Guy Burgess was arguably the most influential spy of the Cambridge Five, a covert group of Englishmen who traded Western secrets to the Soviets before and during the Cold War. And yet, 70 years after the height of his espionage, Burgess' name and legacy still remain widely unknown. Today on Unknown History, Giles Milton hosts author and historian Andrew Lownie, who spent 30 years uncovering Burgess' enigmatic life in Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess.
UH: Today we are joined by author Andrew Lownie, whose book Stalin's Englishman is out now at book retailers everywhere. He first became interested in the Cambridge Spy Ring when, as President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1984, he arranged an international seminar on the subject. After graduating from Cambridge University, he went on to take a postgraduate degree in history at Edinburgh University. He is now a successful literary agent, and has written or edited several books. Welcome, Andrew.
UH: Who exactly was Guy Burgess, and how did he become one of the Cambridge spies?
AL: Guy Burgess was born in 1911, and he was one of what we call the Cambridge Five, a ring of spies that provided British and American secrets to the Soviets before and during the Cold War. He was a very intelligent, wealthy, and well-educated young man who was living in Cambridge and studying at Trinity College when he got involved with Communist politics, and became friends with a man called Kim Philby. Through Philby he was recruited by the Russians to become a Russian spy in 1935.
UH: How was Guy eventually suspected of espionage and what did he do then?
AL: I think the irony of the whole situation is that Burgess was never suspected of espionage; it was only him fleeing with another member of the Cambridge Give, Donald Maclean, in 1951 that made people realize he was part of the ring. If he hadn’t escorted Maclean, he wouldn’t have been discovered, as he hadn’t actually been identified in the Verona Codes that identified Maclean; he might well have just been disciplined, left the Foreign Office, and retired to the British countryside, or gone and lived abroad, and we probably never would’ve hear of him.
UH: How does his story represent both other spies during the Cold War, and in what way is his story more compelling or more unique than other spies?
AL: I think he’s in some ways the most tragic comic of the spies. He was very lonely when he was stationed in Moscow; he found nothing to do there except to drink, he never really assimilated, he never learnt Russian, and he didn’t really have many friends apart from some visitors. The other members of the Cambridge Five were better; Donald Macleans family joined him in Moscow and he learnt Russian, and Kim Philby came later than Burgess so he wasn’t there as long. But of course he was like all the others; they were all recruited at the same time, by the same people, all within the space of a year or so in the mid-1930’s. They all knew each other, and in fact Maclean and Burgess were lovers for a time, and then Burgess and Blunt were lovers, sharing a flat together during the war. They were all close friends and very interconnected. I think that's why people are so fascinated by them, because not only were they very privileged, and it seems weird that they should turn on their backgrounds like this, but also that they all knew each other, and indeed a wider group of people, really anyone who was anyone in mid-20th century Britain knew some of the Cambridge spies.
UH: What are the challenges of writing about a secret world?
AL: Writing intelligence history is very difficult, because you rely on documents and you rely on interviews, and neither of them is very easy to obtain. You can’t talk to intelligence officials because they aren’t allowed to talk to you, and in addition these people are taught to lie, so they’re very unlikely to give you the truth even if you do get them to talk. The Russians I interviewed at the time were giving disinformation and just playing with me, so you have to be able to corroborate that. Clearly in a case like this that’s 70 years old most people are dead – there are only about a dozen still alive- but luckily I was able to talk to about a hundred because I began this book 30 years ago. The other problem is the lack of documentation. There is some material in private archives, and clearly there are letter and diaries that are kept, but generally the British and Americans do not release intelligence documents, so it’s very hard to get the picture of what happened.
Listen to the rest of the interview with Andrew Lownie on the Unknown History podcast.