Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge. Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.
The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova. Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services. One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser. What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College.
Anyone who ever heard of the Cambridge spying ring must have thought of Philby, Maclean, and of course Burgess, the hard drinking flamer in their midst, the joker in the pack, as Lownie calls him. Few would have guessed though that something rather like the old meetings of the Apostles secret society at Cambridge, to which Burgess was admitted in 1932, would cause the same kind of security apprehensions?
This biography, written in a fluid, descriptive prose that pulls up short at very few of Burgess’ outrageous antics, sets straight the actual status of its subject among Soviet turncoats. The book is based upon interviews with Burgess friends and acquaintances l alive when Lownie began this project, still at Cambridge himself, as well as research, and the combination gives it freshness and vivacity.
Previously Burgess had come across as something of a buffoon. His reputation as a scruffy gay bohemian whose idea of an amusing weekend was a ramble through the gay brothels of Paris, damaged his reputation for serious purpose. Perhaps he was only good for getting uncompromising British officials drunk and photographed in compromising positions? Lownie admits that Burgess’ work included such seedy chores, but he was more than a Soviet blackmailer. He was almost amateur in such matters. “Guy possessed an appalling fund of information to the discredit of numerous persons in this country.” remembered one of his friends. “Collecting it was one of his private hobbies; it was a native instinct in him and it was done primarily, for purposes of gossip and private amusement…it constitutes a formidable weapon of pressure and blackmail.”
His homosexuality made him useful from a recruiting point of view. In the minds of his Russian handlers his facility with deceit, his network of prominent homosexual friends and lovers, and his part in an existing de facto secret society, made him an ideal agent. Burgess already lived a double life.
He was, on the surface, an unlikely candidate for treachery. The son of a naval officer who was brilliant and enjoyed a stellar career at Eton, then at Cambridge where it seemed he might become a don in history. Burgess, however lacked, something. Possibly it was determination. Possibly it was character. He wanted flash and money and to be in the thick of things, and the thick of everything in the 1930s was as black and white as the movies. Young intellectuals were either communist or fascist. As early as 1931, Burgess was a communist. His commitment to the party seems to have been sincere. Certainly he never wavered.
He was employed at the BBC for years, was a member of the Reform Club, and secretary to Hector McNeil when the latter was a secretary of state in the Foreign Office. Burgess worked at the Information Research Department in 1946, an entity inside the Foreign Office largely funded by the secret services. He had already and for many years been a Soviet spy and was sending documents to them on a regular basis. He even requested a suitcase to hold all the deliveries.
So how many things were stolen before Burgess’ cover was blown and he fled to the Soviet Union?
The thinking previously was that Philby and Maclean were the useful agents in the Cambridge Spy ring. Lownie proposes an alternate reading. According to a Soviet account, from 1941-1945 Burgess passed them 4,604 documents. They also regarded him as possibly the chief of the ring rather than its court jester. Soviet contacts considered him uniquely valuable. The KGB general Sergei Kondrashev named him as chief at once, “Burgess. Definitely.” Spy writers have concurred with this assessment calling Burgess the “genius in the network”.
Ultimately though, where did this life lead? Burgess died in exile in the Soviet Union though he requested to be taken home to England for burial in 1963. The cold warrior must have been laid to rest when transistor radios all over Britain were radiating the first sounds of the Beatles.
Lownie’s assessment of Burgess is less kind on the personal front than the professional one. He observes that Burgess was a spoiled child whose father had died when he was only thirteen. The themes of self indulgence and persistent selfishness recur in this biography, plus an uneasy sense of something missing from Burgess. His friend the great historian Steven Runciman made no bones about it, “It was a wasted life. There was a solid core missing…épater les bourgeois. That’s really what started him off.”
This biography does have a solid core though,and makes interesting reading, and for me at least, surprisingly timely reading as well.