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.

The road to treason

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The young Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.

stalin1As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.

What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.

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Writer and journalist Goronwy Rees

Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.

All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.

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Kim Philby

In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”

More tomorrow.