Stalin's Englishman – The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie
|Stalin's Englishman – The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie|
|Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw|
|Summary: Truth proves stranger than fiction in this highly entertaining biography of Guy Burgess, the outrageous establishment figure turned KGB spy.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: June 2016|
|Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks|
In the words of KGB controller Yuri Modin, Guy Burgess had a reputation as 'a disreputable, drunken, homosexual philander.' Hardly James Bond territory is it? Despite that, the man from Moscow rated Burgess as 'a great pro.' Just how great an asset for the Communist cause Burgess proved to be is evident in Stalin's Englishman, Andrew Lownie's superb biography of the most outrageous, yet arguably the most successful, of the Cambridge spies.
The traditional view of Burgess is that he was the least significant of the Cambridge Five. With his dishevelled appearance, outlandish drunken behaviour and near constant bed-hopping it would be easy to paint Burgess as some kind of comic figure. Would anyone trying to avoid attention really choose a gold, two-seater, open top Rolls Royce as their means of transportation or boast about his work for the Russians? Burgess did both.
Lownie argues convincingly that it was precisely that outrageousness which provided the perfect cover for a spy who passed on over 4,600 documents to his Russian masters while working for the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6.
Surely nobody who behaved as scandalously as Burgess could really be 'one of them'. Ridiculous he may have seemed but Burgess possessed a first class mind and was capable of beguiling an astonishing array of contacts.
According to Lownie, Burgess was a 'magnificent manipulator of people and trader in gossip', who 'knew how to extract material through charm, provocation, his own powers of argument and when required, blackmail'. This was a man who, after all, kept every love letter in case it could be useful to him.
This mix of brilliance, ruthlessness and ambition got him access to post-war peace conferences, the founding meetings of the OECD, NATO and the United Nations as well as the inside track on plans for the reconstruction of Germany.
In fact, such was the quality of the material Burgess gave to his KGB handlers, Moscow feared that he must be a plant.
It's these supposed contradictions that lie at the heart of Lownie's first-class account. In many ways, Burgess was the quintessential Establishment Englishman. Always seen sporting an Old Etonian tie (even after his defection to Moscow) and a member of the Reform Club he gave his working days to the Communist cause despite apparently hating Russia.
Often extremely rude and malicious, unreliable and obnoxious and a terrible gossip he was also charismatic enough to attract admirers including prime ministers Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
Perhaps the last word should go to one of Burgess's many former lovers, Micky Burn who said of the English spy. 'If he was to become martyred or notorious at all it must be for something not merely personal, involving a fine or a short spell in jail, followed by odd jobs at the BBC, or occasional reviewing for the New Statesman for the rest of his life. It must have to do with great historical conflicts and Weltanschaung, and be as upsetting to as many people in authority as possible. This, after a fashion, he achieved.'
And Andrew Lownie, in Stalin's Englishman, has told that extraordinary tale supremely well.
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