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.
As 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.
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.
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.”