The following review appears in the 22nd December edition of the New York Review of Books: Weird Success of Guy Burgess by Ian Buruma
Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie,St. Martin’s, 433 pp., $29.99
Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert
London: Biteback, 470 pp., £25.00
One of the oddities about Guy Burgess, the most colorful of the so-called Cambridge spies, was that in his usual state of extreme slovenliness, with food stains all over his rumpled suits and the stink of raw garlic and alcohol permanently on his breath, he always insisted on wearing his Old Etonian tie. He wore it in protest marches as a student at Cambridge; as a government official and BBC program director, trawling in his spare time for rough trade in the bars and public toilets of London; and even among the comrades in Moscow, after he exiled himself there in 1951. It is an oddity, because old boys of the most privileged private boarding school in England don’t normally advertise their status in this manner. The superiority of Old Etonians is taken for granted: they know who is who. To wear the light blue and black OE tie is, not to put too fine a point on it, really not done.
Like his choice of buying a secondhand gold Rolls-Royce, there was something distinctly vulgar about this flaunting of the old school tie. Indeed, not being quite a proper gentleman, despite his elite education at Lockers Park prep school and Eton, and membership in the finest London clubs, was something most people who disliked Burgess held against him. Joseph Alsop disapproved when they met at the British embassy in Washington in 1940 because Burgess neglected to wear socks. When the Foreign Office decided—bizarrely, considering Burgess’s reputation as a sloppy, indiscreet, anti-American lush—to send him to the Washington embassy after the war, one British diplomat objected: “We can’t have that man. He has filthy fingernails.” Maurice Bowra, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, put it a little more graphically: “Shit in his fingernails and cock-cheese behind his ears.”1
And yet it is a common claim that Burgess’s career as a Soviet mole inside the British establishment was an abject example of class privilege. Burgess, like his fellow spies Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and Donald Maclean, was barely vetted before getting sensitive jobs in the British government or the intelligence services, despite many examples of appalling behavior, a history of left-wing activism at university, and several instances of drunken boasting of being a Russian spy. The right connections, a discreet word in the appropriate ear, lots of charm when it was needed—these were enough to shield even the decidedly louche Burgess from serious scrutiny.
There has been a great deal of speculation about why the Cambridge spies, all of them children of privilege, embarked on their lives as Soviet agents. This question has spawned a literary cottage industry, a bit like the obsession with the Mitfords or the Bloomsbury group, and mainly for the same reason. When Burgess was living out the latter years of his life in Moscow, he said that the thing he missed most about London was gossip. As he put it to the actress Coral Browne, who visited him there: “The comrades, tho’ splendid in every way of course, don’t gossip in quite the same way about quite the same people and subjects.” All accounts of the Cambridge spies are heavily larded with gossip, about high life and low, hence their enduring fascination in Britain.
Many books have appeared on Philby over the years.2 There is at least one biography of Donald Maclean and a superb study of Anthony Blunt.3 Now, rather late in the game, there are suddenly two big biographies of Guy Burgess. The same juicy anecdotes can be found in both books. And both are excellent reads. The authors of Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone have found a bit more material in the archives, but for anyone who is not a true fanatic on the subject, reading just one of the two books should suffice.
Like Andrew Lownie, author of Stalin’s Englishman, I think Eton might well have had much to do with Burgess’s decision to be a spy, not because the school is a natural breeding ground for traitors, but because it instills an exaggerated sense of entitlement, which can spoil certain men for the rest of their lives. In his part memoir, Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly, who was at Eton before Burgess, described the various hierarchies at the school perfectly. He developed a theory that
the experiences undergone by the boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development…. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.
The pinnacle of social success at Eton was to be elected to an elite group known as Pop. Members of this exalted society could lord it over the other boys, wear multicolored waistcoats, and walk arm in arm. Once a person had risen to this vertiginous height, everything after was bound to disappoint. Cyril Connolly was made a member because he was witty. Guy Burgess desperately wished to become a member, but failed. He was in fact a clever student, admired for his brilliant talk, spiced with amusing mimicry, and already marked by bolshie ideas. But a contemporary at Eton recalled that when “it came to getting Guy in [to Pop], I discovered to my surprise how unpopular he was. People just didn’t like him.”
