But he was so charming!

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1962

After Soviet spy Guy Burgess defected to Russia, what was his life like?

First he and fellow traitor Donald Maclean were held under house arrest for several months, if not years (reports vary), and were interrogated the whole time. Burgess was then installed, alone, in a dacha in a village near Moscow, where he was constantly under armed guard and was not allowed to go outside without permission.

For five years after their disappearance, the USSR maintained a public silence about the fate of Burgess and Maclean. Nobody in Britain was sure whether they were alive or dead. Then, in 1956, Richard Hughes of the Sunday Times was called to a Moscow meeting at which the two defectors handed him a joint statement in which they denied having been Soviet agents and claimed to have gone to the USSR to work toward “better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West.”

Their statement made headlines. Thenceforth both men began communicating regularly with relatives and chums in the UK. Burgess wrote a piece for the Sunday Express denouncing U.S. foreign policy. Nobody high up criticized this; but when Burgess’s former friend Goronwy Rees published a series of intimate articles about the “real Guy Burgess,” Rees became an Establishment pariah: he was dismissed from a university position and dropped by friends who felt he’d betrayed Burgess. (They apparently didn’t mind that Burgess had betrayed his country.) One of these friends wrote to Rees: “Guy was such a charming, cultivated, civilised and loveable person.” That he worked for Stalin, apparently, was irrelevant; what mattered what the charm.

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Burgess and his mother in Sochi, Russia, 1956

Mind-bogglingly, the British government let Burgess ship his furniture and other possessions from London to Moscow. His mother was permitted to visit him annually (she taught his cooks how to make his favorite dishes) and to send him food shipments several times a year. He corresponded freely with several friends, including Harold Nicolson. The British government even arranged for the contents of his London bank account to be transferred to him in Russia, and didn’t stand in his way when he ordered groceries from Fortnum & Mason, clothes from Turnbull & Asser, shirts from New & Lingwood, and books from Collet’s on Charing Cross Road. British authorities didn’t even strip him of his citizenship: he was designated a non-resident British subject, which meant he could receive money legally from the UK.

In Russia, Burgess continued to work actively against British interests. He wrote a spy-recruiting manual, helped counterfeit official British and American documents, and composed letters that were mailed to British MPs and Western newspapers bearing the signatures of private citizens who didn’t, in fact, exist. He was considered the mot useful of all British defectors.

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Andrew Lownie

He also led a more orderly life than he had in Britain. He had to. When he drank too much, his “minders” gave him a “talking-to.” His mother, who after his father’s death had never made an effort to control her constantly out-of-control son, observed that “Soviet discipline is good for Guy.” As Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie writes, “Burgess was a spoilt child, indulged by his mother,” and “had never been given boundaries.” For some people, indeed, this is indeed the appeal of totalitarianism: the idea of freedom is terrifying; they are incapable of self-control; they crave a strong authority above them, restricting their movements and punishing them for any violation of the rules.

Still, in a 1959 interview with Canadian TV, Burgess said: “My life ended when I left London.”

Three years later, he told British visitors that while he was “a firm believer in communism,” he didn’t “like the Russian communists.” He was even more vehement with another visitor, saying: “I hate Russia. I simply loathe Russia. I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!” The difference, of course, was that in the UK he could be a Communist while living under the capitalist system. What was the fun of being a Communist in a Communist country?

Stalin_JosephOne thing seems clear. Burgess, we suspect, didn’t really want to see Britain transformed into a Communist state. What he wanted was to continue to live in a capitalist Britain where he was fully free to enjoy the manifold privileges and pleasures that were available to him as a member of the Establishment. At the same time, however, he wanted to be able to play the part of the rebel – without, of course, ever having to pay the slightest price for it. There was, in short, no moral or philosophical foundation underlying any of his actions. As one BBC colleague commented after his defection: “He had literally no principles at all. None at all.” Another acquaintance agreed: “There was a solid core missing….épater le bourgeois. That’s what really started him off.” What a shallow reason, indeed, to serve a monster like Stalin.

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