Review: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, by Andrew Lownie

Like many people, I grew up thinking that the West had the best secret agents — James Bond being the most famous (fictional) example. It was only later on that I discovered the incredible successes of Soviet spies, most famously Kim Philby. It turns out that in many ways, Guy Burgess, a friend of Philby’s and a fellow member of the “Cambridge 5” spy ring, may have been even more important.

For years, Burgess operated at the very heart of the British government, including a stint in its Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). A loyal Communist, he handed over thousands of top secret documents to his Soviet handlers. In 1951, when the cover of one his colleagues was about to be blown, he decided — seemingly on a whim — to end a very successful career as a spy and rushed off to Moscow. And there he lived for another decade until he died, desperately missing the life he left behind in England, but being provided with regular hampers from London’s Fortnum and Mason as well as clothing from exclusive shops on Jermyn Street. British visitors to Moscow often agreed to meet him, including Graham Greene on one occasion.

Andrew Lownie spent some thirty years researching this book, and it shows. It is a brilliant, detailed account of a strangely interesting — and much-loved — man. Lownie raises the question of how it was possible for Burgess (and for that matter, Philby and the others) to loyally support Stalin after the revelations about the Moscow trials and the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. Somehow, they all managed to square that circle.

Highly recommended.