It must have rankled deeply. Afterward Burgess made sure to get into every exclusive club or society that lay on his way. He made it his business to know everyone who mattered, from Victor Rothschild to Winston Churchill, and if he didn’t he would pretend that he did. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Burgess joined the posh Pitt Club, and was keen to associate with fellow Old Etonians. Again, there were hurdles. According to another OE and fellow Cambridge student, he was shunned because “my lot generally regarded him as a conceited unreliable shit.”
But not everyone thought so. Burgess did succeed in being elected to the secretive student society called the Apostles. His sponsor was the art historian Anthony Blunt, another brilliant public schoolboy with rebellious left-wing ideas. Blunt, who was said to have had an affair with Burgess, “became fascinated by the liveliness and quality of his mind and the range of his interests.” Old members of the Apostles, known as “angels,” included E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes. Arcane rituals, a peculiar jargon, and clever philosophical discourse gave Apostles a sense of being in a choice brotherhood elevated far above the common herd. The prevailing Apostolic ethos in the early 1930s overlapped with the Bloomsbury set’s: sexual honesty, friendship, and a keen appreciation of beauty. Homosexuality, at a time when it was still a criminal offense, was not only tolerated but rather cultivated as a form of love superior to common bourgeois breeding.
Lownie writes that it is “perhaps not surprising that the Apostles should prove to be so open to communist infiltration.” It is true that Burgess and Blunt brought in fellow sympathizers. There also seems to be evidence that the Soviet secret service targeted gay recruits in Britain, because they tended to form cagey social networks through necessity. But the claim that the Homintern (a term attributed to Maurice Bowra) was the key to British membership in the Comintern is probably an overstatement. Most of the spies were not gay. And Burgess, for one, never made a secret of his sexuality; quite the contrary, in fact.
This never seemed to have unduly bothered his British superiors, who had often gone to the same school or university as he had. When Brian Urquhart, the distinguished UN official and frequent contributor to these pages, once complained of Burgess’s appearance at a UN meeting in Paris, when he turned up “drunk and heavily painted and powdered for a night on the town,” Sir Alexander Cadogan (Eton and Oxford) replied that the Foreign Office traditionally tolerated “innocent eccentricity.”
Steven Runciman, the historian who befriended Burgess at Cambridge, found that “communism sat very strangely on [Burgess]. But one didn’t take it very seriously.” It is easy to underrate the attraction of Marxist ideology for men of Burgess’s generation. The Great Depression and the bumbling response of Western governments to the rise of fascism had seriously undermined confidence in capitalism and liberal democracy. The brutality of Stalin and his purges do not seem to have fazed the Cambridge spies. Goronwy Rees, a university contemporary, whom Burgess had tried to recruit without success, said about his friend that “it was as if his communism formed a closed intellectual system which had nothing to do with what actually went on in the socialist fatherland.” Communism was thought to be the only serious antidote to fascism. Class guilt might have had a part. In the words of Purvis and Hulbert, authors of the second book under review: “Communism seemed the answer to the challenge for those who were ‘lost’ and for the rich idealist young it provided some form of remission from the economic sins of their families.”
Marxism, then, was in the air, especially at Cambridge. To be on the far left was also a way for high-minded young people to distinguish themselves from the conventional mainstream and feel morally righteous about it, a superior form of épater les bourgeois.
The previous generation of aesthetes and “bright young things” had reacted to the horrors of World War I by affecting a deliberate air of decadence and frivolousness. Burgess was not immune to such pleasures. There he was in Salzburg in 1937, dressed up in lederhosen, being chased around the table with a purple whip by Brian Howard, the most dissolute of the aesthetes. A fellow Communist at Trinity College, the splendidly named Francis Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce, observed that Burgess “liked breaking things. He was very irresponsible.” But he was also funny, “a kind of court jester.” A peculiar rootlessness and lack of morals, as well as a surplus of mental and physical energy, meant that he “had a need to commit himself to something.”
Burgess’s commitment to communism gave him a moral anchor, something to live for, even as he tuft-hunted the high-born, seduced truck drivers and boy scouts by the dozen (most memorably in Cologne, after Hitler came to power, in the company of a sadomasochistic French political operator), and regularly drank himself into a stupor. His recruiter to the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB, in the mid-1930s, an Austrian Comintern agent named Arnold Deutsch, known as “Otto” to his contacts, understood Burgess’s yearnings well. In a psychological profile, quoted by Lownie, he wrote that Burgess
became [a homosexual] at Eton, where he grew up in an atmosphere of cynicism, opulence, hypocrisy and superficiality. As he is very clever and well educated, the Party was for him a saviour. It gave him above all an opportunity to satisfy his intellectual needs.
