Compelling study of spies, sex and snobbery
Biography: Stalin's Englishman, Andrew Lownie, Hodder €15.80
It's not hard to understand the appeal that the Cambridge spies of the 1930s and 1940s continue to exert on the British imagination. Their stories are set in the corridors of power in Westminster and Washington, and involve astounding acts of espionage, the systematic betrayal of close friends, and lots of sex - both gay and straight. Small wonder they still command the attention of novelists, playwrights and biographers.
There were five of them altogether, and four of these belonged to an elite group, which had been raised to become part of the British ruling class. They had attended leading English public schools, and had been educated at a University that has supplied the United Kingdom with 14 of its Prime Ministers. One of them was even a cousin of the late Queen Mother.
When they left University, they seemed to move effortlessly into the key institutions of the British Establishment: the Foreign Office, the BBC, Oxbridge, and, in time, the Intelligence agencies.
Guy Burgess has often been viewed as the least significant of these privileged traitors. He did not reveal the secrets of America's atomic programme, like Donald Maclean. He did not pass on the work of the men and women who broke the Nazi codes at Bletchley Park, like Anthony Blunt. He did not run the counter-espionage section of MI6, like Kim Philby.
Instead, Burgess has been best known for his voracious sexual appetite; the staggering amount of alcohol that he consumed; and his generally dissolute behaviour. He was also remarkably indiscreet, and often confessed, while drunk, to being a Soviet agent.
His confessions were disbelieved by his colleagues, who simply could not credit that an Old Etonian might be capable of such treachery. Indeed, they usually seemed more concerned by his "dirty fingernails" than the threat he posed to national security.
Now a new book, Stalin's Englishman by Andrew Lownie, presents a major re-evaluation of the role that Burgess played in the Cambridge spy-ring, and promotes him from a minor to a major player. In this comprehensive and compelling study, the full extent of the material that Burgess supplied to the Soviets is revealed, and its scale is quite extraordinary. At one stage, Burgess had so many secret documents in his possession that he needed a suitcase to carry them to his Soviet handler.
His access to top-level sources was also remarkable. He served as a private secretary to a Minister in the Foreign Office, and routinely read the confidential minutes of the British Cabinet, as well as secret reports of the meetings of the Chiefs of the General Staff.
Ironically, the Russians did not always make the best use of the information that Burgess gave them. The quantity of the documents he provided was so vast it was often impossible for them to be processed through their own bureaucratic system. In the murky world of counter-espionage, they were also unsure of how far Burgess could be trusted, and some were convinced he was a double agent.
The character of Burgess that emerges in Lownie's book is complex and contradictory. He claimed to have been a committed Communist for most of his adult life, but he was also a raging snob, who continued to wear his Old Etonian tie even after he had defected to the Soviet Union. He served Stalin's regime faithfully for 15 years, yet he claimed to hate Russia. His personal life was chaotic, and he habitually blackmailed, bullied and betrayed his closest friends. Despite that, I must admit, after reading Lownie's excellent book, I think a night spent in Burgess's outrageous company would have been worth the risk.
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