. At one stage he was taking suitcases full of documents out of his colleagues’ files and handing them to his contacts. His reputation as a boozer came in handy as an explanation for the three hour lunch hours that it took for the Soviets to copy the material at the London embassy. But the poor Soviets could not find the nuggets of good intel buried in the mass of paper that Burgess had supplied. When he finally arrived in Moscow, he found shelves full of material that he had smuggled out years earlier, still untranslated and never read by anyone in the upper echelons of the Soviet intelligence network.
Lownie’s Russian sources asserted that Burgess was very important, not because of the information he provided, but because of the people he gave them access to. As a promiscuous homosexual, he had liaisons with many men who rose to key positions in the British government and the private sector. Many of them later wrote him letters in reaction to what was still a criminal act. Burgess hung onto all these letters, actively supported these men in their bids for critical offices and recommended them for promotions, knowing that he had evidence that he could provide to his Soviet handlers that could be used to blackmail these targets.
Burgess spent the last 12 years of his life in the USSR, having fled with Maclean, who knew he was being watched, in 1951. Without the excitement of spying, his time there seems to have been rather boring. The big events for him were visits by friends from England, some of whom were bringing orders from his tailor or shirt maker. In the end, he wound up back in England, buried in the Hampshire village of West Meon, next to his father.
Stalin’s Englishman is a fascinating story which provides strong insight into why these men acted the way they did and how they got away with it for so long. It would help non-British readers to understand where these spies fitted in if Lownie provided a clearer picture of how the UK government bureaucracy was organized 70 years ago.
Stalin’s Englishman is available at the Lennoxville Library.