This sounds accurate, but the same might have been said about many privileged young people of Burgess’s age, homosexual or not. Only a tiny number of them became Stalin’s secret agents. Again, Deutsch, referring not only to Burgess this time, had a plausible explanation. He listed three attributes of a successful spy: class resentment, a love of secrecy, and a yearning to belong.4 Burgess’s tendencies appear to have matched all three: a lifelong outsider who tried to be on the inside, keen to flaunt his status even as he sought to undermine the very establishment from which it derived. Lownie writes:
You don’t want to betray if you belong. It is all relative, but Burgess never felt he belonged…. At Lockers Park the fathers seemed more distinguished, at Eton he resented his failure to make Pop, at Cambridge the Etonians didn’t want anything to do with him, in the Foreign Office he wasn’t taken as seriously as he would have liked. Small slights grew into larger resentments and betrayal was an easy revenge. Espionage was simply another instrument in his social revolt, another gesture of self-assertion.
John le Carré, a British spy himself for a short time, once described the secret service as a kind of masonry, an exclusive club for loners. One way of looking at the Cambridge spy ring is as the most exclusive and secretive club of all.
What made Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess, whose Huguenot ancestors arrived in England in the sixteenth century, feel like an outsider? Why the resentment? As so often in England, class is the most obvious place to look for an answer. His father, Commander Malcolm Burgess, was a naval officer who felt that his promise was never quite fulfilled. There had been disputes with superior officers. The highest ranks remained out of reach. He retired early. Possibly some of his resentment carried over to his son. When Guy was only thirteen, his father died of a heart attack while making love to his wife. Guy claimed to have found his mother pinned down under the commander’s body just after it happened.
Other notorious British misfits who kicked at the upper classes to which they aspired had a similar background. David Irving, the Holocaust-denying amateur historian, had a father of the same rank. The Royal Navy is of course a deeply stratified institution within a deeply stratified society. To be a commander is to be an officer, but not a flag officer. In civilian terms, the family would probably have been classified as lower-upper-middle-class, in the words of George Orwell, who was at Eton with Cyril Connolly. It is a tricky stratum to belong to: its members are not grand enough to feel easily accepted by the upper class and anxious about sliding down into the middle class. A defensive snobbery can be one consequence, or a desire to undercut the society that caused so much unease by embracing revolutionary ideas. Or both.
In any case, because of their education, oddballs like Burgess or Philby, whose father St. John Philby was an anti-Semitic Arabist suspected of Nazi sympathies, were perfectly placed to infiltrate the British establishment, as they could so easily pass as fully fledged members of it. Burgess had it both ways: lunch at Chartwell with Churchill, drinks at White’s or the Reform, late nights at the Gargoyle Club with Harold Nicolson and Laurence Olivier, a Rolls at his disposal, and working for the Communist revolution all the while.
After joining the BBC in 1936, Burgess was recruited by an MI6 officer named David Footman to investigate Communist activities inside the BBC, as well as the universities. He was even encouraged to study Marxist theory to make his Communist sympathies look more plausible. All the while, Burgess was turning over secret information he got from Footman to his real masters in Moscow. Footman never suspected anything, because of his “class blinkers,” as Burgess explained to his Soviet contacts. People like him were “beyond suspicion.”
Cool operators such as Philby or Blunt were usually assumed to have been more effective spies than the outlandish Burgess. But the two biographies offer a different picture. In 1938, Burgess was the first of the Cambridge spies to secure a full-time job in British intelligence. After resigning from the BBC, he joined Section D of MI6, in charge of covert anti-Nazi propaganda abroad. And it was Burgess who helped get Philby into MI6 soon after that. Exactly what information Burgess passed on to the Soviets is still not fully known. But he was in MI6 at a sensitive time, when alliances against Nazi Germany were being considered. Burgess reported to the Russians that the British thought Hitler could be defeated without an alliance with Stalin. In August 1939, Russia signed a nonaggression pact with Germany.
