Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, The Cold War and the Cambridge Spy Ring - Andrew Lownie

This review has been submitted to Review in History.

Title: Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, The Cold War and the Cambridge Spy Ring
Author: Andrew Lownie
ISBN: 978-1- 250-10099-3
Publisher: Raincoast
Year: 2015
Pages: 433
Photos/ Maps: 60/0

Few spy scandals have rocked the Western World like the notorious Cambridge Spy Scandal of the 1950’s. This book focuses on perhaps the best known of this group: Guy Burgess, his life, education, personality, motivations and the heady academic and political cauldron of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s UK.

The first thing that strikes the reader about this book is the degree to which the privileged society that was Burgess’ social circle both protected and tolerated behaviour that would have been completely unacceptable elsewhere. Burgess and many of his peers were open and flagrant homosexuals which was not tolerated nor legal in the UK during this period. Lownie masterfully, traces the development of Burgess’s personality through his school years and evaluates those individuals and circumstances that heavily influenced his outlook. His evaluation of Burgess’ behaviours reveals an individual of contradictions; self-absorption paired with restless brilliance and a complete domination of the id, while, concurrently, displaying a high level of loyalty to his inner circle of friends.

The book is also a fascinating study of British society and the role of connections, schools and economic well-being in garnering position and influence. Thus it was that, despite numerous questionable social traits and work results, Burgess’s connections and the loyalty of his school and work alumni to ‘one of their own’ enabled him access to the highest levels of foreign office employment and, by extension, correspondence. It was beyond the pale that anyone with breeding would betray the club. Thus it was that he was protected and shielded regardless of what became a pattern of increasingly erratic and questionable behaviour. Indeed, such was the level of institutional blindness amongst the British Foreign Office that he was actually posted to the US embassy where, although not provided a meaningful job (he was too much of a loose cannon for that) he still retained access to the highest levels of sensitive official papers and correspondence.

Another intriguing aspect to Lownie’s study is the level of loyalty that Burgess and his closest confidants held for each other. This allegiance transcended national affiliations and their mutual support and views served to strengthen their desire to undermine the strength of the corrupt West. Interestingly, while their efforts focused on the passage of information to the Soviets, for Burgess, this loyalty did not extend to an acceptance of the greatness of the Soviet Union, but a belief that British communism would prove superior to the Russian.

Burgess continued to be a study of contrasts throughout his life. Thus it was that there are continued references to his slovenly appearance and lack of personal hygiene amongst his friends and co-workers, while, concurrently, his insistence at wearing an Old Etonian tie at all times. It would appear from Lownie’s evaluation that Burgess was a deeply troubled personality, continuously seeking the next thrill while studiously avoiding the responsibilities of maturity and age. He constantly sought to be the centre of attention yet engaged in self-destructive and self-absorbed conduct. His drinking was legendary as was his flamboyant and reckless behaviour and yet he yearned for the company of others all the while alienating them with his conduct.

As Lownie describes, literally thousands of cables and messages were passed over to the Soviets during Burgess’s lifetime; so many that they were too numerous to decipher in total. Such was the flow of information that the Soviets suspected Burgess of being a double agent as they could not believe that the quantity and quality of the information that he was providing could be done without the knowledge of the British counter-intelligence people.

Burgess and his compatriots were a product of their times. His effectiveness as an operative and his ability to ultimately avoid capture and escape reads like a strange adventure novel as opposed to a real life drama. Lownie has done an outstanding job at detailing the environmental as well as psychological underpinnings of Burgess’ behaviours; additionally, he has also shed a great deal of light on the nuances of the society that facilitated this behaviour. The book is eminently readable and engaging and is strongly recommended.

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