My rating: ★★★☆☆
The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.
In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.
Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.
One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.
However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.
Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.
The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’
It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.
Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”
Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.