In that same year, Blunt was withdrawn from an intelligence course because his Communist sympathies at Cambridge became known. Nevertheless, Burgess managed through his connections to smooth the way for his friend to join MI5, the domestic secret service.
In 1943, Burgess was offered yet another sensitive job, in the news department of the Foreign Office, where he had access to diplomatic cables and secret documents that he passed on to Moscow. But if the Cambridge spies were beyond suspicion in London, perhaps for the reasons Burgess alleged, the same was not always true in Moscow. They were handing over so much material to the NKVD that the Russians at first suspected a double cross. They simply could not believe that the British were naive enough to let so many men with known Communist sympathies worm their ways into the heart of British intelligence.
According to his Soviet minder after the war, Burgess was in fact a highly efficient spy. Burgess, said Yuri Modin, “was punctual to a fault, took all the customary precautions and again and again gave proof of his excellent memory.” On the British side, however, Burgess’s behavior was often egregious: he was frequently turning up late, or not at all, at the office, padding his expenses, getting wildly drunk, insulting people for no reason, and bragging in pubs about being a spy. This was another reason for Soviet distrust. How on earth could the British tolerate such a man?
In fact they did not always tolerate him. He was thrown out of his department at the Foreign Office just after the war because, in the words of a colleague, he was “lazy, careless, unpunctual and a slob.” People in MI6 had wanted to get rid of him because of some wild indiscretions. And he was called home from the Washington embassy after launching into drunken public diatribes against the Americans and offending important contacts. But he always landed on his feet, protected by one senior figure or another, and was never suspected of being a spy.
The authors of The Spy Who Knew Everyone conclude that Burgess used his indiscretions deliberately as a brilliant smokescreen. A messy drunk spouting Soviet propaganda in public couldn’t possibly have been a spy for the Russians. Like Steven Runciman at Cambridge, no one took him seriously enough to suspect such a thing. By hiding in full sight, Burgess might have pulled off an extraordinary stunt. But if that is so, then why did he continue to behave in precisely the same way in Moscow? Isn’t it more likely that his drunken buffoonery and sexual recklessness were part of his ostentatious, devil-may-care sense of entitlement? Why not appear at an embassy party without socks, or take off his shirt in the middle of a dinner party, or bring a rent boy to a gathering of grandees? Screw them.
There was, however, an ideological hard core in Burgess that made him more than a debauched class rebel. His Marxism was rather abstract perhaps. His contacts with members of the actual working class, apart from bedding them, seem to have been limited. And Russia, however much he idealized the Soviet system, left him cold on his first visit in 1934 and became loathsome after he was compelled to live there. But Marxism agreed with him, because Burgess believed in unstoppable historical forces and had an unsentimental view of power. Growing up in the twilight of the British Empire, he was keenly aware that British power was waning, and like many Englishmen of his generation he deeply resented American dominance.
Antifascism was no longer an excuse for supporting the Soviet Union after Hitler’s defeat, which is why Blunt seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for spying. But not Burgess. He believed that with the rise of new postwar empires, one had to choose the Soviet Union or the US. The possibility of a united Europe he dismissed. And without its empire Britain was washed up. He must have known about Stalin’s purges, but they didn’t seem to matter. So he stuck to the Soviet Union, in Lownie’s words, as “a perverted form of imperialism.” Having seen the death of one empire, he “decided to attach himself to another.” But he always insisted that he was a British Communist. When he prepared to accompany Maclean on his way to Moscow in 1951, Burgess packed a tweed suit, a dinner jacket, and the collected works of Jane Austen.
There is some mystery about why Burgess went all the way to Russia with Maclean. After all, it was Maclean who had been unmasked, not Burgess. Once there, it was probably impossible to go back. The Soviets would not have wanted him to. And although the British never had solid evidence against him, they too did everything to stop his return to London. There had been enough scandals already.
And so Burgess lived out the last dozen years of his life in relative comfort—a nice apartment in Moscow, a dacha, evenings at the Bolshoi, and an accordion-playing lover named Tolya—and in a more or less permanent state of misery. He desperately missed the country he had betrayed. Shunned by the British embassy, he latched onto visitors from England for gossip from home. People who met him in Moscow remember Burgess as a rather pathetic figure, a drunken relic of the 1930s, playing the same Jack Buchanan songs over and over in his apartment filled with British periodicals, hunting prints, and a chest of drawers filled with Old Etonian ties.