Excellent biography of a complex man

Stalin’s Englishman in the biography by Andrew Lownie is Guy Burgess an Englishman who spied all of his adult life for what was then the Soviet Union and who eventually lived and died in exile in Moscow. I’ve not read a lot about the post-war Soviet spies except for A Spy Among Friends by Ben McIntyre which is about Kim Philby and which delves deeply into his betrayal and how it affected those around him – I recommend this book.

Guy Burgess was the son of an unsuccessful naval officer but his family had inherited wealth and he had a private income. He attended Eton and then Cambridge and was academically brilliant but had a deep resentment of the British establishment whilst also cultivating people who had fame and wealth. He was also gay, extravagant, probably an alcoholic, sexually promiscuous and privileged. At Cambridge he embraced communism but when he was recruited by the Soviet Union he claimed publically to have changed his mind. He worked for the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6. He sent vast amounts of material to the USSR – in fact they refused to believe his content at one stage because it was too good and they didn’t believe that he could have had that level of access. When he was found out he threw his compatriots to the wolves and ran for Moscow where he lived out a sad and lonely old age. At no point did he ever seem to regret what he had done – his belief in communism was ideological.

The story is easy to read and we follow Burgess’s life with plenty of material from those who knew him and from documents of the time. What he did appears clear but how he got away with it is amazing. It seemed to be an open secret that Burgess was a Soviet spy amongst his friends and lovers but he was still trusted by the great and the good, possibly because he went to the right school and had the right connections. He was also charming and generous and had a gift for drawing which he used to lampoon those around him in witty cartoons. Either the front that Burgess put on was brilliant and bamboozled the spymasters, or they were incompetent. Certainly, the Americans were scathing about the British failing to uncover the traitors in their midst.

This is a fascinating book and the author tries to help the reader understand why a brilliant, if unconventional, young man would have spent his adult life spying for a regime that was often cruel and inhuman. I think he does as good a job as possible of opening up this world to the reader but Burgess’s motives will always remain obscure.

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